The other day, I tweeted the following observation: Many Christian conservatives profess to defend the inerrancy of Scripture when, in fact, they are defending the inerrancy of their interpretation of Scripture.
In order to appreciate the reasoning of the conservative Christian, we should begin by unpacking the assumption that there is a commonsense way to interpret a particular statement. For example, if your friend says, “I’m going on a business trip for six days,” you interpret him in the plain and natural sense of his statement: he’s going to be gone for approximately six 24 hour periods. You surely don’t interpret him metaphorically. And if I say, “The German priest Heimerad died one thousand years ago,” you interpret me in the plain and natural sense: Heimrad died one thousand years ago (i.e. around the year 1019). You don’t interpret me as referring thereby to an undefined period of time which could potentially be many thousands of years.
And with that background of commonsense assumption, the conservative Christian turns to the Bible. Thus, when you read in Genesis 1 about creation in six days, you should interpret that in the plain and natural sense as six literal days. And when you read in Revelation 20 about the devil being locked in a bottomless pit for a thousand years, you should interpret that as a literal thousand years. (By the way, you should also interpret that as a literal pit with a literal lock.)
Those literal interpretations are, so the conservative Christian reader assumes, the commonsense and straightforward readings. By contrast, non-literal readings are anything but commonsensical. If anything, so the conservative assumes, divergence from the literal and plain meaning reflects an attempt to obscure the plain meaning of the texts such as they have been revealed to us. In short, any attempt to interpret “day” or “thousand years” in anything but a literal sense represents a pained attempt to subvert the plain revelation God has revealed as errant.
Underlying this analysis is an extraordinary assumption. It is the assumption that when a contemporary English reader comes to a 2600-year-old Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonic creation narrative in contemporary English translation that the text will carry a commonsense and straightforward meaning for that contemporary English reader. And it is the assumption that when that same contemporary English reader comes to a 2000-year-old apocalyptic text chock full of prophetic symbols rooted in the Hebrew Bible/intertestamental period and responding to a late first century period of tension with the Roman Empire in Asia minor, that this text will likewise carry a commonsense and straightforward meaning which is readily accessible to that contemporary English reader.
Needless to say, this assumption is profoundly flawed. There is a vast cultural and literary distance between the original writing and the contemporary reader and there is no basis for assuming that interpretations which seem natural and commonsensical to the contemporary reader are thereby legitimate, still less that they are beyond reproach. However, once inerrancy has been imputed to the reader’s interpretation, which is what effectively occurs with those who believe that any deviation from their view is subverting the plain meaning of the text, the result is that this extraordinarily presumptuous interpretation has been effectively inoculated from external critique. And it is within those narrow confines that fundamentalism is born.