Interpretation and the Principle of Charity

How should we read another text? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Many people like to find contradictions in the Bible and point them out. They also seem to get upset when something is said to be “out of context.” Now if a Christian says out of context and doesn’t explain how, I think that’s appropriate to be upset about that. However, there are plenty of ways to take any text, ancient or modern, out of context and misinterpret it.

Consider how in Luke, Jesus says that if you do not hate your father and mother, you cannot be His disciple. No, internet atheist. Jesus is not telling us to hate our parents. There are a number of atheists that think this is exactly what Jesus is saying. He’s not. Jesus is making a hyperbolic statement. Your devotion to the Kingdom must make all other loyalties fall away if necessary. The Kingdom of Christ comes first.

Now if we are Christians and demanding that, we also need to do the same. Consider that one of the classical arguments against Islam is that Islam denies the crucifixion of Jesus. You go to the Koran and you see this yourself. Let’s look at the text.

“That they said [in boast], “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of  Allah,” but they killed him not, nor crucified him.  Only a likeness of that was shown to them.  And those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no [certain] knowledge.  But  only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not (Surat Al-Nisa 4:157).”

That looks convincing, but I remember reading a book about Islam from a Christian perspective that said no one early on in Islam denied the crucifixion. That came later. Now I haven’t got to research this entirely, but I do know this person is not trying to be liberal in his theology. He’s not a Muslim sympathizer or something like that.

So do I use the point now that the Koran denies the crucifixion of Jesus? No. Do some Muslims use that? Yes. Will I argue against that position? Yes. However, by the principle of charity, if I can interpret the text in such a way that it doesn’t say that, then I will go that way. If you are curious, the interpretation I read also was that the Jews were the ones who thought they killed Jesus, when really Allah is saying they didn’t have that power. The problem is more with the Jews claiming ownership of it.

Let’s suppose I’m reading the Book of Mormon and I see the book talking about something that existed in the ancient world supposedly. If I look it up and I find that yes, that really did exist, that doesn’t mean I believe the Book of Mormon, but it does mean by the principle of charity I don’t use that as an argument. This isn’t about being light. This is about being fair with a text like we want people to be with Scripture.

In the same way, it’s important for skeptics to consider how they are interpreting the text. If there is a way that can put the text in a better light and there is sufficient evidence for it or it’s plausible, should you not be open to that interpretation. If you are not, does that mean you want the text to be false more than you want your reading to be accurate?

Consider it especially if it’s likely the person you’re dealing with knows the text better than you do. I don’t debate Muslims regularly, so I am going to take it that a debater defending Islam knows the Koran better than I do. I will take it the Mormon missionaries know their Scriptures better than I do. Odds are also if you’re the regular internet atheist, that person who reads the Bible every day might know it better than you do. (And I mean a specific type of internet atheist of course. There are plenty of atheists that know the Bible well.)

C.S. Lewis once said years ago if you read something bad in the newspaper about someone you don’t like and think “That doesn’t surprise me” and then later on see a correction, is your tendency to be relieved that at least they weren’t that bad, or is to get upset something was taken from you. We could ask the same about a text. If you are given an explanation of a text that is still plausible even if you’re not familiar with it, are you open to that, or would you prefer the text to just be wrong?

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

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