I’ve recently been in several discussions where I defend what the Bible says against skeptics. Now, you might be thinking, “Uhm… 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. The skeptic must be consistent; either the Bible does have an objective meaning, or it doesn’t. You can’t have it both ways.
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 sort of 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. It is not, as one anti-theist so delightfully put it, “a way for stupid Christians to make the Bible say whatever you want it to say!”
When your high school English teacher asked, “What does this sentence mean to you?” she may not have been engaging in proper hermeneutics, depending on the genre of literature. 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,” it’s 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.
Asserting that hermeneutics is a waste of time is nothing more than anti-intellectualism.
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. When you read a book by one of your favorite authors, your goal is to understand what the author is saying. Why would it be any different when we’re talking about Scripture?
Yes, there are passages of the Bible that are hard to understand. But that doesn’t make those passages subjective. Hermeneutics isn’t always easy, and it certainly isn’t perfect. In the same way, there are certain aspects of calculus that are hard to understand. But that doesn’t make calculus subjective.
The goal of proper hermeneutics is to understand what the passage is saying. Reading the text and determining what it says is called exegesis, and reading whatever you want into a text is called eisegesis. We want exegesis, not eisegesis.
And lastly, it is perfectly legitimate to say “I don’t know what this passage is trying to say,” while maintaining that it does have an objective meaning. This is an important philosophical distinction between knowing (epistemology) and being (ontology).
For more resources on proper hermeneutics (Biblical and otherwise):
Hermeneutics – Plato.Stanford.edu
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