A Few Thoughts About Interpretation

Context, Inspiration, Culture and Science

This is the next installment of my discussion regarding homosexuality and the Bible. The introduction can be found several posts back or by clicking here. Leading up to this series are these two posts and videos: 1. And 2.

Be careful about interpreting the Bible too literally, otherwise you will be cutting off your hand (Matthew 5:3) and gouging out your eyes (Mark 9:47) in order to keep yourself from further temptation. Also be careful to interpret these books, and any literature of antiquity, within their cultural context. God inspired and God-written are not the same thing, are they? There is no getting around the fact that they were written by men. A casual reading will prove that each author of the New Testament wrote in a slightly different style from his contemporaries. Each also wrote from varying physical, intellectual and emotional vantage points. Though the synoptic gospels (the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are very similar, there are none the less distinctions in their approach. Doctor Luke seemed to spin his gospel more toward gentile Christians than did the more simple story-telling of the fisherman Mark. Similarly the Gospel of John, whose author was chiefly concerned with the savior’s love, differs in approach from the account of Matthew, who was intent on illustrating the connection of Jesus to Old Testament prophecy, and documenting Christ’s lineage, showing that he was a descendant of King David, as it was prophesied that the Messiah would be.

So if there was no divine hand holding their wrists, no heavenly voice telling the authors to write “exactly what I tell you,” why do we assume there is no room for human error or limitation? Consider also that if what was written down was not only “God breathed,” but thoroughly inerrant, why did God feel it was necessary to write it four times, using four authors? If God simply manipulated their pens with puppet strings to perfectly transcribe His message, then we might look at these men as merely scribes taking exact dictation. But no, isn’t it a more amazing and glorious thing to discover that we can know God better through other humans, that God would use the fallible and imperfect to illustrate the infinite?

If this is not true, tell me why did David write the Psalms? A murderer, a womanizer, a man who failed to trust the Lord and took a census though God instructed him not to, this is who David was. To be fair though he was also a brave man, a god-seeking man, and one whom the the Prophet Samuel called a man after God’s own heart. Isn’t it just like God, the ultimate poet of paradox and mystery, to use a thoroughly mortal man like one of us to lead His people toward Himself? And so it is with the Gospels, and any book in the Bible, God inspired, never perfect or omniscient in itself, but inspired, written by flesh and blood hands that were moved by a desire to illuminate the divine.

These human authors, no matter how good or inspired, simply had to be susceptible, like the rest of us, like King David, to human prejudice, and their own cultural world views. The early church’s decision, for instance, that gentile Christians were permitted to eat chicken as long as it’s head was chopped off and the blood drained out, is not a moral issue for us today. It was, however of great concern at the time because it related to the purity laws of the Old Testament and because God’s people were to not be associated with the practices of pagan religions.

In matters of science, we must remember that while the scripture may be “God-breathed,” it is also metaphorical in at least as many ways as it is historical. The creation account was written at a time before science proved that the world was in fact a globe. So we can take the 6 day account of creation literally, but we may also take it as a story told to illustrate our origins, and that the chief point is that “God did it.”

It helps to remember that collected works of an ancient culture must necessarily be replete with not merely recorded facts, but also poetry, stories and the many myths and legends of the time. For instance in First Samuel chapters 16 and 17 we can find two distinct accounts of how David was introduced to the court of King Saul. In the words of Isaac Asimov, “Both are included, without any attempt to enforce consistency, as though the Biblical writers were saying, ‘On the other hand, some say this…'(Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, p286)”

Think of it like this, does it really matter whether George Washington actually said, “Father, I cannot tell a lie; I did cut down the cherry tree,” or is it enough to believe that this tale is simply a page from a people’s treasure trove of stories, told to remind ourselves that, despite war and rebellion, the United States had good and honest beginnings? I hear it now, already you are accusing me of not taking the Bible seriously. That’s not the case at all. In fact I take studying the book far more seriously than many who merely quote what they’ve heard someone else say about it. The reason I don’t accept everything handed down to me without question is exactly because I have studied it and dug into it myself.

One further thought about interpretation before we go on. If you decide to ignore a contextual, historical approach, and stick to the thinking of an absolute literalist, the question of homosexuality will be the least of your difficulties. You must ask yourself, for instance, are you really ready to admit that woman was made for man (I Corinthians 11:9), or that women should never speak in church or hold authority over a man in religious matters (I Timothy 2:12)? Even Matthew Henry’s Commentary recognizes that the church was respecting the local culture of its time. Unfortunately most of the church has not come to recognize this within the cultural context of sexuality, let alone how this treatment relates to the modern world’s understanding of homosexuality.

As I start to examine in future posts the key scriptures used by the church against homosexuality, what some have called the “Clobber Passages,” I will discuss these matters of sexuality (and women as subordinates is certainly a matter of sexuality) further, as well as other cultural considerations such as food, clothing and the practice of slavery. I bring them up here only as introductory examples of why we should be careful how we interpret the Scriptures.

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6 Replies to “A Few Thoughts About Interpretation”

  1. Much of what you say here, I completely agree with. My only complaint would be that you don’t go far enough with what you say. However, there is only so much that can be said on the subject matter, and keep it brief!
    As someone who possess 2 theological degrees, I could not agree more about your comments on reading the bible literally. In my mind, this is the height of all stupidity!
    If you flipped open the bible at various points, you could eventually come to the passages, “and he went out and hung himself”, “Go forth and do likewise”…Are you going to do it??
    Well, that’s as much sense as gathering any unrelated passages to prove your points on homosexuality or anything else. Total nonsense!

    There is much to be gained from reading the bible, but reading it in context is important. Also, the Bible is not ONE Book, It is a library of books which were made into a cannon. Many other worthwhile books and writings were left out of it, because the Church didn’t approve of them, but were in common use nonetheless.

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  2. Thank you, Burstmode and ewe too. Yes, I agree, so much more needs to be said, but then again this post is really only chapter one. I’ll be tackling the “Clobber Passages,” but also a few other related scriptures to make my point in much more detail.

    I also want to keep my focus on a certain audience, not the radically anti-gay Christian, but rather the gay Christian in need of reassurance and hope and their friends and family who are well meaning, and beginning to doubt that the hell fire and brimstone they have heard from the pulpit all these years is really true.

    I appreciate your comments. Watch this space for more upcoming!

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  3. thanks for visiting

    When I first saw the trailer for Clash of the Titans 2010, I thought Liam ‘Nissan’ said ‘Release the Crack!’
    The Kraken in the first movie looks like the Creature From the Black Lagoon, heheh

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