Can we trust Scripture when there are so many interpretations?

Andy Judd teaches Old Testament and hermeneutics at Ridley College, Melbourne, and a few years ago I heard him give a great paper at a conference on the Old Testament citations in Acts. He has just completed his doctoral research on Gadamer, Genre Theory and biblical hermeneutics, and I was able to ask him about his work.

IP: What have you been researching, and why were you drawn to this? 

AJ: I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the question of what it means to read the Bible as Scripture. There’s lots of ways people can read the Bible – maybe for historical curiosity, or to appreciate the literary dimension, or even an oppressive text to be resisted. But it seems to me that to read the Bible as Scripture means you’re holding two things in tension. Here I have an authoritative text, but at the same time it is a text whose meaning is continually relevant to me in new ways. What’s more, we seem to have a great deal of difficulty agreeing on what the Bible actually says. My subject matter, hermeneutics, is about taking a step back and asking ‘What is going on here?’ 

I’m drawn to this topic because so many of our big issues and debates seem to boil down to different ways of reading the text. In the Australian Anglican context there are loads of issues on which people have spectacularly diverse views – from gender, to marriage and sexuality, to what will happen in the last days. How can the Bible be authoritative, and relevant, if we can’t even agree what it means a lot of the time? 

IP: Why has there been such a proliferation of interpretative approaches to text in modern, Western thinking? Is this something to do with changes in culture, the intellectual landscape, or something else? 

AJ: I think there’s a handful of reasons all at play. One is just about the numbers. The more people you have reading for themselves, you more approaches you’re going to get. In Margaret Atwood’s novels about the Gilead and the handmaids, how do they keep control of people’s understanding of passages like Judges 19? They lock it away! As soon as the handmaids can read for themselves and access the Bible the game is up, and new and subversive interpretative approaches threaten the whole regime. So, at one level, you can blame the Reformation and Bible translators and our stubborn Anglican belief that people should read the Bible for themselves!

The second is about the text. The more complex and powerful the text, and the more we are asking it fresh questions from within fresh new situations, the more scope there will be for different ways of looking at it. Some kinds of texts just invite us to explore deeper. Whole industries of people disagree about what Hamlet means, but nobody has much trouble interpreting a parking ticket. The Bible is powerful and authoritative, but it is also endlessly relevant to new situations. And that complexity requires us I think to do more work understanding what it means. 

The third thing, though, which concerns the last few decades in particular, is an opening up of the rules of the game. Despite all the different ways Jews and Christians have read the Bible, for most of history there have been some ground rules that many, or even most people could agree on. They could often agree, some of them at least, on what game they were playing, and what an interpretive ‘win’ might look like – the best approach is the one that reveals the will of God, or is closest to what the author meant or might have meant given the historical situation, or whatever.