On Clear And Unclear Scriptures

Although this particular essay seeks to provide a reflection upon the hermeneutical principle that clear scriptures explain unclear ones, the sort of textual approach adopted here is one that we can use for other texts as well, although it is the Bible that I will focus on as its interpretation is personally more important to me than the interpretation of other texts, as much as I appreciate interpreting texts in general.  The principle that clear scriptures explain unclear ones is straightforward enough on the face of it, yet we quickly run into trouble when we try to define what a clear scripture is.  Given the great amount of defective proof-texting that one can see, it is very clear that there are different meanings attached to what is a clear scripture and what is an unclear one, and how it is that a clear scripture explains an unclear one.  One might think that this was a subjective determination that was up to people.  And to be sure there is a wide variety of what people think are clear scriptures.

Fortunately, this particular principle is not the only hermeneutical principle at our disposal.  The highest rule of biblical interpretation is the biblical statement that the scripture cannot be broken.  In other words, all valid interpretations of scripture are non-contradictory, and if anyone interprets the Bible against itself, they have done violence to the text and are interpreting it incorrectly.  Other worthwhile hermeneutical principles that we must take into consideration are the fact that all scripture is divinely inspired (and hence all scripture must be taken into consideration in interpreting a scripture) and that we often must find biblical truth here a little and there a little, which again requires that we examine not only the close context of a verse in order to understand it, but we must also understand the whole biblical context of a verse to understand the parameters of that verse.  In addition, many verses have layered meanings, meaning there are multiple valid interpretations of a verse.  For example, the song of Solomon is a frankly romantic poem about the relationship between a young woman and her beloved, and it has several other layers of meaning, including allegorical meanings that involve both Israel and the Church (which is itself grafted into Israel).

As there are many examples of scriptures that are viewed by some as clear but which are unclear, it is worthwhile to see if we can gain some understanding about some of the ways that scripture must be properly interpreted and how we can tell the difference between a clear and unclear scripture.  Perhaps the most obvious example can be found in Proverbs 26:4-5:  “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.  Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”  There are some people who view both of these as categorical imperatives and as clear scriptures that clearly contradict each other.  Nevertheless, the writers of the Bible were not stupid, and by putting these two verses next to each other they clearly meant to provide a context, in which case neither of these scriptures is an absolute rule, but both of them present principles that are in tension with each other.  To wit, in answering fools according to their folly there is always the danger that the fools we are arguing with will drag us down to their level and try to beat us with experience and that we will end up looking and being as foolish as they are.  We obviously want to avoid this.  Nevertheless, we must answer a fool so that the fool does not persist under the illusion that he or she is wise.  We are thus presented with the challenge of answering a fool in order to correct folly but without answering like a fool ourselves, but rather answering with wisdom and discernment and considerable sensitivity.  Thus the two verses do not contradict each other at all, but rather present at least two layers of what it means to answer according to the fool’s folly.

Related to the first example are cases where the obvious sense of the verse cannot be intended to be true.  In cases where the Bible has an ironic or sarcastic or exaggerated tone, the verse is unclear to the extent that it requires a recognition of that tone and cannot be interpreted and followed straightforwardly.  Matthew 5:29-30 tells us:  “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”  This passage is not a call for self-mutilation, but is a fairly obvious example of exaggeration for effect to demonstrate the seriousness of moral reformation and learning how to control ourselves.  Nevertheless, some readers of this passage have not recognized the exaggeration of the verse, and have straightforwardly cut off parts of their bodies that they viewed were leading them to sin.  Even Origen, that noted third century Hellenistic believer, castrated himself because he thought his penis led him into sin, and failed to interpret this verse correctly, viewing a scripture that required interpretation and nuance as a straightforward command for self-mutilation and blaming our members for the sins that spring from internal wicked desires and longings, as James correctly points out.

There are other verses that are unclear because they are proof-texted awry.  This happens a lot, and given the limited scope of this particular essay we cannot discuss all of the ways that unclear scriptures are viewed as clear proof-texts.  Two examples should suffice.  Mark 7:15-16 reads as follows:  “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!””  This verse, and the passage as a whole, has often improperly been used as a proof text to claim that the laws of clean and unclean meats have been done away with.  Yet there are multiple lines from this passage that demonstrate this is not the case.  For one, we know that the context of this whole passage goes back to the beginning of Mark 7 and an argument about the ritual and ceremonial washings that were part of the tradition of the Pharisees but were not commanded from the scripture, an argument that can be found in the Talmud concerning the Pharisees’ belief that private eating and drinking required priestly levels of ceremonial cleanliness.  For another, even the cited verses themselves contain a refutation of the belief that God’s law has been annulled, for a desire to rebel against the law of God and eat what God has made unholy is itself something that comes from within and therefore defiles someone, as is the case with those in general who seek to cite verses from this passage out of context in order to justify their own desire to disobey God’s clear laws and instructions.  A similar situation occurs in Acts 10 when the passage explains the context of what is falsely viewed as a “clear” scripture relating to unclean meats.

Recently I have spent a great deal of time writing about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which reads as follows:  “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.”  This particular verse has often been used as a prooftext to keep women from having any sort of public involvement in religious matters, as any public role in church requires some sort of speech, and this verse appears to many on the face of it to require absolute silence from women in church, and not even to ask questions in church.  Yet, as is the case with what we have viewed seriously, this cannot be the correct understanding of the verse, for in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6, we read:  “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.  For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.”  Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 14:39-40, we read:  “Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues.  Let all things be done decently and in order.”  These passages indicate that women are included among the body of brethren who are encouraged to prophecy and are not forbidden to speak in foreign languages.  And indeed it is not uncommon for women to translate services into other languages for brethren or to speak in sign language as part of a congregation’s deaf service.  Whatever prophesying involves, though, in the context of a local congregation, it is not something forbidden for women to do (as indeed women have been prophetesses through the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures as well as the New Testament), and therefore the command for women to be silent must mean something else than what it is often taken to mean, so that the clear verses around it that call on the brethren as a whole to participate in prophesying as part of the services decently and in order is not contradicted.

What, then, can we gather from this brief survey?  We might say that a clear scripture is one whose meaning is so plain that it can be quoted or read or interpreted in isolation without contradicting the Bible as a whole.  If a scripture requires interpretation of its tone or content or context in order to be properly understood, and if its “obvious” interpretation would lead to contradiction or the scripture being broken, then it is by definition an unclear scripture that requires further study and interpretation to determine its near context as well as its whole biblical context.  All too often people seek to view as clear scriptures those scriptures which agree with their own ideas or interpretations or interests, and view as “unclear” scriptures those scriptures which provide context and which would speak against a pet interpretation.  If a verse requires context to understand–be it the context of the passage in which it resides, the context of the thinking and writing of the author, or the whole context of the Bible–it is not a clear scripture, and it should not be treated as such.  And if we interpret a scripture in such a way that we contract the near and whole biblical context, we are interpreting that scripture incorrectly and deserve to be reminded by those who have a greater understanding of the relevant context than we are misusing.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to On Clear And Unclear Scriptures

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Here is another interesting one: II Samuel 24:1 (NKJV) “Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” This is a partial mistranslation of the KJV of the same scripture: “And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he(2) moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” The (2) is a marginal reference to Satan. Both versions accurately translate the event through II Chronicles’ record of the same event (Chapter 21:1 NKJV): “Now Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.” (II Chron. 21:1 KJV): “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.” It is true that God allowed it to happen, but His anger was kindled after David succumbed to the temptation. He knew that, according to the law, the armies were never to be numbered except when specifically instructed by God.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    The Chronicles version should have been I Chronicles, not II. My bad…

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