Believe It or Not, Atheists Need Hermeneutics Too!

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I’ve recently been in several discussions where I defend what the Bible says against skeptics. Now, you might be thinking, “um… yea, that’s what apologists like you do”, and you’d have a point.

But this is different.
I’m not only defending what the Bible says; I’m defending the idea that the Bible actually says anything at all.
The skeptics aren’t denying that there are words on the page, of course. But they are denying that there is a proper interpretation of those words. They are [apparently] under the impression that the Bible isn’t actually saying anything objective at all, and that all (or most) interpretations are somehow equally valid.

As a side note, I am amused by this. These same skeptics are the ones who point to passages in the Old Testament in an attempt to say that God is behaving immorally. But their arguments rely upon the fact that there is an objectively correct interpretation of scripture.
Consistency, guys. Either the Bible does have an objective meaning, or it doesn’t. You can’t have both.

If the Bible is saying something objectively testable, our goal (and the goal of proper hermeneutics) is to understand what the Bible is actually saying. The Bible claims to be making statements about [historical, spiritual, theological, etc] reality, and can therefore be tested.

On one hand, I guess I sorta understand the confusion. After all, our post-modern-esque culture tends to rip verses out of context and apply them where they don’t actually apply.

But on the other hand, any serious student of any book should be interested in what the author is saying, not what merely what we think the author is saying. This doesn’t just go for the Bible, but any book.
“Hermeneutics” is a theory of text interpretation.
When your high school English teacher asked, “what does this sentence mean to you?” she was probably not engaging in proper hermeneutics. It might be proper hermeneutics if the author’s goal was to inspire subjective interpretation, but notice how your history or science teacher never asked, “what do these facts mean to you?”

So, at this point, I’m not going to make any specific points. I’m not going to rebut a particular claim made by a skeptic. I am simply asking you to consider the fact that the Bible actually says something; that there is an objective meaning to certain passages of scripture.
Not all interpretations are equally valid.
If I were to read John 3:16 and conclude that the Bible is teaching that the Buffalo Bills are going to win the Superbowl this year (#BillsMafia), that would be an epic failure of Biblical interpretation, even if the Bills end up winning the Superbowl this year.

If the skeptic wants to actually understand Christianity, he has to engage in proper hermeneutics. If he doesn’t, he is not going to understand what the Bible is actually teaching, and will (probably) misrepresent Christianity and attack a straw man version of the real position. And nobody likes a logical fallacy.

To the skeptic:
When Christians say that you are “taking a verse out of context”, its not a nebulous objection without substance. It is a substantial objection that can be tested and someone can be correct. Make sure you’re not straw-manning the Bible. That’s an awful way to argue against the truth of Christianity.

To the Christian:
When you are reading the Bible, make sure that you read the context. The Bible is the Word of God; why wouldn’t you want to understand what it is actually saying? Many objections to Christianity can be easily resolved by looking at the context of the passage in question.

To everyone:
Yes, there are passages of the Bible that are hard to understand. But that doesn’t make those passages subjective. In the same way, there are certain aspects of calculus that are hard to understand. But that doesn’t make calculus subjective.

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For more resources on proper hermeneutics (Biblical and otherwise):
5 Things to Remember When Interpreting The Bible – Christian Apologetics Alliance
10 Tips on Solving Mysterious Bible Passages from Sherlock Holmes – The Gospel Coalition
Never Read a Bible Verse – Stand To Reason
Hermeneutics – Plato.Stanford.edu

PS. (9-18-2013)
After posting this article, it has come to my attention that there are [at least] four points that need to be addressed.
First, I am not suggesting that hermeneutics is perfect. In fact, hermeneutics is far from perfect. But thats the nature of the field. Our goal should be to figure out what a text is saying and then form an opinion based on that understanding. The only way to form an informed opinion is to engage in the imperfect endeavor of hermeneutics.
Second, until given reasons to think otherwise, I believe it is safe to assume that a specific text has an objective meaning. The waters get a little muddy when we’re talking about allegory or poetry, but it is safe to assume that a text has an objective meaning that the author was trying to convey. The goal of hermeneutics is to discover that objective meaning.
Third, it is important to make the distinction between epistemology and ontology. How to discover the objective meaning of the text is an epistemological endeavor, and whether or not the objective meaning exists is an ontological question. It is perfectly reasonable to say “I don’t know what this passage is trying to say” (epistemology) and to affirm that it is actually saying something (ontology).
And lastly, the goal of any hermeneutic endeavor is to discover the meaning of a text, not to read meaning into the text. Extracting meaning from the text is called exegesis and reading meaning into the text is called eisegesis. We want to exegete, not eisegete. I mentioned this in the post, but this needs to be emphasized. Too many atheists/skeptics think that Biblical hermeneutics is getting the Bible to affirm what we already believe. It is not. If a Christian is doing this, they’re doing hermeneutics incorrectly.

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8 thoughts on “Believe It or Not, Atheists Need Hermeneutics Too!

  1. Sam L (@platopus)

    Hi there,

    Firstly let me just let me applaud you for tackling this topic, and for the manner of friendly engagement in which you do so. I think you are completely right to point to ways in which both Christians and sceptics don’t pay due attention to contextual and interpretive matters. Hermeneutics is important if we want to have meaningful dialogue about the Bible and what it has to offer.

    However, I just have one general (read: brief!) objection to what’s written here. You are quite correct to say that not all interpretations are equally valid – it would be ludicrous to try to read the Book of Psalms as a manual to an Epson Stylus sx425w. But it does not follow, as you seem to suggest (correct me if I’m wrong), that there is one true interpretation – that there is a fact of the matter as to what it means. Certainly some interpretations will be better than others, and there are means of linguistic analysis by which we can judge their quality. But who says we might not end up with more than one distinct readings – different, but both consistent with the text? This, surely, is something that will require further argument.

    Thanks,

    Sam L

    Reply
    1. ElijiahT Post author

      Hey Sam, thanks for the comment.

      To respond to your [brief] criticism, I would have to both agree and disagree.
      I agree that there are interpretations that could be equally consistent with a particular text (this is the nature of theological disagreements and “proof-texts”), but where I think we disagree is that I think there must be a true interpretation for many Biblical texts. This is the basic idea behind a hermeneutic principle known as “exegesis”… which is where we extract the meaning from the text, not import meaning into the text (which is eisegesis).

      If two (or more) interpretations of a passage are “equal”, then we can move forward and look at the meaning of the passage in relation to a larger, more comprehensive understanding of the particular book (ex: 1 corinthians) or the entire bible as a whole.

      In the end, the author wrote a particular piece of literature in order to convey a specific message. And while there may be a few consistent interpretations of that literature, there is certainly the correct interpretation; that which the author intended to convey.
      The waters get a little muddy when we’re talking about poetry, metaphor, etc., but there are many examples where the true meaning of the text can be discovered.

      And as a final thought here… there are some texts that may end up being consistent with 2 (or more) different interpretations. This has happened many times in Christian history. Just think about the Calvinism/Arminianism/Molinism debate. Or any discussion over eschatology.

      Ultimately, our goal is to try to get at that objective meaning behind a particular text (Biblical or otherwise). And to say “we don’t know the correct interpretation” with “there is no correct interpretation” would be to confuse epistemology and ontology

      Reply
  2. Sam L (@platopus)

    Thanks for your reply.

    Seems to me like there’s two issues here, one ontological – whether there is a true reading – and one epistemological – how we get at that meaning (if it exists). I think we agree on the epistemological point (judging by your penultimate paragraph) – that it is at least possible that we can end up with two or more consistent readings which we can’t determine between, no matter how far we expand our circle of context.

    The ontological issue is the deeper one, and it is where we disagree: I do not think it is a given that a text has an objective meaning. (A quick question for the purpose of clarification: are you asserting that all texts have an objective meaning, and therefore that Biblical ones do a fortiori, or are you asserting, more weakly, that we can say this about Biblical texts in particular?) Your suggestion that it does appeals to the intended meaning – intended by the author. The obvious first question I want to ask is, what if it is coauthored by people with different intentions? In particular, how does this affect your ability to expand your circle of context to other Biblical books, when we know that they are authored by different people?

    But even without the coauthoring issue, I simply don’t think that we can assert that a text has an objective meaning, even when ‘authored’ by just one person. For example, we know it is possible to hold an inconsistent world-view. Say an author of a text holds an inconsistent world-view, and her intention in writing the text is to convey this inconsistent world-view, but somehow writes a consistent text (because she’s a diabolically bad writer, and cocks it up, let’s say). Does this text have an objective meaning? Perhaps it does, but is it really given by the inconsistent intention behind the consistent text?

    More relevant: let’s say a scribe writes down a story which has been passed down through multiple generations. It has arisen organically, and has been modified subtly by those who have told it (perhaps without them ever knowing). Where is the intention which fixes this texts’ meaning? The scribes? I don’t think so. I think we have to admit that in cases like this there simply need be no fact of the matter.

    Sam

    Reply
      1. Sam L (@platopus)

        Yes, I expect that with further dialogue we’ll hone in what each other is talking about 😉 Though I’m not sure why this is relevant – I’m not saying that no text has an unambiguous interpretation, just that you can’t take it as a given that there is one. Moreover, that this is particularly true of old texts which may have more than one author, whose authors we cannot ask further questions of, and who may in some sense not be authored at all.

        Sam

      2. ElijiahT Post author

        “I’m not saying that no text has an unambiguous interpretation, just that you can’t take it as a given that there is one”

        Oh! I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding.
        I don’t think that assuming that a specific text has an objective meaning implies that there is (necessarily) an unambiguous interpretation. It is perfectly reasonable to say that a text has an objective meaning and we’re not sure how to interpret it.

        And I think it is also reasonable to assume that a text has an objective meaning (because of our almost uniform experience with a variety of texts) unless given reason to think otherwise.

        Also, I’m a little confused about what you mean when you say, “… who may in some sense not be authored at all”. Could you elaborate on that at all?

  3. Sam L (@platopus)

    “Oh! I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding.
    I don’t think that assuming that a specific text has an objective meaning implies that there is (necessarily) an unambiguous interpretation. It is perfectly reasonable to say that a text has an objective meaning and we’re not sure how to interpret it.”

    To be clear, I am suggesting more than that – that a text need not have a single, objective meaning at all.

    “And I think it is also reasonable to assume that a text has an objective meaning (because of our almost uniform experience with a variety of texts) unless given reason to think otherwise.”

    So this seems to be a point about methodology. When we have a text, we take a stance towards it – we assume that there is some meaning to get at. I agree with this, and that we should certainly not be relativists – the question “what does this text mean?” has wrong answers. The methodological stance we take towards the text is that we assume that this question has correct answers. But to assume that there is a unique answer is too strong. There are certain texts which for which we might argue that there is a unique answer to this question, but that is something we would have to argue for additionally.

    Moreover, there are particular circumstances that should make us extra careful about making this assumption – co-authorship, and when texts are likely to be recordings of oral traditions which have arisen and been sculpted through generations of telling and re-telling (this is what I mean when I refer to a text not being authored at all, in the sense that it has not been written with any particular intentional aim behind it). Taking Biblical texts specifically (and certainly the Bible as a whole), and even more specifically the ones with mythological hallmarks – Genesis, Job, etc – we have good reasons to be reserved about assuming there is some particular meaning behind it.

    Sam

    Reply
  4. Allallt

    I wonder if perhaps your conversation with atheists and sceptics would fall into place better if you understood the context and where we’re coming from a little better.

    Point 1 – We’re not all coming from the same place. There is no Church and no central atheist doctrine. Many atheists come at you with the interpretation of the Bible they had when they were religious, and I come at the issue as someone who has never believed.

    Point 2 – Theists do flip around on whether what they are talking about is meant to be poetic or not; whether it’s absolute or culturally relevant.

    Point 3 – There is no Biblical document that tells you the hermeneutics you’re meant to use. Any ambiguous sentence is up for debate (even if it is objective) and you don’t know that you’ve got the best (i.e. ‘closest to true’) interpretation. How can you tell that the passages that teach intolerance are not the literally-written passages, and the ones teaching love and tolerance are the ones that are allegorical (i.e. the guy that believed that was tortured to death)? It may be easy for that example, but consider the broader point: is it ambiguous (as a side-effect of language) so how do you know your interpretation is true?

    Point 4 – Certain passages, like the Creation or the Flood or the stopping of the Sun in the Sky or taking 40 years to walk from Egypt to Israel etc, simply don’t make sense when taken literally. Neither do the contradictory claims.

    Point 5 – Atheists are told that some of God’s less understandable moral actions, like Lott of Sodom and Lott’s wife, are allegorical. How we’re supposed to interpret that is no clearer than interpreting Shakespeare.

    Point 6 – When is God making a command or an exception to accommodate a certain culture (like His permission to keep slaves, according to Christians I talk to) and when is He being absolute (Thou Shalt not Kill… unless commanded otherwise. How is that absolute?)?

    Reply

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