Monday, October 21, 2013

How Do I Choose Between Interpretations?

          Suppose you come across a controversial text in your Bible reading. You notice, or are otherwise aware of, a couple of different explanations for the text. How do you decide which one is right? Often, one’s theological and/or philosophical commitments will drive his interpretation of the text. However, this is a dangerous method (it leads to interpreting nearly everything in light of that same theological/philosophical grid, for one, which is surely not what the original writer intended).

            I suggest a simple, commonsense approach to adjudicating between two interpretations or explanations. First, find out what questions are raised by the proffered interpretation. These questions will have two aspects: qualitative and quantitative. This means that if one view has three questions and the other has four, it could still be the case that the view with four questions has the least questions; it could be the case that the three questions are (in totality) qualitatively harder to answer than the four questions raised in the other case. So this criterion I will label the criterion of least question.

            In addition to the criterion of least question, we must examine some other areas. The second area is one of explanatory scope. It asks the question, which view accounts for the text the best? This is necessary because if we only apply least question to the situation, at most we have deconstructed the case for the other view.[1] This is your positive case for your view. In it, you show how your view better accounts for the situation or circumstances in which the text is framed. Does it accord with the writing style of the author’s other writings? Does it comport with biblical teaching in other areas? If so, and if it does it better and/or more often (this mirrors the dual aspect teaching for least question), then it meets the criterion of explanatory scope.

            Next, there is the criterion of being ad hoc. Ad hoc is the idea that, when questions about the interpretation are raised, they are resolved in an implausible way, or a way that has little to no evidence to commend it. This is the idea that “you can show me my interpretation is implausible, but you haven’t shown it is impossible because….” In this case, when questions are raised in the least question criterion, some people will seek to answer them in ways that are wildly implausible. This criterion protects against that, in that while we may be able to rescue a particular interpretation from questions, if it’s not a plausible explanation, we let the question hang over the view.

            Finally, there is the criterion of answered questions. This is closely tied to ad hoc. How many of the questions (and of what quality) can be answered in a plausible manner? Although you may not be able to answer every question, ideally, the preferred view will be one that has more and better answered questions.

            An example of this is the woman addressed in 2 John. Is it a literal woman or is it a particular church? When we look to apply the criteria, we want to see the explanatory scope of the two views (write them down in separate categories if you need to). Some examples: a literal-woman view explains why John did not refer to a church but instead chose to use the language he did; the particular-church view explains why only the children of the other elect sister greeted the addressee, etc. Next, we will want to see what questions are raised. Some examples: if John intended to write to a church, why say woman? If John intended to write to a woman, why is she unnamed (cf. 3 John)? Think of as many as you can for each side (make sure they are fair) even if you think there are answers. Then apply the answers for these questions and see if they are ad hoc. Examples: John writes in the metaphor of a family in his other writings, why not continue it here? and The woman is unnamed because she is familiar to John.

            My personal belief is that when you go through this exercise in its entirety, it is most likely that the apostle is referring to a particular local church. But that is not the point. The point is that, when adjudicating between two views of a text, we look for the view that explains the entire contextual situation the best, with the least amount or quality of questions, that has the best quality of answers to those questions, with the least amount of ad hocness about them. Once that is done, it becomes much easier (for some texts) to choose.

[1] In some circumstances this will be enough (like when there is no third option). But even in these cases, you still must not only cast doubt on their case but also show it is false. Otherwise, you have to state a positive case of your own (always advisable in any case).


  1. All the research I've done seems to agree that the NASB and then ESV are the best translations; however, they are not the best for every verse.

    1. Hi Jay, thanks for the comment. I am not speaking about translations per se (though it is interesting that translation necessarily involves some interpretation), but just interpretations of verses in general. :)


Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!