Science of Biblical Interpretation: (1) Nexus Causality

[This is Science of Biblical Interpretation Cognitive tool-kit article (1). The mini-series is explained here.]

In his article for This Will Make You Smarter, John Tooby discusses nexus causality, moral warfare and misattribution arbitrage (read online here). I will be picking up the concept of Nexus Causality.

Nexus Causality

Tooby writes:

Causality itself is an evolved conceptual tool that simplifies, schematizes, and focuses our representation of situations. This cognitive machinery guides us to think in terms of the cause- of an outcome’s having a single cause. Yet for enlarged understanding, it is more accurate to represent outcomes as caused by an intersection, or nexus, of factors (including the absence of precluding conditions).

It is not always as simple as A=B.

Sometimes it is a case of A+B=C.

Or, A+B=C, only in the presence of D.

Outcomes, events, and explanations have multiple causes, and can rarely be reduced to a simple cause-effect, or be isolated from a context.

Biblical Texts as Causal Nexus

When interpreting the biblical text we must be careful not to reduce our understanding of its formation to simple cause-effect. The Bible is not a sterile instruction book handed down by YHWH: God said it (cause) so humans wrote it (effect). We must avoid reducing the bible to divinely dictated rules, or single verses, to be taken at face value and arbitrarily applied to our own individual context.

Verse X says do this, so I will do it; verse Y says don’t do this, so I will not do it.

When handling the biblical text we must always have in mind that we are dealing with a collection of texts: each one is a nexus, an intersection, of various causes. They are written at a particular time, by a certain group, in a certain social context, in response to a certain need.

The writers, and the community from which they came, had access to and were influenced by the texts previously written. But, most obviously, not to the texts that were yet to be written in in the coming centuries. Over time separate texts were merged and edited to be more harmonious, or to solidify understanding.

Different communities would have used words and language slightly differently; word meaning would have shifted over time. We must take into account the switch from Hebrew to Greek from the Hebrew Bible to the documents of the Early Church. The first century Jews, it must be remembered, were speaking Greek as well as Aramaic. So important was this social linguistic fact, that a Greek-language translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint, was produced.

This is not mutually exclusive to holding the view of the divine inspiration of the biblical text, though. It remains, for those with a high view of scripture, as one of the legitimate causes for the biblical text. God, through affecting the communities, would have been reflected in the text. God could have also influenced writers through the writing process, too.

Biblical Interpretation as Causal Nexus

The same is also true of the individual moments of interpreting the biblical text: each is produced at a nexus of multiple causes. Each interpreter is found within their own social context, at a certain point in history, responding to a certain need. Each will be working in their own language and working with translations of the original texts. They will also be influenced by the biblical interpretations that have preceded them, but also will be unaffected by biblical interpretations that will come further on in time.

Conclusion

Life, communities, and texts are not simple. They defy being reduced to simplistic understandings. If they are, then depth, richness, and worth will undoubtedly be lost. Rather, we must acknowledge that we function within a web of causes, and individual moments become a nexus, an intersection, of these causes. Every instance of biblical interpretation will be a causal nexus, and at this point there will be the added complexity of trying to understand the causal nexus in which the biblical text itself was written, and the causal nexus of other biblical interpretations which are being engaged.

The next instalment of The Science of Biblical Interpretation will deal with an implication of the causal nexus understanding of biblical interpretation: Context Sensitivity.

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