A BRIEF HISTORY OF GOD; INTERPRETING SCRIPTURE
The reader has a right to know what principles of interpretation I have tried to apply as I have written this 'Brief History of God'. A lot of what I have done has been intuitive, influenced by the motivations above and by my own background and spiritual journey. However, I have tried to set out below most of the more explicit principles I have followed, some of which refer to things in the Brief History itself:
How did I come up with all this? By what methods and principles? Here is a list of instructions that approximately encapsulate how I went about it. Though I did not keep strictly to the order shown, it does at least indicate my thinking, and might prove useful for others.
- God himself is certain, and is the ultimate Reality we come up against.
- But we can never arrive at complete certainty in our knowledge, because interpretation is part of our creational functioning by which we come to knowledge.
- Scripture is unique in telling us about God and our relationship with God; it is authoritative. But this authority is not that of the tyrant, but reflects that of the Living God himself, the nature of which we can begin to see, but never fully fathom, as we interpret Scripture as a whole. (In this way I distance myself from both fundamentalism and liberalism.)
- Scripture is a linguistic communication, not a legal textbook. It is written by human beings who were like us, but were inspired by God, and whose hearts and wills are aligned with God's heart and will.
- We are given responsibility for interpretation, and for exercising wisdom in doing so; we must wisely keep these principles in harmony.
- As far as possible, treat Scripture at 'face value'. Poetry as poetry, history as history, exhortation as exhortation, etc. Especially, what we read is to be treated as reality rather than symbol, except where the reality itself is symbol.
- God can be expected to communicate in a variety of voices, and each voice should be given its due. For example, he shouts have an importance of their own - but they should be interpreted in the light of later knowledge of the nature of God (e.g. not as vindictive but as loving and guiding).
- There are some special passages e.g. Genesis 1-3 which have a greater intensity of meaning than most Scripture, and these should be taken very seriously for their message. However, it is their message that should be taken seriously, rather than the precise wording. (e.g. We should take seriously our responsibility to steward the earth whereas Christians have ignored that and given too much attention to the notion of a Day of Creation.)
- We must give ancient peoples their due. We should be generous towards people of other times and cultures.
- God's people as a demonstration: so their experiences give an important message.
- The creation itself shows something of God.
- God's actions show his character and something of his requirements.
- God's words to his people: When these are corrective or encouraging - as they often are - we should interpret them in the context of what is wrong or despairing, and not as absolute whole-truths, nor as proof texts. We interpret prophecy and many of Jesus' sayings in this light.
- But Jesus' sayings and doings have a special status of their own, in addition to the above, since he is uniquely human-divine.
- Use Scripture the way Jesus did. Often he mentioned narrative (e.g. healing of Naaman) and generalised from that (that God often does things for others).
- Also, note that Jesus castigated the religious leaders for not seeing in Scripture the things that were happening around him. Obviously he believed that there is an approach to reading the OT that would have given people a picture of God as he portrayed him - Fatherhood, desiring mercy rather than sacrifice, etc. What was this way of interpreting Scripture? Certainly not the fundamentalist-literalist-legalist way of the religious leaders.
- How we interpret Scripture is very much determined by our presuppositions about the nature of reality etc. I should seek to assume a set of presuppositions such that if I was in the situation in which the writers of Scripture found themselves then I would write the same things.
- It is often useful to ask ourselves, "If the writer really had believed what I believe, would he really have written that; would he not have written something else instead?"
- The reflections of godly people (e.g. the letters of Paul, Peter): As they reflect on things, they are trying to make sense of them; take this as a good guide to
but only a guide.
- reinterpetating past views
- seeing generic truths
- I assume the writers were basically honest people who wrote as they understood things. I assume they tended to write what they believed happened rather than their own opinions, because the Hebrew history and culture was of concreteness, action and story more than philosophical deliberation. I assume they did not have the post-enlightenment hidden power-agenda that we have today, where we add or distort things in order to make people believe what we want to believe. I assume the writers took God seriously and therefore would hardly dare to misrepresent him. But I might be wrong.
- The writings of godly people who are responding to a situation (e.g. Paul when he wrote to the Corinthians): these are highly contextual, and should not be taken as generic truths on their own. Rather, we should work out the principles that the person is applying in this situation. We work them out not from these passages themselves, but from all the other interpretation principles in this list.
- God sometimes gives specific words to people; be careful about generalising from these.
- Eschew fashionable views. But also avoid unfashionable views that are popular with a sub-culture. Seek God himself.
- The human heart and will. The problem with much interpretation of God's actions in the past - of both the 'liberal' and 'fundamentalist' extremes of Christianity - is that it has ignored the human heart and will. Many are orientated away from God in their hearts (even though they believe they are oriented toward him with their heads), and this distorts their interpretation. Always remember, as has been succinctly put, "The heart is deceptive above all things."
- Don't worry if you get it wrong in parts. Heresy is not the things that damns one. And there is grace. But watch your heart.
- Look at the era and read the scriptures about it. Try to see what is coming through - often, urgently and clearly - in what we read about this era. Be open to all the important questions, about God, ourselves, etc.
- What main, visible things can we learn about God, ourselves, etc. from this?
- Put these aside for now, and ask ..
- What things does it say about God that we take for granted today? (e.g. God is powerful, loving, etc).
- Sometimes by clear words.
- Sometimes by dramatic action coupled with clear result. Example: Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
- Sometimes by a puzzle we have to work out. For example, II samuel. Saul's sons were killed because Saul had killed the Gibeonites. Though Gs had lied, the treaty Joshua made 200 years before was honoured by God. So Saul was punished. We learn from this: how important covenant keeping is to God.
- Suppose you are part of a humanity to which they are not obvious, and you learned them anew. Ponder these things that we take for granted. What effect would it have upon you and others if you learned it anew? Pondering in this way can help us understand the fuller meaning of these revelations.
- Now, bring back in the more visible things. How do they relate to the taken-for-granted things? Revise your list of things learned.
- Now, review the list of things learned in this era, both visible and taken-for-granted , and then see how they compare with things learned in other eras:
- Which were first revealed in this era? How do they relate to things learned in earlier eras?
- Do they support and fill out the same thing learned in an earlier era?
- Do they seem to contradict something in an earlier or later era? If so, ask yourself:
- Does either this, or its contradiction, really reveal what I thought it did? Should I modify one?
- What assumptions am I making that make these two things contradict? Do I need to relax my assumptions? Especially when dealing with eras not my own.
- Do not attend only to what Scripture says, but also what it does not say and the say it says things.
- If I believe a passage or book says X, ask myself "Suppose the writer meant X. Would he have written what he did, or would he have written something else?"
- If I believe X is important, ask myself "If X were that important would not there be more about it in Scripture?" Example: attending church is based on a single verse "Neglect not assembling of yourselves together", shored up by parallels with OT temple worship - which makes me think it is less important in God's eyes than in ours.
- In a narrative, ask "What might have happened instead?" e.g. Tower of Babel and the mixing of languages. We assume that was a punishment. But if God wanted to punish, why did he not send a lightning bolt on the tower? There must be some reason he chose another way: what was it?
- Ask myself what the writer held dear.
- Do not overmuch try to rationalise things, though. Expect some things revealed about God etc. to be beyond reason.
But there is also a need to analyse Scripture passages in detail sometimes, even to the point of looking to see the meaning of a word in its original language. However, I try to avoid 'scriptural arithmetic' in this. Here are some examples (more to come 2 May 2004):
- When two passages seem at odds with each other, there are three possible responses:
Example: In Eph 4:8 Paul quotes Psa 68:18 as saying "He gives gifts to men" and uses that as part of his argument that God gives spiritual gifts. But Paul got it wrong. Psa 68:18 says "he receives gifts from rebellious men" - which rather destroys his argument! Or does it? See how Paul was using it, not as a logical argument but as an illustrative verse. The truth that God gives spiritual gifts is what he was emphasising, and it stands without the reference to Psa 68. Paul was not giving a legal, watertight argument, but rather was saying something and inviting the readers to take it further. If he made a mistake, then OK. (Some might wriggle out of this by suggesting that Paul was in fact quoting another Scripture, which we no longer have, or was quoting a version that has it the way round he had it. Though possible, I would rather find a more 'common sense' way of handling this.) What this says to me is that I should not place too much emphasis on the exact words but rather on the truths.
- Reject both, on grounds that if an inconsistency of this kind gets in then the consistent God cannot have written them. This assumes that God dictated Scripture like Muslims and Mormons say happened to their books. I do not believe that, therefore I ignore this possible response.
- Assume the writers had the post-enlightenment power-agenda we have, to convince readers by adding stuff to the basic truth - and therefore remove anything that is not in both passages; end up with lowest common factors. As I said above, I reject this assumption, and hence also this method.
- Assume the writers were basically honest people, each writing from their different context and starting point. So, assume what each says has a good element of truth in it, and merge the two accounts. (Maybe ancillary details can be ignored - but always reckon that since 'truth is stranger than fiction' there might be a strange way in which even the details can be brought together. The evangelical divines of 200 years ago often worked out elaborate integrations that might seem unlikely but are nevertheless possible, so though I doubt such I see them as still possible.)
There are three types of 'mistake' we can make when interpreting Scripture, two of which are unintentional and two of which are serious:
Type of Mistake
Little misunderstandings or misreadings
Wrong world view, leading to major misunderstandings
Yes, though not seen as such at the time; effects are hidden, indirect and long term.
Wilful distortion, e.g. by those with narrow minds or academics and others intent on supporting their own views (Note: wilful even if unwitting)
Yes. Though sometimes the immediate effect may not be serious, wilful distortion sets the agenda of thinking and the 'rules of play' that subsequent people follow.
This is part of the A Brief History of God website.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2000.
Comments and queries are very welcome.
Page last updated: 15 February 2000 added counter. 10 December 2000 new comments pointer. 7 April 2001 correction. 17 February 2002 moved Principles of Interpretation here from site.html, added section Methods of Interpretation; reworded some of principles. 23 April 2002 mended broken link found by Roy Bryant's SEVENTwentyFour Inc. 22 January 2003 repl 'obvious' by taken-for-granted; added re. Saul. 2 May 2004 interp conflicting passages; writers basically honest. 26 March 2006 a bit more added. 8 May 2008 added two more conditions for interp.