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