Has the multiplicity of interpretations made the bible incomprehensible? —NO!

posted in: Bible, Hermeneutics, Revelation | 3

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]

by Edward W. H. Vick

Inspiration coverIn the sixteenth century there was a major conflict within Christianity. It was over the Bible. Before then it was only available in Latin, and so only for the clergy, who then told their followers what they interpreted it to mean. So there was an interesting but dangerous disagreement between the Catholic church and the Protestant advocates of translation of Scripture into native languages.

The interesting agreement was that it was possible for ordinary people, the laity, to read and to understand the message of the Bible by anyone who could read it, or have it read to them. The danger was that the translators considered it necessary to make the opportunity available to everyone who could read or be read to. That incentive was violently opposed. So the Catholic church opposed the translation into European languages because it realized that it would pose a most serious challenge to some of its basic teachings.

The Reformers for their part, particularly Tyndale and Luther, also realized that lay people, if they had access to Scripture in their own language, would understand its teachings, its message. And that message called into question basic teachings of the church.

So there was enthusiasm on the part of both parties: the ruthless efforts to repress the translation and distribution of the translated Scripture, the Reformers patiently and persistently, but at great cost, determined to make those writings available to all. The following conviction motivated their sacrificial efforts to translate the Scriptures and then to get the translations distributed. It also motivated the ruthless opposition.

Scripture if made available can be readily understood by laypersons.

We must not forget at what great cost in the sixteenth century the efforts of the translators and their supporters, printers, and distributors, resulted in making Scripture available to us all. We should not take it for granted.

We now realize that the availability of Scripture has made possible a multitude of different interpretations. That poses for some the problem,  having read, how to understand i. e. interpret Scripture faithfully. The first rule should be that I read Scripture for myself, and think about what I read. Then I may have some ground for considering alternative suggestions. But for some readings the obvious sense will satisfy you.

Do you know how many kinds of apples there are? I don’t. But, like you, I am sure I know very well the ones I like. You no doubt will have a favorite. I am also quite sure that the fact that there are so many kinds of apples did and does not put you off either eating apples nor indeed preferring the one you like best. It is rather naïve to suggest it! But you have to make choices.

But before you can make rational choices you will have to have tasted a range of apples. You then, and only then, unless you rely on what others recommend to you, will be in a position to make your decision. But even if you accept a suggestion you will still get hold of the recommended apple and try it out for yourself. Otherwise, how will you know what to make of the other’s recommended assessment, to accept it or to reject it?

The question we are to consider is also rather naïve. Take the first alternative. Why would one refuse to consider an interpretation of Scripture and give as the reason that there are so many interpretations and so the confusion between them makes the quest to find an adequate position so difficult as not to be worth the trouble to find. But you are the one who says ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the suggestion you accept. You are the one who chooses not to pursue it any further.

A second alternative is not to make a choice. To shelve the question and close the questioning, in short to make a negative decision. It amounts to excusing yourself not to make any effort to discover your own satisfactory answer.

The third alternative is to make a worthy attempt at evaluation, however much labor and struggle it might cost you. You make the effort freely and so the decision is yours. Making the attempt is a worthy thing. Many have made it before you, and many are in the process of making it.

I now ask you to consider what a costly, blood-stained process it was to provide the Scripture in the language of the people. That we can read Scripture and understand its message is a privilege offered us at the cost of many lives devoted to the task of translating the Scriptures into spoken languages and in the attempt to distribute the text, initially by such remarkable figures as William Tyndale and Martin Luther.

So let us consider how we come to make choices in such contexts. There are three alternatives:

Number one : You let someone make the choice for you. But that is no solution for you since you do not know the considerations that person has taken to come to the suggestion. When you accept a recommended alternative you may even plead the authority of your informant as the reason. Or is it rather a pretext than a reason? So and so knows the truth. I accept it as given. Your choice is to accept the suggestion of the other person. But that is a choice, and a poor one when the alternative is to search for yourself.

The second alternative is not to make any decision, not simply to defer it, but to make a decision not to consider further. This is the negative argument. The Bible is the source of many and divergent interpretations and contrary beliefs. There are so many different positions that it is difficult if not impossible to make a rational choice between them.

The third alternative is to make the attempt to find the meaning for yourself. That is the first positive step that promises to yield a satisfactory result. But you will know that you may have to do some work to find your satisfaction.

This is a short response.

That there is a multitude of teachings derived from the Bible should not be taken to imply that none of them is worthy of belief and so the effort to discover which are to be accepted is not a worthy activity. It is the result of bad logic, an example of non sequitur. Does the proponent really mean to suggest that the more interpretations there are the less any are likely to be reasonable? Or, is it not rather the unwillingness to be involved in expending a great deal of effort in the quest?

Or is the idea that the Bible is untrustworthy because its writings give opportunity for different interpretations. Should not that fact be taken as a merit of the writings. Good literature is always suggestive of appropriate interpretations in different contexts.

That we have the Bible in our own modern language is an inheritance that was achieved at enormous cost. For most of the Christian era the Scriptures were not available to the ordinary believer. And so there was no alternative for them but to hear and to respond to what the church taught them was proper to believe, and often threatened them if they did not conform. The cost many paid for your freedom to read the Bible in your own language, in our case English, on the European continent Luther’s German, was imprisonment, ostracism, deprivation, betrayal, isolation, death.

That was before Tyndale and Luther. After them the Bible was becoming available to everyone who could read. In step with this development was the conviction, made into a Reformation principle that the Bible could be understood by the ordinary Christian reader. As we now know, a very large percentage of what became the Authorized Version, the King James version, was the work of Tyndale. It was simply taken over from his translation.

William Tyndale paid an enormous price for his persistent efforts as a scholar in translating and circulating the translated Scriptures, as did those who supported him by printing, distributing and reading his work. They were under the constant threat of being apprehended and severely punished for so doing. The price Tyndale paid for his efforts was to be hounded all over Europe by Thomas More and his spies, and finally by being betrayed and put to death for heresy and treason. Those who read the English translations were considered heretics, and heresy was considered treason since it stood in opposition to the interpretations and the established teachings of the church. Death was the fate of those who disagreed.

That the Bible was now available for all who could read or have it read to them resulted in the emergence of various interpretations of what it taught, each interpretation often being taken as the true one.

For the simple believer, there was now the freedom to read and to understand that the love and grace of God was available without the mediation of the church and its agents. That constituted reformation. It was inevitable that different interpretations emerged and with them many different Christian communities.

The new freedom made its own demands. What was now needed was to find a way to assess the different interpretations, since some were incompatible with others. The new situation demanded a new attitude on the part of those aware of such diversity. Two essential demands were recognized:

Accept the authority of the Bible,

Recognize the diversity of interpretations and teachings.

This meant seeing the need for discernment and for making decisions about those that were reasonable and worthy of belief. In the immediate context of the availability of the translations one was faced with a choice: to accept or to reject the authoritative pronouncements of the church. Take two examples. About sacraments and about the church. It was a matter of different interpretations being given on the one hand to the gospel statement, ‘This is my body’ (to be taken literally as re-enactment in the communion service by the Roman Catholic, or as indicating remembrance or memorial of the event of Jesus’ death by Tyndale. The other is whether Jesus’ word to Peter, ‘I will build my ekklesia’ (Matthew 16:18) is be translated by the term ‘church’ (the Catholic version) or ‘congregation’ (the Tyndale translation). The different translations of the same term reflect different doctrines concerning church and church authority. Tyndale’s translation ‘congregation’ was considered heretical as it expressed a quite different understanding from the Catholic (and heresy meant death).

After this preamble let us take a look at the negative argument, stated briefly above and now expanded

The Bible is the source of many and divergent interpretations and contrary beliefs

There are so many different positions that it is difficult if not impossible to make a rational choice between them.

That impossibility makes any thought of examining the issues fruitless.

In terms of the Bible, the proliferation of interpretations, some in contradiction to others, leads to the conclusion that it loses what authority it may have had, giving occasion for multifarious and divergent beliefs and communities.

The question, ‘What does the Bible teach?’ is therefore not a rational question.

So, there is no point in engaging in a fruitless quest.

The following is a reasonable response to this negative argument.

Would it not be rather better to inquire about the rationality of the various positions as having their source in the Bible? For it is of urgent concern to those who hold the Bible to have a special and unquestionable authority that they relate their interpretations to the text in a convincing, reasonable way.

This raises the serious question of the relationship between understanding, acceptance, and belief. While it is possible to believe what one does not understand, it is also possible and preferable to believe what one understands, and to understand as adequately as possible.

The problem is that it takes time and effort to arrive at an adequate understanding. For some that is too much, and some are even put off by just realizing that there are many alternatives, or by the thought that to make a choice would mean not only a lot of careful consideration but might in the end lead to a change in their present outlook, with which they are quite content. So they simply dismiss the enterprise as either beyond them or as not worth the effort, even if they are capable of making it and achieving a result. “No thanks, I don’t want to talk about it!”

The alternatives are:

(1) to take on board without too much thought one or another teaching at second hand, so to speak. So and so believes and teaches this. So I accept it! No further thought or discussion is then permitted.

(2) to rest content with the status quo of my thinking (or lack of it) or, if not really content with it, to repress the thought of the challenge and give the matter no further consideration.

Nothing we have said here should be taken to imply that the devotional approach to the Bible, for encouragement and succor as well as challenge to action, good deeds, etc., is not important. The sincere believer reads the Scripture not to get doctrine as a result, but for encouragement in living life from day to day, for rebuke and for strength just to carry on in Christian faith. None of this is here being down played.

The Reformation made the Bible available to the public by translating it into their own language. This was a major achievement. One result is that a multitude of interpretations resulted. The question became urgent, ‘How can opposing interpretations of what the Bible teaches be claimed to be the Bible teaching?’ An affirmative explanation justifies this consequence. To put it simply: That various interpretations are made of a given passage, or chapter or book need not call into question the status of the text and then further involve applying a negative judgment to the collection of writings we call the Bible. Consider that often it simply points to its importance and relevance for changing contexts.

That there is a multitude of teachings derived from the Bible should not be taken to imply that none of them is worthy of belief. The effort to discover which are worthy is itself worthy activity. The negative assessment is the result of bad logic. Does the proponent really mean to suggest that the more interpretations there are the less one or some are likely to b e reasonable?

It is a very strange idea that the Bible is untrustworthy because its writings give opportunity for different interpretations. Should not that fact be taken as a merit of the writings. Good literature is always suggestive of appropriate interpretations in different contexts. And reasonable discussion of issues raised is not a bad thing, surely!

Always enjoy the apples you prefer!


Dr. Vick’s books can be viewed and ordered here: https://energiondirect.com/authors/authors-t-z/edward-w-h-vick

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Nancy PetreySteve Kindle Recent comment authors
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Steve Kindle
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Steve Kindle

Dr. Vick, as you know, I wrote the preceding post that tried to make the case that the proliferation of interpretations makes the Bible incomprehensible. You write to make the case that the Bible is not incomprehensible. However, you chose as your analogy how one goes about choosing the best apple. Isn’t that another way of saying that determining a text’s meaning is a personal choice of what seems best to the interpreter? If so, it’s the equivalent of saying, “Well, here are my options, what looks (tastes) best to me?” I see this as agreeing with me that making… Read more »

Nancy Petrey
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Dear Edward, Your analogy of choosing your favorite apple very well compared to choosing your favorite translation of the Bible. Good job. I certainly agree also with this statement you made: “The sincere believer reads the Scripture not to get doctrine as a result, but for encouragement in living life from day to day, for rebuke and for strength just to carry on in Christian faith.” Thank you for pointing out the tremendous sacrifices of Tyndale and others in making the Bible available to us in our own language (English in this case). Isn’t it sad that the work of… Read more »

Steve Kindle
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Steve Kindle

Dear Nancy—I couldn’t agree more with you on the subject of the many translations being a boon for the faith. I have many and find them all useful in one way or another. Also, like you, my study Bibles shed light on many things that help with my reading.

But Dr. Vick’s apple analogy was referring to interpretations, not translations. Personal choice in translations is one thing; making it the determiner in interpretations is entirely another.