Reason Not Separable From Interpretation

In the middle of refuting another theologian, one author recently remarked:

"…only after establishing these necessities via philosophical argument do we encounter any biblical discussion [in the other theologian's book]. This is exactly backwards from the proper methodology: we begin with God's revelation concerning the nature of man and then move from revelation to reason." [1, p. 93]

At a high level, I think I understand what is being said here: Revealed Scripture is reliable, whereas the thoughts of man in isolation from Scripture are not. One should not begin with reason alone and then interpret the Bible in light of that. Start with the Bible and then apply reason.

If only this were perfectly possible! It is not my intent to be critical of those whose priorities are fundamentally correct. Nevertheless, under a microscope, it is simply not possible to separate reason from Biblical interpretation.

In the quote above, the theologian being criticized had developed an extra-Biblical argument at some length. He then began his process of Biblical interpretation. For clearly exposing his sequence of thought, he was reprimanded. Nevertheless, is the application of reason always so obvious that we can separate it from interpretation? Consider a trivial exercise in interpretation, using Matt. 14:13 (KJV):

"When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities."

To what does "it" refer? A quick glance at the context reveals that it is speaking of the beheading of John the Baptist. How was that conclusion arrived at? Shall we say, "It's obvious!" and let that be our final answer? Shall we call it "context" and stop there? A more detailed look at the interpretation of Matt. 14:13 shows that we are merely using a higher-level word for reason:

1. The word "it" is a short way of referring back to a nearby, yet prior subject of discussion.
2. In Matt 14:13, the nearest prior subject that would have caused Jesus to react was the beheading of John the Baptist.
3. Therefore, in Matt. 14:13, "it" refers to the beheading of John the Baptist.

It goes deeper than this. We take "it" to refer back to John's beheading. Another subject (occurring in Matt 14:11) is simply John's head itself, delivered in a charger. However, it does not occur to us that Jesus was reacting just to John's head. More subconscious reasoning has thus taken place. We could delve deeper still, but the point has been made.

We must conclude that interpretation and exegesis, indeed any restatement of the Bible necessarily involves reasoning of some kind. The author above complained about overt reasoning, apart from exegesis. All the while, he was conducting covert reasoning himself. Ask yourself which is more likely to be correct: reasoning that is explicitly stated and laid out for all to examine, or reasoning that is disguised in rhetoric and glossed over as "obvious". I choose the former. I am not advocating a tedious approach to interpretation, where every word merits paragraphs of explanation, but rather this: Let us see clearly, and not pretend that reason can be separated from interpretation.

[1] White, James R., The Potter's Freedom, 2000, Calvary Press. ISBN 1-879737-43-4.

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