Interpreting Scripture

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.

 
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Posted in Evidence Against Christianity, Unapologetics. 24 Comments »

24 Responses to “Interpreting Scripture”

  1. cl Says:

    DD,

    ..the primary prediction of the Gospel Hypothesis is that He will accomplish this by showing up in person to provide the correct interpretation,

    Have you ever explained the justification for this opinion anywhere? I’m honestly curious why this forms such a major part of your arguments, and I really don’t understand how or why you feel so confident in the position – especially when multiple believers seem to take issue with it. For me personally, it’s unconvincing when creationists knock down what they think evolution should do, for example, evolution isn’t false because of the second law of thermodynamics – how is your strategy any different here?

  2. 5keptical Says:

    DD,
    ..the primary prediction of the Gospel Hypothesis is that He will accomplish this by showing up in person to provide the correct interpretation

    cl writes:
    Have you ever explained the justification for this opinion anywhere? I’m honestly curious why this forms such a major part of your arguments, and I really don’t understand how or why you feel so confident in the position – especially when multiple believers seem to take issue with it.

    You mean something like the second coming and the rapture?

    The problem is getting a theist to say anything concrete about god’s nature.

    Why don’t you present a “truly christian” implication of the gospel god hypothesis – define some characteristic of your god and say how that characteristic manifests in the world (in some falsifiable and testable way of course) – so DD does not have to deal with something you think is a straw man?

  3. cl Says:

    5keptical,

    According to the synoptic gospels and John, neither the second coming nor the rapture reflect God’s intent to “show up in person to provide the correct interpretation.”

    For me, the problem is getting atheists and skeptics to attack the Bible on its own merits.

    It is always our responsibility to accurately represent our opponent. In this case, DD either inaccurately represents the synoptic gospels and John (and other parts of the NT), or the synoptic gospels and John (and other parts of the NT) are not DD’s opponents.

    I don’t care to be made the arbiter of what’s “truly Christian,” but I’m more than willing to provide what I think is a “truly reasoned” implication of the synoptic gospels and John, and no “truly reasoned” implication of them entails that God should “show up in person to provide the correct interpretation.” Although DD has previously explained that “Gospel Hypothesis” should not be interpreted exclusively as “Biblical Gospel Hypothesis,” in fact it is quite misleading and neither the hypothesis of the synoptic gospels nor John. My claim can be falsified by showing just one verse from the synoptic gospels or John that says or logically entails that God should “show up in person to provide the correct interpretation.” Further, if what DD says is true, should God show up in person to every person who misinterprets scripture at any time? If scripture is intended to be a means by which we know God in this life, wouldn’t God “showing up in person to provide the correct interpretation” defeat that purpose?

    Incidentally, I see you’re a skeptic. Isn’t it an epistemological problem for anyone to say anything concrete about God’s nature?

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    cl –

    I’m not sure where you are having difficulty following my reasoning. Are you having trouble with the idea that a God Who wanted something badly enough to die for it would subsequently behave in a manner consistent with that desire? Or do you just not see any connection between (a) loving someone and wanting to be with them forever, and (b) actually showing up in person to participate in a tangible and interactive relationship with them? Or is it something else?

    I don’t mean to sound snarky, I just have a hard time knowing how to respond to a question like this. It’s not as though I’m making any great intellectual leaps to derive the probable behavior of a person with such strong desires. My suspicion is that if we were talking about anyone else but God, you would not have the same difficulty understanding why they would want to show up to spend time with the one(s) they truly loved. It’s only God’s alleged love that proves problematic in practice.

    Food for thought, eh?

  5. SavageDragon Says:

    cl:
    “If scripture is intended to be a means by which we know God in this life, wouldn’t God “showing up in person to provide the correct interpretation” defeat that purpose?”

    A question then: Are we to believe that two to five thousand year old writings (subject to interpretation, reinterpretation, misinterpretation, addition, deletion, destruction, etc.) represent the best efforts of a powerful, benevolent, and perfect being, who loves us and wants to be with us more than we could ever fathom, in communicating his Word to all humans, everywhere, for all time?

    I use “best” above because it seems that ANY effort put forth by an omnipotent and perfect being would, by definition, have to be its best.

  6. cl Says:

    DD,

    Are you having trouble with the idea that a God Who wanted something badly enough to die for it would subsequently behave in a manner consistent with that desire?

    No. Do you have trouble imagining that an 0^3 God might do things differently than you would expect?

    Or do you just not see any connection between (a) loving someone and wanting to be with them forever, and (b) actually showing up in person to participate in a tangible and interactive relationship with them?

    As one who loves, of course I see the connection between loving someone and wanting to be with them forever, and of course I believe a God who loved us would desire a tangible and interactive relationship with us. I’m having trouble with your conclusion that the “Gospel Hypothesis” is false because God doesn’t “show up in person to provide the correct interpretation” of scripture.

    It’s not as though I’m making any great intellectual leaps to derive the probable behavior of a person with such strong desires. My suspicion is that if we were talking about anyone else but God, you would not have the same difficulty understanding why they would want to show up to spend time with the one(s) they truly loved.

    I don’t claim that you make intellectual leaps, nor do I have the difficulty you imply. The behavior you describe is both reasonable and probable, and that’s never where I’ve disagreed.

    SavageDragon,

    Are we to believe that two to five thousand year old writings (subject to interpretation, reinterpretation, misinterpretation, addition, deletion, destruction, etc.) represent the best efforts of a powerful, benevolent, and perfect being, who loves us and wants to be with us more than we could ever fathom, in communicating his Word to all humans, everywhere, for all time?

    Who am I to ask what you are to believe? Incidentally, your estimates of the Bible’s age are incorrect, and that leads me to wonder how thoroughly you’ve investigated that which you presumably deny.

  7. Deacon Duncan Says:

    cl -

    If an honest and intelligent person, for complex psychosocial reasons, happens to fall into a belief system/worldview that is factually false, there will be certain telltale signs of the inherent conflict between his beliefs and real-world truth. One of those telltale signs is feeling the need to object to propositions despite knowing that they are both reasonable and probable.

    Do you not agree that this is so?

  8. 5keptical Says:

    cl:
    Incidentally, I see you’re a skeptic. Isn’t it an epistemological problem for anyone to say anything concrete about God’s nature?

    If no-one can make any concrete statement about the nature of god, how do you determine if any statement made about god is false or true?

  9. 5keptical Says:

    cl:
    For me, the problem is getting atheists and skeptics to attack the Bible on its own merits.

    It is always our responsibility to accurately represent our opponent. In this case, DD either inaccurately represents the synoptic gospels and John (and other parts of the NT), or the synoptic gospels and John (and other parts of the NT) are not DD’s opponents.

    I don’t care to be made the arbiter of what’s “truly Christian,” but I’m more than willing to provide what I think is a “truly reasoned” implication of the synoptic gospels and John, and no “truly reasoned” implication…

    Then give us a truly reasoned implication!

    If you cannot, you’re simply providing an excellent example of DD’s proposition of “telltale signs of the inherent conflict between his beliefs and real-world truth”.

  10. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    That’s what cl DOES, though. Here, there, everywhere. Quibbling pedantically on every word so he doesn’t have to concede anything. I’ve given up entirely, if you’ll notice.

  11. 5keptical Says:

    Looks like cl is avoiding answering questions over at:

    http://www.daylightatheism.org/2009/05/a-dialogue-with-quixote-iii.html

  12. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    Isn’t cl banned at Daylight Atheism?

    http://www.daylightatheism.org/2009/01/admin-notes.html

    Nope, not banned, my bad. Just restricted. Looks like he acts the same over there that he does here, though!

    “But in the time he’s been here, he’s shown a consistent pattern of antagonizing everyone he comes in contact with, monopolizing threads, derailing discussions with perpetual complaints, quibbles and demands for attention, and generally making arguments that display a lack of good faith and responsiveness. In the past I’ve let it be, but it’s become intolerable.”

    Least it shows DD that his isn’t the only blog cl’s invaded.

  13. Arthur Says:

    If I may make a suggestion: cl has a blog of his own, and that would be a far better place to make assertions about him. Or, better yet, to make assertions about his assertions—he has plenty of them, and almost all of them can be evaluated without consideration of his character.

  14. cl Says:

    Seems we’re at an impasse. In spite of DD’s repeated requests, DD’s irrational sycophants are seemingly unable to control themselves, so I created this impromptu post in the event anyone wishes to continue rational discourse (Keyword: rational). DD, although your sycophants might be thrilled, I cannot continue to comment here if you continue in your passivity regarding respect and coddling. When I was young and would fight my cousin, my father was right to step in and break it up.

    Lastly, a heartfelt thank you, Arthur. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I honestly believe your actions here resulted from the post we’ve been discussing for the past few days. Either way, I salute you.

  15. jim Says:

    DD:

    Here’s the rather ironic crux of the gospel hypothesis as I see it…

    “Of course, the first-order prediction of the Gospel Hypothesis is that Scriptures won’t really even be necessary.”

    For a God who is ever-present, all-knowing and unlimited in his scope of possible choices for delivering his message, the scriptures become more than superfluous. The situation is analogous to a physicist whispering a series of highly complex mathematical equations to his 5 year old son in his sleep, who later is expected to discuss their import to a scientific symposium through crayon renderings.

    The reason the bible doesn’t back up this view is, of course, because the bible holds an incoherent view of its own God. The whole doctrine of ‘faith’ is based on the fact that God doesn’t show up, but people must believe anyway. A challenge to prove this point by citing specific passages which back up the idea is futile exactly because the bulk of scripture is apologetical in nature. It’s damage control, an attempt to skirt around the obvious ramifications of a God who SHOULD show up, but DOESN’T. If people could only apply the same common sense to the bible that they use to navigate through the rest of life, Christianity would disappear tomorrow.

  16. John Morales Says:

    cl,

    DD, although your sycophants might be thrilled, I cannot continue to comment here if you continue in your passivity regarding respect and coddling.

    Please.

  17. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    “In spite of DD’s repeated requests, DD’s irrational sycophants are seemingly unable to control themselves…”

    Yeah, that’s it. It’s not that DD makes sense and that you’re annoying everyone else with your quibbling and pedantry, it’s that we’re all DD-fanboys and sycophants. It’s everyone ELSE that’s the problem.

    Give me a break.

  18. cl Says:

    I thought of this in the shower this morning..

  19. Brad Says:

    I think you misinterpreted DD to begin with, cl. The following was not (I repeat, not) Duncan’s reasoning:

    Loving someone implies wanting to be with them forever.

    The actual reasoning (not in the original post but in DD’s subsequent comment to you) can be explicated as follows:

    Propositions

    A1. Loving someone.

    A2. Wanting to be with someone forever.

    B. Showing up to participate in a tangible and interactive relationship with someone.

    Argument

    A1 & A2 => B

    If God exists, then A1 & A2 apply to him

    Therefore, if God exists, B would apply to him also.

    Your job is to challenge the statement “A1 & A2 =>B”, but you misinterpreted DD as saying “A1 => A2″, which is irrelevant here.

    Sorry, have to go to work. I’ll drive by this later.

  20. Brad Says:

    Er, scratch that, I read your comment to quickly, cl.

  21. Brad Says:

    *too

  22. Deacon Duncan Says:

    cl,

    While I would like to encourage high standards of discourse, it has never been my intention to make this a heavily moderated and/or censored forum, nor do I see my role as that of a nanny charged with preventing squabbles. From my perspective it is not a question of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty, since I would be hard put to judge who truly belongs in which category. My primary focus is on my posts, and that is where I intend to devote the bulk of my available time and energy.

    If you don’t feel comfortable commenting here, please consider using the forums, which will allow you to put people on ignore so that you can comment on the posts without subjecting yourself to the unwelcome remarks of others.

  23. cl Says:

    5keptical,

    Your questions were valid and I addressed them on my blog, in case you actually want to discuss the issues as opposed to irrelevant red herrings like my history at DA. I find many of your comments here to be reasoned and agreeable, and I’d be interested to hear your responses – to the issues, that is.

    DD,

    Finally! All you had to do was say “No,” and now I’ll never ask again. In fact, asking at all took energy away from what I believe we both need, which are answers to my unanswered questions from last week. You’ve asked me some good questions, so I attempted to return them, and I am honestly interested in hearing your responses to mine. Remember – just like last time – I wasn’t talking to anyone else (as usual) but you.

    I’m not telling you to be a nanny or how to live your life online or elsewhere. By no means am I asking for censorship or heavy moderation. Sure, I would appreciate a quick rebuke in defense of factual truth and clear pursuit of logic now and again, especially from people like ThatOtherGuy who for some reason felt fit to insult me while denying my correction to his false argument that Joseph Smith never claimed revelation from God.

    You’ve remarked before that you don’t want to lose inquisitive dissenters like ChallengerGrim, and I can respect that; on the other hand, nobody likes to stick around where they’re constantly disrespected. Something concise and tactful like, “ThatOtherGuy, Smith did claim revelations from God, and I asked folks to refrain from ad hominem insults” doesn’t seem like too much to ask for from a blogger devoted to the worship of Alathea. I don’t need you to defend me – but her – and that Smith and yourself made your respective statements is correct.

    Even so, you’re a great writer with a sharp wit and I’d like to stick around. Just don’t get mad at me if I choose to relentlessly mock ad hominem irrationality wherever and whenever it arises, just as I would on my own blog. What’s fair is fair. Should you ban or rebuke me as a result of replying to ad hominem irrationality I’m willing to accept that, but I submit pre-emptively that it would be fair to ban or rebuke any and all culpable parties.

    Now that we resolved the side issues, would you care to take a look at those links and address the main questions here, there, or anywhere?

    PS – I originally intended to respect your stated wishes by posting this “comment to your comment” in the forum, but could not locate what I had heard you describe. I have no idea if the emails I’ve ever sent go through, so I gave that idea up and posted it here.

  24. Arthur Says:

    I can’t recommend your references to this conversation. If folks were to read it, they might have a harder time taking you seriously when you express a concern for things like the defense of factual truth; the clear pursuit of logic; the importance of respect; etc. Taking a dig at ThatOtherGuy might not be worth it.