The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Quest for Clarity

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After last week's article was posted, several responders questioned the need for “interpretation” at all. The argument is old and goes something like this: “The Bible is quite clear and communicates its message easily enough so that a child can ‘get it.’ People who want to ask questions about what this or what that ‘means’ are simply trying to make the Bible say more than it actually intends.” Although there is some truth behind this concern, the purists who try to make such an argument are often tragically misinformed in just how much hermeneutics—the study of interpretation—is used on a daily basis. We don't just interpret what we read in the Bible, we interpret facial gestures, road signs, tones of voice, emails, news stories, jokes, behaviors, and any other number of things on a daily basis. Proper interpretation is the key to living in God's world.

For those who truly believe that the Bible does not need to be interpreted, I would ask the question: “Do you read the Bible in its original languages?” If not, then the very Bible that you are reading is an interpretation. In fact, a translation is an interpretation by its very definition.[1] How can you be sure that the translators were correct in their judgments and decisions? How do you know that they did not introduce their personal biases and beliefs into their translation? And for those of you who do read the original languages, which one do you read? We don't have the original manuscripts of Paul, Isaiah, or Moses, so how do you know that your “copy” is an accurate one? Do you ever get something new out of a familiar passage? If so, then which interpretation is correct, the “new” one or the “old” one? These are difficult questions that everyone must wrestle with, believer and unbeliever, Protestant and Catholic, Jew and Gentile.

I see a clever billboard each day on my commute home. It is an advertisement for McDonald's and specifically for their breakfast items. It has a picture of an Egg McMuffin and the text beside it says: “First we break 'em, then we fix 'em.” In order for this sign to communicate what is intended, the reader must do a double-interpretation of the word “fix.” At first glance, the sign seems to be communicating “fix” as the opposite of “break,” as in: “Dad fixed the broken lamp.” But what the sign is really doing is equivocating on this formal meaning of “fix” and substituting the less formal meaning of “prepare” or “cook.”[2] But, without the picture of the Egg McMuffin, this second meaning would never come out. If the McDonald's marketing team had attached this text to a picture of french fries or a milkshake, the equivocation of breaking and fixing eggs would have been lost; the sign would have been meaningless. McDonald's is counting on viewers to be able to interpret their sign—to “get” the equivocation and catch the humor—based on the amount of information given. In this instance, context is paramount to proper interpretation.

Another example comes from Richard Pratt's book, He Gave Us Stories. Pratt tells a short story of an individual named John who finds a piece of paper containing the cryptic message: GET HELP!

John was a competent reader of English; he had a basic understanding of what “get” and “help” mean. At first, John thought he knew what the note meant. But two strangers suddenly came up to him. The first one pointed at a passing car and said, “I saw where that note came from. A little boy dropped it as he was pulled into that car. You'd better call the police.” But the second person interrupted. “Don't listen to him,” she insisted. “I wrote the note for a friend and dropped it by accident. My friend is sick, and I want him to get some help.”[3]

Just as John came to learn, words are open to many interpretations, depending on context. Was this note a plea for help from a scared child, or was it good advice from a concerned friend? John had no way of knowing which stranger was giving the right context so he went away frustrated, realizing that the note could mean many things. Even two-word sentences are not free from interpretive arbitrariness.

So then, what’s to be done? If even a simple sentence can be misinterpreted, how can we possibly hope to understand the comprehensive story of the Bible? One emailer asked me about the “analogy of faith,” which I broadly defined as using the “clear” passages of Scripture to help interpret the “unclear.” His question was: “Who gets to decide what’s clear and what’s unclear?” This is a very perceptive question. The analogy of faith can be subjective, just like every other interpretive tool. This emailer further made the point that some see James 2 as being the “clear passage” while others understand Romans 4 to be “clear” on the issue of faith and works. Quite true. Is there a resolution to this? Can we ever get away from the subjectivity? We’ll look into this more in the weeks to come...

[1] Translation is the action of interpretation of the meaning of a text, and subsequent production of an equivalent text, also called a translation, that communicates the same message in another language.” (Wikipedia)
Actually using “fix” to mean “repair” is a fairly new development in the history of the word. Webster's 1828 Dictionary doesn't even list this as a possible definition. It appears that using fix to mean either “repair” or “prepare” began in America. Up until that point its primary meaning was “established” or “attached,” as in “fixed laws” or “fix your eyes.”
Richard L. Pratt, Jr., He Gave Us Stories: The Bible Student's Guide to Interpreting Old Testament Narratives (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1993), 110.
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