Sometimes, as I’m driving along, I think about what would happen if, in 2000 years, historians tried to interpret our conversations the same way theologians go about interpreting (and, moreover, debating their interpretations of) the Bible. It struck me again tonight.
My wife (Abby), my brother-in-law (Nate), and I were driving to my sister-in-law (Miriam) and her husband’s (Joe) house. Abby called Joe, my brother-in-law(-in-law), to ask if they had any leftover food from our New Year’s party at their house. The conversation was as follows:
Abby: Joe, do you still have any of the cheese dip my mom made the other night?
Joe: Yeah, we have a lot of it. I think we have some P-I-Z-Z-A, too.
Now, here’s the question: why did Joe spell out pizza instead of just saying it? We came up with three options:
- His 3-year-old daughter (Azalia, a.k.a. Zee Zee), who loves junk food, was standing near him, and he didn’t want her to freak out if he said “pizza.”
- He was making a reference to the slowed version of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson’s pizza song, from one of their straight-to-VHS movies from when they were kids (watch and enjoy).
- Both 1) and 2).
We talked about it for a little bit, and ultimately just decided that he was probably keeping his daughter from freaking out, but that we didn’t know for sure; we just said that it was kind of silly. When we got to their house, though, it turned out that all three of us were wrong. His daughter was, in fact, standing next to him when he was on the phone with my wife, but our context was all wrong. He actually pointed at her when he said the -z-z- (which prompted her to respond in kind, with “pink-eye-daddy-ate”).
The link between this (admittedly silly) story and debates over interpretation in the pages of commentaries and theological journals is this: we argue and argue about the historical, cultural, or theological context of a word or phrase, making conjectures about what the biblical author was thinking at the moment he wrote that particular word or phrase, sometimes even in the absence of definitive data either way. Arguments often come down to hair-splitting, in order for the commentator’s point to be proven or for another commentator’s point to be disproven.
An example is this: at the most recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, one of the plenary speakers spent a decent portion of his paper arguing for what he said was a first-century Greco-Roman understanding of “justification” (Greek dikaiosyne, Latin iustitia), based on a few coins that have been found in Egypt and that date from the time Paul was writing Romans.
Now, I agree with his conclusions (that on these coins dikaisyne was equated not with iustitia, but with Æquitas [the Roman personification of fairness]), and I sympathize with the motive (to understand Scripture the very best we can); it’s the method that’s suspect. It’s very much like saying that the Mary-Kate and Ashley video was so pervasive in early 21st-century America that it was natural for my brother-in-law to refer to pizza by its initials. The video is there, and so is evidence for its pervasiveness (2,495,634 views right now), but the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. It’s the same for the argument about “justice” in the New Testament being the same as fairness; the coins are there, and there’s evidence the thought was pervasive, but the conclusion does not necessarily follow.
So, the moral of this (long, drawn-out) story: nitpicky debates (and their attendant bellicose arguments) may, in fact, not rest on valid premises. Perhaps we should be more willing to go with what we know (so to speak), let ambiguities be ambiguous, and rely more on the Spirit to help us interpret Scripture.