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.
- Christians do it when they take Jeremiah 29:11 and apply that promise to themselves.
- Westboro Baptist people do it when they… well, they do it all the time. Every single sign held up by someone over at the WBC is an example of bad hermeneutics.
- Atheists do it when they pretend that Matthew 18:19 implies that two priests can go to hospitals and pray for healing.
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.
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.
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
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.