The Fountain of Truth
- I hold as a “given” that it is impossible for anyone to read without interpreting. Everyone has foundational assertions that all else is built upon, but few people are even aware of them, or at least can conceive of others having a right to different foundational assertions. It can be very mind-bending to step outside our own boxes to the point of examining our assertions, but even this exercise is done through certain lenses. It’s simply impossible for any of us to be completely without bias.
- Because of (1), we need to try and codify our hermeneutics as the first step. We do this by asking ourselves questions:
- Epistemology: how do we know what we know? How is any given fact or statement determined to be true or accurate?
- Revelation: how do we identify that which is of God and not humans?
- Using our identified epistemology and revelation, do we then also consider factors such as linguistics, culture, grammar, etc.?
- Once we have some kind of definition for approaching any given Biblical topic, we need to see if our hermeneutic “works”, and that’s what I mean by consistency. Does it require a lot of “bypassing” to keep it running, or does it handle all situations with ease?
- It’s vital that we determine our hermeneutic before we tackle a topic, or we’re simply making up rules as we go along.
Regarding the various typical methods of interpretation, I come from the literal/ historical/ grammatical background, but I keep my eyes open. I’m certainly no expert, and of course most people who argue about the Bible aren’t experts either. And that’s why we need to (1) make sure we know what the text actually says, and (2) remember that the NT epistles are letters written by certain people, to certain people, at a point in history, in a certain culture, for a certain reason. But we must be able to do all this in layman’s terms.
So I guess what I’m saying is that this consistency I’m looking for is not to put one method over another, but for each individual to examine the internal consistency of their method. I’ve done this many times over the years, not ever being comfortable with a hermeneutic that has to stretch and contort to fit what I’m reading.
We cannot escape our physical brains. No matter how we try, even the most devoted mystic uses their brain to interpret visions and emotions. So the human brain is the first foundation of epistemology (how we know what we know); nothing can be more basic. We know what we know by thinking, whether shallow or deep.
What we think can satisfy the quest for finding internal truths, but this of course is highly subjective. We do not exist in a vacuum and must deal with external reality. In order for something to be considered objective, we must test our perceptions by means of our physical senses. This can be done directly, but the majority of things have to be “sensed” from a distance, that is, through the research or testimony of others. So I determine objective fact by thinking and sensing in one way or another.
The first thing that seems to be an objective reality outside myself is that the universe exists, and it is observed by scientists to be running down. (I know, that’s an eye-roller, but I had to say it.) It also is impossible for anything to create itself, whether we’re speaking philosophically or about things we’ve observed. Therefore, since the universe exists and its running down shows it to be non-eternal, it had to be caused by something non-physical, something which had to always exist. That is, there is a First Cause which must be eternal.
Even at this level, I’ve made a number of unprovable assertions, but it’s simply unavoidable. But they seem reasonable to me, and I can’t go beyond them. All I can do is build upon them, and to this point in my life, I’ve seen nothing to contradict them. It’s a foundation that “works” for me.
Implications - Level One
I can extrapolate characteristics of the First Cause from my basic epistemology. For example, the universe is vast and full of energy, it is orderly (or there would be no such things as “laws” in nature), and it is complex. We also observe that we humans have qualities such as love, hate, self-sacrifice, self-indulgence, cooperation and war, etc. And we seem to be unique in our ability to even think about such things.
All that tells me that the First Cause must be unimaginably large, powerful, intelligent, logical, and personal, because we have observed that “no effect can be greater than its cause”. And we typically call this Cause “God” in one way or another.
Further, I can then assume within the bounds of my hermeneutic that God had a reason for creating all this, and that we humans appear to be the object of his attention. But there are so many different ideas about the details concerning God; how do we find the truth?
Again from my basic epistemology, I can assume that God would have a way to tell us, a way that we could investigate the facts and see which set of them makes the most sense. I have to “sense from a distance” here and trust the testimony of others, but I put significant weight on history and archeology, if I’m careful to consult a variety of them to minimize bias. And such testimony has convinced me that the Bible, because of fulfilled prophecy, contains the most accurate portrayal of God that we have. Added weight is given from the legal evidence supporting Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, along with his miracles and the hundreds of detailed prophecies he fulfilled. There is simply no contender to all this among the world’s religions and philosophies.
Implications - Level Two
I’ve gotten to the point of determining that there is a God and that the Bible is the most accurate account of him and his actions. From other studies that I won’t repeat here, I’ve also determined that we have good attestation for the bulk of the Bible’s text, that is, we know what the words themselves are to a very reasonable degree.
I’ve often said that the Bible was not written in a vacuum. It is not a collection of mystical utterances but normal human communication. God did direct the writing of the words, but did not operate the writers like puppets; he “carried them along” (2 Peter 1:21). This fits my basic epistemology because I believe God is logical and personal, not one to deceive and confuse those he wishes to communicate with.
In the light of all that, I see the Bible as God talking to us in terms we can understand, through people who faithfully transmitted his messages. This “down to earth” view would include assuming that God would communicate within the language and grammar in use at the time the message was given, as well as the writer, the culture, the period of history, and so on. I would also assume God used figures of speech, illustrations, sarcasm, and a host of other methods of expression. We are not one-dimensional, so we can’t expect God to be flat and emotionless.
However, this is not at all to say that we can change the meaning of what God originally told us by appealing to our own culture and language. What I mean instead is that we need to consider all those things to find out what God meant when he said it. Only when we understand that can we then apply the principle therein to our own lives.
For example, when Jesus told the Pharisees that they should tithe but not neglect the more important things like justice and mercy (Mt. 23, Lk. 11), we can’t ignore the fact that these Pharisees were Jews, hypocrites, and legalists. The overall context is about their treachery and double-standards, their circumventing of the laws of Moses in favor of their own. Jews had to obey the laws of Moses, so Jesus was not issuing a new law for a church that hadn’t yet been born, but only showing the Pharisees how evil they were. Yet many today take this statement ouf of context to apply it legalistically to the church. The way we can apply this to our lives today is to remember that “without love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13); all our religious acts are worthless without the proper motivation.
There is a God, and only the Bible tells us the truth about him. This is how I would approach any given Biblical topic or question: I look at the context from every angle I can, try to determine what truth God is conveying from it, and only then see how I can apply it to my life. Conversely, I do not accept the practice of only a surface-skimming, the so-called “plain reading” method; there’s nothing “plain” about it. God has shown by historical example that he doesn’t drop knowledge into us like a mother bird feeding her babies, but rather expects us to strive and struggle, to grow and learn. God didn’t dispense his Word all at once, but took about 1500 years, and used about 40 different writers. Surely this is communicating to us that God is not satisfied with the skim approach.
These principles have served me well over the years. They give me something firm to go on, yet don’t lock me into any particular position when the context is unclear. The greatest weakness would be in assuming I have full understanding of the context when I might not. And that’s the great value in consulting others.