Having recently discussed the necessity—indeed, the inescapability—of interpretation, it’s time to examine it more closely. What is interpretation, and how does it work?
Stated plainly, interpreting is deciding what we make of something—it is reading or seeing something as something. Interpretation applies not only to texts but to situations, and its scholarly study (the field of hermeneutics, which is the theory and practice of interpretation) includes the branches of legal, biblical, and philosophical hermeneutics—the interpretation of existence.
Crucial to this decision of what we “make of” something is the setting, or context, of the object or situation being interpreted.
As I noted in my last post, interpretation is important because it allows us to gain meaningful connection to ourselves and to others, and to evaluate how (and how authentically) they connect with us. When we consider biblical interpretation, however, we often think of it as understanding the Bible’s meaning—getting at its t/Truth in terms of ideas.
But this is only part of the picture.
Particularly, if the God of the Bible “is love” and wants to be in relationship with humanity, then the focus of the Bible itself is for readers to understand the meaning of its truth claims and adjudicate their value in order to assess whether God is real. And, more so, whether this God is an entity I want to engage with—whether God’s love is authentic and God’s offer for relationship is genuine!
Such assessments require two types of interpretation: interpretation of texts and interpretation of experience (or existence). So a) we interpret the Bible in order to determine its truth claims and then, for those claims that are experiential—such as God loving us—b) we interpret how such claims “play out” in everyday life in order to assess their truth value.
Let’s consider the first step—textual interpretation.
As context is key to proper interpretation, so interpreting the Bible requires reading its various books in context—reading them as ancient texts written according to various literary forms (narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, etc.). Moreover, it means reading these texts as documents containing various literary features (hyperbole, parable, chiasm), composed for a particular audience, to certain ends (to inform, persuade, denounce, etc.).
As the Bible was not written in English, readers need to understand—or at least be aware of—the nuances of the original languages. Further, understanding its words requires recognizing that we make sense of a given portion of text on the basis of the text that surrounds it: the “co-text.”
For example, by interpreting Romans 8:28 without duly considering its setting in Romans 8 (and indeed, in the whole book) and without due attention to its grammatical nuances in the Greek (note particularly the word “work”), we risk misreading this verse as endorsing the ‘greater good argument’. So we risk viewing the Bible as explaining—or explaining away—bad things as necessary for the sake of some greater good. It does not. I’ll explain this in detail in my next post.
Also, especially with ancient texts, we must be not only open to its words but conversant with its setting. So we must understand the society / culture within which it was created to know the cultural expectations and understandings of its author and audience.
For example, without understanding the role of honour and shame in 1st century Palestine, we risk misreading Matthew 5:39 (when “struck on the right cheek, turn the other also”) as advocating pacifism or even abuse. Again, it does neither. And again, more details to follow.
Finally, the upshot of the preceding is not that we have to be biblical scholars in order to interpret the Bible well. Instead, seeking the truth value of various truth claims is something everyone does all the time, so everyone has some experience and skill with it. And like interpreting situations, textual interpretation is a skill that can be cultivated and improved.