Novel Interpretations and Confidence

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Last Monday, while driving back from Pennsylvania, we were listening to a previously-recorded Diane Rehm Show episode with James Carse, an NYU professor emeritus of religion. You can listen to the show here.

Carse seemed to advocate a religion-without-God approach, or at least he didn't think we should be confident about the existence of God. This was the first time I've ever found Diane Rehm extending complete incredulity toward someone who was left of her on an issue, but she really gave the guy a hard time with some of his outlandish biblical interpretation and eventually his admission that he'd rather die ignorant than arrive at any knowledge about ultimate realities. After a while, he got frustrated with her and her callers continuing to call him on his pick-and-choose out-of-context methods of interpretation, and he decided to try a new tactic. He decided to call into question the idea of correct biblical interpretation to begin with, with the following argument.

He cited that at one point there were 15,000 members of the Society for Biblical Literature and claimed that they all have to have a Ph.D. and thus have to have argued for some new interpretation, because no one can get a Ph.D. in biblical studies without a novel interpretation. Such a large number of experts continue to produce novel interpretations, and so there's no reason to be confident of any interpretation (or perhaps he was suggesting something stronger, that there's no right interpretation to begin with; I'm not sure which, so I'll take the weaker claim as the more charitable one, since the argument is much more fallacious if it's the stronger one). He calls it very willful ignorance to claim that you understand something in the scriptures.

There are several problems with this argument:

1. The argument actually undermines itself, because it ignores the very fact it relies on. There's tremendous pressure in academia to come up with novel interpretations in order to have a career. So the multiplicity of interpretations tells you less about the subject matter than about the culture that produces those interpretations.

2. Compare the vast majority of biblical commentators over 2000 years of studying the New Testament, and you'll discover that there are disagreements on many issues, but there is also general consensus on some of the most fundamental issues. This argument is temporally near-sighted. Looking at academic scholarship and only academic scholarship is bad enough, but when you compare with the entire history of biblical study it's really going to make the academic diversity that does exist in biblical interpretation today seem like an outlier, especially given what produces that diversity (see #1 above). If you took Carse's way of presenting it seriously, you'd think each of the 15,000 members of the SBL had a completely different take on how to approach the scriptures, with 15,000 vastly different hermeneutical approaches at a very broad level of disagreement. The reality is that most disagreements are on very minor issues.

3. Why does he think you need a novel interpretation to get a Ph.D. in biblical studies? You certainly don't, and I'm sure a high percentage of biblical studies Ph.D. dissertations involve no new interpretation. Some scholars are dealing with archeology and not interpreting a text at all (possibly seeking to confirm or disconfirm a biblical statement, but that's not necessarily a new interpretation). Others work on language issues, comparing Ugaritic terms with Hebrew terms or looking at the grammatical structure of various passages in Paul's letters. Others notice poetic features of structural patterns in a passage without necessarily affecting the meaning of the text. These matters need not lead to any new interpretation, although sometimes it does. Sometimes it might confirm a previous interpretation. Scholars often produce new arguments for existing interpretations. That's in fact one of the most common things a Ph.D. dissertation in biblical studies will do. What does Paul mean when he refers to baptism for the dead? Lots of views on that appear in the literature, but nowadays there are few new ones. There are just arguments about which is the most likely background to what he's referring to. There certainly are new interpretations that come out of Ph.D. dissertations, but it's simply ignorant (to use Carse's own insult) to treat the number of people with Ph.D.s in the Society of Biblical Literature to indicate how many new interpretations there are. Most new work does not involve brand new views, at least on any major issues of interpretation.

4. Most importantly, even if you recognize a significant amount of disagreement on what some biblical passages mean, it doesn't follow that there's no reason to be confident about interpretations of most of them. I'm not going to put a lot of confidence in my interpretation of the aforementioned reference to baptism for the dead, given the difficulty in figuring out which of the most likely ones is correct. But there are plenty of passages that people disagree about where the evaluation of the arguments leads me to be very confident of the interpretation that I think most likely. Just because intelligent scholars disagree doesn't necessarily mean I have no reason to be unconfident in my view. If they're using faulty arguments, and the arguments that led me to my interpretation are pretty good, then it's highly irrational to conclude, on the basis of the mere fact that someone disagrees, that I shouldn't have confidence in my view. It's not that someone disagrees that should shake my confidence. It's that those who dissent have good reasons to do so. I happen to think there are some pretty good arguments for controversial views, including some that are becoming dominant among scholars. The fact that other people think the better arguments are for the other side shouldn't undermine my confidence in the arguments I think are better, especially if I've seriously considered and rejected the other arguments. If it turns out that the majority of scholars take the arguments for a false conclusion to be good arguments, that shouldn't undermine my confidence in good arguments for a true conclusion. What grounds my support for an interpretation is not whether I think the arguments are good but whether they are good and whether my understanding of the arguments leads me to the right view.

5. This entirely ignores the role of the Holy Spirit. Not all accept the Holy Spirit's reality or the Holy Spirit's role in guiding people to truth. Nevertheless, it's question-begging to assume at the outset that there is no Holy Spirit who can guide people to truth. If Carse wants to argue that no one can be confident of any interpretation, the burden of proof is on him to show the impossibility of any means by which someone can confidently arrive at the the truth. Unless he can argue for the impossibility of the Holy Spirit guiding believers to truth, he can't show that it's impossible to have knowledge of the true interpretation. He might be able to show that, for all he knows, no one can be confident of the truth, but I can just counter that, for all he knows, there's quite a bit of confidence in interpreting the Bible that stems directly from the work of God in someone's life. Without ruling out that possibility, there's simply no way to make Carse's argument stick.

6 Comments

Actually, I think we were in Vermont on our way to NH. In any case the fellow certainly was a character.

Originally I'd thought we were heading down to PA when we heard it, because I was sure we were on our way south and had just finished dinner at a strange McDonald's, but I found it on Monday's archives. But it did say it was pre-recorded, so maybe it did originally air on the Thursday before.

Next time you are in Vt. let me know and please stop by. I still haven't visited our cousins in Rochester, Vt. They just recently sold their power company. I read about it in the paper. Only in this state could you (until this last year).. own the power company and still go door to door and collect payment. (Maybe, it is still done other places.. but I've not heard of it).

We weren't really anywhere near you, I don't think. We just went across Route 4 and then up 91. It took us about seven hours as it was, and the kids had become really impatient by the end of it, so it would be hard to work in an additional jaunt north and then back south again. I'd love to get up that way again at some point, but it's hard to work it into our NH trips with how long they take, and it's actually a long way from where we go in NH. It's possible with every trip that it will be our last, too, because they want to sell that house, and we've only been making it there about once a year.

I actually only live about 4 miles from route 4. I drive 45 minutes (30 miles) to work everyday (what a beautiful ride it is... Adirondacks on one side and the green mountains on the other). I live just northeast of Rutland. If you ever want to stop in the door is open, but, I totally understand that once the car stops it may be next to impossible to get everyone back in.

I didn't know you were that far south. If we have the chance to go again, that might actually work out. It's a good spot in our trip for stopping. It's not the most common place we stop, but we've stopped there lots of times in both directions.

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