Interpreting The Bible: The Basics
There is only one domain of human knowledge that trades in absolute certainty, and that is Propositional Logic. For that very reason, a lot of our traditions have approached the Bible as if it could be understood this way - as if it MUST be understood this way.
Propositional logic works like this:
(A) All cats are red (B) Sam is a cat (C) Sam is red
Everyone knows that if both (A) and (B) are true, then (C) must be true. This works because it’s unambiguous, clearly defined, and needs no context. We don’t need to understand what a “cat” is, what it means to be “red”, or what exactly is meant by saying “Sam is a cat”. Propositional Logic operates with no regard for any of this, and as a result, it can offer up the holy grail: absolute proofs.
But in doing so, it Propositional Logic sacrifices almost all meaning, and all connection to reality.
The problems of applying Propositional Logic to the Bible (or any domain of human life) are apparent. Consider this:
(A) Lambs have wool and four legs (B) Jesus is the Lamb (C) Jesus has wool and four legs
It’s clear that “Jesus is the Lamb” is a metaphor. Propositional Logic does not recognize metaphors. Try this:
(A) Jesus is the Shepherd of the lambs (B) Jesus is the Lamb (C) Jesus is the Shepherd of himself
Here we have clashing metaphors. Anyone who’s ever tried to put together a biblical argument sees the shortfall here. Every statement the bible makes is contextual - every statement has to be interpreted. And Propositional Logic can’t handle context.
This isn’t just an issue with biblical metaphors. It’s a conflict between the messy world of real life, and the confined world of Propositional Logic.
So we need a better method of interpretation.
Science wrestles with a similar issue. No measurement is unambiguous, no measurement is without context, everything has to be understood within margins of error. But science does just fine by using its own approach: telling itself stories.
This is how science has always done it.
Isaac Newton didn’t prove anything when he offered up his theories about gravity. Instead, he offered a compelling story about how gravity and the universe worked. This story explained things so well, it quickly became popular. And the more tests were done, the more the story seemed to explain the results.
The story explained a lot more than people had ever imagined could be explained. It explained the relationship between the planets in the sky, the earth, and an apple falling from a tree. And it did so in such a nice way, it became the dominant way of understanding the world for hundreds of years.
But eventually, some details were discovered that didn’t quite fit with Newton’s story. And this made clear the need for a better, more complete, story.
And so Einstein came along, with a crazy new story about how the universe worked - and it prevailed because it was a better story than anyone else could offer. It could explain why the measurements of the speed of light were always the same, when Newton’s story suggested differently.
Because Einstein’s story explained so much more, it became the dominant way in which scientists view the world. And to this day, no one’s really offered a better story than Einstein.
But is Einstein’s story true - absolutely and concretely?
The only method science has for evaluating that is to look at how many details Einstein’s story explains, and how many details it is forced to ignore.
Einstein’s story handles a lot of strange details. But if tomorrow, a whole new set of details began to be discovered, which were not explained in Einstein’s story - the search would begin for a new story, a better way to explain it all.
This is how we must approach the Bible. The Bible is full of statements that can be (and are) taken in hundreds or thousands of different ways. And there really is no end to this.
We’re never going to find a conclusive way of reading Jesus’ command to eat his body, or Paul’s statement about baptizing for the dead.
What we have to look for is the better story, the narrative which explains each of these points in the entire context, and makes everything fit.
We’re not looking for the most common-sense story. We’re not looking for the story which fits most with our preconceptions. Einstein’s space-warping, time-bending theory didn’t sound reasonable - but it explained the actual research better than anything had before. So we’re looking for the story that makes the most sense of ALL the biblical statements, in the best possible way.
As we go on, we might have to refine this story over and over. We might realize that the story we’ve been using is really just a small part of a much bigger story, which explains everything and redefines our previous story. Sometimes we might realize the story we’ve been holding on to doesn’t really explain much at all - and really doesn’t fit very well with the text.
And so we’ll begin the search for a new story - a bigger, better, more complete story - that explains things we never imagined could be explained.