Monday, August 23, 2010

Interpreting Controversial Scriptures

When reading scriptures, there are so many ways to interpret nearly everything that is written that it is difficult to say with certainty that one interpretation is right and all others are wrong. This is true especially for verses that are controversial in our own time - and even ignored completely by most Christians. An example:

“Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak.” (I Corinthians 14:34)

One way to interpret is to take the words literally as the inerrant will of God. In the case of the verse above, I know of at least one denominational sub-group that takes the words literally and does not allow women to speak in church meetings.

Another way to interpret is to read the words in verses like this as inspired statements addressed to the specific people hearing or reading them and no one else - including others of that same time. I have heard the verse above parsed thus:

Your traditions and culture in Corinth do not permit women to speak in church. "It is not permitted unto them" here in Corinth. Therefore, just as we should not eat meat in the presence of vegetarians, "your women (should) keep silence in the churches" - even though the women in Thessalonica can speak in the churches there.

This view is bolstered by the same admonition about speaking in tongues without an interpreter in 1 Cor. 14:28.

A different way to interpret is to attribute the idea to the speaker - as a personal statement, not as a command from God. In the case of women remaining silent in church, this is bolstered by 1 Tim. 2:11-12 - where Paul repeats the general instruction then adds,

"I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence."

The implication can be read in such a wording that this is Paul's bias - that "(HE) suffer(s) not a woman to teach, usurp or speak," but that this did not come from above (neither from Peter nor from God).

Again, we can understand statements in just about any way we choose, so I believe it is up to us to do so in whatever way makes the most sense to us - and quit thinking our way is the only way, and anyone who disagrees is a blind, stupid sheep or an evil liar. The following is good advice for all, in my opinion:

Do the best you can to gain a personal understanding and allow others the same privilege without getting riled up or snotty and condescending toward their views.


R. Gary said...

A person could also use modern revelation, such as the Joseph Smith Translation, as a guide to interpret controversial verses found in the King James Version of the Bible.

An example:

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The JST also clarifies this statement: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak" (KJV, 1 Cor. 14:34). This statement seems odd since the Apostle Paul had already acknowledged the right of women to pray and prophesy, the latter meaning to teach under the power of the Holy Ghost (see 1 Cor. 11:5). The JST changes one word and in so doing clarifies the whole issue: "It is not permitted unto them to rule"; rather, they are "to be under obedience, as also saith the law [of Moses]" (JST, 1 Cor. 14:34, footnote b). From this simple change, we see that the Apostle Paul was not forbidding sisters to teach or pray, but rather correcting those who attempted to usurp priesthood authority.

(Richard D. Draper, Ensign, Sep 1999, p.22.)
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ji said...

Seeing in my own life how my feelings on certain matters have changed with time and learning, and I suppose will continue to be refined, I can never say that I'm absolutely right about any small matter and anyone else with a differing view is necessarily wrong. Even with the JST, this same principle applies. I learn a little, and I try to help others learn, and they try to help me learn, and we all grow in our understandings. But there is so little need for "right" and "wrong" among people who are all trying to be faithful, except in perhaps the rarity or circumstance. The general rule should be as described in Romans 14:5, "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind". Verse 10 and 13 also fit; indeed, the entire chapter is one of beauty and power in teaching.

Papa D said...

I agree, R.Gary, that we should try to understand verses in the context of our entire canon and not in isolation. That would include using the JST.

In that light, I also believe that we should keep in mind the "as far as it is translated correctly" caveat - especially with regard to the Old Testament, but certainly with the New Testament, as well.

ji, Romans 14 is great example. Thanks for citing it. I know my understanding of many things now is not consistent with my understanding in the past, and I am convinced that my beliefs about some things in the future (even relatively more important things) will be different than my understanding now. At least I hope it is, since I believe in continuing revelation, personal growth and increasing in light and knowledge.