May 5, 2007
Alternatives to Postmodern Hyper-skepticismBy James Arlandson
This article, Part Seven in the series on Postmodernism and the Bible, aims, very briefly, to balance out postmodern pessimism about acquiring knowledge and truth and achieving an accurate, sensible interpretation of the Bible.
Part Three deepened the definition of postmodernism, using the image of a truth soup. Postmodernism is hyper-skeptical about origins, essences, realism, foundations, metanarratives, totalities, and canons. (The prefix hyper has been a theme running throughout the series; see Part One for the reason.) Everything gets thrown into a truth soup so we can barely distinguish one truth claim from the next.
And in Part Five, we examined the conclusions of scholars who advance outlandish theories about Jesus, deconstructing him. Part Six provided the traditional view of Jesus according to the New Testament. Part Six "de-transmogrified" or "de-deconstructed" the strange ideas. (Transmogrification has also been a theme of the series; see Part One.) I believe that the Church needs clarity during this long, dry season of confusion propagated through the popular media. How many times have we heard, "That's your interpretation!"?
We can be highly accurate about reality and our interpretations of the Bible. We really can know things "out there" that are independent of our minds. And the Bible, though we may not solve every puzzle, is not hopelessly confusing and indecipherably ambiguous. "Do not commit adultery" cannot accurately be interpreted as "go for it, dude."
However, if the next section seems irrelevant to readers (and I can't blame them), then they may scroll down to the section below next one. It discusses time-tested and traditional methods of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) of the Bible.
Three theories of truth
Can we find truth in science? Can we find it out there in a real world? Some doubt this. Here's my take.
If I drop a bowling ball one thousand times, it will fall to the ground. I can then surmise the positive truth that unhindered bowling balls fall to the ground. If I change the conditions of the experiment to a light downy feather, then the wind or air may slow down the descent. A particle of dust may never fall to the ground. So then I revise my conclusions to fit the changed conditions. Unhindered objects of a certain weight and mass fall earthward. That's the world I live in. That's as deep as my science goes. For me, things are that simple, but not simplistic. But I can still find some positive truths in science, can't I?
That brings us to the first theory, the time-honored correspondence theory of truth. Most philosophers throughout history have held to it. In its simplest, it says that our beliefs must correspond or fit the facts existing independently and outside of our mind in order for the beliefs to be true. True belief is called knowledge or truth. For example, one such belief can be stated in a proposition: "Pictures hang on the wall in the hotel room." The proposition is true if and only if pictures hang on the wall. I unlock the door and see with my own reliable eyesight that there are pictures hanging on the wall. The proposition that reflects my belief fits the fact. I now have knowledge about that aspect of the design of the hotel room. The correspondence theory is based on commonsense that our grandparents use (or used) every second of their waking life, such as driving down the road or walking in a room without crashing or bumping into things. The theory also depends on the reliability of our five senses. Yes, my five senses are much, much, much more reliable than otherwise. This theory of truth should be our anchor about reality. The next two theories depend, somewhat, on this one.
The second theory is coherence. A network of beliefs should cohere together in order to arrive at the truth. For example, the belief that a man can jump twenty feet straight up without assistance does not cohere with my other beliefs. If I see this happen with my own eyes, then I must investigate it. Thus, more facts have now come in. The fence was blocking my view of a trampoline, and the man who leaped straight up twenty feet has practiced a lot. Another example of coherence is the clues at a crime scene. The facts-note how I now depend on the correspondence theory of truth-must cohere together in order to point to the suspect (John Fieser and Norman Lilligard, Philosophical Questions, Oxford UP, 2005, pp. 365-77).
The third theory is pragmatism, or what works. According to this theory, "truths are beliefs that are confirmed in the course of experience" (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. Cambridge UP, 1999). To cite a simple example, we come to know that the key is the right one because it opens the lock. Further, in the moral realm, we come to know that murder is wrong because of practical experience and a negative outcome. Murder causes a lot of grief for people, and it tears the social fabric. It does not work in society. That is a negative outcome. So we devalue it and value the opposite, enjoying life, a positive outcome. But note how this theory also depends, at least in part, on facts "out there" or independent of our minds before we can draw inferences that lead us to the truth. A lock and key must exist in the real world, and so must a dead body and our enjoyment of life.
A professional philosopher, if he or she is reading this article, is chuckling at this section. But it is intended for nonspecialists. I like to keep things simple. In the end, the first theory is my anchor. The last two depend on it in some way and to some degree. Of course, philosophers argue over the theories, but together they go a long way to safeguard the security of our knowledge, as opposed to postmodern hyper-skepticism, anti-realism, and anti-foundationalism. At least now web readers know that there are alternatives.
For a very good survey of the first two theories, as they relate to postmodernism, I recommend this book. The author argues most strongly for maintaining the correspondence theory. I agree. We should not give up on it.
Time-tested methods of Bible interpretation
Exegesis means a careful reading and explanation of a text on its own terms, answering such questions as what does the text say? What are the historical assumptions that the original authors have? How can we research them? What are the authors' intentions? What does a word mean in its context? Postmodernists imply that facts are ever elusive, and meaning can never be limited so that we can nail truth down. However, the next three simple steps provide clarity about the vast majority of verses in the Bible.
(1) The historical context illumines the meaning of an entire book of the Bible or a passage. For example, in the New International Version (NIV) Study Bible the introduction to the Book of Jeremiah places the prophet in his historical context. The scholar selected to comment on the book writes:
This excerpt explains why Jeremiah is known as the "weeping prophet." Ministering at the worst time in Judah's history, he was under house arrest during the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC (Jeremiah 38:28).
God allowed his prophet to foresee the impending doom and carnage (2 Chronicles 36:17-19; cf. 2 Kings 25). Throughout Jeremiah's many prophecies, God promises his people restoration, so the book is not all bad news.
In interpreting the Bible, truths emerge after careful research into historical facts. We can eliminate such claims, for example, that the Four Gospels create a fictional Jesus and proclaim that this character is parallel to or comes from an Egyptian deity (see Part Five and Tom Harpur's book the Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light). To counter this outlandish assertion, we place Jesus in his historical context, namely a Jewish one in first-century Israel.
The earliest disciples and New Testament authors never even thought about Jesus being an Egyptian deity. The very idea would have repulsed them. Why? By accumulating more historical facts on first-century Judaism, particularly among devout Jews and the Old Testament. Divine figures from heaven are not Egyptian deities, but are sent by God. Also, the Books of Acts shows that Christians resisted other religions as the missionaries fanned out through the Empire (8:9-25; 14:8-18; 17:16, 22-34; 19:17-20, 23-41). The point here is not to defend or explain this any further (see Part Six for more discussion). Rather, the point is that we do not need to range far afield into Egyptian religion to find the origins of New Testament beliefs. We can and should remain in a thoroughly Jewish context, particularly the Old Testament. Ockham's razor, which says that the plainest and most straightforward explanation is to be preferred, applies here. Thus, Harpur's interpretation does not correspond to the historical facts, so it is inaccurate and wrong.
Note how this exegetical step somewhat reflects the correspondence theory of truth. We dig for the (historical) facts, and they clarify the words on the page, not make them indecipherably ambiguous.
(2) The textual context clarifies the meaning of a verse. For example, Matthew 10:34 says, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword." Does the meaning of the "sword" here endorse a military holy war on society? Let's examine the verse (bold font) in its textual context. Matthew 10:32-39 says:
The meaning of "sword" is now clear. It indicates that following Jesus in his original Jewish society may not bring peace to a family, but may "split" it up, the precise function of a metaphorical sword. Thus, the verse says nothing about a military holy war on society.
Luke 12:51, the parallel verse of Matthew 10:34, clarifies the "sword." The verse (bold font) in its full context reads:
A foundational and basic way to interpret Scripture is to let verses clarify other verses, particularly parallel passages. And now Luke 12:51 confirms our interpretation of Matthew 10:34. Jesus did not endorse physical violence against our own family, nor against society. But he warns us about possible family division.
Click on this short article for more information about Matthew 10:34. It also shows how the historical context is important for interpreting the verse.
Therefore, our interpretation of verses in the Bible should cohere together with other verses. But plain and simple coherence is typically denied by the postmodern interpreter. For example, in Part Five we saw that Stephen Moore's concludes that Jesus was a de-enlightened male contrasted to the enlightened Samaritan woman. But this conclusion violates the clear flow of the entire Gospel of John. Jesus never loses his grasp of his divinity or of spiritual truths. And the woman at the well does not discover deep truths about him apart from his careful guidance. She does not excel her male teacher.
To take the bigger point of view, the Bible indeed affirms metanarratives or major themes (Ephesians 1:9-10 and Revelation 21 and 22). Recall that postmodernists are suspicious of metanarratives. Nonetheless, everything is gradually pacing to the Grand Conclusion. The great themes and doctrines of Scripture are more unified and consistent and coherent than otherwise.
Though postmodernists decry unity and coherence in a text, it seems that this exegetical step somewhat follows the coherence theory of truth, but inside a text. A given verse coheres with other verses in its immediate and larger contexts. The results bring clarity and truth, much more often than not.
For an explanation and defense of the objectivity of interpretation, I recommend this book. But it's not for beginners.
(3) Finally, the meaning of words should be studied carefully. To illustrate, the reader needs only to do a keyword study of "love" in the New Testament. The following two words will yield rich results, as they are examined in context: philia and agapē, two different Greek words for love. The results will sometimes be surprising. Many of us have time and again heard that agapē refers only to God's love. That's mostly true. But go to Bible Gateway and type in John 3:19. The Greek word behind "loved" ("men loved darkness") is the verb of agapē. It can mean, then, a total commitment to something, even to darkness. So sometimes agapē does not always refer only to God's love.
But how do we start a word study? A good concordance, such as the Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance, (here) is the first step. In this particular concordance every word in the Bible is listed, and each word is numbered. A Hebrew and Greek dictionary is found in the back, and each definition is assigned the same number as the one in the exhaustive list of words.
As it turns out, several publications of the Bible, like the Hebrew-Greek Keyword Study Bible, (here) number the keywords inside the text and just above the word. They also have a Hebrew and Greek dictionary in the back. Other reference books have keyed their word studies to match this numbering system. An example: Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (here). We may not become experts overnight, but we can make progress in expanding our knowledge of the Bible, each day. These three steps can be elaborated on and added to. But they are time-tested, as is.
However, many readers who take the Bible seriously are busy working and maintaining a household. They do not have time to study keywords in detail or to research the historical context. In that case, I recommend the New International Version Study Bible (here). I quoted from it, above, in the first exegetical step. It has a commentary built into it. These highly qualified and respectful commentators provide the historical context, not only in the Introduction to each book of the Bible, but also in transitional sections of any book and even a single verse. And these scholars inform us, when necessary, about the textual context, or they explain parallel passages. They also zero in on important words. They cross-reference verses that clarify a theme running through one book or other books as well. They do not ignore the latest interpretive methods, but they still base their own methods primarily on these three time-tested steps.
I find the scholarship of these commentators, written for the laity, to be very, very helpful. I refer to it all the time, as I read the Bible. The Study Bible has sold over six million copies.
Epistemology, the study of how we define and acquire knowledge, is my least favorite area of philosophy. Professional philosophers have confused things, and this lack of clarity dominates the discussion. But outside of the office and classroom they live by beliefs that correspond to facts. For instance, if their classroom theories cause doubt about driving a car safely, then their theories fail my drivers test, as I call it. However, our knowledge of the real world out there can be strong and reliable. We nonspecialists need to know that there are alternatives to postmodern excessive doubt, anti-realism, and anti-foundationalism.
On a personal note, my motto has been: I will follow the facts, for they will safeguard me from outlandish conclusions. Thus, the correspondence theory should not be abandoned in favor of postmodern hyper-skepticism that tosses us here and there without an anchor. So I prefer the correspondence theory because I seem to live by it every day without thinking twice about it. It is commonsense-which our grandparents had (or have). Long live reality and my accurate perception of it with my reliable senses!
Also, the Bible is not hopelessly confusing and ambiguous. It may be true that many verses are difficult to understand, but the vast majority can be clarified with just a little research, following three simple (not simplistic) steps. Postmodern interpreters of the Bible who say that meaning is fragmented into a hundred pieces or escapes in a hundred different directions are hyper-radical. The starting point of postmodernists is hyper-skeptical. They do not represent mainstream Bible scholarship, though their appearance in the national media may (wrongly) imply that they do.
What about devotional reading? Must we become scholars to enjoy Scripture? Devotional reading is beautiful. Many have drawn comfort from Psalm 23, for example. One cautionary note: private edification is fine, but don't build entire doctrines on it.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, it is not those parts of the Bible that I don't understand that bother me. It's the parts I do understand. The Bible offers enough clarity to be secure about morals and living life and a basic understanding of God. For me, that's more than sufficient and understandable. It's that simple - for me.
James Arlandson may be contacted at email@example.com