This post subject to interpretation…

Posted on April 19, 2012

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A carpenter builds a desk for a customer.  When the customer arrives, he looks around the room and says, “Where’s the desk I ordered?”  The carpenter points to the desk, sitting in the corner.  “Oh,” says the customer, “you mean that bookshelf?”

An artist sets out to paint a horse.  The end result is a cat.  Did the artist succeed at painting a horse?  Here’s some more details: this artist tries to paint a horse without a visual reference.  He’s working from memory.  He’s a skilled artist, but he’s never painted horses before and he’s using his memory of a recent horse riding trip.  He finishes and shows the painting to his daughter.  She smiles at it and proclaims, “Kitty!”  Who is right?  The artist meant to paint a horse, but his audience sees a cat.  Which interpretation is the correct one?

Literature works the same way.  A writer may set her thoughts to the page; she may work day and night to get every sentence perfect; she may have dozens of people help her by reading and commenting on her piece.  In the end, though, if her intended audience fails to get the message, then she has failed at her task.  But where does the fault lie?  Did the author fail because she didn’t work hard enough?  Did she miss a crucial piece of information?  Is she just not cut out to be a writer?  Or did the audience fail because they’re uneducated, or ill-informed, or just plain lazy and aren’t trying to understand her work?  What if neither is at fault?  What if there’s a language or cultural barrier?  What if the translator didn’t understand the message the first time?

I came across a new blog: Freestyle Christianity.  I love the title, and I liked the first few posts I read, so I subscribed and I’ve been catching up on J.P.Gustafsson’s work.  This discussion caught my attention; it’s the reason for the post you’re reading now.  I’ll summarize as best I can…

Is the Bible subject to interpretation?

Actually, I think that reduces the topic too far.  The obvious answer is, “Yes, because everything is subject to interpretation.”  And the examples above are representative of that fact.  So there has to be more to this issue.

Does the Bible contain one interpretation that is more correct than others?

Here, I think the question is too complex; I want to say the answer is ‘yes,’ but then I start thinking about all the messages that Bible contains.  Certainly we can focus on a few that are the most important, but beyond that…

So this leads me to several questions: is the Bible the word of God?  Was it written by man?  Is it infallible?  Can we interpret it in different ways, and are those different views compatible with each other?  What challenges do we find when we try to answer these questions?

I’m not going to answer all of these; I might not answer any of them, really.  What I want to focus on is my belief (and in so doing, provide a response to Gustafsson’s position): the Bible is God’s word.  It is divinely inspired, has an intended message, and can be understood in an objective way.  God has given us the intellect and reason necessary to understand the Bible.  And any interpretation that appears to contradict the Bible or to conflict with any other interpretation (and cannot be reconciled) is the fault of man, not God.

Let’s consider this example: what color is the sky?  The vast majority of people will acknowledge that it is a blue color.  It may change from day to day, but at any given moment we can agree on what color it is.  Some people are colorblind; some people have difficulty with language or communication; some people try to over think these things; regardless, we have shown through rational processes that light interacts with our atmosphere in such a way as to produce a consistent color in the sky.  So if someone comes to you and says, “I don’t see a blue sky, I see a green one,” you can say, “That may be, but that doesn’t change the fact that the sky is blue.”  The Bible is the same way.  It has a message.  It has a meaning.  I may interpret that meaning one way, and you may think of it another, and we both be wrong–in some cases we may both be right–but that doesn’t change the fact that there is an underlying Truth involved.

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Posted in: Philosophy, Religion