Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Beware of Over Interpreting

I'm not sure if it's a women thing or what, but I know Lynn has a propensity to over analyze everything I say - especially when we're in punchy moods. In those times, my words are parsed, my tone is analyzed, and what is don't say is almost as important as what I do say. Frustrating (and I know I'll get in trouble if Lynn reads this).

I wonder how the biblical authors would react if they had the chance to sit in on a Greek class in seminary, or read one of those voluminous commentaries that have hundreds of pages of footnotes about possible (read obscure) meanings. I finished reading Moises Silva's very refreshing book God, Language and Scripture. It was refreshing because one of his main concerns is the over-interpretation of Scripture. He provides endless, and often humorous examples of how texts can be over-interpreted.

One of the common mistakes is focusing on how words came to mean what the do (etymology, etc.) and reading that history of meaning into the text. For example, the word 'gossip' comes from the word 'godsip' and referred, originally, to the context of godparents and the family 'chatter' associated with christening events. Obviously, when we speak of gossip columns, celebrity gossip, etc., that original meaning isn't in mind at all. We don't import all that history into the choice and use of our words, nor did the biblical authors. One example of this is the commonly held notion that 'ecclesia' (or 'ekklesia') means 'called out ones'. It is formed from two root words - 'ek', which can mean 'out', and 'kaleo', which can mean 'to call'. Sounds straightforward - kinda like a German word, say Fahrvergn├╝gen, means 'driving enjoyment'. However, while Greek is a language that compounds words easily, it's a mistake to view all meanings as so transparent. After all, butterfly in English doesn't meant 'butter that flies'. The word ekklesia was a secular word that simply meant assembly (as is evident from secular Greek writings and from the Bible; see Acts 19:32, 39). Such over-interpretation is common in some circles, and we can all fall into that trap if we have a word study bible or a even just a dictionary! We don't need to be so cute with our interpretation of Scripture.

What's my point? I am deeply concerned about two trends in Biblical interpretation. One, that people can bend a text to mean whatever they want it to mean (argggh. The rise of 'specialty' study bibles is a plague! Does the Bible mean something different for men, for women, for addicts, for teens, for those from an African heritage, for women of color - all available at Barnes and Noble). My second concern is that biblical interpretation becomes the task of the 'professionals'. The reformation snatched the Bible out of the hands of the elites (churchmen) and put it in the hands of the lay people. The reformers articulated the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture, etc. Yet, it seems like we are increasingly in danger of putting the Bible back into the hands of the elites - now the Bible scholars.

What I loved about Silva's book was that he argued for a common sense, big picture approach to the interpretation of the Bible. While not completely discounting the importance of historical research into the development of language, the importance of precision, etc, he highlights the importance of context and for a 'common sense approach' to reading and interpreting the Bible, especially the original languages.