Coherence and the limits on interpretation

Clearly texts do mean what their authors intend them to mean, but it also seems evident that texts (and especially texts within a highly intertextual canon, like the Bible) can also mean more. Once one allows this, what are the limits on such interpretations? My suggestions revolve around the notion of coherence, a text that holds together and makes sense is coherent, a text that is too fragmented or that does not make sense is incoherent.

Since the Bible is a canonical collection, it seems reasonable to expect its parts to be coherent. This does not mean that each part necessarily agrees with every other, or that there are no contradictions between parts. To claim that would be to deny to Scripture the sort of freedom of ideas and opinions that we take for granted in community life. For example in a Baptist Church we meet together to try to discover ‘the mind of Christ’ on matters that concern us, by listening to the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures and through our fellow believers. We do not expect that we will all think alike, but we hope and pray that out of our listening the mind of Christ will emerge.

Yet, if the parts do not ‘fit’ one with another, and thus appear incoherent, this is surely an indication that we have understood one or both wrongly. How might coherent disagreement work?

Take the examples of Dt 23 and Ruth. Deuteronomy 23 seeks to preserve the holiness of the ‘assembly of the Lord‘, it therefore warns that Moabites should be among the groups of people excluded from the assembly, in the light of the history of Moabite interaction with the chosen people. By contrast Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman (and her ethnicity is stressed by being mentioned seven times, more than half the total biblical usage of the word) who displays (by contrast) unusual and praiseworthy faithful commitment to a Bethlehemite family. These two passages argue in strikingly opposite ways, yet they are not incoherent, but can be thought of as two aspects for Israel to consider when thinking of relationships with Moabites.

By contrast, 1 Tim 2:12 appears (especially as it is rendered in most English translations) at the least to deny that women should speak in the church community.1 However,  1 Cor 11:5 presumes that women pray and prophesy in the assembly and in Acts 21:9 the gift of prophecy shown by Philip’s four daughters seems to be approved. Such an apparent incoherence might in this case lead us to examine the texts more closely, and perhaps suspect some contextual situation that has provoked the advice in Timothy (the comment in 2 Tim 3:6 may hint at such a situation).

There is however a second sort of coherence which may prove even more useful. Any Christian reading of the Bible claims that in some sense the Old Testament texts are preparing for or looking forward to the coming of Christ, which fulfills them (or reveals their full meaning). Equally, the New Testament texts look back on Jesus life, death, resurrection, and rule at the Father’s right hand. Therefore, our reading of any Bible passage should cohere with what we know of God in Christ.

People often present this criterion in terms of cruciformity (our readings of Scripture should reveal the crucified God) however, despite the centrality and importance of the cross it is not the whole of the story of Jesus Christ thus I prefer the broader version.

Our readings should cohere with how we understand other parts of the Bible, and also they should cohere with what we know of the God who is supremely revealed in Jesus the Christ. Readings which by these standards are incoherent are suspect and need further investigation.

  1. Leaving aside the debates surrounding the meaning of authenteo. []

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