Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Can a Non-Believer Understand the Bible?

Note the italics in the title.

I recently stated that the answer was "no" on the Biblicalist. This obviously drew a couple of negative responses, so I wrote a hearty reply, which I will post here. It's a long reply, but I feel fairly satisfied that it contains what I want to say (which, as always, is terribly informed by Prof. Childs. It's almost embarrassing, but I still haven't met anyone who remotely competes).

Dear X and Y,

Thank you for your responses. I can see how my comment can be provocative. I think it is and should be, though I need to clarify where I’m coming from so it isn’t misunderstood.

When I question whether a non-believer can “truly understand” the Bible, I meant in the sense Z used when he talks of “grasping the text for all its worth.” There are different levels of “understanding,” and if I were to be rejecting all of them then X has every right to feel insulted (and I would be submitting to an odd view of reality, where faith is the foundation for everything, including the ability to correctly analyse a poem or identify literary allusions!). Perhaps the best categories for when I’m trying to get at is Wilhem Dilthey’s distinction between erklären (explanation) and verstehen (understanding). The level of “explanation” is the level most biblical scholars of the critical age content themselves with (at least explicitly). This involves exegetical description, which involves hearing the text in its own integrity. This, anyone with the training can do. Yet, surely, if the task of “biblical studies” is to grasp the text in all its dimensions, in all its depth, there must be a further step if the discipline is to be true to itself. We need to address the content testified to by the witness, and grasping the Bible’s content (or “substance,” “res,” “Sachverhalt”) takes us to the level of “understanding.” These two levels are undoubtedly dialectically related to each other (hermeneutical circle), but the point is that if we really care about the Bible then we ought to be thinking about exegesis in all its dimensions and not just the descriptive.

Here we hit against a problem: how on earth do we begin to wrestle with “the content testified to by the witness”? Well, that involves taking into account the nature of the text, and it is here that I believe most methodology hits its limitations, driven as it is by certain ideological assumptions. Critical methodology is informed by a particular view of reality, one in which the primary forces at work in the world are sociological, economic, psychological etc. As a result, according to this approach, genuine engagement with the Bible entails recovering the sociological, historical, and psychological forces that have shaped the message of the biblical authors. Focus shifts from the traditional biblical theology (for how can this disparate mass of texts have any unity beyond being lumped together by ecclesial forces?) to the phenomenology of comparative religion, where (to quote Childs), “it is thought, a better and more accurate understanding of the religious dimension of human life can be assessed.” (1997: 202).

Childs has spent his career pushing for an alternative, one that reckons with a different understanding of the Bible’s nature. He doesn’t reject the aforementioned insights of the critical period, but simply their reductionism. He (and others, e.g. von Rad) believe that the texts are deeply confessional and have grown out of a response to an ultimately divine source. They are kerygmatic in that they wish to constantly point beyond themselves to the reality that called them into being. This “pointing” (“witnessing”) activity is diverse (multiple authors, genres, concerns, perspectives etc.), yet is united by its source. In other words, Childs (and others) proposed an ontological (theological) unity to the texts of the Bible, which are now united by the fact that they join together to point to their one, ultimate, divine referent. This multiplicity of voices has been shaped and structured in such a way that the final redactional stages have had a decisive effect on the way in which this divine referent is now presented. This picture presents, according to the logic of this redactional (kerygmatic, canonical) process, an authentic image of the God who has always been there, guiding his one people to their final destination. That would mean (if Childs et al are right) that to truly grasp the substance of the Bible, one would have to let one’s horizons and interpretative categories be informed and shaped by the totality of the canonical witness, rather than, as historical criticism would have it, exclusively by the reconstructed historical matrix that was the context of each individual witness.

Childs “canonical proposal”can be defended according to the canons of critical logic up to a degree, and that is the context in which he work was mostly written. But to take that step and actually believe that there is a God who is behind all this diversity, that each witness points to Him and has its source in him, that therefore the final form is not only an interesting interpretive context among others but rather the only possible context for grasping the text’s real substance, I don’t see how a non-believer can do that. He or she will be forced to wisk the various texts up into an alternative construal of what constitutes reality or truth and allow that to shape it. That’s why there are various academic schools, parallel to the various denominations. But this is unavoidable.

Which brings me to the charge of “tribalism.” Tribalism is wrong if the boundary markers separating the various tribes are wrong (e.g. if ethnicity is held to be the definitive marker of identity, rather than a common descent from Adam, or creation in God’s image). There should always be a striving for the recognition of a common denominator. But we need to be clear what it is that does and does not unite us if we are not to dissolve into superficialism. The common denominator between church, synagogue and academy is this collection of texts (though why the academy doesn’t just dissolve the “Bible” and treat it as part of a more general near Eastern phenomenon is beyond me. Old habits die hard, I guess). And we can all recognise that and learn from each other. Hence Childs’ attempt to defend his canonical proposal in as “secular” terms as possible. But he was also clear about where the real boundaries lie. The Church cannot be identified without remainder with either synagogue or academy, as it is utterly committed to a particular construal of the nature of the bible’s theological referent which is unacceptable to both(God in Christ). The real way forward is to understand who we are and why, and from that standpoint to wrestle with the text and with each other as we seek the truth.

I would post a great example of the concrete exegetical difference this all makes, but this comment is already to long so I’ll leave it for another time if you’re interested (it’s in Childs’ essay, “Interpreting the Bible Amid Cultural Change,” Theology Today 54 (1997), 200-211).

I hope that makes sense! Feel free to contradict!


Anonymous said...

Hello Philip,

I heartily affirm your conclusions!

But it is a messy issue.

It seems to me that the issue involves defining the object and goal (I'm not entirely happy with your phrase "levels of understanding").

What is the goal?

#1 To process a text in order to understand the author's argument?

#2 To say everything that can be said about the text (the author's arguments; the presuppositions and beliefs of its first readers; the response of the first readers to the text; the compositional history and reception of the text; the historical and social setting of its author & readers; the realia, customs, events, etc. to which it refers; to determine whether the events described actually happened)?

#3 To treat the text as normative and authoritative, as addressing one's own situation, and respond/submit to the goals of its authors?

I would call the first "interpretation," the second "biblical studies," and the third "reading the text as Scripture."

And to answer your original question, I don't see any reason why a "non-believer" could not "truly understand the Bible" in the sense of #1 or #2.

The larger issue of the goal and object of understanding was addressed quite explicitly by J. Gabler; here is an interesting quote:

"If exegesis is to be nothing more than giving an account of the meaning of a writer--of what he himself meant by what he said--then no doubt the conventional explanation of the story of Jesus' temptation as an objective appearance and activity of Satan is the only true one, for in their account Matthew and Luke appear to have nothing more in mind. Once this fact has been established, the task of the grammatical exegete is indeed at an end, since he has only the concern himself with the true meaning of his author. If we know only the meaning of a biblical passage, we in our day are very little further ahead. It is now the turn of historical and philosophical criticism, which subjects such a biblical passage to its closest examination. This critical analysis functions in the area of explanation of content, just as the discovery of the grammatical meaning functions in the area of the explanation of words. The task of the Biblical exegete involves both. In fact, then, we can draw a valid distinction between interpretation and explanation: to the former belongs only the attempt to recover the meaning of the passage; to the latter, on the other hand, the explanation of the matter itself. . . . In our day is anyone satisfied, for example, with the merely grammatical interpretation of the Mosaic cosmogony and of the earliest story of mankind?"

(J. Ph. Gabler, "Über den Unterschied zwischen Auslegung und Erklärung erläutert durch die verschiedene Behandlungsart der Versuchungeschichte Jesu," Neuestes theologisches Journal 6 (1880):224ff, repr. in Kleinere theologische Scriften, vol 1, p. 201ff; quoted in Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems, p. 102-103).

btw: I've never been convinced that Dilthey's distinction is particularly helpful pedagogically; bringing this in as a way to explain the issue usually requires the person involved to spend an hour explaining Dilthey, Schleiermacher, Gadamer, and phenomenological hermeneutics in general :)

all the best,

J. K. Gayle said...

I love how you have in your first paragraph, the passive voice, "so it isn’t misunderstood." And if belief is the kind of understanding required, that makes your argument. But I do think Childs and you are most cogent here.

Do we "understand" by the transliteration Shibboleth any better than did the 42,000 Ephraimites? Which of the two whores understood better when the King threatened to have the one living baby halved by a sword? Which of the two sisters (Mary or Martha) understood the better that Jesus offered? Don't these examples speak to Dilthey’s distinction between erklären and verstehen and to Childs's kerygmatic?

Phil Sumpter said...

Dear Michael,

as always I appreciate your input! Thanks.

As you say, the issue turns on “the goal.” One can set all kinds of goals, one can do psychoanalytical interpretation if that's what you're looking for. The that begs the question of which goal is most appropriate to the subject matter. Psychoanalysing the biblical author may be fascinating and shed light on, well, his psychology, but there is the danger in doing this you will be missing the point of the text. The same goes for authorial-intentional analysis, history of reception, historical reconstruction, compositional reoconstruction etc. Sure, just like psychoanalysis, they all highlight dimensions of the text that may be interesting and indeed helpful for understanding the text. To that end they are helpful (though not all equally helpful!). But what is, should be, the goal of interpretation?

I believe that goal is set by the text itself: to know God and become a disciple. These texts are deeply kerygmatic. They make truth claims and expect a certain kind of readership. Any reading which avoids the challenge to believe or not believe risks being nothing more than an oblique reading, one which misses the point.

The crux is whether one believes or not. I would argue that the theological reality undergirding the Bible is true, and as such it doesn't follow that an non-believer can grasp this dimension of reality. He would deny its existence and posit other explanations for the text.

This is where your interesting Gabler quote comes in. He clearly isn't content with mere “interpretation.” The people “of his day” are yearning for something more and turned to the Bible for some kind of direction (in the 18th C practically everyone thought the Bible was valuable somehow, regardless of how). In other words, although one could theoretically just read off the meaning from the words, the Bible as an “important book” was expected to do more. Otherwise, people wouldn't have turned to it in an attempt to “explain” (rather than just “interpret”) it. The Bible has a “content” that ought to be extracted.

And my point above is that this is what the Bible actually requires. It is a “witness,” and although theoretically you can sit in court and “interpret” (to use Gabler's terminology) the meaning of the witness speech, simply staying there would miss the point of what the witness is doing. He is inviting us to go and see what it is he is talking about, to believe, not his words but the content of his words. You can understand him grammatically, but unless you've been through what he's been through and entered into the reality his is talking about, how can you claim to have really understood him?

So Gabler was right to talk of the inadequacy of staying with meaning. Though the quote doesn't say so, the kerygmatic nature of Scripture requires us to go further. The problem with Gabler was his wrong definition of what the content of the Bible actually is (he belonged to the mythic school, I think). This false interpretation of the true reality to which scripture witnessed (i.e. a kind of romantic understanding of human nature) lead him to a miss-understanding of Scripture. Others make other claims concerning the Bible's true content. Hard core historical critics will claim that the true reality of the Bible is sociological etc. In that faith stance, interpreters making religious claims will not be able to understand the Bible.

But this is more than just pointing out that we all have different assumptions. I believe that your definition of the Bible's true content will influence your reading of it. So that your three step plan doesn't work practically speaking. The descision of numbers 1 and 2 depend on your understanding of the reality of the Scripture. According to one construal of this reality, authorial intent is actually not relevant as a starting point. The same goes for the other dimensions you mention in 2. Some are perhaps more relevant than others ... but how you approach the text depends on how you understand the text to function authrotatively and scripturally (is “scripture” a particular genre, for example, rather than just a use to which otherwise diverse texts are latterly put). So I would put point three at point one, and say that that is be, at least partly, where we start off.

I hope that makes sense ... Ideally I'd be illustrating this with examples. I hope to do so today.

Oh, and thanks for the tip on Dilthey. I don't really know enough about phenomenological hermeneutics. They're the categories Childs used. I would have preferred to use the distinction between the literal (erklären) and spiritual (verstehen) sense ;)

J.K. Gayle,

I'll have to chew on that ...

I'm not so much saying that “belief” per se is the ground for true understanding, as that the categories and horizons provided by biblical theology and all true church tradition are the only adequate ones for helping us grasp the reality to which the Bible points. They aid us, in other words, in making the connection between text and substance (hence the importance of studying Wirkungsgeschichte in theological exegesis). I'm not sure how that would apply to, e.g. the whores and their baby ... or Mary and Martha ....

Delirious said...

I think the distinction needs to be made between "non-believer" and those who have not as yet accepted the belief. Those who define themselves as non-believers cannot truly understand the Bible because they hold bias against it. Those who are simply haven't learned yet, and do not classify themselves as non-believers would probably be more open minded, humble, and teachable, therefore more willing to accept what the Bible teaches.

By the way, I came across a comment you made on another blog. You gave links for where to get a site meter and other helps. I was happy to find this as I was just wishing today that I had a site meter. I'm still in the dark about what a widget is though. :) And when I went to the link, I couldn't see where to get that. But I am so happy to finally have a site meter! Thanks!

Phil Sumpter said...

Hello Delirious,

go here to learn about technorativ widgets (I also have one on the bottom right hand corner of my blog).

I think we're all biased when we come to the Bible, though sometimes in helpful and sometimes in unhelpful ways. I guess when I talk of "believers" I mean it less in the sense of those who have faith as those who stand within church tradition. Church tradition has formulated certain understandings of the nature of the theological referent of the Bible, which then provide us with categories for interpreting it. This categories, claim the church, are the most adequate for interpeting the Bible. Other traditions will have other categories, but there is no such thing as category-less interpretation. And I think that the nature of the Bible requires certain categories rather than others for its adequate interpretation, namely theological ones rather than, though not excluding, historical, psychological, sociological ones etc.