For Instruction, Doctrine, and Morals: Interpretation, Truth and Holiness

To interpret is to identify the meaning or significance that the thing has which we interpret. Humans interpret. We do not choose to interpret; interpretation is unavoidable. But we do choose how we interpret and thereby what our interpretation will be. Furthermore, interpreting is a perpetual activity for us. It’s not as if interpreting takes place at a given moment in time and then once having been done we can dispense with it. That could hardly be the case. With the passage of time we encounter new experiences, new realities: events, people, places, and objects. We must and will interpret them. How?

At the heart of answering the “How” question is recognizing that our interpretation of any and every thing is another way of expressing what we believe we know. When we identify the meaning or significance of something we are making claims to knowledge. In both interpretation and knowledge claims we are unavoidably relating one reality to another reality. In this we are saying something about what characterizes the relationship of one reality to another. In such affirmations we are claiming that we know something that is true about the things we are interpreting and their relationship to each other. Thus, my interpretation at this moment of my fingers is that they are a welcome instrument in my typing even if I cannot seem to always make them strike the key that I want them to strike!

Notice that in order to interpret I must be able to and do distinguish one distinct reality from another distinct reality. Life itself reveals that the reality we live in is marked by a vast number of realities that are distinct in their own right, their own way, and we simply cannot know them in any sense of that term apart from the fact that they are outside of us and do not depend for their existence on our experience with and perception of them. Yet, it is also true that our experience with and perception of all the realities we encounter is crucial to our interpretation of these realities. That’s another way of saying that we, in ourselves, are a particular reality, even as the things we encounter have their own distinct and distinguishable reality.

Whether we want to admit it or not, then, no one’s interpretation of anything can be merely arbitrary or merely subject to only their own beliefs and reasoning. How could it be? Indeed, one could not even assert such a thing with any intellectual coherency if indeed it were so. After all, to affirm that interpretations and knowledge claims rest, in the end, on merely one’s own beliefs and reasoning is to affirm that fundamentally there is no true communication going on between us and any reality outside of us. It would mean that we could not actually communicate with any one, nor have any true knowledge of any reality, or any certainty that our interpretation was true or valid in any sense. There would be no ability to intellectually comprehend what anything is, no  meaningful way to decide how to respond to anything, and no way of making any sense whatsoever regarding any feelings we had about what we encountered or made assertions about. If there is not some true knowledge of realities that is true for everyone in some sense or in some ways, then there is no justification of any kind for moral outrage regarding anyone or anything, and certainly no way of being able to communicate that moral outrage to others.

Yet, every day, especially in the United States, a never ending stream of moral outrage is barked out through innumerable individuals and groups, and many in the name of each of us having “our own truth.” Listen to “my truth”! Well, why should I? If we can each have our “own truth,” if “truth” is only about each person expressing themselves, then no one is actually capable of understanding or, therefore, caring about “your truth.” Your interpretation, in this system, only matters to you because you are the only one actually capable of understanding it. In that case, why would you talk about it? Based on your principles no one understands what you are saying.

So, you see, none of this deifying of the individual and their experience for interpretation can account for reality. There really are realities that are what they are regardless of the interpretation people place upon them. Unavoidably, this means that all the great diversity of realities in the universe have their own distinct existence, are related to each other and what is true about them is expressed in all their relationships to each other. This means that genuine knowledge by any of us regarding anything is dependent on someone actually knowing what is true regarding all the relationships between all the realities of the universe. Somewhere, someone must know everything, and be able to communicate true knowledge to us in order for any of us to know anything and have an accurate and meaningful interpretation of anything at all.

The apostle Paul wrote of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity that in him are “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). “All things were created by him and for him” and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). As John wrote, “apart from him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). Our interpretation of anything, then, is dependent on our ongoing willingness to submit our thinking, our desires and our actions to the authoritative interpretation of the Lord Jesus Christ that he gave to his apostles. This is another way of saying that only minute-by-minute repentance—change in thinking, desires and actions to conformity to the truth as it is in Jesus (Eph. 4:21) gives us the ability to interpret anything rightly. This is because the only truth is marked by holiness (Eph. 4:24). Only the pure in heart see God (Mt. 5:8). Only the Triune God gives such truth, such holiness, such an interpretation. 

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

David Smith