Commonsense Interpretation

by Jack Crabtree


This is the original, longer conclusion to The Language of God.

*****

If one wants to take the Bible seriously, there is but one approach to the Bible that does so. We have labeled it the commonsense approach. In this final chapter I want to do three things: (1) describe a schema for understanding how this commonsense approach (what I can now call the “Pure Ordinary Language Approach”) compares to the different alternatives; (2) discuss why it is important to take the Bible seriously; and (3) outline the results we hope to have achieved through the discussions in this book.

A schema for understanding the different approaches to the Bible

At the risk of oversimplifying, all the different approaches to using the Bible can be traced to three distinctive attitudes and two different classes of theory. We will first consider the attitudes. (For a summary, see Chart 9.1.)

Submission to Subjective Inclinations is the first to be considered. It is not a theory of biblical interpretation. It is an attitude that directs the interpreter, whatever his theory. Under its sway, the interpreter accepts as valid only interpretations that suit his fancy. An interpretation that appeals to him–for one reason or another–is potentially valid. An interpretation that is unattractive–for whatever reason–is necessarily invalid. Under this approach, the Bible is nothing but a mirror, reflecting back and reinforcing the interpreter’s own desires and inclinations. Underlying this attitude is the apparent presumption that what the truth actually is and what I want the truth to be do not and cannot conflict. My subjective inclinations are a reliable guide to revealed truth precisely because I can expect divinely revealed truth to harmonize with my subjective inclinations. The practical effect of this attitude directing my Bible study amounts to this: if I don’t like what a biblical passage is saying under a particular way of construing it, I will reject that interpretation as invalid. If a text’s possible meaning is unacceptable, then that cannot be its intended meaning. It is a misinterpretation.

Submission to Tradition is a second possible attitude. While it can be and sometimes is developed into an actual theory of biblical interpretation, it need not be. Here I consider it as an attitude that directs the interpreter whether or not he embraces it as a theory. Under this attitude, an interpretation’s validity is ultimately determined by whether it results in teaching that conforms to the theological tradition to which the interpreter is committed. If a possible interpretation is “orthodox,” it may be valid; if it is “unorthodox,” it must be invalid. Under this approach, the Bible is nothing but a mirror, reflecting back and reinforcing the theology of whatever tradition the interpreter has adopted. Underlying this attitude is the apparent presumption that what the truth actually is will not and cannot conflict with my tradition’s customary understanding. My tradition is a reliable guide to revealed truth precisely because it has already studied the Bible and has understood it with unassailable accuracy. The practical effect of this attitude guiding my Bible study comes to this: if a possible reading of a biblical passage would challenge or call into question my tradition’s theological understanding, then I must reject that interpretation of the passage. It is an invalid interpretation; for the Bible cannot teach anything contrary to what we already know to be true, and–from my tradition–I already know what is true.

Both of the above attitudes toward the Bible amount to not taking it seriously. To take it seriously is to seek to understand it on its own terms, to seek to understand what it wants to say to me on its own terms. If I only want to understand it insofar as it does not conflict with my subjective inclinations, or insofar as it does not conflict with what my church teaches, then I am not taking it seriously. I am using the Bible for ultimately self-serving ends, not submitting to its authority in order to be instructed.

Only one attitude truly takes the Bible seriously–Submission to Biblical Authority and Submission to the Biblical Author’s Intent. This attitude presupposes a particular theory of what the Bible is–specifically, the theory we have been explicating in this book. But I focus on the attitudinal component here. Without this attitude, it is impossible to take the Bible seriously. Under this attitude, an interpretation’s validity is determined by whether it is derived from and conforms to an application of the principles of ordinary verbal communication. If an interpretation is required by a straightforward reading of the text in the light of the nature of ordinary verbal communication, then it is the correct reading of the text; if not, then it is not the correct reading. Under this attitude, the Bible is no longer just a mirror of something within me–subjective inclinations or a commitment to a theological tradition. Rather, it is the truth standing above and apart from me, standing in judgment over me and my beliefs. It is the divinely revealed truth of God confronting, contradicting, and correcting the lies and falsehoods that I have previously embraced. The presumption that underlies this attitude is strikingly different from the sort of presumption underlying the two other attitudes. It is much less flattering. This attitude presumes that divinely revealed truth is very likely to be in conflict with what I already believe to be true and with what I, in fact, would want to be true. It carries no illusion that who I am and what I believe is unimpeachable. On the contrary, it involves a full recognition of my need to be corrected. The practical effect of such an attitude guiding my Bible study is this: Understandably, I believe that my current understanding of biblical truth is largely correct. Nevertheless I continue to study the Bible and learn what the biblical authors intended to teach through a disciplined, straightforward interpretation of their words. My desire is to compare my current understanding to the understanding of the biblical authors I thereby discover. If I discover that the Bible teaches something different from what I currently believe, then I must adjust what I believe. If a valid reading of a biblical passage reveals something that  challenges or calls into question my current understanding of the faith, then I must stand corrected and learn from what the Bible is teaching me.

We turn now to two distinct classes of theory that determine our approach to the Bible:Free Interpretation of the Bible and Ordinary Language Interpretation of the Bible . In this book we defend and clarify Ordinary Language Interpretation . Ordinary language theory views the as divinely revealed truth expressed in ordinary verbal communication. Free Interpretation is any theory of the Bible that views its mode of communication as anything other than ordinary verbal communication­–some form of communication where the principles of ordinary verbal communication do not apply. In our view, only ordinary language interpretation is capable of taking the Bible seriously. Free interpretation cannot discover the message that God intended to convey through the biblical text. It can only yield products of the interpreter’s own imagination. This limitation is built in to the very logic and assumptions of free interpretation. Free interpretation could never result in decisive knowledge that one has discovered a public, objective meaning within the biblical text. The practice supported by a free interpretation theory is an unbounded interaction with the text wherein the interpreter can construe the text in whatever way he pleases. The interpreter may impose some boundaries that limit where his imagination is allowed to take him; but such boundaries are not inherent within free interpretive theory. They are arbitrarily imposed for other reasons. So far as free interpretive theory is concerned, there are no boundaries; for there are no non-arbitrary, objective principles to which one must submit.

 

 

Chart 9.1
ATTITUDINAL APPROACHES TO INTERPRETING THE BIBLE

Approach A-submission to subjective inclinations 

 

Approach B–submission to tradition Approach C–submission to biblical authority and to the biblical author’s intent
The basis upon which validity is determined under this approach:  

The validity of an interpretation of a biblical text is determined …

strictly on the basis of its being acceptable on nothing but subjective grounds. 

 

“It must be true because I like it.”

strictly on the basis of its conformity to theological orthodoxy and traditional understanding. 

“It must be true because it conforms to what true believers have always believed and how they have always interpreted it.”

 

strictly on the basis that it has been determined by and conforms to the principles of ordinary verbal communication. 

“It must be true because it conforms to what the principles of ordinary language interpretation require.”

What the Bible is under this approach: 

The Bible is…

a mirror that reflects back and reinforces my own subjective desires and inclinations. a mirror that reflects back and reinforces the theological understanding of whatever tradition I have adopted. the truth revealed by God, standing over against and confronting the lies and falsehoods that I have embraced, contradicting and correcting them.
The presumption that underlies this approach to the Bible: The truth would never be in conflict with what I WANT the truth to be. The truth would never be in conflict with what I already know the truth to be–namely, with my tradition’s understanding. The truth is very likely to be in conflict with what I already believe is true and with what I want the truth to be.
The practical attitude that accompanies and informs this approach to the Bible: I will not believe anything that does not appeal to my subjective sensibilities; if I don’t like it, I won’t believe it. I accurately understand the major tenets of the truth already; I will not deviate from my current understanding; I will be loyal to what I already know is true. I believe that, in large part, I already have an accurate grasp of biblical truth. But I will continue to study the Bible and compare my current understanding to what a disciplined interpretation of the Bible reveals. If the Bible teaches something different from what I currently believe, I must adjust what I believe.

 

The three attitudinal approaches discussed above interact with the two broad theoretical approaches discussed above to determine four basic net approaches to the biblical text. I call them respectively: Unbounded Free Interpretation; Bounded Free Interpretation; Skewed Ordinary Language Interpretation; and Pure Ordinary Language Interpretation. (For a summary, see Chart 9.2.)

When a person is committed to a theory of biblical interpretation that has freed him from the constraints of ordinary language and when, at the same time, he approaches the Bible with the attitude that its message will and must conform to his subjective wants and inclinations, the net result is Unbounded Free Interpretation. Under this approach, there are no boundaries to what the Bible might be construed to say. At least, there are no boundaries beyond the arbitrary, artificial boundaries that each interpreter might impose for his own subjective reasons.

When a person is committed to a theory of biblical interpretation that has freed him from the constraints of ordinary language but when, at the same time, he approaches the Bible with the attitude that its message will and must conform to some theological tradition to which he is committed, the net result is Bounded Free Interpretation. Under this approach, there are determinate boundaries to what the Bible might be construed to say–specifically, the boundaries of orthodoxy as defined by his theological tradition. There are no restrictions on HOW to interpret a biblical passage. Any and every interpretive strategy is potentially allowed. But there are clear restrictions with regard to WHAT the Bible might be allowed to say. It must conform to his tradition’s understanding of the faith. In effect, interpretation is FREE with regard to interpretive method, but is BOUNDED with regard to interpretive conclusions.

When a person is persuaded, as we are, that the Bible is communicating through the mode of ordinary verbal communication and when, at the same time, he approaches the Bible with the attitude that its message will and must conform to a theological tradition to which he is committed, the net result is Skewed Ordinary Language Interpretation. As with Bounded Free Interpretation, there are determinate boundaries with regard to what the Bible might be construed to say. My reading of the Bible must remain within the boundaries of orthodoxy as defined by my theological tradition. But under this approach, there are also restrictions on HOW I can interpret a text. Hence, under this approach, there are restrictions both on HOW I interpret a biblical passage and on WHAT I can allow it to say. This presents a problem. What am I to do if I confront an apparent contradiction? If HOW I must interpret a biblical passage seems to require a theological conclusion that falls outside the boundaries of WHAT I am allowed to understand the Bible to say, I am on the horns of a dilemma. I am committed to two mutually incompatible sets of boundaries. If I obey the method of ordinary language interpretation I become unorthodox; if I remain steadfastly orthodox, I risk violating the interpretive principles of ordinary language. Skewed Ordinary Language Interpretation solves this dilemma by giving greater weight to orthodoxy than to ordinary language interpretation. The restrictions on WHAT the Bible may be allowed to say take priority to the restrictions on HOW the Bible is allowed to say it. In other words, the interpreter who practices Skewed Ordinary Language Interpretation will deviate from the principles of ordinary verbal communication, if necessary, in order to preserve his conformity to the tradition to which he is committed.

When a person is persuaded that the Bible communicates through ordinary verbal communication and when, at the same time, he approaches the Bible with the attitude that he must submit to the authoritative message of the Bible–whatever that happens to be–the net result is Pure Ordinary Language Interpretation. Unlike Skewed Ordinary Language Interpretation, there are no pre-established boundaries with regard to what the Bible might be allowed to say. True, it must be construed to say what, in fact, its authors intended to say. But that has not been pre-defined; there are no pre-determined boundaries restricting what conclusions an interpreter can reach with regard to what the biblical authors intended to say. Under this approach, the interpreter is free to follow the Bible into whatever it actually says and into whatever it actually teaches. Under this approach, while there is a determinate set of restrictions with respect to HOW I interpret a biblical passage (it must conform to the dictates of ordinary verbal communication), there is no set of restrictions with respect to what conclusions I can reach concerning WHAT the Bible teaches. Pure Ordinary Language Interpretation can never face the dilemma that Skewed Ordinary Language Interpretation must face. Whenever a conflict arises between an understanding required by straightforward ordinary language interpretation and my tradition-informed understanding of a text, it is clear what I must do. I must allow my current tradition-informed understanding to stand corrected. I need not sacrifice nor compromise the principles of ordinary language for the sake of some personal or traditional understanding. Indeed, this approach would view that as highly irresponsible–a prostitution of the holy scriptures. Indeed, I must always be prepared to sacrifice my cherished tradition or cherished understanding of the Bible for the sake of being responsible and disciplined in my application of the principles of ordinary verbal communication to the interpretation of the biblical text.

But is it necessary to take the Bible seriously?

Pure Ordinary Language Interpretation–the approach we have explicated in this book–is the only approach to the Bible that takes it seriously. So what? Why must we take the Bible seriously? What difference does it make whether we arrive at an accurate understanding of the actual intention of the biblical authors? Isn’t that the preoccupation of spiritually impoverished academics and eggheads?

Chart 9.2
NET APPROACHES TO INTERPRETING THE BIBLE

Attitudinal Approach A Attitudinal Approach B Attitudinal Approach B Attitudinal Approach C
submission to subjective inclinations submission to tradition submission to tradition submission to biblical authority and to the biblical author’s intent
Theoretical Approach #1 Theoretical Approach #1 Theoretical Approach #2 Theoretical Approach #2
Free Interpretation Free Interpretation Ordinary Language Interpretation Ordinary Language Interpretation
Net Approach #1A Net Approach #1B Net Approach #2B Net Approach #2C
Unbounded Free Interpretation Bounded Free Interpretation Skewed Ordinary Language Interpretation: 

Skewed by a prior commitment to some traditional understanding and not carefully disciplined by the principles of ordinary verbal communication

 

Pure Ordinary Language Interpretation: 

Not skewed by a prior commitment to some traditional understanding and carefully disciplined by the principles of ordinary verbal communication

 

If we truly love Jesus, what difference does it make how accurately we understand the Bible? The Christian faith is not about getting it right, it’s about loving Jesus! These sentiments reflect a prevalent, but diabolically inaccurate, understanding of what the Christian faith is all about.

In the last chapter, we saw from Isaiah’s own teaching that what distinguishes the person who will inherit eternal life from the person who will stand condemned is whether he believes the truth revealed by God. To have faith is to understand, to consider, to like, and to embrace the truth of who God is and of what he has purposed in cosmic history. He who has such faith shall stand; he who does not shall fall.

This perspective is not unique to Isaiah. It is the consistent teaching of the whole Bible. But what does it mean? That a human being who has never had the opportunity to confront any divinely revealed truths–through no fault of his own–could never qualify to enter into eternal Life? No. A careful reading of the Bible’s message leads to a different conclusion. It is not the act of believing divinely revealed truth that saves us. Being a certain sort of person having a certain sort of heart is what saves us. If I have a heart receptive to truth, I will inherit life. A person who loves God–loving who he is and what he is up to in the world–will be receptive to what God reveals with regard to who he is and what he is up to. This openness and receptivity to truth is what God will reward with life. If–through a divinely purposed “accident” of history–one’s very real receptivity to truth is never tested and made manifest through exposure to and confrontation with revealed truth, he will be granted eternal life nonetheless. Biblical evidence points to the conclusion that a person whose heart is receptive to truth will inherit life even if the condition of his heart is never tested by an actual confrontation with revealed truth. Life is granted to that receptivity to truth that would naturally lead to actual belief should the situation permit. But when the situation does not permit, life is granted to the heart that is open to truth even when its openness is never given opportunity to show itself through actual belief. Enoch, who “walked with God,” presumably had such a receptive heart. And presumably he would have been open and receptive to the truth that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God, but he never actually held that belief. Indeed, Enoch never held any of those explicit beliefs that, throughout the flow of history, have tested the receptivity of men’s hearts. Nevertheless he was granted life anyway. (Note 1) It was not granted on the basis of what he actually believed; but on the basis of what his heart was open to believing.

Are we moderns in a different situation from Enoch? Are most of us not insulated from truth just as surely as Enoch was? The Bible is obscure and difficult. My lack of knowledge, background, sophistication, and skill separates me from its message. When I open it up, it does not speak to me. When I close it again, I am more confused than when I opened it. The Bible does not instruct me, it confounds me. So doesn’t the truth of Enoch apply just as aptly to me? Am I not saved even while I lack an accurate understanding of the truth? So long as my heart is open and receptive to truth, will I not–like Enoch–inherit eternal life?

That brings us back to our original question: if we can inherit life without explicit belief in the truth, then why is ii important to understand the Bible? If biblical understanding is not critical, why make a fuss over taking the Bible seriously?

To answer that, we must inquire further regarding the character of the heart that is receptive to truth. How would such a heart respond when thwarted in its search for truth? Would it accept defeat , saying, “Oh well! The Bible is too hard to understand. I can never be sure if I understand the truth. But that’s okay. At least I’ll get eternal life anyway”? The receptive heart could never respond so. Jesus taught that the heir of life will “hunger and thirst after righteousness.” (Note 2) By the same token–I maintain–the heir of life will hunger and thirst after truth. This is implicit in the biblical message throughout. The heir of life will not be dissuaded in his search for truth. He will not be daunted by the difficulty of the quest. He will and must persist. The truth is nourishment and satisfaction to his soul; he will not be denied.

In the time of Isaiah, God made an explicit, manifest promise to Judah that confronted his people with an important truth. Their response, Isaiah told them, would test the character and condition of their hearts. Today, we have the entire truth of who God is, what he has promised, and what he purposes to accomplish in cosmic history lying between the covers of our Bibles. Its meaning is not transparent. Therein lies the test for us. How we respond to the obscurity of the Bible’s message–how we respond to the difficulty of interpreting it–that is what tests the character and condition of our hearts. If I am content with “Oh well. The Bible’s too hard for me. I can’t understand it.” and close the book, walk away from it, and never give it another thought, then I will not inherit life. Such a response reflects the same damnable condition of heart that, in the time of Isaiah, refused to believe his message. But if I am undaunted by the obscurity of the Bible, persisting in my quest to understand it through whatever means and resources I can find, then certainly I an heir of life; for such is the person who will stand and not fall.

The person who takes the Bible seriously–wanting to understand what it is saying in order that he might believe its message, place hope in its promises, and live his life in the light of its truth–he is the one who will have life in the age to come. The person who does not take the Bible seriously has no part in the eternal kingdom. Regard for the Bible is not just one of a number of ways to love God; it is not just one legitimate option among many. The consistent message of the biblical authors leads to an inescapable conclusion: how I regard the truth revealed in the Bible is the one decisive sign of whether I will inherit eternal life. If, as the apostle Paul insists, justification comes to those who believe, to fail to take the Bible seriously is to fail to be justified. What we do with the Bible is a life and death issue! It is not enough to “love Jesus” while we remain indifferent to the message of the Bible. How we respond to the Bible is all of one piece with how we respond to Jesus.

Final remarks

In conclusion, here are seven important results we earnestly hope our book has achieved in the lives of you, its readers. If we have achieved any one of them, our book has been a success. Our earnest hope is…

(1) . . .that you clearly understand the difference between a plausible interpretation of a biblical text and the right interpretation of a biblical text.

If doctrinal debate is viewed as a contest and not a shared quest for revealed truth, I will likely think it sufficient to show that a given text could mean such-and-such. The possibility that a text could be construed in a particular way is viewed as a license to do so. But the goal of biblical interpretation is not to find supporting evidence for my current understanding of doctrine; it is to find what the biblical authors intended. Settling for a plausible interpretation of a passage that supports my doctrinal preconceptions is to misuse the Bible. To rightly use my Bible, I must discover what the biblical authors actually intended. The question is not what a text could say; the question is what is does say!

(2). . .that you have been persuaded to think critically about the many claims that are made regarding the meaning of the Bible.

Many different claims are made about what the message of the Bible is. Our hope is that our discussion of biblical interpretation in this book has put you, the reader, in better stead to think critically about all such claims. There are many ways to misinterpret the biblical text. There is only one way to get it right. Realizing that should motivate us to be critical of what others claim on behalf of the Bible.

(3). . .that you have been freshly motivated to study the Bible for yourself.

We want you to be motivated to seek to understand its message through your own independent study.  Our many traditions have put the Bible in a cage. Our hope is that we have set it free–in your mind–to speak for itself. Our hope is that, having realized that there are fresh insights to be gained, you will be newly energized to seek them out. The Bible is not a mere rubber stamp of tradition , it is a fresh and vital message that puts every tradition to the test. Accordingly, it is worth studying to find out what we have yet to learn.

(4). . .that you might feel you have permission to challenge and confront the theological tradition that has nurtured you.

Our loyalty must be first and foremost to the message of the Bible; not to a particular theological tradition. No theological tradition is completely wrong; but neither is any infallible. All should be respected and heard; but all stand in need of correction. Our ongoing task as disciples of Jesus is to listen anew, to study afresh the message of the Bible and permit it to stand in judgment over us and our ideas.

(5). . .that you might feel you have permission to interpret the Bible according to the same principles you would use to interpret any other written work.

Many of you are well-trained in the reading of and interpretation of difficult-to-interpret literature (philosophy, fiction, poetry, math, science). Our desire is that you would feel free to employ the interpretive skills you have already acquired to the text of the Bible. The Bible is not, in principle, different from any other text with respect to HOW it conveys its meaning.

(6). . .that we have offered you compelling motivation to develop your skill at biblical interpretation.

It would be a mistake to think that reading this book can equip you to do the task of biblical interpretation. We have presented a theory of biblical interpretation; but to do biblical interpretation, personal skill is needed. Biblical interpretation is an ART; and art is effectively accomplished only by one who has developed his skill at that art through practice. We intend this work as an invitation to you the reader to develop that skill and to begin a lifetime of practicing that art.

(7). . .that you would live your lives in the light of the apostolic gospel that is revealed in the text of the Bible.

This is the most important of all our hopes. Our interest is not and should not be academic or technical. There is no value in understanding the message of the Bible if you do not embrace its message as true and live your life on the basis of that truth. First and foremost, therefore, this book is an exhortation to seek out the truth in order that you might live your life in its light.


[1]This is precisely the argument of Hebrews 11:5-6 with regard to Enoch. Enoch was acceptable to God; but his own qualification in God’s eyes was that he “believed that God was” and that he believed that God was “a rewarder of those who seek him.”

[2]Matthew 5:6.

Copyright February 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree