Saturday, February 11, 2012

General v. Particular:

In philosophical parlance they often say "universal v. particular." It seems to me this presents not only a problem with interpreting texts but renders one "correct" interpretation impossible. This isn't to say that anything goes. It would be a non-sequitur to so conclude. As it were, rules of philosophy/logic (like that of the non-sequitur!) must be adhered to and facts, respected. But among smart folks who argue well (that is, those who make the fewest errors in fact or logic) competing narratives that contradict one another nonetheless emerge.

What got me thinking on this was Ray Soller's comment that seeks to limit Mark 12:17 to a very limited specific context. Now, Ray may be right on how this text ought to be so understood; but that hasn't stopped folks from interpreting it in a more general sense. Potential examples from the Bible -- and many other notable texts -- abound endlessly. The texts themselves often help point to proper contexts. But also often, certainly, with the Bible, the texts don't teach "one" proper interpretation. Were that true, there wouldn't be so many Protestant sects.

We've spent a lot of time arguing whether Romans 13 is absolute (if it is, then the American revolution was un-biblical and sinful). The text of the Bible clearly supports this reading (insofar as Romans 13 refers to submission to government as opposed to mere obedience; other competing texts of the Bible make a rule that teaches absolute obedience to government not plausible as the Bible teaches sometimes you have to obey God not man). But other readings are plausible.

Do biblical prohibitions against homicide apply to matters of abortion, capital punishment, self defense, or foreign wars? Everyone agrees exceptions exist to "don't kill." Smart folks debate whether the Bible absolutely prohibits lying or permits righteous deception. (In addition to biblical texts, there is the reductio ad absurdum, "what would you do if you lived in Nazi Germany and the Nazi's asked you whether you were hiding Jewish people in your attic?" and you in fact were.)

What about the texts of the Bible that seemingly approve of genocide and slavery? No sane person today defends genocide or slavery; so if one wants to defend the Bible but not the texts that seem to teach God was okay with or demanded these, then limit the offending texts in the strictest way possible. On the other hand, seeking a "good" interpretation of the Bible, we'll take principles that were enunciated in specific context and "extend" them in a more general sense. The Golden Rule is certainly a great principle, and a "good" interpretation of the Bible will render it as broad as possible. Imago Dei, very broadly understood, certainly works wonders for human rights.

Yet, certain texts of the Bible seemingly suggest certain (perhaps many, perhaps the vast majority of) humans, whether they were made in the image of God are children of the devil, irresistibly damned and that God hates them. (No the Westboro Baptist Church didn't just make that stuff up; Calvinism is mainly to blame for this.) These would support the pro-slavery, pro-genocide interpretations of the Bible, which are plausible textual interpretations.

Richard Dawkins' God of the Bible is Fred Phelps' God.

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