October 06, 2014

Atheist Bible Study: Introducing biblical interpretation
You can't take it all literally

Good morning! I hope you all have your thinking caps on today, because we are starting our Atheist Bible Study. I wouldn't call this a regular column just yet, but it will certainly be a semi-regular feature.

Today we will be looking at a few procedural notes, and then I want to jump in with three major ways of looking at biblical texts, and why biblical literalism simply isn't the most accurate criticism of Christianity today, although it is still a powerfully valid one.

So...without further ado, let's jump right in, shall we?

First, as I mentioned, some procedural notes about our bible study.

Kayla Sue, why do you feel qualified to speak on biblical scholarship?

This is a very intuitive question that I have asked myself to start out with.

I'm not a biblical scholar. I haven't attended seminary, and aside from a comparative religions class in college, I have no experience studying religion at a higher academic level. So why do I feel qualified to speak to biblical scholarship?

Well, I've read the bible, and I have access to google.

But how is that any different from the hundreds upon hundreds of nonbelievers out there looking at the same subject matter?

I'm honestly not entirely sure that it does. I have a unique background to bring to the text, which will talk about momentarily. I suppose what I believe qualifies me most of all is that I am insatiably curious about my former holy book. I already have, in a short year of atheism, a better grasp of the bible than I ever had as a Christian and I am looking forward to growing that through my personal study, which I will be sharing with you.

So what's this background you speak of?

I've spoken before about growing up in a fundamentalist independent Baptist community. This community believed absolutely in biblical literalism and inerrancy. As such, I've got a unique perspective on the cognitive dissonance required to accept such teachings without questioning--because I have, at different points in my life, accepted and then consequently rejected them.

Much like one of the interpretative strategies we will talk about in a moment, I am able to situate biblical literalism in the context that it exists, culturally and historically. This means that I can speak to both the doctrinal and theological side and also the modern cultural, historical and political context of the movement.

What's the point of this whole exercise?

I'm doing a bible study. It was in part a length study of the bible and prayer that brought me to atheism (strange how that worked, I know...), but this will be my first undertaking of studying scripture and doctrine as a purely social, historical and cultural--so in a way, secular--phenomenon. I'm doing this for personal gain.

I am sharing it in the hopes of bringing some enlightenment to the secular community as a whole. While I don't intend to focus on the negative, it will come up, and we will talk about how it is interpreted in the evangelical community (because that is my background) and other communities as relevant. I will try to situate scripture in as much historical and cultural context as I can. I will point you towards resources that I found intriguing.

What if I don't agree?

If you don't agree, I encourage you to comment, because I love a good discussion! You are also, of course, welcome to write your own series, and I will enjoy reading it, so please link.

What if I'm a Christian and I think you're wrong?

You have several recourses! First, I would encourage you--before you contact me, as you are probably going to want to do!--to consider that there are more than <b>3,000</b> variants of Christianity today. There's simply no way for me to do justice to all of them. So if you don't agree, you are welcome to look at the difference between your sect and the background that I am coming from.

Other than that, you are always welcome to contact me, and I may or may not reply, depending on the nature of the message. There's also prayer, but I seriously doubt it will change my opinion or interpretation.

Now on we go--biblical interpretation for the win!

What is biblical interpretation?

To some extent, all Christian sects practice biblical interpretation, or exegesis.

Exegesis is the critical explanation or interpretation of text, especially scripture.

In some cases, interpretation is on a similar level as scripture itself. This is especially true in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Protestant traditions typically do not put exegesis on the same level as scripture, especially not literal inerrantist traditions.

Today, we are going to look at three types of biblical interpretation that I consider key to understanding Christianity today: biblical literalist tradition, historical critical theory, and critical theory. We will also look at the difference between biblical inerrancy and biblical infallibility.

Lastly, I'll wrap it up by looking at what this means for nonbelievers dealing with Christians.

What is biblical literalism?

As biblical literalism is a favorite among nonbelievers, I thought I would start with it. It's also the tradition that I am personally most familiar with, because it was the doctrine of the churches I grew up in.

Literalism actually has two meanings. On the one hand, it's simply the tradition of examining a text--in this case, the bible--as a piece of literature. In this meaning, it still looks at the text as reverent and referential, but it also looks for its historical and grammatical contexts, such as syntax, relevant turns of phrase, imagery, theme, and cultural context. This is not what is typically pictured when we think "biblical literalist".

When we think "literalism", we tend to think of the dictionary definition: interpretation of words in their usual or most basic sense.

In this way, literalism loses much of the context of the former meaning. What is said is what is said--there's little context or nuance brought to the interpretation...and that is an accurate representation of biblical literalism in the widespread sense. For the purposes of this biblical study, we will use "biblical literalism" in this sense, and will use "historical-grammatical literalism" if I happen to reference the other definition.

Oftentimes, biblical literalism and biblical inerrancy go together. I can't think of a single instant where they weren't mentioned in the same breath while I was growing up.

What is the historical-critical method?

The historical-critical method (HCM) is a much different approach to biblical study. It relies more on academic disciplines to formulate a complete picture of the text. The HCM tries to decipher the text's original meaning in a literal sense, within the historical context, and then tries to situate that with the historical and cultural context of the author and original audience. This is a much different approach than biblical literalism, because it allows for nuance. The bible is not taken as strictly inerrant, but rather, as an outgrowth of culture. While some approach this from a purely secular view, it's also accepted in theological circles and taught in seminaries.

Our good friend Wikipedia summarizes the approach to HCM propagated by Richard Soulen in the Handbook of Biblical Criticism as:

The approach of Historical-critical methods typifies the following: (1) that reality is uniform and universal, (2) that reality is accessible to human reason and investigation (3) that all events historical and natural are interconnected and comparable to analogy, (4) that humanity’s contemporary experience of reality can provide objective criteria to what could or could not have happened in past events.

Surprisingly, while not widely practiced by evangelical Protestants ascribing to biblical literalism today, the HCM was made possible by the Protestant Reformation, which untethered biblical criticism and study from the tradition of authoritative interpretation by the Church.

HCM is comprised of a variety of methodologies, the most common being:

  • Source Criticism: the search for original sources
  • Form Criticism: the division of the bible into a series of stories that are organized and studied by genre
  • Redaction Criticism: the process of studying how the bible was collected, arranged, edited and modified
  • Radical Criticism: the rejection of all theological bias and any sympathetic scholarship

While biblical literalists occasionally try to paint this as a new "liberal" method of studying the bible, it truly isn't. The HCM is traditionally considered to have been started by Desiderius Erasmus and Benedict Spinoza.

 What are critical theory and hermeneutics?

Critical theory is the newest of these three disciplines. It's not exclusive to biblical interpretations.

Again, from my good friend Wiki (yeah, we're on first name basis!), defines the point of critical theory as:

[to gain] knowledge via interpretation to understand the meaning of human texts and symbolic expressions--including the interpretation of texts which themselves interpret other texts

In this sense, critical theory is just another name for hermeneutics. While biblical, Talmudical, and Quranic hermeneutics all exists, we're looking primarily at the biblical context on this blog, because that is (again) my background personally.

Like many of the subjects we cover, this is a continuation of principles that I hold near and dear:

The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneutists, especially Protestant exegetists, to view Scriptural texts as secular classical texts. They interpreted Scripture as responses to historical or social forces so that, for example, apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporary Christian practices.

For biblical hermeneutics, a common process followed is:

One such process is taught by Henry A Virkler, in Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (1981): 
Lexical-syntactical analysis: This step looks at the words used and the way the words are used. Different order of the sentence, the punctuation, the tense of the verse are all aspects that are looked at in the lexical syntactical method. Here, lexicons and grammar aids can help in extracting meaning from the text.
Historical/cultural analysis: The history and culture surrounding the authors is important to understand to aid in interpretation. For instance, understanding the Jewish sects of the Palestine and the government that ruled Palestine in New Testament times increases understanding of Scripture. And, understanding the connotations of positions such as the High Priest and that of the tax collector helps us know what others thought of the people holding these positions.
Contextual analysis: A verse out of context can often be taken to mean something completely different from the intention. This method focuses on the importance of looking at the context of a verse in its chapter, book and even biblical context.
Theological analysis: It is often said that a single verse usually doesn't make a theology. This is because Scripture often touches on issues in several books. For instance, gifts of the Spirit are spoken about in Romans, Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. To take a verse from Corinthians without taking into account other passages that deal with the same topic can cause a poor interpretation.
Special literary analysis: There are several special literary aspects to look at, but the overarching theme is that each genre of Scripture has a different set of rules that applies to it. Of the genres found in Scripture, there are: narratives, histories, prophecies, apocalyptic writings, poetry, psalms and letters. In these, there are differing levels of allegory, figurative language, metaphors, similes and literal language. For instance, the apocalyptic writings and poetry have more figurative and allegorical language than does the narrative or historical writing. These must be addressed, and the genre recognized to gain a full understanding of the intended meaning.

Hermeneutics and critical theory allow for a wide variety of interpretations, one of my favorite is trajectory hermeneutics. From the Wiki linked above:

Trajectory hermeneutics or redemptive-movement hermeneutics (RMH) is a hermeneutical approach that seeks to locate varying 'voices' in the text and to view this voice as a progressive trajectory through history (or at least through the Biblical witness); often a trajectory that progresses through to the present day. The contemporary reader of Scripture is in some way envisaged by the Biblical text as standing in continuity with a developing theme therein. The reader, then, is left to discern this trajectory and appropriate it accordingly.

This is a far different approach than the one chronicled by biblical literalism. It seems us as a continuation of the flow of divine inspiration through the ages. Fascinating!

What's the difference between biblical inerrancy and infallibility?

You'd think the difference between these terms wouldn't be great. After all, inerrancy is the "lack of error, infallibility", and infallibility is the "inability to be wrong". One is right there in the definition of the other.

But in reality, the doctrines are quite distinct.

Biblical inerrancy is the belief that the bible, as the absolutely inspired word of the divine, cannot contain errors--and does not. This is a crucial belief, one that is impossible to depart from. People who ascribe to biblical inerrancy truly do not believe that the bible can be wrong, and they believe any deviation from this actually undermines the faith as a whole.

On the other hand, biblical infallibility actively limits that bible's authority. Rather than being the authority on every subject, the bible has specific areas of expertise--faith, salvation and redemption. This can still cause some conflict--it conflates the issue of sin and the fall of man, for instance--but by and large leaves room for secular domination of history and science. To these adherents, contradictions within the bible don't matter, because the actual text itself isn't as crucial. So long as one can discern the basic truth of salvation and faith, one is, as they say, good to go.

This is no small difference. One leaves room for the bible to fit into modern life, while the other distinctly doesn't.

What does this mean for atheists and other nonbelievers looking at the bible?

I've talked about it before, but there's a serious tendency in our community to want to debunk Christianity by looking at the bible literally, and separate from any supporting doctrine and theology. Not only is this inaccurate, but it's unfair.

Believe me, I know that it is difficult to reconcile Christians beliefs, even in their most liberal sense. I know because I've personally moved down that spectrum, from the very conservative (although not most conservative) to the more liberal and found all of it equally untenable.

However, there are many people that are able to reconcile their belief with a rational outlook. By not taking the time to truly understand scripture in light of doctrine and interpretation, we undermine our own position of open-minded skepticism. You can't go into studying the bible believing that religion is inherently bad, or you color your own results. This shortcoming was well put by Conrad Hayes:

The literalist mentality does not manifest itself only in conservative churches, private-school enclaves, television programs of the evangelical right, and a considerable amount of Christian bookstore material; one often finds a literalist understanding of Bible and faith being assumed by those who have no religious inclinations, or who are avowedly antireligious in sentiment. Even in educated circles the possibility of more sophisticated theologies of creation is easily obscured by burning straw effigies of biblical literalism.

This is an argument more or less for intelligent design, but the underlying points are true. We are creating strawmen through our lack of honest and open scrutiny of the scriptures.

And we live in a time where such understanding is, I believe, truly critical. There's a wide variety of Christians, many of whom are more than willing to align with our secular causes, including wider acceptance of nonbelief and the separation of church and state. There are many Christians (and other religionists, for that matter) who could be active allies because they recognize the importance of both freedom from and freedom of religion.

When we argue from strawman fallacies, though, we alienate these Christians. RationalWiki touches on this a bit:

Some Christians would argue that it is a necessary fact of life that doubting one's own religion and all the things one learned from one's family is the most important step one can take to living the life of a model Christian. Many educated Christians who do not believe in Biblical literalism would maintain that interpreting the Bible literally, and therefore giving the genocidal tendencies of the Old Testament precedence over the love and compassion of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, is fundamentally wrong. Some would go even further to say that the center of one's faith should be Jesus Christ, as illuminated by the Bible. Making the Bible the center of one's faith, rather than Jesus and his commands to love and care for humanity, is therefore a form of idolatry, and deeply sinful. 

 So where we could find allies, we find only alienated religionists.

There's also, circling back a bit, the undermining of our own credibility. When a biblical literalist looks at a nonbeliever's interpretation of scripture, they are automatically looking at it through years of doctrinal buffering. I've touched before on how that can be seen as yet more proof that we are scripturally illiterate.

For these reasons, it's increasingly important to be knowledgeable about the bible and biblical doctrines.

Wrapping Up

This concludes our Atheist Bible Study broadcast for today. Please join us...

Okay, so I don't know when the next one will be up. Originally, this post was supposed to be detailing the Pentetauch authorship and the documentary hypothesis, but I felt that it was more important to start by looking at different ways of interpreting the bible. So I have copious amounts of notes on that prior subject, which will probably be compiled tomorrow or the day after.

Most of the notes from today's posts came from Wikipedia because it was the easiest source to compile from on short notice. This wasn't the plan, Stan, but I think it worked out well.

So the next post will look at authorship of the Pentetauch as a whole, then we will look at why Genesis is important, and then Genesis 1. Tentatively, I have the following schedule etched out:

  • Tuesday: Pentetauch authorship
  • Wednesday: Genesis as the "seed" of all doctrines
  • Thursday: Genesis 1 (with an interesting look at different views of creationism)
And that would conclude our first week of posts.

Got any ideas for directions or resources I could use? Please send them to me. Twitter, Facebook, email--I've got 'em. Feel free to reach out.

Other than that, I enjoyed this, and I hope you did too.

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