Interpretation or idolatry (aka: What’s wrong with claiming absolute Truth?)


Many Christians contend that the Bible offers absolute (or ultimate) truth.  But this contention immediately raises two problems.  First, Christians do not know the Bible’s claims to be True (with a capital ‘T’) but rather believe them to be.  Second, there are a plethora of understandings of the Bible: what makes a particular Christian’s view better than anyone else’s?

At stake here is the distinction between absolute (or ultimate) truth and absolute (or ultimate) access to this Truth.1

We can clarify matters by using the terms truth claims (i.e., what is being claimed to be true) and truth value (i.e., just how true a given claim is).  So concerning the nature of its truth claims, Christians point to its content (it concerns matters of ultimate importance for human existence) and its origin (it is divinely revealed) in holding that the Bible’s claims are not simply relative, as perhaps truth-for-me, but absolute / ultimate Truth.

Yet with any assessment of a truth claim—both a) properly determining what the claim is and b) accurately adjudicating that claim: determining whether it is indeed true—we are always faced with the question of how (and how well) we can access this truth claim.  In other words, how (and how well) do we know what is being claimed, and how (and how well) do we decide whether/ to what extent it is true?

Essentially the question of access (to truth claims and their values) depends on our relationship to knowledge: to knowing things and entities.  As such, dealing with truth claims and truth values requires first that we know something about knowing.2

Expressed philosophically, human being are “contingent knowers.”  So our knowledge is limited—but also made possible—by our abilities, situation, and circumstances.  For instance, we know things via our senses, our reason, our experiences, etc.  Expressed theologically, God is infinite and complete, whereas humans are finite and limited.

So what does this mean?

Let’s answer that question by taking these philosophical and theological views about our relationship to knowledge and connecting them with my two, introductory problems with absolute / ultimate truth: the issue of believing versus knowing, and of multiple understandings.

On the one hand, emphasizing that Christians do not know the Bible’s claims to be True, but rather believe them, underscores the need for faith.  But it does so in order to affirm that people (Christians included) are not like God.  God knows things as they truly are; people understand through the grid work of their finite, situated existence.

On the other hand, the upshot of the preceding is that we necessarily have multiple understandings, given our diversity of backgrounds, experiences, etc.  In other words, as limited beings we necessarily interpret.  Only God has certainty; humans have varying degrees of probability.  God knows, people interpret.

Some classic examples of wrong-headed thinking are to claim, as I’ve heard some Christians do, that when reading the Bible they do not interpret but simply “Read what’s there.”  Or again to claim, as I’ve heard other Christians do, essentially that they interpret flawlessly: that their interpretations are “right” whereas those of other Christians or non-Christians are “wrong.”

Philosophically speaking, to claim either that we do not interpret or interpret flawlessly is to claim to know (or access) absolute Truth absolutely.  It is to claim certainty, which is beyond human ability.  Theologically speaking, it is to declare ourselves beyond the limited, situated scope within which God created us and to make ourselves equals with God.  It is to break the First Commandment: it is idolatry.

The point, then, is that even if we grant that biblical truth claims may be ultimately True, Christians do not (nor does anyone else) possess absolute access to this absolute / ultimate truth, nor can they offer such to others.

In my next post I examine the positive significance of finitude for our relation to t/Truth: the importance of interpretation and experience.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. The very notion of “absolute” also seems problematic. So while God may indeed have absolute truth (truth that is full, ultimate, compelling and beyond challenge) when this is seen from a human perspective I prefer to speak of God having “full” or “ultimate” truth.  This is because I simply do not believe that humans can even sufficiently grasp the notion of “absolute truth,” because we cannot have an adequate sense of the scope, nature, or quality of the content that such a notion implies.
  2. Knowing and knowledge claims come under the heading of “epistemology.”

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