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  • Writer's pictureThe Other Paul

Objectivity & Private Interpretation - Responding to Seven Pines

A while ago I engaged in (shock and horror) another back and forth on Twitter, this time on whether definitively objective interpretation is possible apart from an ultimate interpretive authority (i.e. a magisterium). We both threw some shade at each other, but it ended amicably. My interlocutor - Seven Pines - said the last word in a short thread wherein he summarised his concerns, which is reproduced in full below (see the Appendix, and also footnote I for a link to the thread via Thread Reader App)

This is my charitable response to my interlocutor, which I hope will increase his and other readers' understanding in this issue. I will respond to his points paragraph by paragraph according to my division of his thread I made in the Appendix.

I - Individuals Inevitably Err

The thread opens as follows:

There's a lot to respond to here, so I'll try to take each of your points one at a time: First, I take for granted that we agree that unity in interpretation of scripture is the ultimate goal (cf. 1 Cor 1:10). When we accept this premise, certain things follow in reference to norms/notions, I mean to suggest that we are temporal, fallible beings that do not have perfect objectivity. If we are to interpret in a purely private manner, we are going to fall into error because we cannot fully remove ourselves from our circumstances. This suggests that we cannot examine things in a purely critical and objective manner, yes.

First, on points of agreement. The fallibility of our faculties means we are always liable to error, and this at least in part includes the ubiquitous reality of assumed context, i.e. that we approach issues with our presumed categories and ways of thinking. As such, our interpretation of statements and texts - especially as we reach further into the past and/or a foreign setting - can be coloured in such a way that changes the meaning of a text from what was originally intended.

Now, on disagreements. My most minor dispute is how "we are going to fall into error because we cannot fully remove ourselves from our circumstances." While I believe - as stated above - that this is liable to happen, I deny that this will necessarily happen (and perhaps he agrees, but I feel it necessary to point out). Nothing precludes the possibility that someone has such a well-ordered understanding of a foreign context that they arrive at the precisely intended meaning, whether in all details or just the intended substance. Indeed, there are a number of topics even in ancient history (inclusive of Holy Scripture) where data is so abundant that we (inclusive of scholars and lay historians) can and have come to very precise conclusions and nuanced reconstructions of such past realities, sometimes to the degree wherein no real disagreement exists, and even where disagreement exists the material is available for the truth to be determined by an individual (since the existence of disagreement does not entail that the opposing sides are equally valid; a critical point neglected in these discussions). The most important nuance to recongnise here is that the mere existence of disagreement does not an entail a lacking in the data; it may simply be the poor methodology or hermeneutics of one or multiple sides. And this can be parsed out by argumentation, as the church fathers always did.

II - A Telling Admission

Regarding what we're disagreeing on, this is a conversation on sola scriptura, so I think a focus on the means of interpretation suffices; no need to get bogged down in particulars if we were to hone in on a particular disagreement, you would make your argument, I would make mine, and both of us would leave frustrated at how our interlocutor couldn't see things in our very simple, obvious way.

I think this tells us more about my interlocutor's attitude than mine. If he thinks it's a given that we'll give our arguments and just leave frustrated, he is implying that no matter what we say we will find a way to ignore such and continue disagreeing. Now, he knows his own mind, so if he legitimately believes that about himself, then I say he must correct that immediately, lest he be fine with cognitive dissonance and fideism. For myself, however, I know for a fact that this is not the case. I was once Egalitarian (with strong personal family and church interests to remain so), and now I'm not. I was once "Arminian," and dabbled in Molinism; now I'm Calvinist. Even right now I'm reconsidering my Zwinglian view of the Eucharist for a more Calvinist one. I just wrote these examples off the top of my head in under a minute, so there's likely more issues I've changed my mind on from countervailing evidence that I'm not thinking of at the moment.

This is a dangerous attitude that must be avoided. If you go into arguments presuming that you will not change your mind, then it's no wonder that you think disagreement is a total defeater of a system without an authority to just tell you everything you need without any effort on your part.

III - An Objective Measure

The whole of my disagreement is that we cannot simply present our arguments and then decide who is right and who is wrong in an objective fashion; if that were so, this would have been settled centuries ago. Ergo, if we agree that unity in interpretation is important, we need a higher authority to intervene and settle these very disputes.

The first conclusion (disagreement would have been settled centuries ago) does not follow from the premises, as it presumes that good and objective analysis "would have been" established "centuries ago." But this is the problem with keeping this argument in the abstract; what issue are we talking about? How do you know a well-established objective answer hasn't been given? What if it actually is the dominant one? And if it isn't, why should I grant that a truly objective analysis will win out early on? This can't be taken for granted given man's fallen state.

So, there's nothing to respond to here without a reference to a specific topic. And I don't think it's a coincidence that these arguments are almost always presented by non-Protestants in the abstract without an example issue to demonstrate the problem. If they were, it would allow the Prot to demonstrate their position on the issue with evidence and reasoning, forcing the non-Prot into the dilemma of either conceding that a compelling rational argument can be made, or attempting to refute the argument but in the process granting the validity of rational argumentation for the sure discovery of truth.

However, the bigger problem is one which plagues this argument whenever it is presented by Romanists and Easterners. The problem of the diversity of biblical/theological opinion is raised as an argument for the necessity of a higher divine interpreter. We are then told this will solve the epistemic problem of private interpretation; our fallible faculties and the lack of a clear winner amidst multiple opinions. Problem: this divine interpreter does not change the epistemic situation at all. In our concrete reality, multiple such divine interpreters are proposed in our world; Rome and her Pope, the mainstream Eastern churches, the Oriental Orthodox, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints and her Prophets, the Jehovah's Witnesses and their Bible and Tract Society, and so on. Now we - as individuals - have to do exactly as Protestants do with Biblical interpretation and individually assess the evidence behind each of these claims and come to the correct one (if any of these options at all). We have to delve into the trenches of church history and seek out patristic documents, conciliar acts, decrees, and canons, modern documents by each of these traditions, and much, much more. Then we have to critically analyse these sources both internally and against a baseline like the Gospel accounts of Christ's teachings (which we also must determine by rational inquiry). After an arduous, years-long study of these issues in meaningful depth, then one will have the best rational basis for choosing the correct divine interpreter.

But it doesn't end there. If you find the correct divine institution, you now have to process its teachings. When the Pope or a Council issues a decree on a theological controversy, is the correct meaning thereof just zapped into the laity's minds? No. It is, just like Holy Scripture, written in text form in one or multiple languages and is then passed onto clergy and laity to personally process. Even if a certain congregation hears the document read and interpreted by their local authority (the Priest, Bishop, etc.), both the document and that authority's commentary must still be personally processed by those laity. And what is liable to happen every step of the way? A diversity of interpretation. Again, to keep it concrete, how vicious have the debates on interpreting the Second Vatican Council's decrees on multiple topics been ever since they were issued?

You can see the problem here already; that is, for my opponent. This reality doesn't phase me at all, since I don't think one needs to become a quasi-scholar in order to come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. But even if this is the path one takes I think it's a great and worthy endeavour, even an act of worship via loving the Lord with all our mind. The problem for my interlocutor's argument is that this is precisely the scenario he is claiming must be circumvented, and his given authority is the answer to that. Yet as we see above this only pushes back the question another step, and it becomes manifest that we are all fundamentally beholden to our personal comprehension of the world. This isn't good or bad; it's reality, and we need to learn to deal with it. By God's grace, I think we can, and I consistently see the fruits of solid rational inquiry around me every day.

Certainly, we cannot be totalitarian and there will be disagreement on the margins, I agree with you there, but there are certain things that are so central to the faith that agreement is paramount: the Trinity, the nature of Christ. All these were decided at ecumenical councils.

I agree with my interlocutor that issues like the Trinity and the nature of Christ are paramount. And I believe they are paramount because, having read the Holy Scriptures, they clearly bare witness to such central realities. But the interlocutor may say "But X persons disagree," to which I'd say, so what? I can demonstrate that the Apostolic writings teach the deity of Christ, because they wrote such texts with the intent to communicate particular ideas (as everybody who writes or speaks intends), and that with a proper study of such texts that true meaning can be determined. If my interlocutor disagrees, as his argument requires, and we are unable to securely arrive at the truth on such key questions like the Trinity (perhaps because the anti-Trinitarian can muster an equally rationally compelling case from scripture), then that only shows his belief in a severe lacking in the Apostolic writings, a view repudiated by the early fathers (of whom I can provide a great florilegium if asked), but also one which I believe I can refute by actually demonstrating the Trinity in Holy Scripture. And when I give that case, he can't just dismiss it as my interpretation; he will actually need to deal with my arguments as they are and demonstrate why they fail (and join the side of the Unitarians as a result).

Conclusion

This response went longer than I intended, but the depth was necessary given the layers of issues involved in these questions. I hope Seven Pines can appreciate from my response and even shifts his perspective on this issue. In the end, personal rational inquiry is absolutely unavoidable in our world, no matter how many decisive divine authorities one establishes elsewhere in the chain. And this necessity of personal rational inquiry can and will inevitably lead to disagreement.

~~~

Appendix - Original Thread (with formatting polish)

There's a lot to respond to here, so I'll try to take each of your points one at a time: First, I take for granted that we agree that unity in interpretation of scripture is the ultimate goal (cf. 1 Cor 1:10). When we accept this premise, certain things follow in reference to norms/notions, I mean to suggest that we are temporal, fallible beings that do not have perfect objectivity. If we are to interpret in a purely private manner, we are going to fall into error because we cannot fully remove ourselves from our circumstances. This suggests that we cannot examine things in a purely critical and objective manner, yes.

Regarding what we're disagreeing on, this is a conversation on sola scriptura, so I think a focus on the means of interpretation suffices; no need to get bogged down in particulars if we were to hone in on a particular disagreement, you would make your argument, I would make mine, and both of us would leave frustrated at how our interlocutor couldn't see things in our very simple, obvious way.

The whole of my disagreement is that we cannot simply present our arguments and then decide who is right and who is wrong in an objective fashion; if that were so, this would have been settled centuries ago. Ergo, if we agree that unity in interpretation is important, we need a higher authority to intervene and settle these very disputes.

Certainly, we cannot be totalitarian and there will be disagreement on the margins, I agree with you there, but there are certain things that are so central to the faith that agreement is paramount: the Trinity, the nature of Christ. All these were decided at ecumenical councils.

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