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.