The ‘I’ in Interpretation

There is no ‘I’ in interpretation…wait…sorry…there are 2 of them. Which leads to the precise point of this blog – we are part of the interpretation we decide upon. We play a role and to not play that role risks an interpretation that is…well…lacking having real substance. 

The most unpleasant interpretations involve us not having elaborated on the teaching we are reading – there is no ‘I’ in the Nterpretaton (doesn’t look right does it?). Basically, we are removed from the equation and no matter what our experiences – they have no bearing on the meaning of the teachings of God…but someone has to decide what it means don’t they? 

I tend to think, and call me crazy, we are all involved in what we read and the meanings thereof. You cannot remove yourself from the interpretation – actually – you are the interpretation. Say it with me ‘I am the interpretation’ (uh oh – he just used an ‘I am’ statement – I am only speaking in the 1st person and metaphorically). 

What do I mean – ‘you are the interpretation’? It’s easy – you decide what the words of God mean to you and how they will look when ‘applied’ in your life. God does not decide that for you – God is into delegating this responsibility onto us – we have a mind and the ability to ‘use it’ (some would say ‘you are created this way’). 

Blessed are the meek’…you decide how that is going to look and what it is going to mean in your community. Maybe there is no blessing for the meek or maybe there is an over-abundance of it…either way…how are they ‘inheriting the earth’ and ‘how does this look to you’? ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’…maybe there is room for action towards the under-classed in your community – then again – maybe there is no concern for their plight. You decide this one

They may be ‘true’, they may be ‘the way’, and they may even be ‘life’ – but they are also quite ‘useless’ if not applied/used. You don’t build a house by thinking about it – you develop the plans and put in the ‘work’. Not every house is the same either – thank God – and we all elaborate a little bit on how we want the house to look. But we are involved in the meaning of it all (call it our interaction with the fingertips of the Divine). 

May our mansions be based solely on the way we developed our foundations – upon the work we’ve committed to our house standing…this is my simple prayer.


5 thoughts on “The ‘I’ in Interpretation

  1. This post actually speaks to the development of Christianity over the ages. It has probably only been in the past 50-100 years that a common person has been allowed to read and interpret the Bible for him or her self.

    Churches have always, (still do actually, just more subtly), promoted the idea of the professional minister, (be they a pastor, preacher, priest, evangelist, minister) who is paid or has been properly trained as being the only person, or of the group of special people, that have the moral authority to interpret scripture. Every one else only had nice thoughts, but they lacked the special anointing or spiritual insight of the “holy man”, thus their interpetations were viewed as lacking unless approved.

    If you had asked me two months ago, I probably would have held to the idea that the professional minister (pastor) is the one with the most insight to offer on spiritual matters. But, I have come to the realization that this kind of thinking is pretty much anti-biblical and that the current church structure (one senior pastor over the congregation) is a misuse of the people’s resources and actually not biblical.

    As for being the “I” in interpretation, I wonder if that is such a good thing. I prefer it actually, but my interpretations always need the voice and ears others, so that my doctrines, beliefs, interpretations become fully developed. Something about safety in the multitude of counsellors…..

  2. That’s why traditionally Jews study with at least one partner and preferably within the context of community. Yes, we’ll always have our own interpretations, but a study partner can perhaps keep us from going too far afield. Then again, someone is always needed to push the limits a bit, otherwise we tend to stagnate and think everyone sees the world just as we do. I personally don’t consider it a bad thing to go to extremes at times or even quite often. Just because someone goes there doesn’t mean they stay there.

    Our blessing over Torah when it is read speaks of God giving Torah, present tense rather than past. That’s where more of the individuality comes in IMO, how Torah speaks to each of us, on a personal level. What this passage says to me, as opposed to a more universal message perhaps?

    Where I tune out is when someone comes up to me, whether they be Jewish or Christian, and claim that a text which could be interpreted any number of ways really only means the one thing they claim. I use the Torah rule for murder cases as my guide in these instances. If someone tells me all rabbis, or all pastors, agree this obscure passage means this certain thing, I’m tossing out that interpretation. In Torah if all judges rule that a person being tried for murder is guilty, then the person is set free since this is seen as a miscarriage of justice. If true justice is served, there should be at least a little doubt in someone’s mind. That’s my view on texts as well, if an obscure text has truly been studied openly and honestly, there should be at least some variation in interpretation. If there isn’t, I consider it a whitewash and I’m not buying.

  3. We are not the end all and be all of interpretation. If that is true, then you are not practicing hermenutics which is concerned with:

    1. the original languages – sometimes the English just doesn’t quite cut it and the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek goes much deeper.
    2. Interpreting scripture with scripture – far too often people will take scripture at piecemeal and twist it to say what they want it to say in order to believe what they want it to believe. LIke your example of “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” that really shouldn’t be understood apart from the rest of the Beatitudes, and the entire Sermon on the Mount needs to be interpreted with the Beatitudes in mind.
    3. Context is King – what was going on with the original audience, what preceded the passage, what comes right after. Never just read a Bible verse. Ignoring this is where “I” can get in the way of interpretation.

    Where our individuality comes into play should be in our application. While there is universal application… like we all should not steal, should not murder, etc. Our circumstances may be different and how we relate to the text we are looking at may be different. And then there is the conviction of the Holy Spirit which is always at play as well.

  4. “Something about safety in the multitude of counsellors….” (Just1)

    I agree – but ‘no matter where you go, there you are’. Even with the council of many (which is obviously a good thing or I wouldn’t blog at all) – you have decisions to make on what you think a text is saying – and basically how that is going to ‘look’. You quote a scripture in this comment – one could just as easily ask – how does that look to you? Blog? Church? Theology on Tap? Etc.

    “That’s where more of the individuality comes in IMO, how Torah speaks to each of us, on a personal level. What this passage says to me, as opposed to a more universal message perhaps?” (Yael)

    I tend to see this reality at work also…no one is subject to another’s interpretations – we have to see the validity of the interpretation first and how that works (in order to make sense of it). The more universal message is good – it binds us together – but our only concern is not just community – but also our households (personal).

    “there should be at least some variation in interpretation. If there isn’t, I consider it a whitewash and I’m not buying” (Yael)

    Skepticism in the interpretive process – I think that is normal – we all need to practice some level of this. I also tend to agree with the idea more than one idea can be gleamed from a passage – and sometimes finding only one meaning is not satisfactory. I also tend to look past the obvious ideas from a passage (mostly the literal aspects put upon metaphors or parables – for example) to find the other meanings possibly being used.

    “We are not the end all and be all of interpretation” (Shane)

    Yes we are…name one thing you believe that you don’t believe in? There is a conscious decision being made every single time you look at those scriptures and pull out an interpretation – you make a decision on what’s read or as Jesus said ‘how does it read to you?’. In the end, scripture finds it’s realities in our experiences and living of it – and no one else can do that for you (or me).

    “the original languages…Interpreting scripture with scripture…Context is King” (Shane)

    I agree with each one – however – I also know that they are good guidelines more or less. The original languages will help in difficult passages – but I would say – if we cannnot get the meaning from the english on the page (which is always possible I have noticed) – then we need an interpreter (more or less). I think it is possible to read the english and see what the points being made are. Example being – ‘blessed are the poor (in spirit)’ – is greek going to help any in the interpretation there? No. Poor in spirit is where the debate begins – and pneumos/pneuma isn’t going to reveal a single thing the english isn’t already saying.

    As for interpreting scripture with scripture – this works quite a bit…but even this can lead to your 3rd fallacy – buggering up context. Scripture usually is tied to an over-arching theme or idea found elsewhere in the bible (agreed) – but sometimes people use this method to read something into a passage also (claiming same idea was used this way somewhere else). A good example of this is when Jesus says David eats the ‘rye bread’ in the temple. I heard one person claim Jesus was claiming to be God there because he said ‘the son of man’ is greater then the temple – because of the meaning of the temple (God’s place). Fact is, this was a law issue and not a temple issue – nor did Jesus make any claim like that. I have seen this quite recently actually on the Confessions site.

    Context is King – I couldn’t agree more – and that’s where my focus from interpretation draws from. I ain’t into cross-referencing until I see the passage in the author’s own work first and foremost – then I venture out. And you’re right – everything around the single passage is part of the passage – so it needs to be looked at with a wider lense. I also hold to the idea the beatitudes are an index for the rest of Matthew (or these teachings will be the focus of Jesus’ message…and they are). Context keeps me grounded in interpreting.

    “Where our individuality comes into play should be in our application” (Shane)

    I disagree (to a point) on this one. Take for example 2 simple passages:

    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)

    “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it” (Matt 7:13)

    I have written blogs on these 2 passages and what they mean (ie: how do they read to you?). People came from all over the place on these 2 passages alone – and I found there may be a variant of interpretations and not just one (namely for Matt 7:13 – I have discovered at least 4 to 5 views).

    But in application we will all truly develop the meaning of the passage – experience is also an aspect of interpretation you forgot to put with the 3 you mention. How can we truly flesh out an interpretation without it being ‘experienced’? Or as John would say ‘the word made flesh’.

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