Sunday, January 26, 2014

The one fact almost all Christians miss

So far as I can tell, there is at least one fact that nearly all believing Christians miss--a very simple fact. That fact is every reading of the Bible is an interpretation.

Whether we're looking at hyper-liberal Anglicanism, evangelical Protestantism, mega-fundamentalist literalism, Christian-Left Catholicism, C.S. Lewis's creedal "mere" Christianity, or anything between or beyond, every one of them requires a reading of the Bible that is an interpretation of the Bible.

When I say "almost all" and "nearly all believing" Christians miss this fact, what I am saying is that to take one's own take on Christianity, however nebulous or strict, as being the truth, one has to miss the fact that it is based upon an interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, that intrepretation of the Bible defines what passes as being "true Christianity" and it is the role of faith to glaze over that fact.

This, then, brings us to the central question posed of all religious believers--a question that they cannot answer: How do you know your interpretation is correct? And it generalizes: How do you know any interpretation is correct?

Every believer in every faith tradition, here focusing on Christianity, has a cherished reading of their scriptural texts, and every believer in every faith tradition has rivals that say that they are wrong. How can these debates and accusations of heresy be settled?

Note that science, depending upon evidence and perhaps a smattering of the philosophy of science, effectively settles interpretive debates eventually. The reason is that they rely upon evidence that becomes less and less subject to varied interpretation the closer one looks.

Now, I've argued before that we cannot know for certain (see Dot, Dot, Dot) that scientific models are "true" descriptions of reality. I'd say all that we can conclude is that they possess sufficient explanatory salience and predictive power to be comfortable calling them "descriptions of reality," carrying the ever-present qualifier of "provisional," where the provisions can be laid out by the philosophy of science and reinforced to some degree by statistical confidence in the predictive power presented.

What matters with regard to these interpretations is that we have a way to claim that we're justified in calling them knowledge. We try to break them on the rock of evidence. To paraphrase the great Richard Feynman, it doesn't matter how beautiful or cherished a hypothesis is or how great the scientist championing it; if it disagrees with evidence, then it is wrong.

Evidence the the final arbiter in science, no matter what. If an idea disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. This is a reality check, and it works wonderfully.

Faith lacks this reality check while pretending it has it, and this is the one fact that almost all Christians miss.

Edit (3 June 2014): William Lane Craig responded to this blog post. Read his response here.
I've written a few thoughts about Craig's response that can be read here.


  1. Good post, and I completely concur. Whenever a specific Christian interpretation is asked to justify itself, one can only fall back on their own subjectivity. Christians should acknowledge that their interpretations--by the very nature of interpretation--are tentative, and therefore they should be open to revision.

  2. I guess that this doesn't trouble many believers, though. In my experience, it seems that most of them are comfortable with the assumptions that "God must exist, and that God must want me to believe in him."

    In other words, I think that most believers don't care about getting it right as much as getting points for trying. Self identify, go to some services, say some Hail Mary's, point to the sky, and maybe find some book club-like enjoyment from reading and talking about their holy book. Getting it "right" seems to not be a end goal to the vast, vast majority, and I doubt it's even a goal of your garden-variety apologist.

    I can also hear them pointing out that biologists differ over the relative importance of some mechanisms in evolution, but you wouldn't allow that this means that evolutionary theory is undermined. (I know, this misses the point you raise, that biologists can settle their disagreements with the evidence, but I can hear that one coming, wait for it, wait for it...)

  3. James, you're making a completely irresponsible evidence-free assertion again. Every pastor knows that the Bible requires interpreting. Every Sunday School quarterly makes that at least implicitly clear. Every Christian knows there are different denominations. Every student of church history knows that questions over interpretation have been going on since the very earliest days. Every seminary program includes study of hermeneutics, which by the way, Steven Jake, is way more substantial than falling back on subjectivity. Cal, every believer I've ever talked to about this finds it to be a matter of some concern, and every single one cares about getting it right.

    My impression of your honesty, James, has just taken a nosedive. This is wrong, false, unstudied, overly confident, intellectually irresponsible, lacking in evidence, and a stunning display of confirmation bias ruling over any kind of sensible fact-finding.

    You're a charlatan, and you're influencing people with obvious falsehoods. Sure, you disbelieve in the Bible and Christianity, but why would anyone find you the least bit convincing about that, when you can't get it right when you talk about matters that aren't even difficult.

    I'd be embarrassed to post anything on my blog that's as completely ignorant as what you've posted here.

    And to think you claim to value evidence and to eschew bias. Wow.

    There was a time I thought you were an interesting interlocutor. You've done something very, very unusual; something I would have once considered impossible, until I experienced it with Jerry Coyne. You've joined his ranks in this odd feat that you've accomplished: you've become simultaneously maddening and boring.

    Don't expect me to be interested enough to come back and find out what you've said in response. I'll take a look, maybe, to see if you let this comment stand. That's all it's worth.

    I do wish, though, that atheists would live up to their stated values of evidence-based reasoning. I can't help you with that, though, since you don't seem to care about it.

    1. Tom, as has been pointed out to you before, you're so bad at evidence that you don't even know how to play the evidence card.

      The evidence is mundane. It's the fact that Christians (et al.) argue endlessly about the nature of God and what they should do to align with God's will (do you wish to deny the innumerable sects, denominations, and personal interpretations?), and that IN SO ARGUING they appear to miss the basic fact that they can only refer to THEIR INTERPRETATION.

      I'll say this another way. Christians cannot, ever, demonstrate that their interpretation of the Bible is correct. The evidence that they miss this basic fact is that THEY STILL ARGUE ENDLESSLY ABOUT THEIR INTERPRETATION.

      This is a basic epistemic problem, and as James points out, it's probably seldom recognized as what it is -- an argument without a means for settling.

      For those of you who have completely missed it (pretty much everyone except for Steven Jake, it looks like), the point of James post is this: For Christians, there is no end game for Biblical interpretation. No matter how much arguing, etc., there is no foreseeable way to resolve which interpretation, if any, is correct. This fact seems to elude Christians, as evidenced by the fact that they argue endlessly about interpretations.

      Evidence? Evidence? How about today's Christians. How about the growing number of sects and interpretations (not fewer, as we expect from knowledge that's based on reality). How about Google "list of religious denominations."

      Tom, also, I meant to include you in a tweet to James earlier -- but you should look at your "Fun with Boghossifying" post. It seems you have missed a critical part of the exercise (hint -- you "cannot" miss it), which might explain why it's fallen so flat.

    2. I find this (over)reaction utterly bemusing. Is this the "evidence-free assertion" with which you take issue?

      "there is at least one fact that nearly all believing Christians miss--a very simple fact. That fact is every reading of the Bible is an interpretation."

      If so, isn't it quite obvious that James isn't literally claiming that Christians aren't aware that their take on bible is an interpretation but that rather, in his view (i.e. "in so far as [he] can tell"), they talk about their beliefs in a way that betrays a failure to properly consider this fact? I'd have thought it so patently obvious that (at least many) Christians would explicitly acknowledge the interpretational contingence of their scripturally-informed beliefs that this meaning would be plain. And if not quite plain, the most I would have expected to see was a call from clarification; certainly not a jump straight to accusations of charlatanism. Astounding...

      I wonder whether this rather dramatic, outraged response from you reflects merely a genuine misunderstanding combined with hot-headedness or whether your misunderstanding is actually an unconsciously motivated response to you needing an "out" from this exchange, having no adequate retort to the points raised.

      The least charitable interpretation is that your outraged response was consciously contrived to give you a face-saving exist to an exchange in which you're finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt on that score but I can understand why others might not.

  4. "So far as I can tell, there is at least one fact that nearly all believing Christians miss--a very simple fact. That fact is every reading of the Bible is an interpretation."

    This is a bizarre claim. Either you aren't serious or you are very, very seriously underinformed about what most Christians think.

    Apparently, you think this fact plunges Christians into some kind of subjectivist tailspin. If that were true, your argument would prove a great deal more than you suppose; it would, for instance, render it impossible for us to know what you mean in this very blog post.

    Yes, when Jesus says, "I am the door," there are always a few people who will reach for a knob. But that fact does not mean that there is no correct, obvious, knowable meaning to the text.

  5. Oh, no!! I'm not sure how to interpret the words in this blog post. What will I do?

  6. For you to talk about the interpretation of biblical texts, called hermeneutics, and not even label it by the proper name, tells us that atheists (or at least you) are unaware of "The one fact almost all atheists miss". Tom is right-this is an ignorant blog post. Also, are you unaware that "Most literature and communication involves both literal and figurative language and any sensible communicator will attempt to discern both."? Tim gave a great example, and just for fun, here is an example of how a conversation would turn out if one used only one interpretation Please read it; it is hilarious.

    I also have to pick on one quote: "Note that science, depending upon evidence and perhaps a smattering of the philosophy of science, effectively settles interpretive debates eventually. "

    I am amazed that you have shown your 'faith' in science, since faith is something that street epistemologists (or atheist evangelists) are supposed to eschew.

  7. This post speaks of naive realism. This post demonstrates naive realism.

  8. Great post, thank you. It reminds us that any claim of "Biblical truth" is in fact the claim that: (1) the text has a legitimate interpretation, whether literal or figurative, which (2) reliably reflects an objective reality. But Christians interpret their texts in many, often contradictory, ways, suggesting that the relationship of these texts to an objective reality is difficult if not impossible for Christians to discern or demonstrate.

    (Sorry to restate your point, but some who commented here do seem to have missed it.)

  9. Is this sarcasm or are you actually agreeing? It's difficult if not impossible for me to discern.

    1. Keep on working on it, Steve! You'll figure it out someday!

  10. I need the rocks of evidence to help me, Cal, otherwise I can never know.

  11. "Whether we're looking at hyper-liberal Anglicanism, evangelical Protestantism, mega-fundamentalist literalism, Christian-Left Catholicism, C.S. Lewis's creedal "mere" Christianity, or anything between or beyond, every one of them requires a reading of the Bible that is an interpretation of the Bible."

    Just as people who hold to Moral nihilism, Virtue ethics, Act-Utilitarianism, Social Contract Theory, Feminist Ethics, Hedonism, Desire Theory, Natural Law Theory, Kantian Ethics and Rule Utilitarianism have different interpretations of ethics, so my response here what? Are we all wrong about ethics now? Should we all become amoralists now?

    1. Interesting you should bring up ethics, because is a live issue as to whether or not morality is even real (and even if so, what that kind of "real" would mean). So your question is spot on -- isn't all this Christian interpretation of the Bible very similar to the discussion of moral theorists, and what is it that's different about Christian interpretation that doesn't allow that God isn't real (the same way a moral theorist could discuss morality while not believing that morality is real).

      Interesting point. Thanks for bringing it up.

    2. well take this statement:

      “ Moral realism is the theory that moral judgments enjoy a special sort of objectivity; such as judgments, where true, are so independently of what any human being, anywhere, in any circumstance whatever, thinks of them
      - Russ Shafer-Landau'

      “Moral Realism: A defense”

      I believe this pertains to Christianity as well, as it is either true or false in itself, and it's truth or falsehood doesn't depend on how many interpretations there are,

  12. At AdamHazzard:

    Let me offer a refutation of your claim and "demonstrate" at the same time the objective reality of Biblical text; Christian believer's will unanimously agree with the following Bible verses in regards to your comment;

    "But Christians interpret their texts in many, often contradictory, ways, suggesting that the relationship of these texts to an objective reality is difficult if not impossible for Christians to discern or demonstrate."

    In addition the following verses present the objective reality that is the delusion of materialism, atheism and scientism.

    Eph 4:17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! —

    Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools...

    1 Corinthians 2:27 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “ For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

    This wasn't so difficult to discern or demonstrate the relationship of the texts regarding you and your worldview.

  13. Reflecting on my last comment here including an apology for my harshness here yesterday toward James.

    1. Tom wrote: "I’ll be honest and say that I’m still processing this, and I don’t know what to say by way of apology to James. As far as whether I spoke truthfully to him, I have nothing to retract. As far as whether I spoke some things needlessly, I have plenty I wish I hadn’t said, and I certainly apologize for my harshness yesterday. "

      It sounds to me like you're saying that you apologize for your tone, but not the substance of your comments. So, for instance, if we changed your first sentence here from:

      TG: "James, you're making a completely irresponsible evidence-free assertion again."


      TG: "James, you're making a completely evidence-free assertion again."

      then you stand by that as truthful?

      It seems to me that your apology is more about salvaging some pride and attempting to sweep under the rug a series of petulant outbursts. So, sorry, but I'm calling this a faux-apology, one where your pride stands front and center.

      I know that it can be easily portrayed as grossly ungenerous on my part to characterize your "apology" as I have, but as I've said before I value honesty very highly. And it seems to me that if you cannot be honest with yourself, and others, and if one's pride is more important than truth, then your gestures toward self-assessment will ring very hollow in all ears but your own.

    2. Cal, my apology is what it is. If it is imperfect, that is hardly any surprise, for I am imperfect.

      You declared a long time ago you had zero respect for me. I do not expect to change your mind.

      If it rings hollow in others' ears, then I have at least done what I can without being dishonest about it myself. I apologized for my harshness. I stand by what I know was right. There is an area of overlap between those two categories, where my statements of fact or opinion were also expressions of harshness. It's very difficult to parse the two apart, and I don't want to start another round of debate over which is which.

      I'll let my reputation here be what it is after all this.

  14. TG: "You declared a long time ago you had zero respect for me. I do not expect to change your mind."

    That's disappointing, really. If you were to act in a way that is honest, and consistent, that would certainly earn my respect. I am not set against you, as a person, or as a project. But as long as you continue to behave as you have, then I will withhold that most fundamental of human currency - respect. It's a lot like belief, really -- you can't pretend to have respect for someone in the same way that you can't pretend to believe something.

  15. Contrary to this article, Christians don't miss the fact that the result of reading the bible is an interpretation. Christians, however, believe two things concerning the nature of Bible interpretation that Mr. Lindsay apparently does not. Christians believe God has given the Holy spirit to illuminate interpretation (1 Cor 2). Christians also believe that language is sufficient to carry meaning, allowing the conclusion "Thus says the Lord" to be justified in spite of the difficulties of interpreting language.

    If language sufficient to carry meaning from author to audience, then Mr. Lindsay's post fails. If language is not sufficient to carry meaning, which is what Mr Lindsay seems to be implying here, then Bible interpretation is not the only thing that is doomed. If language does not convey meaning from author to audience, then all communication fails - including science and every day conversation. In fact, If Mr. Lindsay's post is correct, then the post is pointless as no one will ever get the message - being left instead with just a private interpretation.

  16. Dallas C: "If language sufficient to carry meaning from author to audience, then Mr. Lindsay's post fails."

    I don't read the post that way. I think you are also confusing interpreting, and defining.
    The post does not say that words have no meaning, nor that they cannot be interpreted.

    As your first paragraph makes clear, there is no verifiable, reliable, objective way to demonstrate that your interpretation of the stories in the Bible is correct. As you have shown, you must invoke another imaginary concept (the Holy Spirit), with which your interpretation supposedly aligns.

    The post doesn't say that Biblical interpretations are without meaning. It says that, absent an external standard (one that is objective, reliable, and verifiable) for one's interpretations, those interpretations are without a means for correction. There is no way to settle a disagreement about interpretations. Every Christian has to take their own, personal flyer when it comes to that.

    Now, if there were a Holy Spirit that did indeed provide an objective standard with which one could gauge various interpretations, then I would agree with you. But, based simply on the increasing number of denominations, sects, etc. throughout time, we have growing confirmation that this Holy Spirit does not exist in any what that would be meaningful.

    1. Even putting it in bold didn't help. It's the act of taking their particular interpretation as the Truth that shows that they're missing the fact that every Bible reading is just an interpretation.