The Science of Biblical Interpretation: Introduction

Published this year, This Will Make You Smarter,[1] edited by John Brockman of Edge.org, contains 150 answers, by leaders in their field, to the question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? That is, what tools do we need to reliably gain knowledge about anything?

When thinking about the myriad systems within the Universe, scientists must utilize a broad cognitive tool-kit, a tool-kit which continues to grow in response to shifting understanding and praxis.

For scientists, this diverse tool-kit is necessary to:

  • Deal with huge quantities of data, sift them for patterns , and to move towards the most probable explanation.
  • Enable scientists to work within contexts where experimentation is not possible, feasible, or ethical.
  • Minimize the inevitable bias which enters the interpretative process due to the many people involved with the interpretative work.

The task of the biblical interpreter is not too different:

  • Dealing with huge quantities of data: Biblical texts, historical documents, and secondary commentary sources.
  • Reconstructing historical settings/ groups/ individuals, reconstructing the development of the texts in relation to those settings/groups/ individuals, contemplating a Spiritual realm, and constructing understandings of the future in our eschatology.
  • Working with individuals and groups who are bound-up with social, cultural, institutional, educational, and doctrinal biases.

When viewed in this way, the similarities between the enterprises suggest that it could be beneficial for biblical interpreters to keep abreast with advances in the cognitive tool-kit within the scientific community.

While biblical interpreters already make use of, and have expertise in, history, cultural studies, linguistics, and literature, it is also profitable to be aware of advances in psychology, neuroscience, analytical models, and data handling. Better understanding how the minds of individuals and groups process information will is invaluable knowledge for reconstructing the past and working within our contemporary interpretive communities.

Over the next few days I will be posting (at least[2]) three concepts from the cognitive tool-kit which can play a part in biblical interpretation:

  1. Nexus Causality
  2. Context Sensitivity
  3. Uselessness of Certainty

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[1] Brockman, John (ed.), This will Make You Smarter:New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, London: Doubleday, 2012.

[2] I have only read 25 of the responses, so more than these 3 are likely to follow. These initial 3 have stood out as most beneficial/applicable to biblical interpretation.

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