Interpreting ScriptureMay 5, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
The next item on our agenda is the interpretation of Scripture. Let’s begin with a look at the consequences we ought to expect if the Gospel Hypothesis were true. According to the Gospel Hypothesis, our salvation and eternal personal relationship to God are very important to Him, so much so that He would literally be willing to die Himself in order to make this possible. Since this relationship depends on knowing the truth about God, therefore, it follows that He will place an equal emphasis on making sure we do not misunderstand this truth.
Of course, the first-order prediction of the Gospel Hypothesis is that Scriptures won’t really even be necessary. Barak Obama does not operate the White House by giving each member of his staff a copy of The Audacity of Hope and then leaving them to try and figure out what his will might be, based on the meditative study of what is written in his word. He meets with his staff, interacts with them, and gives them tangible, personal direction. Of course, he also wrote the book as well, and it’s not entirely unreasonable to suppose that God might also choose to impart some of His wisdom in written form.
The second prediction of the Gospel Hypothesis would therefore be that God would write these Scriptures Himself. After all, the phrase “God’s Word” denotes “that which comes from God,” so it is to be expected that it would, you know, come from God. There would be ample opportunity for people to write books about God, but these would be people’s words, not God’s. God’s Word would be, as the name suggests, the words God Himself had written.
But writings, no matter how well written, can be misinterpreted, whether by malice or simple incompetence. Such misinterpretations could have potentially serious and even damnable consequences for fallible humans, and thus poses the risk of frustrating God’s will for us. If the Gospel Hypothesis were true, therefore, we ought to expect God to put a high priority on making sure that we have an accessible and reliable means of ensuring that our interpretation of the Scripture is correct.
Once again, the primary prediction of the Gospel Hypothesis is that He will accomplish this by showing up in person to provide the correct interpretation, and to apply it correctly to the appropriate circumstances. But if this were not possible, if there were somehow something more important to God than the salvation of His beloved children whom He died for, there would still need to be something available to each of us, regardless of our education, intelligence, or cultural background, that would enable us to determine conclusively and objectively what the correct meaning and application of His Word was. This in turn would have the consequence of uniting the interpretations of believers and causing them all to agree on with the Scriptures mean.
No such harmony could exist if the Myth Hypothesis were true, of course. Since the Myth Hypothesis proposes that the Trinitarian God does not even exist, obviously He would not be available either to write the Scriptures, or to inspire them, or to guide believers in interpreting them. As the product of human imagination and philosophy, written over centuries of changing cultures and values, the Scriptures would not even contain a single, coherent revelation, and hence its interpretation would suffer from an even greater degree of subjectivity and conflict.
Further, as a book that was supposedly God’s Authoritative Word, the Scriptures would attract people who sought to exploit its assumed authority in order to advance their own views and agendas. In the absence of a real God Who was willing and able to show up and guide us into all truth, these ambitious teachers would promote their own, biased interpretations by appealing to people’s cultural values, human foibles, pride and prejudices, and so on, which would have the effect of splintering the church instead of uniting it, as each new leader sought to draw away followers after themselves.
In God’s absence, even serious and sincere Bible scholars would have little to turn to for information, beyond exploring the historical and linguistic contexts in which the Scriptures were written in hopes of finding some subtle clue that might “unlock” the mysteries of the Bible (but only for highly trained and experienced scholars!). Indeed, much of Bible scholarship, on the interpretational side, would necessarily resemble the work of a novelist: taking the story as it has been presented thus far, and imagining further, plausible sounding scenarios to add to it.
Once such scenarios were imagined, however, there would be no way to validate or verify whether the proposed interpretation were correct, other than to appeal to the charisma of the scholar and the concensus of the people. Those who succeeded in lighting a fire of enthusiasm in the greatest number of believers would count as having proven their interpretation correct, unless of course the people themselves were wrong and only a faithful remnant had retained the Bible’s true intent…
So once again, we have a clear and unmistakable difference between the consequences that would reasonably be expected to result from the Gospel Hypothesis being true, and the consequences that would follow if the Myth Hypothesis were correct. And once again, we find the real world circumstances exactly matching the consequences that would necessarily follow if the Myth Hypothesis were true. This one is rather near and dear to my heart (“he said ruefully”) because it’s one that I became uncomfortably aware of during my last several years as a Christian.
I wanted to find that God had wisely left us some way to discover, objectively and reliably, what His true doctrine was, without having to blindly trust in the interpretations of men (including ourselves). I assumed that God necessarily must have made it possible for us to nail down at least the essentials of the salvific Gospel about Him. But nothing had the consequences that ought to appear if He really had.
Being of a more academic mind, I first put my trust in the scholarly approach: analyzing texts in the light of the grammatico-historical method. Surely a disciplined, intelligent, and learned hermeneutic would allow us to discover the truth of God’s Word, right? Many Christians have believed this, but the institutions they’ve founded to conduct and promote scholarly studies of Scripture have followed a consistent pattern: the more you study the Bible academically and (dare I say) scientifically, the more liberal you become. One individual scholar might spend a lifetime in such studies and not lose their original faith, but institutions that keep the flame of knowledge alit across multiple generations have all drifted into “Jesus Seminar” liberalism.
But Christians keep trying, founding new universities and colleges in rebellion against their earlier institutions. I’ve attended one such college, and even though they made it a point to shackle academic inquiry with the bonds of a strict and dogmatic tradition, the seeds of liberalism—questions—were already starting to take root among the younger faculty. Having been trained in the answers of the past generations, the new scholars wanted to explore the issues raised by those answers, and therein lies the road to apostasy.
Even among conservative scholars, the grammatico-historical method does not so much produce a unity of results as it merely adds a layer of scholarly jargon on top of the ever-diverging tree of conflicting interpretation. Are you a dispensationalist? A sublapsarian? A post-tribulational amillennialist? Conservative scholars argue just as much as any other scholars or laymen, and where they do agree, their harmony comes from the conservative dogmas they accept as a given, not from their studies (which are carefully managed so as to always reinforce the “correct” dogmatic conclusions). And where the dogmatic traditions differ, the grammatico-historical interpretations diverge as well.
Scholarship is good, but it cannot find a “deep truth” that isn’t there. So where then shall we turn? Mysticism? Will the truth be revealed by prayer, fasting, and the Holy Spirit? I hoped that for a while too, but only by turning a blind eye to the fact that the mystics have the same problem as the conservative scholars: somehow God always seems to reveal the very views and opinions that the blessed believer happened to hold all along. What an amazing coincidence, eh?
In the end, there is no objective, common, verifiable standard that we can all use and that gives the same interpretation and application of the Scriptures. Every person ends up believing whatever interpretation seems right in his or her own eyes, because that’s ultimately the only standard we have available to us in God’s absence. And since we each experience the world a little bit differently, we each have a slightly (or significantly) different view of what seems right in our own eyes.
The result, as predicted by the Myth Hypothesis (but not by the Gospel Hypothesis) is a Church divided, with divisions that only increase over time. God does not show up in real life either to guide us or to explain the Bible to us, and people who love power over others only exploit “God’s Word” to lend divine authority to their own teachings and personal opinions. Even ordinary layfolk do! The Bible is a book that means all things to all people, and consequently it means nothing to anyone. It’s a magic mirror that shows you only a reflection of what you want to believe.