This is the fifth essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:
- The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
- Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
- God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
- Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
- All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning
“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed an idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him” (Leo Tolstoy).
Have you ever read a book a second time only to discover something new that escaped you the first time? New meanings emerge, but the book is the same and you are looking through the same eyes. What’s different? Over time, you had a vast array of new experiences that altered your horizon of understanding, generating new interpretative possibilities and evoking fresh insights. What changed is your perspective.
This strange experience of reading with “new eyes” gestures toward an important principle in philosophical hermeneutics: all reading is interpretation. The meaning of a piece of writing is “not an automatic and unproblematic exercise of deciphering a set of consistently identical signs on paper in front of us” (Werner Jeanrond, Theological Hermeneutics, 1). The meaning of a text is not objective and self-evident, as if any well-intended reader could easily discover “the right meaning.”
When talking about the Bible, some people argue the contrary. They claim to have easily discovered the correct meaning of a passage with a simple, literal reading. No interpretation is necessary, only common sense. “Look!” they say, “The meaning is plain as day, right there in black and white.” But this naïve, uneducated, and highly personalized approach is shallow, misguided, and dangerous.
To the contrary, hermeneutics helps us understand that the meaning of a text (including the Bible) is not an objective fact waiting to be discovered like a quarter under a couch cushion. Rather, meaning is something that is created when our minds interact with a text. Simply put, meaning is an event. Since the meaning of a text emerges through the application of a particular perspective, it is important to remember that our perspective is always limited.
So what shapes our perspective? An extensive list is beyond the scope of this article, so a few general examples will have to suffice. First, we might consider how a wide range of formative experiences in early childhood influence how we see the world, especially in our family of origin. It would also include our education, both secular and religious, and how this influences our views on things like politics, morality, and religion. Our perspective is also shaped by the way we see ourselves and others in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, and sexual orientation, as well as the way the dominant culture interprets and assigns value to such identifiers. When it comes to interpreting sacred texts, our past and present experiences in a community of faith will generate various “pre-understandings” that must also be taken into account. For example, before we ever start reading the Bible on our own, most of us begin with a particular image of God and a wide range of assumptions about what the text could possibly mean and how it should be interpreted. These pre-understandings usually come through the inculcation of religious traditions in a specific community of faith, but they can also be acquired through the absorption of cultural stereotypes. Regardless, these pre-understandings serve to highlight and privilege certain interpretive possibilities, while obscuring and repressing others.
The main point is that a wide range of continuous experiences generate innumerable interpretive filters and pre-understandings that come together to create a person’s limited perspective. This perspective provides a world-view that functions like a pair of glasses through which we see everything, including our sacred texts and traditions. When different perspectives interact with a text, different meanings emerge. So, a twenty-three year old Columbian woman living in extreme poverty will interpret the Bible differently than a wealthy, white, fifty-five year old American man. They will focus on different passages and, in some cases, discern divergent meanings.
Since meaning is an event that happens when different people’s perspectives interact with a given text, multiple meanings are possible. Texts are polyvalent. While we are not entirely enslaved to our own perspectives (see below), no one can achieve a perspective-less God’s eye view. This does not mean that interpretation is a free-for-all in which we can make a text say anything we want. When it come to the Christian Bible, there are interpretive boundaries established by the community of faith, by the academic disciplines of Biblical studies and theology, and by common sense. But firmly grasping the role of perspective in the event of meaning and the polyvalent nature of all texts will help keep us humble in our interpretation.
One of the biggest dangers for religious people is forgetting that they are reading with a pair of interpretive glasses, that they are reading through a worldview constituted by a complex set of interpretive filters and pre-understandings. If we are not even aware that we are interpreting through a particular perspective then we unwittingly become a slave to the limitations and dangers of that perspective and foreclose on the possibility of deeper and more transformational meaning. Henceforth, anything we can do to become more aware of our interpretive filters and pre-understandings will encourage humility, expand our horizon of understanding, and hopefully evoke fresh insights that will make us more faithful interpreters of the Bible. The best way to do this is to read the Bible in conversation with others, especially those who are different!
One important conversation is between the reader and the author(s) of the text. Anyone who has engaged in the academic discipline of Biblical studies knows that the contemporary reader does not have direct access to the original intent and audience of the author. These must be tentatively reconstructed using tools provided by multiple disciplines like archaeology, history, ancient languages, literary and form criticism, and cultural studies. This attempt to determine what an author was trying to communicate to the original audience is the work of exegesis, and (since this is reconstructive work) it too requires interpretation.
While historical-criticism does not operate on the basis of certainty, much can be learned about the ancient world, the perspective of the author, the context of the original audience, and the message being communicated. As those who live on the other side of the Enlightenment, the perspective of the author and intended audience will be very different from ours. Acknowledging these important differences allows us to distance ourselves from our own interpretive filters so we can listen to the text on its own terms. While we never do this perfectly (because we cannot completely escape our own perspective), to a certain extent we can resist the urge to blindly project our own modern presuppositions on ancient texts, effectively collapsing the radically different worldviews of the author and contemporary reader. In hermeneutics, this is known as distanciation. We can provisionally bracket our own presuppositions and allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in ways that will illuminate, challenge, and even change our interpretive filters, as well as broaden our horizon of understanding.
In addition, Christians believe that God somehow works through this interpretive conversation with the Bible to speak to us in transformative ways. God can and does speak to us through the kind of scholarly exegesis described above, but God also speaks to us in more devotional readings of scripture, like the ancient practice of lectio divina. Indeed, both of these approaches are important as we seek to understand the Bible and encounter God through it. (See my article, “Shaped By Scripture: Two Different Ways of Reading the Bible.”) As God speaks to us in and through the interaction of our perspective with the Bible, it becomes the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. This encounter with the Word can illuminate, challenge, shape, and even alter our interpretive filters in ways that broaden our horizon of understanding and allow us deeper access to divine truth. This is at least part of the process by which we mature in the faith and grow in wisdom. The more spiritually mature the reader, the more faithful the interpretation. This is why the Bible should also be read in conversation with spiritual directors and teachers who have become wise through contemplation.
It is also important to read the Bible in conversation with the larger Christian tradition, both synchronically and diachronically. Gaining more knowledge about how Christians have interpreted the Bible in different ways over the course of 2,000 years will help surface and evolve our interpretive filters, as will contemporary conversations with other Christians around the globe who occupy very different perspectives. We not only ask how Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Wesley interpreted the Bible, but also how Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia interpret the text today. We study the history of Christianity but also Latin American Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist and Womanist Theology, and Minjung Theology, all of which confirm the added benefit of conversations with philosophy and critical-theory. One could also argue the benefit of reading in conversation with people of other religious traditions. A great example of this is the interreligious dialogue between Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh.
Again, it should be clear that we don’t have to be slaves to a narrow and shallow interpretive framework. While our reading is always perspectival, our perspective can evolve and deepen over time by disciplined engagement in the various kinds of conversations mentioned above. One way of understanding this truth is by reference to the hermeneutical spiral.
As you can see in the diagram above, we start with pre-understandings that give us an interpretive framework for understanding the text. As we practice distanciation by bracketing our presuppositions, we allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in the interpretive process. New insights emerge that are appropriated and assimilated in ways that transform our pre-understandings.
In conclusion, the purpose of this article is to destabilize the idea that textual meaning is a neutral, univocal, and static object that is passively waiting to be discovered by a well-intended reader. I am also trying to destabilize the idea of reading as a literal one-to-one correspondence between the human mind and printed words on a page. Taken together, I am criticizing what Merold Westphal calls “cognitive transubstantiation” and emphasizing the importance of interpretive humility. Furthermore, by sharing some key insights in philosophical hermeneutics, we have seen how important it is to be aware of our own perspective and to read sacred texts in conversation with others so that our interpretive filters can evolve and our horizon of understanding can be expanded.
The faithful interpretation of scripture is a life-long process, and our hope is that as we continue to grow in this regard that the Bible will continue to be a narrative space where we can encounter the risen Christ and be conformed to his image.
(Image Source: http://www.metanexus.net/essay/entangled-narratives)