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5 Problems With Bible Interpretation

Thomas Swan has a PhD in experimental psychology. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.

Scriptural interpretation can allow people to claim their behavior is sanctioned by a deity.

Scriptural interpretation can allow people to claim their behavior is sanctioned by a deity.

Interpretations of the Bible vary substantially depending on the cultural climate and the psychological condition of the reader. For example, in the Middle Ages, the Bible was used to justify holy wars against Islamic countries. In modern day Africa, it's used to justify the burning of witches.

How people interpret scripture determines how they understand God’s supposed will. Any uncertainty regarding this instruction can lead to atrocity. Indeed, there may be no greater weapon than the belief that one's actions are divinely endorsed. The following five problems detail the real and potential costs of interpreting scripture in the wrong way.

1. Psychology Influences Scriptural Interpretations of the Bible

There are four criteria that determine the depth and direction of scriptural interpretation.

  • Plausibility dictates the depth of interpretation. If something sounds too ridiculous to be true, it won't be believed. Conversely, if something directly contradicts a religious text, it won't be deemed plausible either.
  • Cultural Pressures determine the direction of interpretation. If there's a Muslim invasion of a Christian country, Christians will be motivated to form an interpretation that derogates Muslims. If Western culture pressures the Church to see women as equal, interpretations will arise that allow for female preachers.
  • Personal Motivations will alter the direction of interpretation in similar ways. If a person feels they've been wronged, they'll often look for a reason to justify vengeful behavior by reinterpreting parts of the Old Testament.
  • Method of Transmission will affect the depth and direction of interpretation. For example, people receive a preacher’s interpretation in Church but, when alone with scripture, one can produce a unique interpretation shaped by personal motivations, credulity, and cultural pressures. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, "whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth". The changing interpretation of scripture epitomizes this unfortunate abandonment of truth.
The type of Bible interpretation that becomes popular is affected and limited by plausibility, personal motivations, cultural pressures, and transmission.

The type of Bible interpretation that becomes popular is affected and limited by plausibility, personal motivations, cultural pressures, and transmission.

2. Bible Interpretation Cannot be Literal or Immutable

The Earth is a frenzied cauldron of life with various species bubbling into prominence before descending back under the cosh of their competitors. Humanity has ascended above all other species; an ascent that may see a reversal or continue unabated until the death of all life on Earth. Our journey to the pinnacle of terrestrial existence would have been impossible without a curiosity for the natural world and an ability to invent new ways of ensuring our survival within. Should a pandemic or an asteroid descend on mankind, our extinction could only be averted by the produce of human curiosity. Thus, natural selection demands that we adapt or die, change or stagnate, such that the generation of new ideas is a gateway to survival and supremacy. For example, when Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity explained the laws of motion in a way that superseded Isaac Newton’s renowned 17th Century model, it epitomized the ascendancy of progress over enduring faith.

Bible interpretation must follow this model. Failure to do so renders it irrelevant at best; pernicious at worst. An unchanging holy book makes this difficult to achieve; as do the attitudes of traditionalists and those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Many believers would, for example, contend that if a scientific theory is only a hundred years old, it's far less deserving of our faith than one which has remained unchanged for a millennium (e.g. Copernicus challenging geocentrism). As we've seen, this attitude threatens our survival by hindering progress. Indeed, European civilization endured the Dark Ages under the political and cultural authority of the Catholic Church. For over a millennium, assumptions based on immutable or literal Bible interpretation produced a level of intellectual stagnation unparalleled in the history of our species.

Looking for a solution to a problem is the worst way to interpret the Bible.

Looking for a solution to a problem is the worst way to interpret the Bible.

3. Contextual Bible Interpretation Must Be Impersonal

Interpretations of the Bible are not completely immune to our whims, and different cultures and eras have interpreted scripture in different ways. In the Middle Ages, an interpretation of the Bible allowed for the extermination of Muslims during the Crusades. This changed once the threat of Muslim incursions into Europe was over. Thus, the personal whims of the people determined God's supposed word. Clearly, this must be avoided.

These personal, contextual mistakes occur throughout history, illustrating a wealth of contradictions. For example, even though today’s Christians declare the Crusaders ungodly, those same Christians would have been executed as heretics a millennium ago. Whether we examine the Crusades, Inquisition, witch hunts, persecution of homosexuals, or the murder of abortion doctors, each new criminal proclaims their predecessors ungodly because their current interpretation of the Bible allows them to. Future generations of Christians will no doubt look upon our present religious masses as vile beings that were never infused with God’s love. Did the Crusaders get to heaven because they believed they were doing God’s will, or did their good intentions pave the way to hell?

It's fairly clear that changing interpretations of scripture depend on the cultural climate developing at the time. For example, while early Christianity was an exclusively masculine institution, its epicene evolution has followed the rising status of women in society. Nunneries first appeared in medieval times and, recently, female ministers have emerged in some Christian sects. Other cultural pressures affecting change include attitudes to homosexuality and contraception. In a century’s time, God’s word could be interpreted as embracing homosexuals, and Sodom and Gamorrah will define a new group of infidels more deserving of our hatred in the latest age of human conflict.

It's a rather sad state of affairs that the only thing unchanging about God’s word is the belief that the current interpretation is the truth. Whether to justify hostile acts, or to promote better social equality, interpretation reigns supreme. What makes our generation so enlightened when previous generations possessed the same arrogant belief in their righteousness?

4. Fundamentalist Interpretations of the Bible

As we've seen, interpretations of the Bible can be used to justify cruelty. Indeed, if a person is able to transfer culpability for their actions to an omnibenevolent being, their conscience is not only clear, it's reinforced!

Religion, unlike political or secular ideologies, deals substantially with moral absolutes. Thus, if God is thought to desire the death of a person or group of people, there's no reason to feel compassion, doubt, or remorse. A fundamentalist can therefore use religion to enact their will for destruction with a smile on their face and divine rewards in mind. While any political or secular ideology could be used to justify violence, only religion can offer divine permission and reward from a morally pure being. Thus, the fundamentalist's capacity for religious barbarism is as infinite as God’s righteousness.

A man's will is as strong as his greatest ally, and as fickle as the unchained caprice of his heart.

Violence of this kind needn't be attributed to "true" Christians or Muslims, and other believers are likely to condemn their behavior. Nevertheless, violent individuals use religion because it promises validation by an absolutely moral being. Without religion, fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible simply wouldn't be accessible.

The scene in Oslo after Christian terrorist, Anders Breivik, struck.

The scene in Oslo after Christian terrorist, Anders Breivik, struck.

5. Difficulty Finding a Modern Interpretation of the Bible

Two thousands years ago, we hated other cultures, hated homosexuality, enjoyed slavery, saw women as property, and thought the sun revolved around a flat Earth. It was therefore natural for these ideas to make their way into a book from that era. Two millennia later, the cultural climate is vastly different and, in order to survive, religions must learn to interpret scripture relevantly and responsibly.

Nevertheless, Christianity appears to have passed a tipping point beyond which there can be little chance of a return to the outright acceptance of religious dogma and literal interpretations of the Bible. This tipping point occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries when the Enlightenment allowed humanity to drift far enough from religion to experience what could be achieved in its absence. Christianity was left behind and, despite recent attempts to reinterpret religious scripture, the passage of time can only further our incredulity for its claims.

Still, dead religions are often replaced by others that are more receptive to cultural demands. While Christianity has little relevance today, a new religion could form tomorrow with just as long a shelf life. Indeed, Christianity supplanted the older pagan religions in precisely this way. While each religion differs in its capacity for cultural relevance, most survive because they fulfill our naturally evolved desires for such things as an afterlife, a benevolent deity, a human ideal to imitate, a feeling of moral rectitude, and a sense of superiority over nonbelievers. This formula for a successful religion is as enduring as the architecture of the human mind. It's possible that, in order to fulfill these motivations, new religions will interpret the Bible in a limited, culturally relevant capacity.

Despite this potential scenario, the association of such psychological benefits with a dying faith could lead to a long gap between the death of one religion and the birth of the next. If a new religion formed tomorrow promising immortality, perfection, and paradise, we would associate it with what we've come to reject. Only time will heal the wounds of one religion sufficient for us to endure the injury of the next. The continuance of religion is inevitable unless we can dissect its influence on the psychology of humankind. Only then may we understand the appeal of religious thought, and free ourselves permanently from its grip on our minds.

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