What Can We Know For Certain?
In my last semester of college I am finally taking my senior seminar. This seminar focuses on the relationship between philosophical concepts and biblical hermeneutics. So far I've taken it to be a class that establishes philosophy as the basis of our understanding and from there it influences how we both perceive and interpret the Bible. Do we perceive the Bible as inerrant or infallible? Maybe neither? Maybe it's the word of God or just man's limited account of divine intervention. I'm certain that out of everyone in the class I'm the only one that holds to an inerrant view of the Bible, even though this view has already been dismissed as 'naive'. That makes it a bit difficult to engage in our discussions when my position has already been deemed erroneous.
That being said, there happened to be a discussion the other day that I thought was interesting enough to pull me out of my writer's block. One team was presenting four methods of interpretation that would help us get closer to a consensus if not the objective meaning of biblical passages. Our recent discussions have leaned toward objectivism, the idea that there is an objective meaning to the text that is independent of what we perceive it to be. Students in the class deny the idea that the objective meaning of scripture, if it exists, is attainable in our fallible world. Combine this with the theory that the author is not the arbitrator of textual meaning (which they've made sure to do) and we have ourselves a text supposedly from God whose meaning is neither objective nor ultimately understandable.
These ideas are enough to rattle even some of the more liberal-minded theologians; what this worldview logically implies is a two-word statement that all scholars dread... Anything goes.
If it means anything then it means nothing. It's pointless. However, the argument made in the book we're reading, and the argument being laid out for this course, is that "anything goes" doesn't have to be true. We don't have to embrace the (logical) suggestion that a Christianity that includes everything, signifies nothing (paraphrasing B.B. Warfield). This course offers a third route, claiming that through the use of various hermeneutical methods, philosophical interpretive constructs, and a number of other tools we can filter through the multitude of interpretations and with enough hard work reach a majority consensus as to what the meaning of a biblical text is. Now I believe hermeneutics are important and that we should strive to use the tools we have to interpret the Bible, but the problem is that we can only come so close to the truth. If one interpretation is more objective than the other, that makes the first interpretation false. There can be levels of relevance in application but a propositional truth can't be more objective than another. 2+2=4 isn't any more objectively true than 5+5=10 (though the professors have argued about the objectivity of abstract numbers).
This brings us back to the presentation about using methods to get closer to a consensus. The viewpoint behind the methods was that we could have a set of criteria that could evaluate the interpretation and assess whether or not the interpretation was close enough to the objective truth that it could reside within the boundaries (criteria) of solid biblical interpretation. It looks something like this:
Running Into the Same Problem
Inside the box you have the objective truth of scripture. This is the correct interpretation of the text as God intended it to be understood, what the group claimed we cannot reach. The brackets are the boundaries through which an interpretation is deemed acceptable or not. The dots inside are indicated to be valid while the ones outside fail to meet the mark. I even drew this diagram out in class because I am a visual learner and needed to get my thoughts straight. First I asked the group if they believed in a unilateral meaning to the scripture, regardless of whether or not we could attain it. Overall they agreed to some form of objectivity although it could not be reached given our human limitation. I then asked if they believed in a criteria, set of hermeneutics, or some sort of method that was able to distinguish between the acceptable interpretations and the interpretations we should discard. Obviously they said yes since that was the premise of the presentation. My final question was this, "What authority or what method defines and sets the parameters used to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable interpretations?" This was the first time no one could give an answer to one of my questions and at that moment I realized that I discovered the problem.
As I mentioned before, this third way has a flaw. In fact, the problem they have with an inerrant Bible and an objective attainable interpretation is the same problem I have with their 'almost and not-quite' method. They will admit to an objective truth even if it's not attainable. They will admit that they believe in parameters that separate interpretations. But what those in the third way can't answer is where the parameters are to be set, and who decides where to set them? It's the same exact problem they had with people who take the first route (one objective interpretation), it's just a matter of where you set the parameters. If they're set exactly around the objective interpretation as to say it's the only one, then everything outside of it is incorrect. Objective truth like this is a concern for people of the "anything goes" circle and the "we can get pretty close but no absolutes" circle. If we believe God revealed Himself in the Bible only for His message to be utterly lost in our inability to understand it (it's as strange as it sounds), then we have no foundation to stand on, no conviction behind our beliefs. But, if we believe that it's God and not us who is the arbiter of the inherent meaning and the setter of the parameters, then we can't deconstruct the text to make it mean whatever we want. We can, however, know that by the Spirit we can come to an understanding of the truths of scripture, and have confidence behind our beliefs. It would look a bit more like this: