Scripture as Sacrament:

The Bible as an Object of Knowledge

1999

 

Introduction

It would not be difficult to get confused by the variety of contradictory interpretations of Scripture in use in the church today. What makes the situation even more daunting is the confidence with which the various groups make their contradictory claims. Each denomination or individual has Scriptures they enlist in support of their interpretations, and many would claim that Scripture alone is the source of their beliefs. Unfortunately, the meaning of "Scripture alone" seems to vary from one person to the next.

 

There are reasons for this diversity, however, and spiritual failure is not the main one. Interpretations differ because the meaning of words is based far more on factors outside of a text than on the text itself. Scripture, as any text, derives its meaning from whatever mechanism of understanding appropriates it and invests it with that meaning. That is to say, it is an "object of knowledge." Such mechanisms lie completely outside of the text. They are usually a function of reasoning, which in turn is molded by traditions and experiences. Even direct revelation from the Holy Spirit is a kind of "mechanism" by which the words of Scripture are appropriated, and it comes from outside the text.

 

To bear out this point, the following pages are largely devoted to three aspects of Biblical interpretation that confirm these claims. They flow naturally from the fact that the Bible is an "object of knowledge." Texts are always capable of sustaining multiple meanings. This aspect of language is especially true of the Bible, since it contains so many different documents from so many different contexts. Since those contexts were remarkably different from those of contemporary America, the number of possible meanings we could see in its words multiplies fantastically.

 

What we will find is that the "original meaning" of Scripture, while a crucial and viable goal of our knowledge, is not in fact the primary domain in which God reveals himself in Scripture. Rather, God has appointed the Scriptures as a kind of "sacrament" a divinely appointed meeting place for revelation. As the water of baptism or the bread of communion, the words of the Bible were everyday words used by the ancient cultures to which the Bible was first written. Yet God chose and continues to choose these words as a place for sacred moments with His people.

 

1. The same words can mean different things.

The meaning of a word is not contained or fixed in the word itself.<1> A dictionary, for example, does not present some essential or absolute meaning that guarantees I will know what another English speaker is saying. Dictionaries do not control the English language we control the dictionaries.

 

A dictionary simply records the most frequent ways in which certain words are being used at the time that edition of the dictionary is published. It does not record the vast number of metaphorical uses that can be created on the spot by any English speaker. Dictionaries must be changed repeatedly to include new ways in which words are being used. Over time, certain meanings become "archaic" and eventually fall out of the English language altogether.<2>

 

It is of dubious value, therefore, to look up the meanings of words in the Bible by turning to an English dictionary. What does the way in which words are being used today have to do with how they were being used two thousand years ago and more? Suffice it to say, one would need an edition of a Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek dictionary that was current at the time the particular book of the Bible you were reading was written. Of course such things do not exist.<3>

 

Scholars do their best to derive the various meanings that were in use at the time the Biblical documents were written, but certainty is often not possible. As we will see below, the difference between the meanings of words in two different languages is bound to be as great as the difference between the two cultures that use those languages. English words, therefore, are incapable of translating the precise meanings the Bible originally had.

 

In a sense, the meaning of the Bible depends on the "dictionary" a reader brings to it. The default dictionary is the one that comes from the way the reader uses words in his or her everyday life.<4> For English speakers who have never studied the Bible, their definitions will be based on the way words are being used in their world and culture, and they will try to make sense of the text accordingly.

 

Various Christian traditions have slightly different "dictionaries" as well. A Roman Catholic will define the word "conscience" as an inner voice that tells them right from wrong. A Wesleyan will pay close attention when the word "holiness" surfaces and may relate it to a second work of grace. In such cases the meaning that is understood is a function of the denominational "dictionary" brought to the text. The importance of tradition in understanding thus comes into focus.

 

What is almost an impossibility, however, is that a person will automatically bring a "original meaning" dictionary with them to the text. To read the words of Jesus as he precisely meant them requires not only that we know what the Aramaic words were behind the Greek in our New Testament, but also that we know how they were being used in Palestine in the first century of the common era.

 

What about the Holy Spirit? Does not the Holy Spirit help us understand the meaning? If we believe the Bible speaks to everyone today, then we must agree that the "spiritual" dictionary the Holy Spirit provides us is the dominant mode of Godís revelation. For each time and for every individual, the Holy Spirit can "quicken" the words to be the Word of God for us over and over again.

 

But this meaning should not be confused with the original meaning, which was a function of the way in which words were used two thousand years ago and more. To say that we can understand the precise meaning of the Bible today without knowledge of the ancient contexts is to say that the Bible was not understood or relevant to its original recipients but rather was meant just for English speaking Americans today.<5> On the contrary, a picture of God emerges in which He repeatedly stoops to the weakness of our understanding, investing new meanings into his Word time and time again.

 

Clearly, the meaning we see in the words of Scripture depends on the "definitions" we bring to those words. Because the "dictionaries" from which these definitions come lie entirely outside of the text, it follows that the meaning of Scripture for any individual depends far more on factors outside of the Bible than it does on the words of Scripture itself.

 

2. There is more than one possible way to relate individual Scriptures to one another.

The situation is made substantially more complicated by the fact that the Bible is not one document written in one context. Since the Protestant Bible contains sixty-six books written in three languages over an incredibly long period of time, we have a vast number of contexts to consider when trying to get at its original meaning. Many of these contexts are unknown to us.

 

Further, there is the matter of genre. One does not know how to take words unless one knows the genre of literature at which one is looking. A novel creates different expectations in its reader than an obituary does. If we do not know what genre we are reading, let alone its ancient parameters, we will not know how its words were being used. Such questions cannot be answered on the basis of our sensibilities but only by investigating what the limits of those genres were in the ancient world.

 

Because the Bible was written to address so many different situations, fitting its varied statements together into a coherent voice is a very complicated task indeed. What does the Bible tell us about God? What does the Bible say about observing the Sabbath or about divorce? Any attempt to answer such questions will require us to create a coherent pattern out of the individual bits of "data" found throughout the Bible.

 

When Isaiah 38:18 says, "Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness," the initial impression one gets is that there is no future hope for the dead, even for a righteous person such as King Hezekiah. How then does one relate this verse to 1 Thessalonians 4:16, which says the dead in Christ will rise and thus have hope? The two verses can be related to one another in a number of ways the point is that one makes the connection from the outside of the Bible looking in. It is a function of reasoning, often aided by oneís Christian tradition or experiences (including experiences of the Holy Spirit).

 

Almost any coherent pattern one creates will encounter "naughty verses" in the text, that is, verses that at least on the surface seem to contradict the overall pattern.<6> A Calvinist, for example, must relate his or her interpretation of Romans 8:35, "Who will separate us from the love of Christ?" [answer: no one] to the words of Hebrews 10:26, "If we continue to sin willfully after coming to a knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins." As Calvinists, they will interpret the latter verse in a way that does not contradict the doctrine of eternal security. A Wesleyan may also find in 1 Timothy 2:12 a verse that must be related to his or her belief in the ordination of women: "I permit no woman to teach a man."

 

The diversity of the original contexts makes such prioritizing, evaluating, and integrating inevitable not because the Bible has errors but because its words are an object of knowledge and thus require interpretation. Such mechanisms of understanding organize the Biblical data into coherent patterns and thus invest meaning into the text from the outside looking in.<7>

Even some of the most basic patterns of organization are due to the influence of Christian tradition rather than being intrinsic to the text itself. When reading a Christian Bible, an orthodox Jew will interpret the New Testament as a misunderstanding and perversion of what he or she would term "the Hebrew Scriptures." A Christian, on the other hand, views these same documents as the "Old Testament" and believes the New Testament to provide the decisive key to understanding it.

 

The Jewish interpretation seems to us an obviously faulty organization of the data of Scripture. Nevertheless, it is a possible interpretation on the basis of the text alone. We think otherwise because we are a part of Christian tradition and the church universal. In this instance, Christian tradition holds a more crucial role in appropriating Scripture than the actual words of the Bible themselves. "Scripture alone," in this example, would not prohibit one from concluding that Judaism -- and not Christianity was the appropriate religion.

 

3. The Bible was not revealed on our cultureís terms.

When we say that the meaning of words depends on the way they are used, we say much more than one might think at first. The word "father," for example, is used significantly differently in middle class America today than it was in the ancient Mediterranean or ancient Israel. The use of words such as this one is bound up with the social matrix or culture of the one speaking or reading the words.<8>

 

Several far-reaching implications flow from this realization. First of all, one cannot make neat distinctions between Biblical commands that are "cultural" and ones that are "timeless." All the commands of the Bible are cultural in the sense that their meaning was relevant and significant within the cultures and world views to which they were first given. In order for there to be timeless commands, we must suppose that the significance of the command would be the same in all cultures in all places. Anthropology teaches us that the list of such commands would be very short indeed.<9>

 

Secondly, most of what we have understood to be timeless truths are more likely truths that our cultural glasses see in the text. The creation of a single "biblical world view" is really a sophisticated organization and appropriation of the text from within our current world view. No approach to Scripture that is oriented around the original meaning of the text can speak of a monolithic biblical world view.<10> The nature of human understanding and language is such that the appropriation of Scripture at any point in history is derivative from the broader world view of that time period.

 

It is important to note how much the Enlightenment and Western tradition in general colors the categories from within which we approach the Bible. Indeed, there is often an evolutionary tinge to our interpretations as we see things in the text that the original readers simply could not have. While people seem comfortable with the suggestion that culture played a role in the Biblical statements and commands, God is assumed to be "on the same page" as we are. It is easier for us to believe that there are things God required of them that He does not require of us, than it is to believe that owing to our culture there are areas where God might require of us things He did not require of them.

 

Connecting these two quite different worlds is not an exact science. Meaning in one context is rarely directly transferable to another context, particularly one as different from the biblical world as ours. Nevertheless, the fusing of these "two horizons" does take place repeatedly.<11> It does not take place precisely, not by way of some magical formula that insures the right answer but through the Holy Spirit and the communities of faith through which He speaks. Once again, the most crucial part of relating the Bible to today is a function of experiencing God and of listening to the way He has worked through our traditions. All these channels of truth are processed by a healthy dose of reverent reasoning as we reflect upon this object of our knowledge the Bible.

 

Conclusion

It should be obvious by now that any interpretation one has of Scripture is overwhelmingly dependent on factors that lie outside of the text. Not only is there the matter of the particular "dictionary" one uses to define the words, but there is the broader matter of culture in general. The possibilities for multiple interpretation are almost endless on the basis of these factors alone. When one adds the fact that interpretation requires the organization of a vast amount of "data" into a coherent pattern, it is no surprise that there are so many different denominations with so many different beliefs.

 

How then can we use the Bible in the church today? Where does the tremendous gap in culture leave us? Is the meaning of Scripture doomed to stay distant from us?

 

No! Revelation is not simply a thing of the past it cannot be if the Bible is to speak to us today. The Bible was the Word of God to its original recipients, but it also speaks repeatedly to us today as God stoops to the weakness of our understanding time and time again. God has appointed these words ordinary things that most humans use every day as a divine meeting place for revelation. Scripture is a sacrament, outward and visible signifiers of inward and spiritual signifieds.<12>

 

Because of the nature of language, we can never be absolutely sure we have either the correct original meaning or the most authentic way of relating that meaning to today. But we can still walk humbly with our God, listening for His voice with openness of heart. We can still humbly allow the Spirit to speak to us in communities of faith, testing the spirits of interpretation as the body of Christ. The "Word" of God is living and active and is still able to judge between the thoughts and intents of our hearts.



Endnotes

<1> It is not difficult to show that the meaning of a word is neither in some Platonic picture of that word in heaven (a form to which that word corresponds) or in some Aristotelian essence derived from all the uses of that word. Simply stated, words do not have essential meanings because their meaning derives from the way they are used from sociology, not metaphysics. This insight is primarily attributed to L. Wittgenstein, who argued that the meaning of a word is a function of "language games" that derive from various "forms of life." His Philosophical Investigations is his most noted work in which he explores this idea and decries the so-called "picture theory of language." In the picture theory of language, we are said to know words because of the essence we picture when those words are spoken. A rude gesture sufficed to debunk the theory for Wittgenstein.

 

<2> A quick look at the King James Version or any Shakespearean play will suffice to illustrate the point. To have "intercourse" no longer means to have a conversation, and a personís "conversation" is no longer their entire conduct but simply their speech.

 

<3> As we discuss below under point three, having such a dictionary would still not necessarily bring us closer to the original meaning. In its fullest sense, the "definitions" about which we are speaking presuppose the social matrix in which they are used, and a dictionary does not really provide such information. It is thus not enough to know a one word definition for a Greek or Hebrew word if I know nothing about the world from which that word drew its meaning and the immediate context in which it was used.

 

<4> Reader-response criticism is a branch of literary criticism that is not interested in recovering the original meaning from the text (often thought to be impossible anyway) but instead is interested in how various readers respond to it. A text is viewed as having as many meanings as there are readers.

 

<5> Interestingly enough, those who say the Bible speaks directly to us (or that God put meanings in the Bible that could not be understood until today) imply that we have a privileged place in the entirety of salvation history. Such a perspective is almost evolutionary in tone, setting us up as superior to all other times.

 

<6> Those acquainted with Thomas Kuhnís The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962) will no doubt see that the same dynamics that take place in regard to scientific paradigms also apply to the interpretation of the Bible or any epistemological situation. Once one sees this connection, one has understood what the subtitle of this paper means.

 

<7> This aspect of interpretation is the beginning of a fairly strong argument against using terms such as "biblical Christianity" or "the Christian world view." The patterns to which such terms usually refer is a particular Christian traditionís organizing system which is more a function of oneís religious community than the Bible itself. The third section will make this point more clearly.

 

<8> For a good delineation of this claim, see B. Malina, The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels (London: Routledge, 1997) chapter 1.

 

<9> Even a command as basic as "love your neighbor" has different implications within the pages of Scripture and these differ somewhat from today as well. There can be little doubt, for example, that the author of Psalm 137 did not view the Babylonians or their children as his (or her) neighbors. Jesus, on the other hand, gives a substantially broadened focus to the command that was no doubt shocking to his audiences. Finally, we are prone to include things in love that none of the Biblical authors could have related to such as the emotional nurturing of an individualís self-esteem.

 

<10> This is not to say that there are not common components to the various expressions of world view in Scripture.

 

<11> An allusion to the favorite term of G. Gadamer, whose best known work is Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975). For the relevance of Gadamerís work to Biblical hermeneutics, see A. Thiseltonís The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).

 

<12> The terms signifier and signified are terms from linguistics and refer roughly to the distinction between a word and its meaning.