THE PRACTICE AND PRICE OF SYMBOLIC INTERPRETION OF THE SCRIPTURES
Biblical interpretation is beyond reason for those of faith. The very meaning of faith entails beyond reason: "faith is
the affirmation of a proposition with certitude even though the evidence is not compelling"--Saint Thomas Aquinas. Those of faith thus go beyond logic and reasonable inference to affirm as true that which could only be
accepted by an act of faith. Those of faith not only deny reasonable conclusions
based on religious beliefs, they also use this belief structure to modify the plain meaning of the New and Old Testaments. An inner light guides the believer so that he can uncover the true pattern and deep
meaning of their scriptures. There are benefits and costs for bringing to the
bible faith and inner light.
G.A. Wells, the best of current biblical scholars wrote of this practice of revision
of scriptures and its price in What's in a Name?[i] I will rely upon his discussion.
Theologians (except for fundamentalists) have in order to make palatable many of the passages of the bible have chose
the symbolic escape. They string together a number of these symbolic modifications
of the plain meaning of the scriptures into a unit and then claim this to be consistent with divine will.
Numerous criticisms of the Bible are thus circumvented. For example, moral
instruction is made modern (such as about homosexuality). Historical passages
that lack support (such as Joshua conquering Jericho) are now considered instructive.
Fictional Old- Testament parallel were part of the Gospels because it was expected by those whom the church fathers
were attempting to convert that the Messiah would be greater than any of the old testament figures.[ii] Messages about hell fire, brimstone, casting out demons, eye of needle are considered
back then useful, again for religious conversion, but now they are out of place. These
are typical revisions of liberal and conservative theologians.
Wells uses as an example R.P. Carroll's modification of the anti-Semitic message.
"In Acts, orthodox Jews are represented as continually harassing and persecuting Christians. In the fourth gospel, Chapter 8, Jesus is made to say that the Jews have the Devil as father. . . . In
all four gospels Pilate appears as a kindly governor whose efforts to save Jesuss life are thwarted by Jewish malice (169). The meaning is clear. But to Carroll
the passage is belonging to the symbolic form of that book. . . a mythic term
to describe rivalry and opposition" [Wells quoting Carroll, at 169]. For Carroll,
and others, the Jews become like "the wicked step-mothers in fairy tales or ogres in folk tales . . . but not to be confused
with real, living people" (Wells describing Carroll's position, 170).
Revisionists view these passages of anti-Semitism as "troubling", as fictional passages, as symbolic, as poetic
figurative, and as instructive, but not as historical, though they are so dressed.
The gospels are historic fictions, real characters but fictional events. They
go back to Paul, for example and consider the crucifixion and resurrection real, but the gospels stories as historical fictions.[iii]
Consider the fictional passion narrative. It is constructed from the Hebrew
bible, especially lament Psalms, and that Paul (being first) only acknowledges died, buried, and was raised. This gives ample room for the developing of an imaginative account in the gospels. To the revisionist, this is not an historical account, but rather a symbolic one with lessons about salvation
Using divine light the theologians sort out what is the gospel position on wealth (for both are there found), and on
whether one should renounce family ties or cultivate them. "John Fenton has shown
that twenty-four out of the twenty-seven New Testament books are to varying degrees the result of controversy among Christians,
. . . Maurice Wiles thinks that, in view of all this, Christians should no longer regard scriptures as 'a bind authority'
and should come to see it rather 'as an indispensable resource'" (Wells, 174). And
of course, it is not, for that is why scripture is interpreted and there are so many variations in interpretation.
What shines under the "divine light" is a result of the totality of experience, and each person's totality it different. However, there are certain well-worn trails, and sub trails, such as of the principle
Christian faiths. What is deeply disturbing is how freely under the license of
divine light, symbolism, and like reasoning the plain meaning of the authors have been reworked. The continuity with the past has been diluted, though the results are more palatable. The cost is the loss of authority. For the only clear authority
to be based on the scriptures is that derived from its plain meaning. But what
we have is like cultures, a question not of right, but of likes. What Christian
flavor do you like? Reasons can be given, but proof of divine sanction cannot
be had. Each claim of divine sanction, be it made by a Pope, a church leader,
a church founder, they are on equal footing, and their lack of agreement on so many points indicates that one claim of divine
sanction is as good as the next one.
Christianity faces a dilemma, for the only seemingly reliable teachings of and about Jesus are in the Epistles, and they
have scant little. And one cannot claim that the teaching is the Epistles come
from Jesus, for they do not claim such authority and secondly, they are clearly written under the aegis of the Council in
Jerusalem or other synod. The best it can claim, but without evidence, is the
divine inspiration of the gospels. But they dont see divinely inspired. Christianity is vulnerable, and there is no escaping it.
Should this move be considered worthy of rebuttal
in the particular? Hardly, for one should not argue with a fool (so tells us
Proverbs). They qualify as fools (link to Kaufman). When they try to see sane and rational, they cant, for they are trying to make rational a set of propositions
that cant be. The list of failed areas is long.
We may eat the flavors of ice cream we like, choose the worship we like, but we cannot make ice cream into a good nutrition
choice nor religion to conform with reason--not without making both into things for which the terms ice cream and
religion do not extend to in their common usage. While there are degrees,
all religions because of their dogma can never conform to logical analysis. No
amount of revision via symbolic analysis can make it into what it isn't.
Is the world what it seems to be and are the gods
as strange as those of faith propose? Epicurus arrives at a reasonable conclusion
and I extend his conclusion in my reply to Pascal's Wager.
[i] Whats in a Name?: Reflections
on Language, Magic, and Religion, G.A. Wells, Open Court, Chicago, 1993.
[ii] This theme is masterfully presented by Randel Helms in Gospel Fictions,
Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1988. Clearly the best biblical study by a Christian.
[iii] They cannot even agree on Christs dying words. I have written an excellent, brief presentation as to why they are historic fictions.