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. []

Limits to Christian Bible reading

Once upon a time, roughly between the full flowering of the blooms of enlightenment some time in the 19th century and loss of confidence in the whole project induced in Westerners by two World Wars in the 20th, Western readers lost their trust in those who claim that ‘texts mean what they say, no more and no less’. This more open and creative attitude entered the church, ushered in enthusiastically by pious readers of the Bible who expect to find God’s message for them writ loud on every page, and Charismatic preachers who rejoice in finding meaning in all those details of the design of the temple that take up much of Exodus. Approaches that claim that like with Humpty Dumpty’s relationship to words (‘when I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean’)1 biblical texts mean what they the reader say they mean. Such a reading is not authenticated by the text but rather by direct revelation to the person who makes it. Others accept (or reject) the understanding  as they accept or reject the spiritual authority of that interpreter. Meaning in this postmodern world is personal. This free allocation of meaning to the reader is effectively the end of the Bible as an authoritative text — for the (human visible)  authority is not the Bible but the interpreter, or the interpreter’s community of support.

Understandably this approach has been resisted (rather piecemeal since it is highly attractive to ‘authoritative’ readers, such as pastors, or a fortiori televangelists)  by Fundamentalists and others conservative enough to wish to retain the Bible as genuine authority and not a mere mystifying symbol disguising human authority. Our/their response has been an appeal to authorial intent — an approach that is reasonable, but restrictive. After all surely, pace Humpty, a text’s meaning is related to what its author intended it to mean?! Yet all texts mean more than this. In one direction all human texts communicate messages the author did not (at least consciously) intend, think of the sexist and racist messages that even a text the speaker/writer believes quite innocuous can carry.2

Texts also often say more than their authors intend in more positive ways. Biblical texts, in particular, may be heard as being ‘fulfilled’ in Christ, as types of the coming gospel. Limiting meaning only to what the author may reasonably be supposed to have meant is therefore too restrictive.

[ In the next post I will propose an approach to limiting meaning that is less restrictive, and yet provides reasonable and theologically defensible limits to creative rereadings of Scripture. This post and the planned next one were stimulated by my friend Jonathan Robinson who has been reading Peter J Leithart Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009. Heard at second hand, filtered by Jonathan, this book seems to beg this question of limits on reading. The previous post where I distinguish two ways God communicates through Scripture may also be helpful. ]

  1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass: And What Alice Found There. London: Macmillan & Company, 1875, 124. []
  2. The recent kerfuffle over remarks by Mary Beard may be taken as an example, but my readers will need to pick their own, because in the nature of things we are each more or less sensitive to some sorts of ‘…ist’ remarks. []

Phone call or broadcast

God uses Scripture in two quite different ways. I think of them as the phone call and the broadcast. Each works quite differently from the other, and mixing them up is a serious mistake.

In a phone call someone is talking to one other person (or at most a few other people). In a phone call we shape the communication for each person. Sam likes cooking, Jo loves jokes… We know God sometimes  communicates like this, by ‘phone call’, from Jer 1:11-12. God asks Jeremiah what he sees, apparently ‘an almond tree’, this (somehow, and I’ll explain the ‘how’ below) tells Jeremiah that God message is: “I am watching over my word to perform it.” Reading this in English we certainly do not get what is going on in this phone call from God to Jeremiah. That’s because we are not in on the joke! The Hebrew words for ‘almond tree’ shaqad and ‘watching over’ shoqed make a pun. Since Jeremiah loved bad puns (we know because he makes them all the time, and they are often important to his preaching, like my pastor making bad jokes) God chose an appropriate ‘code’ for his phone message.

When we were suddenly evacuated out from Kinshasa in Congo, and cut off from our friends, closest colleagues, work, and church, God used the story of Jonah to send a phone message to Barbara and me. God chose Jonah because we both love the story. (Barbara even does the actions as she sings it with children!) The message God gave us has nothing to do with the message of the book. Jonah is not about God leading people to move on to (what eventually, and cutting a long story very short turned out to be) New Zealand!

By contrast anyone making a radio broadcast needs to remember that anyone might ‘tune in’, and they need to ensure their message is suitable for public consumption. Not knowing the mic is live and continuing a private conversation can be very embarrassing:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama have come under fire after they were overheard talking rudely about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the G-20 summit.
Sarkozy was overheard telling Obama: “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” according to French website Arret Sur Images.1
Bible passages are broadcast messages. They have meaning for everyone who tunes in.
  1. From CNN. []

Finishing well: conclusions

It is astonishing how often we (preachers, students, writers…) put more effort into openings than conclusions. Of course openings matter. If this opening is too dull you will slick on to another site and I’ll have no readers.

BUT, conclusions also matter, if a reader/listener has made it all the way to the end of your 40 minute sermon, your 2,000 word essay, or even just your 300 word blog post, they deserve a reward!

Currently I am again finishing marking and also moderating student assignments (from the Summer Session). At least 9 out of 10 essays end badly. It is not that they are tragedies (stories whose plotline goes like this ∩)1 but it is a tragedy. Apart from the pictures, or illustrative stories, the concluding words are what people are most likely to remember.

We should always end with a clear strong statement of the thing that matters most about our sermon, essay, or blog post. Failure to do this cheats your reader — worse it cheats precisely those readers who have stuck it out to the end — of what they most need, a clear memorable summary of what you were saying.

[By the way that means that, cinema conventions being different, the ending of those old Loony Tunes cartoons is not at all the way we should end written work! Don’t just say ‘that’s all folks!’ rather sum up your main point, simply and clearly.]

So, end your blog post, essay, sermon… well, give a clear simple summary. Like this!

  1. As opposed to comedies that go like this U :) []

Peace and refreshment among the suburban bricks and concrete

This is the land we have bought to build our church on. Currently it is an Avocado and Kiwi orchard. Just about everyone who visits speaks of green, of orchards or an oasis amid the suburban bricks and concrete.

Already the land on two sides has been bulldozed flat, building has even begun on Kiwi dream big one story homes on 600m² sections. They are lovely houses, but they hardly have gardens or ‘yards’. Soon the third side (they have already cleared the Kiwi and begun the earthworks) will become a primary school – one of the biggest ‘green’ splashes among the houses.

We see our site on the roundabout next to the school as Te Oro (The Orchard) with some of these trees perhaps making a processional entrance to one of the sacred spaces (church, outdoor sanctuary/cinema/BBQ area?). I’d love to keep not only some trees, but also some Kiwi, perhaps as a pergola over the outdoor sanctuary/cinema seating.

But we want to build other spaces where people can come for peace, refreshment… to be equipped for life… maybe a pre-school…

Judgemental God 2: perspicuity (clear and obvious)

The goal of Christian biblical hermeneutics

The goal of hermeneutics is understanding communications.
The purpose of Christian biblical hermeneutics is understanding God’s message(s) in the Christian Scriptures. That is Christians understand the Bible to in some way deliver divine messages. Other people, or Christians when they are reading for other purposes (e.g. with an interest in history) may rightly understand the Bible in other ways, but a Christian interpreting the Bible as Scripture is seeking a message from God.

The nature of the Bible

The Bible is a collection of works of human communication. These works are of varied genres, come from a wide range of locations, and from a broad span of time. The Bible does not claim1 to have been composed or dictated by God or another supernatural being. It does claim to be inspired by God, and so to contain divine messages. The orthodox understanding (at least among Protestants) however, is that these messages are not encoded, but are plainly to be seen.2

This seems to imply that the many and various (and therefore not at all clear, except to the recipients) messages that the Holy Spirit inspires people to hear as they read Scripture are not ‘the message of the Bible. It seems evident to me3 that God does use the Bible as the stimulus for personal messages, rather as the pun on the Hebrew word for ‘almond tree’ was used to inspire Jeremiah with a prophetic message (Jer 1:11-12). My point here is that such personal messages stimulated by Scripture are not messages of Scripture (which would mean they were for all times and all places).

Clarity or perspicuity

If the divine message(s) of Scripture are clear and obvious (perspicuous) then they cannot be thought to reside in the details. For the details of what the Bible says are often far from ‘clear and obvious’. For example, should Christians prefer to worship on Saturdays or on Sundays? Worship on Saturday is enjoined on Israel in the stipulations of the Sinai covenant, worship on Sunday is inferred from several New Testament references but is not unequivocally enjoined. Therefore my conclusion is that neither my (Baptist) practice of gathering with others on Sundays, nor the practice of Adventists (to gather on Saturdays) is either enjoined or forbidden by the Bible’s teaching.

On the other hand, ‘you should not kill’ is one of the Ten Commandments, and this is reinforced by Jesus into a warning against the sort of thoughts (anger and superiority) which might lead to killing (Matt 5:21-22). This goal is reinforced in a number of other places and so seems a clear teaching of Scripture.

But what you are saying is not precise

Some may object that what is suggested above is not precise. How many times does an idea need to be repeated before it becomes ‘clear’? This objection is true, but does not appear fatal. We tolerate a justice system based upon ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. I have served on a jury where the nature of such reasonable doubt was explored (I suspect a significant proportion of all juries spend time on this, since most cases that involve juries deliberating seem to involve some doubt). This system of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is oxymoronically not certain, but it is the most fair and equitable we have been able to devise. Life in a fallen world lacks certainty. Muslims and others who claim that the words, and not merely the message(s), of their Scriptures are divine sidestep this uncertainty, for Christians the Bible’s teaching should claim to be a divine word for all only when it is clear and evident – perspicuous.

  1. Unlike many other religious writings, such as the Holy Qur’an. []
  2. This doctrine is known as the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture. []
  3. On the basis of experience as well as observation. []

Isaiah’s signature?

This broken 2,700-year-old clay seal, discovered in an ancient Jerusalem rubbish pit, may include the name of the biblical prophet Isaiah. PHOTOGRAPH BY OURIA TADMOR/ EILAT MAZAR
(text and image from the National Geographic article discussed below)

Biblical Archaeology Review has published an article (in a special issue honouring retired founder Hershel Shanks) that asks: Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature? The title requires a quick simple answer: No!

What the team led by author of the article (controversial biblical archaeologist Eilat Mazar) found was not a signature but a bulla, the impression made in clay by a seal. That is something which might serve much as a signature serves today to authenticate documents (though may also have served another purpose).

A more precise, and more difficult question would have been: Is this an impression of the Prophet Isaiah’s seal? The presence of the name Isaiah is close to certain, despite the last letter being damaged, however as Christopher Rollston points out (cited by the National Geographic in a more balanced and scholarly treatment of the find) the letters found might represent the names of almost twenty other biblical characters. Who knows how many possible owners of the seal lived in Jerusalem in Hezekiah’s time.

The other word on the impression might solve this problem, the letters nby could well be the start of the word nby’ (the little ‘ represents a letter that in Hebrew looks like an X) which means prophet.  There are two related problems with this: firstly if the seal was intended to read ‘Isaiah the prophet’ we’d usually expect the ‘the’ to be written hnby’ there is no trace of a ‘the’ on the impression, also nby might more often be expected to be Isaiah’s father’s name. But the biblical prophet’s father was ‘mos nothing like nby.

So, could this be an impression of Isaiah the prophet’s seal? Yes. Is it? We do not know. Further evidence may throw more light, but for now a very exciting, but unproven possibility.

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I have chosen not to mention the Times of Israel‘s article as it begins with breathless and thoughtless reporting of Mazar’s every wild claim, before turning to more measured comment.

Judgemental Old Testament God: 1. Nasty God to punish poor Moses like that

I have been reminded recently how often Christians and non/ex/anti-Christians alike speak of the God of the Old Testament as if this was somehow a different person from the God of the New Testament. One of the stories often cited for this harsh judgemental picture of God, that is assumed to be the norm in the Old (defunct/out of date) Testament is his refusal to allow poor faithful old Moses into the promised land.

People often cite Num 20, where they say God lashes out at Moses for a trivial sin, or worse punishes Moses for Israel’s sin. But is that what happens?

Moses is perhaps the greatest hero in the Old Testament. Through him, God freed the Israelites from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. God chose him to mediate the covenant between the Lord and Israel. Yet in Numbers 20:12 he and Aaron are told they will not bring the Israelites into the promised land. What’s going on? Is God being arbitrary, withdrawing favour as ancient gods used to do?

At first sight situating the passage seems to exacerbate the problem. The passage runs from Num 12:1 or 2 (v.1 is a summary bringing the story up to date while v.2 sets the scene for this passage). Once again, the people complain, comparing the plenty of Egyptian life with the hardship of the desert (vv.2-5). Once again, Moses and his brother Aaron seek God, and again God announces a miracle (v.8). In v.9 Moses begins to do as God has commanded. So far so good. The people are gathered (v.10), Moses strikes the rock, and water is delivered from the stone (v.11).

Yet God’s response is to declare:

Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Num 20:12)

If we look closer, things are not as simple as my summary painted them. When Moses and Aaron have gathered the assembly of Israel in front of the rock, they say:

Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock? (Num 20:10)

There is no mention here of the almighty God who performs the miracles for Israel, like the plagues and sea crossing that freed them from slavery, just “shall we bring water”. Moses and Aaron fail to proclaim the Lord as the source of these signs and wonders, they encourage the Israelites to focus on them.

Setting the story in the wider context of the flow of Scripture, we see it’s full significance. It occurs in the five book unit that Jews call Torah, or “instruction”, the heart of their Bible. We, Christians, call it Pentateuch (five books) and it is the introduction to our Bible. Genesis forms an introduction to this introduction, and in the other books Moses is the central human character. Deuteronomy, which closes the collection, contains Moses final speeches and his death. Back in Genesis 15, and again and again through the patriarchal stories, God repeated a promise of descendants, land and his own presence and help. By the time of the making of the covenant at Sinai two of the three promises have been abundantly filled. The narrative through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers concerns the slow journey to “the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” as the close of Numbers puts it (Num 36:13). So, the whole book of Deuteronomy takes place on the threshold of the promised land.

So, our story (Num 20:1-13) is pivotal, explaining why Moses does not enter the promised land. It therefore explains why the Pentateuch (the “books of Moses”) ends with God’s promises incompletely fulfilled. All of this highlights the importance of Moses and Aaron’s “error”, failing to give God the honour that is due is a most serious offense.

When Christian leaders take pride in what they have accomplished, when Christians fail to acknowledge the giver of all the blessings that surround us, we also fail to trust the LORD, and neglect to show his holiness before others (cf. Num 20:12). That is not a little oversight but a most serious business!
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The bulk of this post originally appeared in the NZ Baptist, but the article has been removed there so I am reposting the content here.

Upcycled/Recycled Church

Another thing I’ve been pondering/dreaming over since the visit by the Windsor Park people came out of a remark by the finance person, Linda. Mentioned the Cardboard Cathedral and dreamed of the possibility of walls that open out to allow extreme indoor outdoor flow. Our Leadership Team has talked about the site as Te Oro : The Orchard  and everyone who has thought about how we should develop the site has stressed the importance of keeping some of the trees and the orchard feel. So, I began to dream (sadly continued while awake and therefore unable to get back to sleep in the middle of the night).

What about:

  1. a church building made of recycled material (at least as much as is financially and structurally viable but over 50%). After all God is in the business of upcycling tired, broken, worn out lives. Not a Cardboard Cathedral but a Recycled Church. Such an aim/claim would also be newsworthy and could encourage possible grants etc..

  2. suppose the walls somehow opened out like wings (eagles’ wings cf. Is 40:31?) bringing the outside in – the ultimate indoor-outdoor flow.

  3. Ideally we’d site it among the avocado, keeping some around and perhaps using some as an avenue leading to the church.

The church on the hill

The church on the hill

The fluorescent cross on Mt Roskill is like a church on the hill visible for miles…

Back in the day you wanted to be the church on the hill. Visible from all around the neighbourhood, ideally with a big fluorescent cross to make things more obvious – the church was the centre of the community. It was the place people went when disaster struck. There for hatch, match, and finally dispatch services, but also an ever present comfort in time of trouble.

It’s biblical, Jesus talked about a city on a hill, a light that should not be hidden under a bushel.1 So one of the features of the property that God2 has given to us – aside from the miraculous decision to add a big primary school slap next door – is its location. Just at the very top of the hill, on the edge of the ridge above the new Lakes development. Wow! A church there fronting on the new roundabout, with even a modest spire and that fluorescent cross will be visible almost all the way to the Kaimais.

And yet…

Today, in NZ, the church is no longer the centre of the community, people no longer default to churches for hatch, match, or dispatch. When they need a bridge over troubled waters it’s the insurance company they call, not the pastor. Or WINZ, or the doctor… For a church to be accessible today it does not help to be slap on the top of the hill. Fluorescent lights will be ignored.

As one of the Windsor Park people3 at our meeting last night neatly expressed it, the website is today’s hill top. If people want to find us (and Google tells me that in January people did, 800 times) they can easily get directions from GoogleMaps, and quickly decide if they like the look of us by a quick gander at the Church website.

But before they do that we have to earn their interest. We won’t earn it with flashy buildings (the Warehouse and the Casino will always outflash us) but by being a place they come to for other reasons, by being people they have learned to trust.

So, there’s no need for us to build the church slap on the roundabout, not even on the street frontage at all. Rather there in prime position we need something that invites people in, that offers the hope of rest and peace in a busy and dangerous world…

  1. Whatever one of those might have been, we must never hide our lights under them. (Matt 5:14-15) []
  2. Aided by some very generous giving, and a seesawing property market here in the Bay of Plenty, and the wonderful work of Christian Savings – back in the day when they were still just Baptist Savings. []
  3. PS I think it was Murray Thatcher. []