The Indefinite Interpretability of the Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

How is it possible that a collection of texts from ancient and alien cultures has personal relevance for millions of believers today? Once again I find the research of Brian Malley in How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism provides meaningful answers.

I’ll start with his four-fold model of what is actually happening when evangelicals or fundamentalists “interpret the Bible”.

        1. The first point is that evangelicals are “inheritors of an interpretative tradition”, meaning that they have inherited a tradition that tells them that their beliefs are Bible-based. They inherit a set of beliefs along with the additional claim that those beliefs are derived from the Bible. The tradition presents the Bible as a book to be studied, “but the goal of that hermeneutic activity is not so much to establish the meaning of the text  as to establish transitivity between text and beliefs.” The tradition stresses the fact of a connection between doctrines and the Bible rather than particular connections. “Thus a great deal of ‘what the Bible says’ may be transmitted quite apart from actual exegesis.” Example: the Bible says both that all things are possible for God and that God cannot do certain things. Without direct exegesis of the texts it is permissible for the evangelical to believe that the Bible says X on the assumption that some verse can be made to support X even if the verse is not contextually relevant to the belief in X.

          And this raises a critical point: the goal of evangelicals’ hermeneutic activity is to establish transitivity between the text and the reader’s understanding. This is not necessarily identical with interpretation in the normal sense of the term. The means of transitivity is indeed sometimes what might be called the texts meaning: I Timothy 1:17 describes God as “immortal” and was used as evidence that “God cannot die”—a definition of “immortal” and thus a semantic representation of the text. But sometimes the object of reading is not what would normally be called the meaning of the text at all. Titus 1:2 (together with Hebrews 6:18) was offered as evidence that “God cannot lie.” But “God cannot lie” is not a semantic representation of Titus 1:2. That God cannot lie is presupposed in this text, and therefore regarded as part of the meaning of the text, but it is not the meaning of the text, and any translation that replaced this verse with “God cannot lie” would be regarded as an inadequate translation. “God cannot lie” is not the meaning of the verse in the normal, semantic-equivalence sense of the term. It is an interpretation only in the weaker, broader sense that its justification or warrant—the evidence for it—is drawn from the Bible. Participants in the discussion were picking out Bible passages relevant to the question, “what can God not do?” but not necessarily about that question. The texts they cited stood in an evidential relation to the proposition “not all things are possible with God” without this statement capturing the meaning of any particular passage. (p. 84)

        2. There is no “hermeneutic tradition” that is passed on; there is no particular way of reading and interpreting the Bible that is part of the tradition. Evangelicals may claim to read the Bible literally but a closer inspection shows that there is no consistency in practices that they avow to be literal readings. Consequence: “in each generation, the interpretive tradition mobilizes hermeneutic imaginations anew.” Believers are free to find new readings that they can interpret as supports for a church’s teaching.
        3. What drives evangelical Bible reading is “a search for relevance” — in much the same way any other communication is. In this search readers are free to move “beyond the text as given”. Dual contexts are recognized: the historical one of the original composition of the text on the one hand and the message God wants to convey to the reader today on the other. See the above quotation on the question of God . A believer undertaking a personal Bible study may read a story and to make it relevant for a situation in his or her life will impute motivations, inferences, storylines that are not in the text, and omit from the text certain details that rob the story of personal relevance to the reader. “Part of the genius of a good preacher is to figure out a way to mine new insight from a seemingly mundane passage.” Belief traditions make interpretations of the Bible quite unlike the interpretations of other texts.
          Some ways of going beyond the text as given: Continue reading “The Indefinite Interpretability of the Bible”