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May 06, 2008


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We'll lower the drawbridge, but keep the portculis shut. :-)

Dispensationalism's way of presuming that a passage was wholly written for people not yet born is terribly defeating. Does anyone besides dispensationalists really do this, though? assume passages were written primarily for later readers?

This seems like a "sin of interpretation" mostly confined to prophecy, unless we're talking about dispensationalism due to its focus on God's ways and means changing serially. When a classical chiliast looks at the old testament, he doesn't see a foreign book written for a completely different subset of God's children seeking God in a completely different way, so I'd assume he'd be comfortable with every passage being written understandably to the author.

Michael W. Kruse

We'll lower the drawbridge, but keep the portculis shut. :-)

LOL. Look out for the gators in the moat!

I think you are right that this pertains to dispensational prophecy folks but I'd point to the great popularity of the "Left Behind" series. Then there are those who believe the Bible contains hidden code waiting to be deciphered. I think this sort of thinking is more present than we might first think.

I should also point out that Bailey recorded this lecture about 25 years ago. Still, I think his broad categories are right.

J. K. Gayle

However, as we approach each passage we need to begin with the idea that the author knew what he intended to communicate and wrote it with the intention that his contemporary audience would understand it.

But did you know that you intended to use the pronoun "he"?

So now there are two issues, at least:

1) The question of how English language encodes gender, despite what you may or may not have intended by using it with exclusion of "she." You could now say what you meant then when you wrote this: either "he" is generic and gender inclusive, a synecdoche for "he or she"; or "he" really is male only since presumably and logically all the authors of the texts of the Bible are men (and God is male too, or at least "he." You could blame your "he" on Bailey, since he's the one talking "originally" about the "second sin" of interpretation. You could be silent, as the authors of the Bible texts now must be. But these questions make us want to move on, as from pesky feminist ones, to anti-modern if not post-modern questions.

2) How can C. S. Lewis spend so much space in his Reflections on the Psalms, the last quarter of his book, showing "Second Meanings"? Your authorial protest here may be that we readers are taking what you meant the wrong way. We are mis-taking your meanings. But if your only meaning can be that we listeners and readers must only get what you mean, then what? If we study very very carefully what you wrote, then we won't soon exhaust all the meanings there. At some point, one of us may even laugh, aloud. Then what? Can you protest that you did not mean for anyone to find any humor at all in what you said? Or if one of us is alarmed [i.e., Codepoke smiles but uses hyperbole, imagery, parable: "We'll lower the drawbridge, but keep the portculis shut. :-)"], then did you mean to prohibit such a free response, if you now surely agree with it?

Are we saying that you wrote something unintelligible to you, or something unintended altogether? No, just that even if God inspired your blog post, or Kenneth Bailey's views on "sin" of interpretation, there's always something more anyway.

Interpretation, rather than sin and only sin, can be interpreted as God-inspired, or at least as God intended. James K. A. Smith has a wonderful little book with a fantastic title: The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic. The question is whether "interpretation" is part of the curse, after the fall of humanity into sin. Or whether, before there was sin there was subjective interpretation.

Right or wrong, is Bailey without interpretation (as an author) just because he intends to say something about biblical authors? Are you without interpretation when you write the sentence I excerpt above? Isn't my portcullis shut to you always any interpretation but the one I intend?

Michael W. Kruse

J. K., Peter Rollins writes about the transfinite the infinite. There are an infinite set of numbers. However, if I asked you to list all the numbers between 1 and 2 you would have an infinite set numbers but no number would be less than 1 or greater than 2.

Similarly, I think our communication varies along a continuum of finite to transfinite. When I say “Two plus two equals four,” there are a very limited number of ways to interpret that. When I say “God is the Alpha and the Omega,” there is probably something close to a transfinite number of ways to interpret this. The author could not possible anticipate every implication of such a poetic attribution. However, by studying the author we would likely find that the author does not mean by this that God is evil as well as good. We must look to the author and the audience for insight in interpretation.

You wrote about "Second Meanings" and I get the sense here the you may have understood Bailey or me (or both) to say that there is only one meaning to passage, story, parable or metaphor. Let me be emphatic here. Bailey utterly rejects this idea. So do I. Baiey's whole career has been around combating this idea. (I linked my post Jesus as a Metaphorical Theologian yesterday in response to codepoke but I include again here.)

My viewpoint is this. When we read scripture, we are “listening in” on a conversation between the author of a book and the intended audience in a particular time and space in history. I believe that the authors were inspired by God to write what they wrote in their contexts and that God through his people preserved a record of these authoritative interactions in history. We “listen in” on these authoritative witnesses (testaments) to God’s interaction in the past and discern with the help of the Holy Spirit and other disciples (living and dead) what the implications of those interactions are for our context.

Language is always imprecise. Language deals in abstractions of complex realities. Our aim in interpretation is accuracy, not precision. The challenge is that unless we grew up speaking Hebrew and biblical Greek we are at least one language removed from the original language. (Consider that some passages may be Aramaic to Greek to whatever and it gets more difficult.) We are removed from the cultural contexts by millennia.

Therefore, before we can apply scripture, we must be sure that we've “listened in” carefully to the original conversation.

(BTW the "he" was intentional in the post because to my knowledge, apart from some speculation about Hebrews, there is know credible evidence of female authorship for any of the books of the Bible. :) )

J. K. Gayle

What a wonderful, gracious, intelligent reply! Bailey's essay on Jesus as a Metaphorical Theologian equals your comment in brilliance.

Yes, yes, there's second meanings here. Bailey didn't even talk about (or at least not in the bit you excerpted) the horror of "cross" before there was Jesus. The Romans intended. Nakedness, and intentional exposure of the circumcised Jew. And in the horror of that intended shame is the Jewish shame of hanging, on a "tree." Now we can talk about first order meanings of brutality. Now, after that, there are the theo-logic meanings, which Jesus spoke before, and then after.

So what you've shown in your reply also is that I mis-took your meanings. Nice!

And yet, Peter Rollins I'm not familiar with. I do follow what he and you suggest about numbers. There's the analog and the digital, if you'll pardon my analogy. But still I think even that transfinite / finite game is an unnecessary binary. The Bororo in Brazil, whose language a colleague and coworker of mine speaks, has numbers fewer than five. And the number for "three" is "four without her buddy" or some such like metaphor. This would have given Aristotle fits, and maybe Trinitarians too, because three is such an important number to some--and yet the Bororo mark it as dependent on four. Transfinite is hardly that. My own teacher of some time back, Ken Pike, used to call language N-dimensional. I think that kind of algebra is useful. Not sure we'd want to try it in Bororo. And I assume there's stuff that the Bororo wouldn't want to try in English. The important thing is we can learn one another's languages, which is why metaphor and ambiguity in language is so important. Some of us are just outsiders.

"Our aim in interpretation is accuracy, not precision." But when is a grain a heap, a drop a bucketful?

J. K. Gayle

Oops, meant to add that I ready Bailey's study materials on women in the Bible and, from what I can see, think he does a great job of getting to the issues. Accuracy, as in the interpretation aim you describe, may not be enough. Whether one is on the inside or the outside of an author's intentions seems to make all the difference. A woman excluded by a male author does not accurately interpret the text in the same way as a man included by it. No?

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks J. K. Here are a few more thoughts (or maybe this is just a provision of more rope from which a noose might be fashioned for me. :) )

I think there are at least five parties to consider when interpreting the Bible.

First, there is the conversation between the author (1) of the text and the intended audience (2). I want to know as much as I can about both and the context of the communication so I can more fully appreciate subtleties and the subtexts in the conversation. I also want to avoid mistakenly inserting my cultural assumptions into gaps in information coming from the conversation.

Second, there is me (or you) (3) as I read the passage. I’m “listening in” on the conversation. Because of age, gender, income, cultural upbringing, religious training, temperament, etc., I am likely to key in on certain aspects of the transfinite-like reality the author is writing about. You are going to do likewise. So will others. We are all interacting with this time-space historical interaction.

What I like about the transfinite analogy is that it says there are boundaries but there may be an infinite set of possibilities within those boundaries. There are some things that a given parable, for instance, does not mean. Yet there are so many truths contained within the transfinite-like parable that probably no one person can readily grasp them all and many of us would not prioritize these truths the same way. (In that sense, I’m not sure about the language of primary and secondary meanings.) In fact, in one lecture I remember Bailey discussing five major themes he found in the story of the Prodigal son and how Jesus presses all of these on us simultaneously like five fingers of a hand pressing at once. This the advantage metaphorical theology has over linear sequential reasoning approaches.

Third, there is our communication with others (4) about our interaction with these time-space-historical interactions. We should learn from each other’s interactions. Maybe some of us need to feel certain “fingers” pressing on us that we missed and some us need to realize we failed to accurately discern what fingers actually are pressing on us. If we are wise, we will be seeking out the outsider’s perspective in this in the hopes that all may be transformed.

Fourth, there is the role of God (5) in the historical interaction, in our personal interaction with the historical interaction, and in our interaction with each other. What is God communicating to us here and know in the midst of these interactions?

How accurate is accurate enough? That is always the challenge, isn’t it? :) I have no formula. Possible interpretations are not boundless but neither are they confined a single truth. That is the tension I think we are called to live in.

(BTW, here is my short review of Peter Rollins book How (Not) to Speak of God.)

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