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:

          [Extending] the semantic field of a world beyond what it has in the text as given. [Quoting a sermon by Williams, a preacher…]

          The early verses are introducing Paul to these people in a very real sense so let’s look at them that way. Verse 1: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, and called to be an apostle, and set apart for the gospel of God.” Now believe it or not, that verse is rich with information about Paul. For instance, he gives us two descriptions of himself that on the face of it seem like they might be somewhat contradictory. Servant and apostle. As a matter of fact, the word for servant here is really the word that in other places is translated slave. So on one hand he describes himself as a slave, and yet on the other hand it’s like he pulls rank, I mean apostle—whoa! You know, these were important people. These were special people with a very special designation, a very special mission, to this day we are the beneficiaries of their ministry through the written word. And so, to say apostle was to claim a level of authority that was very, very real. But it’s interesting that he combines those two— apostle, yes, but in attitude, slave, servant. He’s not going to use his position of authority to lord it over them, to try to be dictator; rather he’s going to come to them as a servant, a slave of Christ, one who has that spirit of service.

          The Greek word δοῦλος is indeed variously translated as servant or slave, though these words have quite different valences in English. Here Williams takes servant from the text and, by glossing it with another term—slave—extends its semantic field so as to accentuate the contrast with apostle.

          Paraphrase the passage, adding remarks that expand on what is actually in the text:

          He also is very clear in this verse to tell us that this is not something he has conjured up himself, for two different times he makes very clear the fact that this is something he has been entrusted with. He says “I was called to be an apostle” and “I was set apart for the gospel of God. I didn’t come on this myself. I didn’t ask for this. This isn’t something where I worked my way up the ladder of authority or something like that—no, these were designations that came from God himself, I have simply accepted his call. I have acknowledged the fact that I am set apart for his purposes.”

          Here Williams reads a great deal out of two adjectival phrases. His exegesis is consistent with the story of Paul’s conversion and calling as related in Acts 9, but he supplies contrast cases—“I didn’t come on this myself. I didn’t ask for this.”—that bring an emphasis to called and set apart that they do not have in the text as given.

          A few sentences later he uses the same technique again, to emphasize Paul’s claim that the gospel message was implicit in the earlier Hebrew prophets:

          [Paul] says, “This gospel is the one that God promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. It’s not something new that I’ve created, I’m not just pulling this out of thin air, even I would have seen it had I understood, because it was there. It had been predicted, it had been, the plan had been laid out already in the scriptures which we knew,” which would be the Old Testament scriptures. He says, “And this isn’t created out of whole new cloth or something. It’s in continuous flow from what God has put before us for years if we had just seen it.”

          The notion that Paul might have simply invented the gospel is introduced by way of contrast to bring fresh life to Paul’s claim that the gospel antedates him.

          Elaboration, or adding specifications to what the text says:

          And in verses 3 and 4 he lays out for us several important facts about Christ. He tells us that Jesus is both human and divine, for he says he was a descendant of David but also the Son of God. Son of David; Son of God—that great mystery of the two natures of Christ—human; divine. To have lived back in those days to see Jesus walking down the street you could have said “There goes a man” and you would have been accurate. You could have said, “There goes God,” and you would have also been accurate. Do we understand that completely? No. But it’s clearly outlined for us not just here but in many places through the New Testament.

          Here Williams takes a passing reference to Jesus’s dual nature and expands it by proposing a scenario in which Jesus’s fully divine and fully human natures are explicitly articulated, in a version—fully human, fully divine—that goes considerably beyond the text, reading into it several points of orthodox Christology. . . . Paul’s statements are ambiguous, and that Williams, in expounding them, is adding to them a great deal of specificity and orthodox expansion. . . The text, in fact, is perfectly consistent with an adoptionist Christology.

          All of the above and more:

          Then this important phrase that ends verse 4. Who are we talking about here? And Paul is clear, Jesus Christ our Lord. Now don’t miss that [laughs], that’s key in what were going to be looking at as we go through this. Jesus Christ our Lori. What effect did that have on Paul? Verse 5, he tells us. Through him, that is, through Christ, through the power which he gave him, and/or his name’s sake, to the glory of Christ, then Paul uses the editorial “we”—we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles. The word there could just as easily by the way be translated “nations.” This is a missionary verse. To call people from all the nations to the obedience that comes out of faith. We call them to place their faith in this Son of God and to follow it with obedience, an obedience that grows out of that faith. And that was the task that drove Paul from the moment that he had met Jesus on that road to Damascus and understood that this was the person who was both man and God, the one who was declared to us as God through the resurrection. Once he caught on to that he was then driven to take that message of grace and declare it to all the nations.

          Now, the clincher, and here’s where we’ve been heading. Verse 6: you also. Bingo. This isn’t just about Paul. It’s about the people who are reading this and it’s about us. You also are called to belong to Jesus Christ. Wow. What in the world does that mean, to belong to Jesus Christ? Well, the you also [laughs] just keeps pointing us right back to where we’ve been. What did it mean for Paul? It meant that he had a sense of mission, of call. It meant that he went with a spirit of service, to be a slave to Christ. It meant that he focused his life on the gospel of God regarding his son, the message of the Son of God. It meant that he had confidence in who Christ was, his Lord. It meant that he was driven to share that message with all the nations, wherever in whatever way he could. That was what drove him. You also are called to belong to Jesus Christ. So it means all of those things for us as well. Do we sense a call to be involved in what God wants us to do? Are we willing to approach it with a spirit of service? Do we have that same confidence in Jesus Christ as our Lord? Do we have the heart for the nations that he had?

          The techniques analyzed here, while common, are intended to be illustrative only. They reflect the workings of the hermeneutic imagination, the inference system that enables us to contextualize utterances and extract their significance for social interaction. The point, however, is that Bible readers, in searching to find a text’s relevance to their lives, can go beyond the text as given. Not only can they contextualize it either historically or devotionally, but they may also employ the hermeneutic imagination—expansion of a term’s semantic field, paraphrase, elaboration, folk psychology—to go beyond the text as given and to establish the relevance of the text to their lives.Here Williams does more than semantically transform the text: he uses the text (modified, even in this short passage, by semantic expansion, paraphrase, and elaboration) to construct a rich image of Paul, and to suggest that his listeners ought to mimic Paul in these respects. The text gets arranged into a psychological profile of Paul’s focus, motivation, and attitude, and that profile in turn becomes the basis for his exhortation, that his audience ought to sense God’s call, to have a heart for service, and to spread the gospel to those who have not heard it. The hinge point in connecting Paul and his modern audience is the you also, where the you is understood not in Paul’s context, as a reference to the early Roman church, but to a modern congregation.

          The techniques analyzed here, while common, are intended to be illustrative only. They reflect the workings of the hermeneutic imagination, the inference system that enables us to contextualize utterances and extract their significance for social interaction. The point, however, is that Bible readers, in searching to find a text’s relevance to their lives, can go beyond the text as given. Not only can they contextualize it either historically or devotionally, but they may also employ the hermeneutic imagination—expansion of a term’s semantic field, paraphrase, elaboration, folk psychology—to go beyond the text as given and to establish the relevance of the text to their lives. (pp. 113-117)

        4. “The interpretive tradition is perennially caught between the Scylla of interpretive freedom and the Charybdis of irrelevance: too much hermeneutic freedom and the tradition disintegrates, loosing its epistemological appeal; too little interpretive freedom and the Bible becomes merely an irrelevant historical artifact, rather than the ever-living word of God.” Both freedom and determinacy are necessary. “At present, the evangelical tradition solves this problem by maintaining fairly rigorous standards of exegesis in its scholarship and quietly ignoring those standards in the churches. There is no hermeneutic tradition at Creekside Baptist or any other church I have seen, but there is a hermeneutic tradition in Bible colleges and seminaries. I suggest that this is a very practical response to the conflict between maintaining ongoing biblical relevance in the pews and hermeneutic determinacy in the classroom.”

Indefinite interpretability

In group Bible studies each person may offer what impresses him or her about a particular passage, “what it meant for their lives.”

Their interpretations were usually expressed with some degree of tentativeness, and were framed as observations on the passage rather than as expressions of “the meaning.”They did say that the text had a meaning—and a real, definite one—but none of them pretended to know it exhaustively. Their claims, at most, were to know part of the meaning of a passage. They seemed untroubled when different people took away different lessons from the discussion—after all, the Holy Spirit might say different things to different people. Their attitude toward the text was much less exclusive than Zuck—a professor at a conservative seminary—describes. . . .

. . . [P]artial, nonexclusive meanings fit rather cleanly within the devotional frame for Bible reading. What impresses a person out of the text need not be God’s message for everyone at all times, but only God’s message for that particular person, or that particular church, at that particular point in time. Part of the meaning will do: no more definitive exegesis is usually needed. . . .

Indefinite interpretability is important because the interpretive tradition requires the ongoing relevance of the Bible. (pp. 125 f)

And if the Bible is understood to be the “word of God” then there is a heightened expectation for believers to find in it relevance for their personal lives.

Malley, Brian. 2004. How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism. New York: Altamira Press.



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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “The Indefinite Interpretability of the Bible”

  1. How is it possible that a collection of texts from ancient and alien cultures has personal relevance for millions of believers today?

    Simple, don’t read it & assume it agrees with all your personal prejudices.

  2. What evangelists are doing is making the adjustments needed for a culture to remain relevant as circumstances on the ground change. Their culture is based on an unchanging book, and they are embedded in a literate public that can document their maneuvers and have no limits on data storage. The post shows the interesting and complex strategy they use. I think that anyone who wants to preserve a culture has to focus on keeping the values, and adjusting the selection of and interpretation of facts.

    In contrast, oral cultures that want to preserve their cultures have a much easier task: they have a limited amount of storage space for data. They simply discard irrelevant material and change the narrative to meet present realities.

    Below quotation is from The Consequences of Literacy (1963). Author(s): Jack Goody and Ian Watt, pp. 308-310, http://www.jstor.org/stable/177651

    “With these qualifications,however,it seems correct to characterize the transmission of the cultural tradition in oral societies as homeostatic in view of the way in which its emphasis differs from that in literate societies. The description offered has, of course, been extremely abstract;but a few illustrative examples in one important area- that of how the tribal past is digested into the communal orientation of the present- may serve to make it clearer.”

    ….[Lengthy example omitted]

    “The state of Gonja in Northern Ghana is divided into a number of divisional chiefdoms,certain of which are recognised as providing in turn the ruler of the whole nation, When asked to explain their system the Gonja recount how the founder of the state, Ndewura Jakpa, came down from the Niger Bend in search of gold, conquered the indigenous inhabitants of the area and enthroned himself as chief of the state and his sons as rulers of its territorial divisions. At his death the divisional chiefs succeeded to the paramountcy in turn. When the details of this story were first recorded at the turn of the present century,at the time the British were extending their control over the area,Jakpa was said to have begotten seven sons, this corresponding to the number of divisions whose heads were eligible for the supreme office by virtue of their descent from the founder of the particular chiefdom. But at the same time as the British had arrived,two of the seven divisions disappeared,one being deliberately incorporated in a neighboring division because its rulers had supported a Mandingo invader,Samori,and another because of some boundary changes introduced by the British administration. Sixty years later,when the myths of state were again recorded, Jakpa was credited with only five sons and no mention was made of the founders of the two divisions which had since disappeared from the political map.”

    1. The example you cite reminds me of the sorts of changes we see across the different historical books in the Old Testament, especially with changes in genealogies (and those happen more generally in ancient records — not only in the Bible). Rather than a divide between literacy and morality, a better nuance would be orality versus literary canonization. We see different biblical and extra-biblical accounts being written to reflect different political situations at the times of the respective authors. Similarly with the early Christian era literature: there we see in various texts differences in historical settings and numbers of disciples associated with Jesus that have generally been forgotten since the canonization of the New Testament. (Thanks for the link to the article. It is worth reading.)

  3. It may sound strange but ancient scriptures and stories always sound strange in new situations or sitz im leben (form critical tendencies /contexts) used by authors and redactors (like Mt on Mk. and so and so on) to keep creating new situations in which these texts can be used to influence the other generations which their first words affected. But in those new contexts or situations the people are longing and needing to hear new things to keep them going into the future even more, often simply because they are new.! We like to live on promises or hopes for change as well and look to sources to help us! So too are the gospels and Nt writings…to further the revelation of Israel and its traditions and texts!

    These are just musings of mine. Like or not like…it is all okay. right?

  4. Allow me to make a brief comment : More input on the ambiguities and indeterminate aspects of the world and the words of biblical texts can be found in the works of David Clines…

    I mention his works in general because if you read a lot of his stuff you will become a “scholar over night”..lol.!!!!!!! He is brilliant and super-wise as a scholar, and note his work on wisdom lit in this field which is extensive and a great part of my own interests.

    I don’t have it at my finger tips but David Clines work on the indeterminate boundaries of texts among themselves is fascinating. He is an expert on Job among other things and has played a/the major role in producing really accurate and helpful and insightful renderings and understandings of the Hebrew language to our attention. He recently created a new Hebrew lexicon/dict. and something more than that!!.

    One of the common aspects of this present site is to give due honor to all those who are scholars and supporters of those connected to the Univ. of Sheffield and other well known institutions which share a concern for getting at the truth of things, and moreover many bloggers are interested here, and are free to explore lost of helpful ideas and methods. We must stand against poor scholarship.
    Clines does what he does best as well as Malley and others here who help us engage the issue. To get us into the mind of Jobian talk and also evangelical talk bout the bible which Malley exposes us to .

    Hope I haven’t over-stepped some boundaries here Neil and others about rallying support of some of the best scholarship in the world being expressed in a primary and secondary way on the internet where ideas and images and ideals are abounding.

    This is what you do best Neil. Please keep it going! I love the topic too. You know I have more to say given my early contact with “fundigelical” hermeneutics! lol.

    I love these posts ……!!!!!!

    1. I like reading works by David Clines. His writing is very clear and definitely instructive, as you say. Posts here that have cited Clines can all be found at https://vridar.org/tag/david-clines/

      Do any of the following jog your memory re the “indeterminate boundaries of texts”?

      • Clines, David J. A. 1990. What Does Eve Do To Help?: And Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament. Sheffield, England: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.
      • ———. 2009. Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix Press
      • Clines, David J. A., Stephen E. Fowl, and Stanley E. Porter, eds. 1990. Bible in Three Dimensions: Essays in Celebration of Forty Years of Biblical Study. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Pr.
      • Clines, David J. A., and Stephen D. Moore. 1998. Auguries: The Jubilee Volume of the Sheffield Department of Biblical Studies. A&C Black.
      • Davies, Philip R., and David J. A. Clines, eds. 2009. Among the Prophets: Language, Image and Structure in the Prophetic Writings.London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.
      • McKay, H. A., and D. J. Clines, eds. 1993. Of Prophets’ Visions and the Wisdom of Sages. Sheffield, England: Sheffield.
      • Williamson, H. G. M. 2003. Reading from Right to Left: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honour of David J. A. Clines. Edited by J. Cheryl Exum. London ; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.
      1. Oh my dear friend Neil,, thankyou for providing specific sources to my so general comments. Yes, folks look at his references…all so helpful. You will learn piles if you do check it out! Get the basics from this site and venture forth. You will not regret it!

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