by Sveinbjorn Thordarson
Edinburgh, March 2008
It is a strange fact that most of the world's major religions seek their truths and their moral codes in ancient written records of dubious historical origin. It is stranger still that the adherents of these religions believe the written records to be sacred and divinely inspired, and that it is possible to glean from them eternal and divine moral truths. Be that as it may, it still seems that even if we grant the unverified and unverifiable assumption that these written records are divine in origin, they remain highly questionable as sources of religious truth and moral instruction due to interpretive problems.
In the ensuing text, I will use the Christian Bible as an example, and point out the problems facing anyone who sees the Bible as a source of moral instruction. The choice of the Bible is arbitrary; my arguments apply just as much to any other purportedly divine source of meaning and instruction.
Let us suppose that we are devout Christians and believe that the Bible contains some (or all) true, divine moral commands. It is immediately clear that if a given document is a divine source of moral instruction, then we must take the entire document to be true. We must be fundamentalists and interpret everything literally, for if we pick and choose the parts we like, if we write off some parts as metaphors and others as “serious stuff”, we are for all practical purposes building our own moral code. If God provides a text with moral instruction which we subsequently scan for the parts we like, then the divine text is rendered redundant; the ultimate arbiter of moral authority is no longer God. We ourselves have become the moral arbiter, constructing our moral code from the segments of the document that suit us. In such a case, the role played by God in the whole affair is negligible and we might as well construct our own moral code without going through the process of scanning the Bible for those moral commands that we are willing to accept.
At this stage, a Catholic might reply that there is an institution on this earth, namely the Holy Church of Rome, to which God has given the power of interpreting the Bible. This, however, only shifts the argument one step backwards. Let us for now ignore the fact that the supposed interpretive authority of the Catholic Church is based on a highly questionable interpretation of the Bible (rendering the process circular), and grant our fictional Catholic debator that the Vatican is in fact divinely ordained as the authoritative interpreter of God’s text. In this case, a panel of divinely inspired experts provide the “correct” interpretation of the divine document. How do we know that these expert interpreters are actually coming up with the correct interpretation? They are divinely inspired. Very well. But if they are divinely inspired, if their interpretation is guided by the hand of God, then why is the divine source document necessary? It is again rendered redundant because its interpretation, too, needs divine sanction. We might just well believe whatever the divinely ordained interpreters tell us and make them our moral authority, sans divine document, since their interpretation of the document is in no way necessarily limited by the document itself.
It should now be clear that only a fundamental, literal interpretation of the Bible is viable if we wish to make it a source of moral truth stemming from divine authority. Let us suppose, for argument’s sake, that the Bible is a perfectly self-consistent and non-contradictory document -- something I think not even the most dogmatic theologian would seriously maintain. Even so, our problems are far from over, since we also face the task of determining which version of the Bible is the authoritative text. Is it the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgata or the original, scattered Hebrew texts? Is it Luther’s German translation or the Anglican King James version? No matter which translation of the Bible we take to be authoritative, the problem outlined above will still apply -- the translator of the divine document always becomes our moral arbiter, for his translation is an interpretation, albeit rendered into a different language. If we assume that the translator is divinely inspired, it raises the question of whether other translators were divinely inspired too, and if the translations are in conflict, we have no way of determining which is the correct interpretation. If we take it on faith that a single translation of the Bible is the correct one, and that all the others are mistaken, the Bible is yet again rendered redundant, as before, since we are for all practical purposes taking it on faith that the translator himself is the source of divine truth.
A solution to this problem immediately presents itself: We shall say that only a single version of the divine document -- the untranslated original -- is the source of truth. Only a fundamental, literal interpretation of the original, unmediated divine source document is authoritative. Does this solve the problem? Decidedly not. The Bible, of course, is composed of various texts that were chosen and pieced together by a church council in the 4th century AD, and was therefore subject to the mediation and interpretation of men at its inception as a document of authority. But even if we assume that the Bible had a single author who was inspired and guided by the hand of God in writing the original, unmediated divine document, even if we assume that God himself created the divine document tout court and that we are reading it without third-party mediation, our problem remains: Whenever anything is communicated to us, it is mediated by our own, first-party interpretation.
To summarise my point, it makes no difference how we twist and turn, the problem of interpretation always crops up. This is because there is no such thing as an unmediated text -- any textual record of divine truth must pass through the interpretation of a man at one stage or another. Unless we assume that the interpretation itself is divinely inspired at every single stage, the content -- the actual meaning -- of the document cannot pass to us without being tainted and its divinity called into question. This renders the original source document redundant, since all the heavy lifting of actually delivering the truth sought is done by divinely inspired interpretation. In conclusion, this means that the very notion of an authoritative moral code that springs from a divine written source is absurd and redundant.