Biblical Perspicuity and Linguistic Under-Determination

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Biblical Perspicuity

Arguments based on disagreements in biblical interpretation are often answered with an appeal to biblical perspicuity (clarity). The appeal takes many forms. One is the idea is that the Bible is clear on “the main things,” and so disagreements are no big deal because they must, by definition, be over secondary issues. Another is that the Bible is simple enough for a child to understand, but also so deep a theologian can drown – implying that, on the surface, the text is sufficiently clear, but there is simply more to it on deeper levels. Sometimes perspicuity is used to blame disagreements on underlying issues such as presuppositions, hermeneutics, or traditions – since the Bible is clear, these things are blamed for obscuring “the plain meaning” of Scripture. Sometimes several of these views are affirmed together (example). In all cases, however, the basic assumption is that the Bible is clear enough to get its meaning across to any who will simply take it at its word.

The idea has intuitive merit. God, it seems, would not choose a manner of communication that is needlessly obscure. What would be the point? Assuming that the Bible was written to be read and understood by normal people, how can anyone think that it is difficult to understand?

Biblical, Theological, and Practical Considerations

Well, there are some reasons. First, God might have had a perfectly good reason for obscurity. Jesus’ parables are a good example of this very thing. We would not want to commit the fallacy of composition by applying what is true of the parables to the entirety of Scripture, but there are at least some instances where God purposefully did not communicate clearly. Thus the general principle that God would not do so fails.

Second, the apostle Peter himself says that at least some Scriptures are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16). Here he was speaking of Paul’s writings – which make up a significant portion of the New Testament. So there is biblical warrant for not thinking all of the Bible should be easy to understand.

Third, the fact that the Bible is cited as the source for a dizzying array of conflicting beliefs by both scholars and laypersons is pretty good evidence that it is not as simple as we might like. But even if differences of method or presupposition were to blame for interpretive disagreements – should they be? Can such a clear text be so easily misconstrued? That seems a fragile perspicuity.

Finally, experience confirms that that language is often difficult to fully determine – especially written texts. Besides all of the interpretive layers separating the mind of the biblical authors and ours (see Sola Scriptura: Death by 1,000 (or 10) Qualifications), there is also the simple issue of under-determination.

Linguistic Under-Determination

Linguistic under-determination occurs whenever a given text has more than one possible meaning, referent, or significance, which cannot be narrowed down by the text itself. Take the following examples:

Example 1: “Fred Smith left his New York apartment, walked across the street to Central Park, sat on a bench under an oak tree, and fed pigeons bread crumbs.”

This is a fairly determined statement. There is little-to-no ambiguity or vagueness present in the sentence, and I doubt many meanings could be dreamed up that did not stretch credulity. And if not, it is certainly more determined than this:

Example 2: “It exists.”

Not only might the term “existence” be misunderstood, this statement could reference  anything! One might say this statement is therefore undetermined – it can be applied to virtually anything. Compare the previous examples to this one:

Example 3: “Pat ran home after stealing.”

There are at least two perfectly reasonable – even likely – ways to take this: (1) Pat is a thief who stole some object and then ran to his (her?) house, or (2) Pat is playing baseball, and after stealing third base, ran in to home plate. Now, even though this example has more than one good interpretive possibility, it is not so wide open as to include millions of possibilities (it definitely does not mean that Pat ate a pencil or that Pat walked on the moon). Thus, this example is under-determined. There is some determination of meaning – at least enough to exclude the vast majority of false understandings, but it is not determined enough to guarantee a singular interpretation.

Case Study: “Richard’s Not Gay!”

Under-determination can also be more subtle. I’ve seen more than one person demonstrate this with examples like the simple sentence, “Richard is not gay.” This might appear to be a straightforward assertion, easily understandable by anyone who knows what the words mean. But is it?

The most obvious difficulty might be that the word “gay” has changed from meaning “happy” to meaning “homosexual” in the last generation or so. Most words have a range of meaning that must be narrowed down by context, and perhaps context would clear this one up as well. But ambiguity in meaning is only the most obvious issue here.

Consider the problem of emphasis. If spoken with different emphases, several potentially conflicting interpretations might arise:

  1. Richard is not gay” might imply that someone is gay, just not Richard.
  2. “Richard is not gay” might imply that not only is Richard not gay, but the very idea is absurd.
  3. “Richard is not gay” might imply that while Richard is not gay, there is something gay about him.

Which is it? Without the author present, we might only be guessing. Further, it would be legitimate to ask why this statement was said in the first place. It might seem that its very utterance implies that Richard’s gayness was in question. But should it?

Implications

Now, if this four word sentence spoken in a shared language and cultural setting can be legitimately considered under-determined, how much more so could a collection of over sixty books written by scores of different authors in different languages at different times and I different cultures?

And this is just one issue – we have not even delved into multiple-meanings (the allowance of which seems demanded by some biblical prophecies) or allegory (examples of which are found in the Bible), and other varying degrees of less-plain understandings that are required for an accurate understanding of biblical meaning.

Finally, I know of instances where similar or even equivalent presuppositions, hermeneutics, or traditions are held by conflicting interpreters – so there must be more going on. I even know of single individuals who, purportedly using the same methods with the same presuppositions have radically altered their views in a short period of time  (example).

Conclusion

Biblical perspicuity is an answer to biblical obscurity – not difficulty. It seems that God did not purposefully communicate his word in such a way that its meaning is beyond normal comprehension. But this does not necessarily mean that the Bible is clear on the main things and only difficult on secondary issues, or that the Bible is simple enough for a child to understand and it is only on deeper levels that difficulty arises, or that  the Bible is always clear enough to get its meaning across to any who will simply take it at face value.

The clarity of Scripture means that understanding is possible, not that it is easy.

This is why offering examples of “obvious” statements in Scripture is not a very compelling response to assertions of biblical difficulty. Counter-arguments based on biblical perspicuity must deal with the non-obscure-but-still-difficult elements in interpretation too.  Yes, the statement of Isaiah (40:8) that “the grass withers”  might be understandable by a child – but its implications may not. Perhaps each word of the statement in Revelation  (20:6), “they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years,” may be understandable “on the surface” – but the theological explications generated by such a statement can remain widely (and legitimately) varied.

Linguistic under-determination is not the Bible’s fault – it is merely a feature of human language and must be accounted for under any view of biblical perspicuity. Many other considerations come into play as well. Thus, interpretive disagreements should not always be seen as indications of impiety or ignorance. Nor should they simply be swept under the rug of mistaken presuppositions, hermeneutics, or traditions.

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3 thoughts on “Biblical Perspicuity and Linguistic Under-Determination

  1. Reblogged this on imnotassmartasiusedtothink and commented:
    This is a good article about why the Bible is hard to interpret. I have my own opinion as to why God made the Bible difficult. I believe that studying the Bible is part of the reward. The same thought processes that are useful for making sense of the Bible are useful for making sense of the world. It is part of how Jesus brings the abundant life. Besides that God knows that no matter how clear things are written we will misinterpret them if we want to. Our Canadian constitution is barely a generation old and our Supreme Court has felt free to interpret in counter to what it actually says.

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