Thursday, 25 February 2010

Scope and intent in biblical interpretation

There are several aspects to good biblical interpretation. Some are obvious such as authorial intent, and the specific overriding the general. But there are some considerations that are more subtle. Two that I would like to consider here are breadth of scope and underlying intent.

Much debate can arise over Scripture when people agree about what is basically being said, but disagree about the scope to which it should be applied. Consider Ephesians 5:21
Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ.
Is this all people to all people, or some people to some people? Both are possible interpretations. I think the context of the verse, and the subsequent examples answer this question, nevertheless there is disagreement between those who advocate all Christians should submit to all other Christians, and those who advocate that Christians are to continue to submit appropriately to others over them.

Or consider the Sermon on the Mount. Some advocate that Jesus is teaching a new way of acting for all men and institutions: abandoning ideas like retaliation and justice and replacing them forgiveness and mercy. Others suggest this is directed at individuals and therefore is inapplicable to the state. Still others may specify that the sermon is even more limited being directed to Jesus' followers. A broad interpretation leads to quite different ideas about the role and extent of government than a narrow interpretation; both camps arguing for contradictory things yet both appealing to Scripture.

Underlying intent is even more subtle, yet very important, and probably open to more disagreement. It is important to establish what kind of situation the Bible is talking to, what are the underlying elements, the foundational concepts. For example the Bible talks a lot about orphans and widows. It seems very natural to extend this to modern orphans and widows, however one should also address why God talks about orphans and widows the way he does: what was the reason for God's concern, and are those concerns applicable to contemporary orphans and widows? They may be, or they may still apply to orphans but not widows, or there may be other categories of people these concerns also apply to.

While there may be valid debate around the breadth of meaning and the underlying intent, getting these wrong may still lead to error, and a key to right meaning is correct focus.

4 comments:

  1. This is why I think that the Protestants will eventually have to come back halfway to Catholicism by replacing "sola scriptura" with "prima scriptura" so that scripture must be read with an understanding of the cultures in which it was given. Tradition and history offer valuable insights that are usually missing when someone starts reading non-obvious parts of the Bible without knowledge of them.

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  2. Depends on what we mean by sola scriptura. I don't think I am arguing for tradition's seat at the table here. Both Catholics and Protestants can agree with this without it affecting there approach I think. What I am arguing is that we understand Scripture rightly whatever we think of church opinion. To interpret a passage rightly can still be consistent with sola scriptura as the context offers some help. Just as a better understanding of linguistics affects our interpretation (even though this is external to Scripture), as does logic and reason, I see no reason why historical interpretations or archaeological findings cannot flesh out things that are not fully understood.

    I guess I see a difference between tradition being helpful versus being necessary.

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  3. "Sola scriptura" means that the final authority for a doctrine is found in the scriptures, not in a man.

    It does, however, presume the ability of the individual to read the whole text carefully and contextually, and to interpret one passage in the light of others.
    Therefore, if one is incapable of this, it might be better to submit to the authority of someone else.

    This is the entire significance of the Catholic/Orthodox rejection of sola scriptura. To the extent that Protestants have institutionalized the office of pastor, prophet, or bishop, they have already compromised the principle. In that sense, Mike, you are correct; however, it does not require any reconciliation with the Roman Catholic church.

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  4. Mike says, "This is why I think that the Protestants will eventually have to come back halfway to Catholicism by replacing "sola scriptura" with "prima scriptura" so that scripture must be read with an understanding of the cultures in which it was given."

    Mike, Sola Scriptura already incorporates this.

    ReplyDelete

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