The Practice and Price of Symbolic Interpretation of the Scriptures--JK

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     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 embedded therein. 


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.

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