Biblical

No more naïve understanding of interpretation, and namely biblical interpretation, can be imagined or advanced than for anyone to insist that he maintains "the biblical interpretation" of any secondary or tertiary issue related in any manner whatever with Christianity. I have to grant the qualification, "secondary and tertiary," because Christians are bound to theological essentials, such as the existence of our triune God, the deity and divinity of Jesus, Christ's atoning death, burial and resurrection, etc. Primary Christian essentials were settled in the early Church.

While we can host a debate about those essentials, established by the fourth century, the intent of this brief post is to think critically about mere secondary (e.g., mode of baptism, church governance, qualifications for ministry) or tertiary (e.g., spiritual gifts in use today, views of the end-times, gender) issues related to biblical interpretation. Since there are a vast number of disagreements among biblical scholars and laypeople as to what constitutes "biblical interpretation" on these issues then we are, I think, obliged to concede that Dr. Stanley Fish is right when he argues:
In the view that I have been urging, however, disagreements cannot be resolved by reference to the facts, because the facts emerge only in the context of some point of view. It follows, then, that disagreements must occur between those who hold (or are held by) different points of view; and what is at stake in a disagreement is the right to specify what the facts can hereafter be said to be. Disagreements are not settled by the facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled.1
What conclusion Dr. Fish is establishing here is that interpretation occurs within community. Someone may argue that facts should settle an issue; but, when considering interpretation, "facts" are not exactly scientific. "Nowhere is this process more conveniently on display than in literary criticism [and such includes biblical criticism, given that the Bible is a text, and is literature], where everyone's claim is that his interpretation more perfectly accords with the facts," which is comical at best, "but where everyone's purpose is to persuade the rest of us to the version of the facts he espouses by persuading us to the interpretive principles in the light of which those facts will seem indisputable."2 Does this not, then, appear manipulative? Yes, friends, this is pure manipulation.

When you read, or when you hear, someone declaring his interpretations as "the biblical interpretation," no matter what secondary or tertiary issue he is promoting, you can be certain that he is attempting to convince you of his views of facts, pretexts, and even context. "Context?" you ask. "But I thought context informs us of proper interpretation." Well, if context accomplished "proper interpretation," then would we not all agree on all issues merely by delving into context? Dr. Fish rightly, I think, notes:
One cannot appeal to the text, because the text has become an extension of the interpretive disagreement that divides them; and, in fact, the text as it is variously characterized is a consequence of the interpretation for which it is supposedly evidence. . . . Nor can the question be settled by turning to the context . . . for that too will only be a context for an already assumed interpretation.3 (emphasis added)
In other words, when someone reads a passage and then renders a conclusion, he will read the text "in fuller context" and, hence, the context supports the conclusion he has already dogmatized. In order to convince others of his interpretation, he will use rhetoric such as "biblical" so that you understand that his views merely align with the text. "Whenever a critic prefaces an assertion with a phrase like 'without doubt' or 'there can be no doubt,' you can be sure that you are within hailing distance of the interpretive principles which produce the facts that he presents as obvious."4 Evangelical pastors affirm their entire ministries upon these deceptive and, ultimately, manipulative rhetorical devices.


Are there no limits to interpreting a passage properly? Certainly. But that is not the point. "Again the point is that, while there are always mechanisms for ruling out readings, their source is not the text but the presently recognized interpretive strategies for producing the text."5 One would be hard-pressed to convince an audience that the script of the movie Xanadu, featuring Olivia Newton-John, was based upon an interpretive process of reading St Paul's letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, verses 1-8. Could someone attempt this grand interpretive feat? Doubtless! Could that individual gain an audience? Doubtful.

Regardless, we cannot allow a pastor or a Christian author (interpreter, commentator, philosopher) to get away with insisting that his view(s) is "the biblical view(s)" on any secondary or tertiary doctrine. In doing so, we protect potential spiritual abuse victims, as well as promote biblical integrity. Should a pastor/author/philosopher suggest that he thinks a particular text is communicating x, y and z, and then grant reasons for said interpretation, such is well within the bounds of proper interpretation, epistemology, and hermeneutics. But he cannot -- he must not -- be permitted by any audience to demand that his view(s) is "the biblical view(s)" without incurring a well-deserved furrowed brow from his audience. The word "biblical" must be stricken from the Christianese language when referring to secondary and tertiary matters.

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1 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 338.

2 Ibid., 339.

3 Ibid., 340.

4 Ibid., 341.

5 Ibid., 347.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.