Are All Interpretations Equally Valid?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Relativism is a constant and ever-present danger these days.  Today I’m speaking, in particular, about the interpretation of biblical texts.  When we open the Bible and read, what happens if we interpret the text differently from those around us?

There are scholars today who claim that nobody has the correct interpretation of a text, because there is no single correct interpretation.   In his book, Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation, Philosopher Tom Howe quotes writer James K. A. Smith as an example of this position:

To privilege one reading as normative (the one correct interpretation) would be to privilege one contingent situationality or tradition over another— a move that would be impossible to justify precisely because of the locatedness of any such justification. There is not a reading that is the reading of the world or a text.

Smith is saying that the tradition and situation in which a reader resides colors his interpretation.  Since each of us lives in a different situation and tradition, then each of our interpretations of a text are different, and none of them can claim to be the one correct interpretation.

Is this true?  Howe strongly disagrees:

According to this approach, conflicts are generated because of the differing “situationality” and “traditionality” that indicate the impossibility of a “privileged reading” or of the very existence of “the one correct interpretation.” . . .  Is there no such thing as the correct or the right interpretation of a text? If there is no “right” or “correct” interpretation, then the problem of conflicting interpretations seems to lose its meaning.

Conflicting interpretations create a problem only if there is an interpretation that is the right one. The fact of conflicting interpretations seems to create difficulty only if one attempts to judge between them in order to arrive at the meaning of the text. In fact, everyone who comments on this question believes that his own interpretation of the problem is the correct one. Even those who claim that differing historical, cultural, and linguistic situations render the notion of a privileged or normative or correct interpretation impossible believe that they have correctly interpreted the state of affairs.

They confidently declare that their interpretation of the problem of interpretation is the correct one, namely, that no one can claim to have “the one correct interpretation.” Those who claim that it is impossible “to privilege one reading as normative” privilege their own reading as normative. When, in the above quote, Smith declares, “There is not a reading that is the reading of the world or a text,” he presents his own reading of the world as the reading of the world.

Smith’s view ultimately self-destructs and, therefore, cannot be true.  Smith wants us to believe that his interpretation is the correct one, all the while arguing that no interpretation can be the correct one.  This is illustrative of the inner rot of any relativistic theory.  By denying objectivity, by denying that absolutes exist, the relativist always wants an exemption for their position.  They seem to be saying, “Every view out there is relative, except mine.  I am the only who has a privileged and absolute position.”

Interpretation of the Bible can be difficult, and there are cultural, linguistic, and historical barriers to overcome, but to throw in the towel and say that no interpretation is correct is simply self-defeating.  The correct interpretation is there, but we have to work for it.

  • Randy Massie

    Relativism is indeed self-defeating. Howe made the point perfectly. It’s like a relativist saying, “I am absolutely certain that there is no such thing as absolute certainty.” 🙂

  • Even those who claim that differing historical, cultural, and linguistic situations render the notion of a privileged or normative or correct interpretation impossible believe that they have correctly interpreted the state of affairs.

    Relativism may be self-defeating, but this argument certainly doesn’t establish that it is. Correctly interpreting the state of affairs is not the same thing as correctly interpreting the text. The view that no single interpretation of a text is correct is a conclusion about the practice of textual interpretation. It is not itself an interpretation of a particular text.

  • Boz

    Well spotted – I didn’t pick that up when I first read the post.

  • Boz

    From an outsiders perspective, how do I determine which interpretation of Christian canon is correct, or probably correct ?
    And how do I extract myself from the conflict of interest of the Christian that answers this question, who will tend to favour ideas and themes favourable towards her own specific sect of Christianity ?
    and a related question –
    From an outsiders perspective, how do you determine which interpretation of (e.g.) Islamic or Hindu canon is correct, or probably correct ?

  • You do same thing you would do when interpeting any other ancient text.

  • Not exactly sure what you’re saying. The simple point being made is that when a person claims that there is no such thing as a correct interpretation of a text, that same person expects you to correctly interpret what they just said, that there is no correct interpretation. This is self-defeating.

  • Bill,

    I think that is a different argument, but it seems to me that you are still conflating an interpretation with a statement about interpretive methodology.

  • Smith and Howe are talking about interpretation, not interpretive methodology. Smith would say that interpretive methodology is a secondary issue. The primary issue is that no interpretation, regardless of how it is arrived at, can be the correct interpretation.

  • If there exists no means of reaching a correct interpretation, that is a methodological problem. It does not necessarily mean that there is not a sense in which one interpretation is more correct than another. It simply means that we lack the ability to make the determination conclusively.

  • We’re into distinctions between ontology and epistemology now. Smith could be saying that, whether there actually exists a correct interpretation or not, no human being can ever know it. Only a mind that can transcend situationality or traditionality could ever come to know the correct interpretation (God perhaps?)

    Or, Smith could be saying, and I think this is far more likely, that there is literally no correct interpretation, period. That all interpretation is distorted by situationality or traditionality. In this case, there is not a methodology problem, there is a metaphysical problem. A correct interpretation, as such, does not exist. All interpretation is relative.

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  • Kevin

    @jpratt1011:disqus – I think you make a great point in the first possible case that Smith could be making. And if it takes one who can transcend situationality and traditionality, then that violates John 8:32… unless someone seriously wants to say we cannot know the correct interpretation of such a clear passage 🙂

  • Alex

    Bill. I agree that all interpretations are of anything may not be equally valid, but to claim there is one “correct” interpretation of the bible is presumptuous. First, Jesus himself said that he spoke in parables so that the people would not understand. This implies that when he spoke, there were at least two meanings: the meaning of the parable itself, and a deeper, hidden meaning. Who knows the depth or levels of meaning he implied?
    You consider Jesus to have been God. Are you suggesting that he was incapable or did not desire that his words be interpreted differently by people of differing persuasions? I believe that when he says he spoke in parables in order to confound some people, those people interpreted his word correctly (exactly as he intended,) even though it led to their confusion. That was the point. The same goes for the wise. Are you saying Jesus could not have meant for these words to spread out with even more interpretations? I don’t see how you could prove that this was not his intention, which would leave it as at least a possibility.
    Finally, you said that the bible should be interpreted just the same as any other ancient book. You believe that God had a direct hand in writing the bible. Do you believe that he assisted in writing the Iliad? How could they possibly be interpreted based on the same criteria, if they assumption is one comes from man, and one from God? I do not believe this would be possible.