Biblical opacity—a Christian dilemma

Christians are confronted by what appears to me to be an unsolvable dilemma. Their holy book, even if you ignore its overwhelming translation problems, is open to so many interpretations as to bewilder. That is distressing inasmuch as most Christians believe the Bible to be their sole source of spiritual instruction. (Catholics have historically believed the Church resolves all or much of this dilemma for them.) How disconcerting that must be, how troubling!

Christians, on the whole, however, don’t act as confused as Biblical ambiguity warrants. They seem to rest comfortably in whatever set of interpretations they espouse, interpretations in so many instances they were taught by respected authorities—parents, convincing preachers, friends, or others in whom they have confidence or whose interpretations provide a needed comfort. Sometimes persons change their interpretations based on theological inquiry, but I suggest that more do so not due to religious considerations at all, but because of choosing a mate in a different tradition, running into personal conflicts with members of their church, or simply rethinking what kind of God they would like to have. So much for integrity of religious conviction!

In line with that point, one of my Christian correspondents said, “the field for interpretations and misinterpretations is wide open,” and that persons are likely to make interpretive choices that agree with their other values or desires, whether they be religious ones or not. These other values help or cause a predisposition to interpret ambiguous passages or, in fact, the whole Biblical message in one direction or another. That makes sense to me; it is a phenomenon related to clinical psychology’s diagnostic measurements called projective techniques (the Rorschach use of ink blots being the most familiar). Persons with an investment in theology must be dismayed by projectively chosen religion, though I would argue that’s what all theology is based on anyway.

However, the same correspondent—to my astonishment—went on to suggest a surprising resolution of Biblical ambiguity. He argued that intelligence, education, and knowledge can eliminate the ambiguity. His implication was that persons who have these characteristics will arrive at the correct ways to interpret the many obscure and ambiguous passages. (He seemed to imply that his own gleanings are these rare, accurate interpretations.) His solution means that if two parties arrive at different interpretations, one is (or both are) deficient in either intelligence, education, knowledge, or some combination. In practice, though, persons whose intelligence, education, and knowledge exceed those of him and me added together are widely known to arrive at vastly differing interpretations of Biblical matters.

That consideration, directly derived from his argument, actually makes my point. How can the Bible possibly be construed such that it is consistent throughout and serious seekers can largely agree on the construction. I am neither surprised nor dismayed by the difficulty. There is no reason the Bible should be either historically or theologically coherent, even if there were to be absolutely no contamination by its untidy translation history. It is cobbled together from various sources, largely of untraceable provenance. It is as if someone were to put between one cover several tales and treatises by different authors of the past few millennia and expect the resulting anthology to be philosophically and anecdotally harmonious.

Yet, among the reasons Christians give for the lack of success in coming to agreement about what the Bible means and even what it says, I have never found them to suggest this obvious option: It is impossible to figure out except in the broadest ways (e.g., there’s a god named God, he created everything, he interacts with humans). My guess is that Christians would not countenance that option as a possibility deserving honest consideration. Why not? Still just guessing (guessing about a guess puts me on slippery ground here!), but I imagine the reason is that Biblical opacity calls its authority into question.

Christians maintain that their God indirectly wrote the tome by inspiring those humans who wrote it, as well—I must assume—as the uncountable translators and scribes who passed it on. But if accurate interpretability escapes the most sincere, most erudite, and most prayerful readers, then this all-wise, all-powerful God has chosen to put earnest acolytes to the test quite cruelly, on pain of eternal fire for getting it wrong. That might be the case, of course, but the all-loving part of his portrayal would have to be dropped.

For a Christian, this should be a most perplexing situation. That it seems not to be is a tribute to the blinding characteristic of religious faith, its triumph over reason in otherwise reasonable people.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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