Thursday, October 3, 2013

Truth, Circa 30 A.D.

            Here’s a quick and dirty breakdown on modern Biblical thought. There are two (almost) all-encompassing camps: one that says the Bible is a moral and religious authority, and one that says the Bible isn’t. Those who say the Bible isn’t an authority aren’t saying the Bible can’t overlap whatever they use to cobble together their moral code or religion, but neither of those derive from the Bible. And then those who take the Bible as truth have a wonderfully complex and diverse opinion of what truth means. This essay will attempt to give an overview of this camp, but it should be noted that ‘Bible’ could really be replaced with any religious text out there; it’s just the one I happen to study. Oh, and remember how I said those two camps were only almost all-encompassing? Yeah, that’s because some people are boring and don’t think about religious questions at all so they have no opinion; we don’t like them.
            In the same week my Bible & its Interpreters course started discussion allegorical, synchronic, and diachronic readings of the Bible – big words that mean interpreting Scripture as all metaphor, only as it is understood in modern language, and as it was supposed to have been understood by its initial audience several thousand years ago – the pastor of the church I attend in Austin emphatically told the congregation that we must discern what the Bible means, not just what it means to us. He didn’t go into more detail to explain what that meant, unfortunately. Let’s use the Biblical creation story as an example. Is the beginning of Genesis just an artsy interpretation of the birth of the world, a history that states the earth was created in six 24-hour blocks of time, or a poetic explanation for creation using ‘days’ in a loose sense to just separate important events as it was taken to mean around the time of writing? What is truth?
            The entirety of Scripture isn’t this migraine-inducing, thankfully. Belief that there is a single God who provides salvation to those who come to Him through Jesus is written often enough and in clear enough language for everyone to get the gist of that statement. No allegory or deep interpretation necessary. The nature of Jesus, though, is a huge debate that I don’t even want to touch here, but that He is stated to be the conduit to God isn’t held in such contention as most of the Bible. Whether you believe all that or not is your choice, but it’s the clear message from the text.
            Baruch Spinoza, a seventeenth-century philosopher whom I didn’t know about until a week before writing this essay and is now one of my favorite theological writers, constructed a very scientific-method-like exegesis method (again, unnecessary big word, ‘exegesis’ just means interpretation of a text). The Bible is first examined literally, then the parts that don’t make sense and aren’t asserted as fact elsewhere in the Bible are reframed allegorically, and the parts that still don’t make sense should be given up on. This is perfectly acceptable, in his opinion, because all the important stuff is clear. I believe he said interpreting everything else should just be “a hobby,” but don’t quote me on that.
            There are many other methods for exegesis out there. Spinoza just has my favorite method that I’ve encountered so far. I would say that individuals can try to interpret all Scripture, but they should never claim to have all the answers. Plenty of people are vain enough to say that, but I don’t think anyone is smart enough.
            Interpretation of Scripture really depends on the nature of God. If the nature of God is held to be more fluid, then interpretation of Scripture can be fluid as well. The more constant God is, the more those interested in His Word should attempt to discern what he meant in light of its original audience and culture. The fun part is that God’s nature is discerned through interpretation of Scripture, so it’s a circular statement.
            Unfortunately, I can’t give a concrete statement as to what my belief on how one should read the Bible is; I’ve given bits and pieces though. The more I study it, either independently or for class, the less certain I am about my preconceived notions. Spinoza’s method is definitely the path I’m leaning toward, but I still have, like, ten more weeks’ worth of theologians to read, so we’ll see what happens.

-Jason Rossiter

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