Science of Biblical Interpretation: (3) The Uselessness of Certainty

[This is Science of Biblical Interpretation Cognitive tool-kit article (3). The mini-series is explained here.]

In his article for This Will Make You Smarter, Carlo Rovelli discusses the Uselessness of Certainty (read online here).

Uselessness of Certainty
Rovelli writes:
Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain, because good scientists will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better evidence or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use but is also in fact damaging, if we value reliability.

Failure to appreciate the value of uncertainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society.

New evidence, techniques, and data are ever flowing into the scientific endeavour, and as knowledge and understanding increases, so does the need to reassess what is already ‘known’.

Acquiring knowledge and understanding is a continual process of testing and revision; Bringing together ideas and information to either confirm, expand, or even prove wrong, the understanding of the world.

To have a certain degree of uncertainty in knowledge and understanding is therefore necessary if growth and expansion is to occur. Why explore and test if the knowledge is perfect?

Fluidity in Biblical Theological Study
The same is true in theology. The flow of new evidence, techniques, and data is relentless: divergent contexts emerge, challenging social issues arise, novel interpretative methods are developed (or rediscovered), and new historical and textual data are unearthed through archaeology.

Theologians and biblical scholars work within an environment of uncertainty; It is a necessity. Questions are an ever present challenge, and when answered reveal something more of the mystery of the interplay between God, his people, and the world. Or, also likely, the questions uncover a false understanding which has been used, consciously or not, to mislead and oppress people.

The need for a continual testing and revision of biblical, textual, and theological knowledge is great. This unrelenting task encompasses studying what the biblical text meant to those writing it, the historical-social-cultural context of the writers, the linguistic challenges of appropriating the text for ourselves, and how the evolving knowledge and understanding of biblical and theological principles can be applied to our contemporary context (which also needs interpreting itself!).

Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Shifting Understanding
Biblical interpretation does not have to be reserved for scholars and pastors, nor does it have to be feared as leading to heresy. Every single person is capable of, and obliged to, undertake biblical-theological interpretation. For their own knowledge and understanding, yes, but also because biblical-theological interpretation will undoubtedly affect other people, the direct community one is a member of, and society as a whole.

An accessible method of testing and revising theology is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, whereby the biblical text, tradition, experience and reason are used together to inform a biblical-theological viewpoint.

The biblical text forms the basis of enquiry, and what it is saying to the individual and community is understood by previous interpretations within tradition. This view can be augmented, however, by the addition of experience, be that context, event, or new information, through reason, the application of thought.

A simple example could be that of head-coverings for women in church in 1Cor 11:3-16. Women in a contemporary 21st Christian community may wear head coverings because their tradition dictates it, and finds justification in a surface reading of the text.* The practice may be questioned due to other communities not following it, or because of the unusual references in the section of biblical text to ‘angels’ or long hair for women being dictated by ‘nature’.

Taking a reasoned approach, with other sources of information, a different theological position can be reached. Paul’s meaning is in fact blurred here. If he is talking about a head covering, or hairstyle in general, is unclear. In the social setting, prostitutes would wear their hair long and uncovered, and first century Jewish women, who had been found guilty of adultery, would have had their hair cut short.

Taking into account Paul’s earlier comments of the Corinthians abusing their freedom in Christ (1Cor 10:23), it is likely that Paul here is telling the community to refrain from giving the wrong impression about themselves and the community to those outside of the Church. Regardless of social freedoms, Paul urges the women not gain an unnecessary bad reputation. In our own western context, no such message is presented by women wearing their hair short, or having their head uncovered, so head coverings are not a requirement. In fact, head coverings may alienate the female members of church from society.

Uncertainty, and the willingness to question, is an important aspect of biblical interpretation for all members of the Church.

Concluding Thoughts
Biblical-Theological interpretations of the biblical texts are, to some extent, fluid. New information and contexts will always lead to a fresh reinterpretation of the biblical text: whether that be to amend a long-standing position, or to create a fresh response to a new scenario entirely. Resting solely on the blind faith of tradition is not productive or helpful in the ever-evolving understanding of the world.

This is not to raise humanity up to a position of being supreme in knowledge: far from it. It is the humble acknowledgement that humanity is always going to have a diminished understanding of the world which leads us to constantly strive for a fuller understanding, and to root out any damaging viewpoints that have been collected along our journey.


*Not all communities that wear head-coverings, but communities in which practices are followed without reason. One example of contextual awareness would be churches in certain Middle-Eastern countries where head covering is found to be beneficial, though not as a blind response to 1Cor 11:3-16.

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Driscoll: Mis-Projected Metaphors, Yom Kippur, and fulfilment in Jesus (Pt 3)

[This is pt 3. See: Pt 1 : Pt 2.]

Mark Driscoll is correct; Jesus fulfils the ritual system: the shapes and colours of the Yom Kippur festival are focused and made vivid in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

These shapes and colours are not, however, those of penal substitution.

Jesus as fulfilment of Yom Kippur
The bull and first goat are not substitutionary, and it is not God’s wrath that is poured out upon the animals instead of upon the Israelites. The animals are sacrificed to retrieve the blood, which represents life, which is needed to purge the impurity from the holy places, thus allowing the presence of God to dwell. In the New Testament Writings a continuation of the purpose and symbolism of the Hebrew Scriptures is seen through Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:17; Colossians 2:16-17).

Yes, Jesus has dealt with sin, but it should not simply be reduced to him dying; There is much more depth and symbolism in how and whyhis death was so powerfully atoning.

A superseding of the Levitical ritual system was necessary, and indicated in the Hebrew Scriptures: The Psalms indicate the Davidic king/ coming Messiah, will be of the order of Melchizedek (ps 110:4); The writings of Jeremiah indicate a new Law is to be written on peoples hearts (Jer 31:30-34).

Jesus as High Priest, by his obedience, has entered into the Heavenly Tabernacle, and inaugurates the anticipated New Covenant. This is achieved by the unique nature of his sacrifice.

A Perfect High Priest: Willingly Entering The Heavenly Tabernacle
The Levitical High Priest was human and held back by personal sin. To be able to oversee and enact the festival of Yom Kippur he had need to purify himself and the priestly tribe.

Jesus, however, being ‘holy, faultless, unstained, beyond the very reach of sin and lifted to the very Heavens’ (Heb 7:26) becomes for humanity the perfect High Priest, not needing to be purified. He shows his perfection through his wilful obedience and endurance of suffering: obedient as the Son of God under oath, not under the Law as a Levite.

Jesus perfect and willing sacrifice enables a unique High Priestly privilege.

He does not gain entry to minister in the sanctuary of the Earthly Tabernacle of the Law. Jesus, as High Priest, ministers in the Heavenly Tabernacle, of which the former is a mere foreshadowing. Jesus does not merely enter into the Earthly Sanctuary, but into the Heavenly throne room. And not that he should be required to be a sacrifice year after year, limited to entry to the Sanctuary once yearly. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice is once, for all time, as a superseding of the Levitical system. Being the eternal Son of God, he is our perpetual High Priest in the presence of God the Father; There is no requirement for a Levitical lineage from which to elect a High Priest.

A Perfect Sacrifice: Once For All
1] Bearing the Burden of Sin
Jesus bore our sins as he carried the cross out of Jerusalem. Mirroring the Yom Kippur ritual, he left the order of the city, moving away from the central Sanctuary, and went out into the wilderness, into chaos. Jesus, though blameless, carries the guilt of our sin in its entirety. So heavy is the burden of the guilt of sin, and so crushing on the covenantal relationship between God and humanity, Jesus calls out from the cross “Father, why have you forsaken me?” In that moment, Jesus embodied the tragedy of the effect of sin on the covenant relationship.

That Jesus bore or carried our sin is attested in 1Peter 2:24, and that he had to leave the city in Hebrews 13:11-13.

2] Sacrificed through death
Sacrifice was effectual in the Levitical system because of the blood, in which was found life; it has the power to purify. The freely offered blood of Jesus, as the Holy Son of God, holds far greater purifying power. This purifying power in his blood is strong enough to inaugurate and sustain the New Covenant.

The First Covenant required continual animal sacrifices to allow the High Priest annual entry into the Earthly Sanctuary. Jesus does not need to continually die as a sacrifice. His perfect sacrifice and unmatchable purifying blood granted him entry into the Heavenly Tabernacle.

As God incarnate, Jesus is unique: His Godly eternal nature means he may remain there indefinitely; His acquired human nature means he can intercede on behalf of humanity, having endured temptation.

Signs Of The The New Covenant: Dwelling Within His People
Jesus’ death enacted, empowers, and sustains the New Covenant. He takes position as the perfect High Priest, seated in the Heavenly Sanctuary at the right hand of the Father. His position is vindicated by his perfect sacrifice, the unmatched power in his blood, and his assumption of humanity in bodily form and temptation.

The Gospels record the curtain splitting in the Temple at the point of Jesus’ death on the cross. God’s presence no longer dwells in the Earthly Sanctuary, and it ceases to be the locus of a priestly mediation of the Covenantal relationship between God and his people.

The First Covenant has ended, and has been replaced by the superior New Covenant.

By entering into the New Covenant, by accepting the cleansing power and divine mediation of Jesus, we receive what Jesus had promised: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the law written on our hearts. We no longer follow the Law of the First Covenant. We have perpetual access to God the Father, and a much greater transformation: Not by the limited Law, but by the dynamic Spirit, bringing freedom.

This receiving of the Holy Spirit, however, is a deposit: The first portion and blessing of the New Covenant. The power of sin has been broken, and the way to God the Father has been opened. We now await the full outworking of the New Covenant. A promise already made visible in Jesus: the final removal of the power of death, and the receiving of perfect resurrection bodies as part of the renewed creation.

The First Covenant was a sign of

The New Covenant in Jesus’ blood is a sign of

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“Uncertainty is intrinsic to the process of finding out what you don’t know, not a weakness to avoid.”

Neil Gershenfeld

(‘Truth Is A Model’ in Brockman, John (ed.), This will Make You Smarter:New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, London: Doubleday, 2012.)

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Driscoll: Mis-Projected Metaphors, Yom Kippur, And Fulfilment In Jesus (Pt 2)

The previous post dealt with the misuse of metaphor and models when interpreting biblical texts. What follows is a reading of the Yom Kippur ritual found in Leviticus 16, in its cultural, social context.

[Apologies for the length: It is a difficult subject to tackle with brevity!]

Yom Kippur In Its Ancient Near Eastern Leviticus Context

The groups and cultures of the ancient Near East functioned with varied, but similar, worldviews concerning statuses and forces such as order, chaos, impurity, pollution, cleanness, commonness, and holiness. We find evidence for this, and accompanying rituals, within the archaeological record throughout the area, in artefacts as well as preserved text.

For the Israelites, with transgression comes impurity. Throughout the year the Israelites, by transgressing their covenantal relationship with God, slowly pollute the Tabernacle.  The impurity is drawn to its opposite, holiness, invading and collecting within the holy space. This jeopardises the holiness of the sanctuary, therefore, as the impurity increases, it also jeopardising the presence of the holy God in the midst of the people.

Yom Kippur is an annual purification ritual performed by the Israelites to cleanse the Tabernacle of ritual impurity, thus returning it to a state of holiness, and ensuring the continued presence of God with the people, and maintaining the covenantal relationship.

1] Fasting And Avoiding Work: Sacred Time
By restricting Yom Kippur to an annual observance the pollution of the sanctuary becomes a much more focused issue, with a much greater need for introspection and remorse for actions. The day itself is separated and made sacred from other days in that the whole camp would fast and refrain from work.

2] The Bull: For The Imperfect High Priest
The overseer and main performer in the ritual is the High Priest. The High Priest and the priestly tribe must be represented, and have their transgressions atoned for, by an additional layer of sacrifice. This is due to their closer contact with the Tabernacle and its holy objects, as well as their greater responsibility in the community. A bull is sacrificed and the blood used during the purification ritual within the Tabernacle.

3a] The First Goat: As Sacrifice, For God
The first goat is sacrificed and the blood, and that of the bull, is used to perform the first stage of purification. (Contra to Driscoll’s understanding, confession is not performed over the sacrificial goat.) It is not the death of the Goat which is important, but rather the action performed with the blood. It is ‘for God’ as it deals with his dwelling place. Within the sanctuary, the innermost part of the Tabernacle, the High Priest sprinkles the blood, purifying the space. He then moves out into the Tent of Meeting, again sprinkling the blood, purifying the space. Finally, he moves out to the Altar in the courtyard, again sprinkling the blood, purifying the space.

The use of blood is symbolic: it represents life and holiness. The high Priest, through the performance of the ritual, brings purification and holiness to the inner-most region of the Tabernacle, the sanctuary, moving outwards to the courtyard.

3b] Two Second Goats: As Burden Carrier, For Azazel
Once back outside the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the High Priest confesses the transgressions over the second goat. The goat then carries the burden of guilt outside of the order of the camp, to the mysterious Azazel,1 who dwells in the chaos of the desert.

The Ritual Complex: Purpose And Result
The repentance for sins has already occurred throughout the year in the more specific rituals outlined in Lev 1-7. Yom Kippur focuses on dealing with impurity within the Tabernacle, more especially the Sanctuary, which can only be purified once a year, during Yom Kippur.

The annual observance highlights the severity of sin. It is dangerous. Sins can not be committed in a blasé manner because of the availability of the rituals which can be performed on a daily basis. The accumulation of sin through the year, jeopardising God’s maintained dwelling, must be considered.

The movement of the ritual, from the centre of the camp, out into the desert, suggests and enacts the movement of impurity. The impurity is removed away from God and his people, and out of the camp. Away from holiness, and purity, out into the neutral desert. Away from order and out into chaos. An eradication of the impurity of transgression is not in view, but rather a removal of impurity from the camp, limiting the effect it can have upon the covenantal relationship.

Justice: Restorative, Not Retributive
Yom Kippur, then, is a display of restorative justice. The thrust and focus is of highlighting and owning the transgression within the covenant relationship between the people and God. The contrition of the people leads to the forgiveness offered by a merciful God, displayed in his continued dwelling amongst the people, and his continued blessing.

Yom Kippur is not retributive justice. There is no measure-for-measure punishment regarding the transgression of the people. God’s wrath is not placated by an outpouring upon a substitute victim.

Penal substitution is not in view. To place that metaphor over this text leaves it misshapen, and clarity is lost as the wrong colours and hues are being seen. The next post will use the shapes and colours of the Yom Kippur festival and place them within the bigger picture of Jesus, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.

1. [The character of Azazel may be a desert demon, a term for the wilderness itself, or a borrowing from older traditions in the ancient Near East. What is important is that it is the locus of the sending of the impurity of the transgression of the people. A locus which is opposite to the holy, life-giving God, outside of the order of the camp in the chaos.]

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Driscoll: Mis-Projected Metaphors, Yom Kippur, And Fulfilment in Jesus (Pt 1)

Mark Driscoll blogged about viewing Jesus through events in the Old Testament. One of the events examined was Yom Kippur. Unfortunately he missed the more correct meaning of the ancient Israelite festival as he viewed the text through the lens of the penal substitutionary atonement model. even more unfortunate, this position obscured and missed the truths found in Leviticus concerning the character of God and his dealings with his people. Such truths illuminate the importance of the crucifixion, helping us better understand certain aspects of atonement in the New Testament writings.

What follows in this first post highlights the dangers involved with mishandling atonement theory metaphors and models.

The second post will examine the Yom Kippur festival in detail, in its textual, cultural, and social context.

The third post will examine what this reveals about Jesus, his crucifixion, and his resurrection.

Mis-Projected Metaphors Do Not Bring Clarity, But Blur Our Vision

Driscoll views the ritual of the Yom Kippur festival through the lens of penal substitution:

‘Over the sacrificial goat, the high priest would confess the sins of the people and slaughter the animal as a substitute sacrifice. The blood of that animal would be shed, and the wrath of God would be poured out on that animal in their place as a substitute. Over the scapegoat, the high priest would confess the sins of the people and rather than being slaughtered, it would be sent away.’

As much as some would like to see penal substitution in play here, the notion of direct substitution, and the outpouring of God’s wrath for sin, is not found in the text of Leviticus. These features have been placed onto the text by understanding the text through the shape of the penal substitutionary atonement model, and its own shades of meaning through metaphor.

If a metaphor was not in mind at the point of writing, then it will not be directly reflected in that text. To incorrectly place metaphors upon unassuming texts will produce unintended meaning, blurring our vision of the text, and obscuring the original intended meaning. Some imposed metaphors may occasionally seem to work, or ‘fit’, but this is likely the prejudice and bias of the biblical interpreter being projected into, and over, the text, rather than the text speaking out to the biblical interpreter.

Atonement models and their sibling metaphors, found within the biblical text, are mosaic and complimentary; They are like the individual coloured pieces of a stained glass window. Distinct in their colour and shape, they each bring out different features of atonement. Unified in their focus and purpose, they all dovetail together, forming the exquisite and expansive atonement picture.

Stacked up together, one piece on top of the other, the intricacy of the image collapses. Likewise, the clarity of the image suffers if one colour is allowed to spreads across the whole.

Distinct yet unified, the atonement metaphors and models come together. Carefully constructed, they form the big picture of God working through history: Reconciling humanity to himself, reconciling human to human, and reconciling individuals with themselves.

It is only through a careful and correct reading of the mosaic text that such a picture can be projected with clarity. For the biblical interpreter it is a imperative to know that the job is never done. They must: continually examine the text, continually seek links, continually pick out divergent colours, textures and hues, and continually rework other biblical interpreters parts of the picture, to praise the intricacy, or correct inaccuracies.

I do praise Driscoll for highlighting and drawing attention to Yom Kippur: being buried away in the text of Leviticus, its shapes and colours are often overlooked by the general reader. Yet, by mishandling the text and applying the wrong metaphor, inaccuracies have resulted. we are left with misshapen fragments, stained the wrong hue, giving a misleading image of the character and the works of God in his dealings with his people.

The next post will pick out some of the shapes and colours of the atonement picture as projected by the Leviticus text, explicitly the ritual of the Yom Kippur festival.

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The Goal…

The goal of Jewish law is to be the grammar of living.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

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Science of Biblical Interpretation: (2) Context Sensitivity

[This is Science of Biblical Interpretation Cognitive tool-kit article (2). The mini-series is explained here.]

In his article for This Will Make You Smarter, Gary Marcus discusses Cognitive Humility (read online here). I will be focusing upon the idea of Context Sensitivity.

Context Sensitivity
Marcus writes:
Human memories are deeply subject to context. Scuba divers, for example, are better at remembering the words they study underwater when they are tested underwater rather than on land, even if the words have nothing to do with the sea.
Perhaps the most dire consequence is that human beings tend to be better at remembering evidence consistent with their beliefs than evidence that contradicts those beliefs. When two people disagree, it is often because their prior beliefs lead them to remember (or focus on) different bits of evidence. To consider something well, of course, is to evaluate both sides of an argument, but unless we also go the extra mile of deliberately forcing ourselves to consider alternatives–which doesn’t come naturally–we’re more prone to recall evidence consistent with a belief that is inconsistent with it.

The brain is a dynamic, complex web of neural connections, responding to sensory input, with connections strengthening with continued use. When it comes to memories, which occupy and function within this web, they too become strengthened when recalled, and are most strongly connected to the contexts in which they were first made and contexts in which they are most commonly recalled.

Going deeper, the connections between ideas and memories themselves are strengthened the more often they are linked. Opinions, assumptions and presuppositions can quite easily become fact, and the ‘correct’ viewpoint, in one’s thinking.

Context Sensitivity is the mode of thinking whereby our existing cognitive structure influences our automatic response and approach to interpreting and understanding the world around us. Positively, It helps us better deal with the barrage of information we have to process in every second of every hour of every day. Negatively, it produces a bias in interpreting the world around us, and our response to it.

Eisegesis: Context Sensitivity Of The Biblical Interpreter
As explored previously, an interpretation of the text lies within a causal nexus. Each individual moment of  interpretation, by each interpreter, will be a convergence of multiple influences.

For interpreters, Context Sensitivity is a powerful and influential force in this causal nexus. It is also one of the guiding forces that is regularly overlooked, or under-appreciated.

Opinions, assumptions, presuppositions, and accepted community norms will be strongly embedded into our neural circuitry, and any cursory reading of the text will be biased towards fitting into such a viewpoint. Such interpretations may be said to ‘simply feel right’, or be ‘obvious’, with little evidence to back up such a view. Essentially, one’s own meaning and understanding of how things should be is put onto the text to understand it and give it meaning. The text is distorted to to fit our own context.

Eisegesis is the technical term used in biblical interpretation for this process, whereby a meaning is read into the text. Context Sensitivity suggests that this is a natural and subconscious way to view the text. Unfortunately, it leads to misinterpretation of the text, and losing the original meaning, the meaning intended by the author. As with the strengthening of links within our neural circuitry, the more we view the text uncritically through our own Causal Nexus, the more it is effected by our Context, and the stronger our opinion and interpretation will become: it will simply feel right, without necessarily being right.

The problem at the heart of eisegesis, then, is that it places the text artificially into the reader’s Causal Nexus, rather than that of the author.

Exegesis: Accepting Our Place In the Causal Nexus
Alas, there is no simple answer, or psychological/neurological trick to combat this. The only way to lessen the effects of Context Sensitivity is consciously noting the influences of our Causal Nexus. Accepting that we do indeed sit within our own, influential, distorting, Causal Nexus.

We then have to be open to the difficult task of discovering the Causal Nexus in which the text was originally written: What was causing the author of the text to write what they did? What influences were converging in that moment of thought to create the text: culturally, socially, communally, linguistically, rhetorically. The biblical interpreter, by mentally locating themself in the Causal Nexus of the author, is more likely to understand the intention of the author, the significance of the text, and the meaning it can then have in other contexts.

Exegesis is the technical term used in biblical interpretation for this process, whereby the meaning is read out of the text. By investigating the historical-social context which led to the writing of  the text, the meaning of the text is moved into view, and becomes more sharply focused. The more we consciously attempt to view the text through the Causal Nexus of its author, rather than our own, the stronger will become our neural connections between the text and its true context. We will, by effort, be able to begin the process of transcending and overcoming our own limited Context Sensitivity.

Concluding Thoughts
Bad biblical interpretation is not necessarily the fault of the interpreter. If they have not been challenged about their opinions, assumptions, and presuppositions, then they are most likely responding subconsciously, and quite naturally, under the influence of their own Context Sensitivity.

The movement towards understanding our own Causal Nexus, and that of the author of the text, has to be a conscious, humble, community endeavour. Each individual is able to utilise their own Context Sensitivity to provoke others into examining theirs. By merging and sharing our opinions, assumptions, and presuppositions, we can overcome the limitations of the individual and their bias. We will also begin to learn how the convergence of different influences produces different outcomes; We will better understand how to interpret disparate Causal Nexuses, and thus better reconstruct the causal nexus of the authors of the biblical texts.

The next instalment of The Science of Biblical Interpretation will deal with the Uselessness Of Certainty.

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