In the late 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche captured in striking words the chaos into which the 20th and 21st century world would be plunged, writing in his The Gay Science¸
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing?1
Such is the state of Western society; without moorings, it is as if we are straying through an infinite void with nothing but human preference and feeling for guidance. An area where this is most felt is reading and communication. In grade school and universities, television and politics, even law and Christian theology, the ability of texts—such as the post you are reading or the Bible—to communicate is cast into doubt. Speech, it is claimed, is malleable—or plastic—from the moment it leaves the mouth or pen of the author: it is open to infinite interpretations as determined by the reader and his interaction with the text. Is this the way it has to be? Is this the inevitable conclusion we must draw from reasoned thought and experience?
I want to contend briefly that the interpretive chaos in which we find ourselves does not result from unclear texts or speech (for the most part), nor an unbridgeable hermeneutical gap (there is not a chasm separating our minds from the world with which we interact); but a rejection of the truth that humanity is made in the image of God and that God is the covenant Lord of man. The answer to hermeneutical chaos is the Christian worldview, in which each individual is obligated to honor the communicative intent of every other individual, to the extent of their abilities, and is ultimately obligated to honor God’s communicative intent in creation and His written revelation.
It is true that a text is unable to force the reader to properly interpret it—to follow the natural rules of reading—but this doesn’t mean that interpretation is open ended or subjective: this only means that the onus is on the reader to adopt the appropriate posture for right interpretation. Reading is, in fact, contractual or covenantal. For most written works or spoken communication, this covenant is non-obligatory: most of us have taken a quote out of context for comedic purposes (in jest, I often adopt Luke’s tortured face from Star Wars Episode V and exclaim to my wife, “Noooooooo!!! That’s impossible!!!”). We recognize such twisting of words as a comedic effort; no one confuses such a play on meaning as a valid “interpretation” of the original.
To properly read a work, we must enter into an implicit agreement with the author, an agreement that we will, if at all possible, honor them by seeking to interpret their work on its own terms—in its context. This applies to written and spoken communication equally—though it is more evident in the latter because of the immediate consequences. Who has not felt the hurt or awkwardness of the breaking of this communicative contract? Many times, my friends have chosen to take things I have said and strip them of their context, to give them a new interpretation—much to my horror! This is so effective because everyone recognizes that there is an intentional breach of the communicative contract. This same agreement exists in written communication, only in this case there is only the reader to ensure their own fidelity to this relationship. Reading is thus a moral act—will we honor another person?—but one that usually has very little consequences (to misread a novel is to do no great harm).
Yet there are communications in which such contract breaking is a weightier matter. In legal proceedings and business, much rests on honoring the communicative contract: to break this agreement may entail the jailing of the innocent if their testimony is twisted, the freeing of the guilty, or the defrauding of many. In academic studies—excluding post-modern deconstructionist circles—one is expected to accurately communicate the meaning of the work being analyzed: grades, graduation, or academic probation rests on one’s success or failure at such analysis. At a more significant level, communication from the government bears even greater weight: to break the communicative contract with the law means fines or a prison sentence—even death!
However, none of these instances presents the greatest moral imperative to the reader. Our ultimate moral obligation is to God and all human beings are obligated to obey to his commands. This binds us on many levels to follow the communicative contract. For all humanity, our first moral obligation is to uphold the communicative contract, or better yet covenant, God has established with creation. God has, according to Romans 1:18-32, revealed Himself clearly in His creation: though they were obligated to receive this communication, this text tells us that all humanity breaks this covenant and exchanges the truth for a lie—they sin in misinterpretation. This communicative covenant exists for all God’s words: all humans are morally compelled to appropriately interpret, believe and respond rightly to the Gospel proclamation, to fail in this is sin—rebellion against God.
Furthermore, The Bible is a covenant document from God and demands of its reader obedience in reading: as God’s words it demands interpretive obedience that is analogous to that of a federal constitution or royal proclamation, only to the utmost degree. If one dare not disobey, and therefore misinterpret, the constitution on penalty of law; or dare not misinterpret and disobey the command of one’s king; how much more should one fear to do so concerning God?
The interpretive obligations imposed by God do not stop, however, with His own words: God not only binds us to communicative obedience with himself; He binds us in communicative obedience to others. That we are to submit to earthly authorities means that we are to appropriately interpret their words (cf. Romans 13, 1 Peter 2:13-17). That we are to honor others as image bearers of God and seek to uphold justice in our communication means that we are morally obligated to interpret their communication correctly (this does not mean we cannot joke, only that such twisting of communication must be in a context where it is clear that the communicative intent is understood). We are also obligated to interpret God’s creation rightly, meaning that to ignore His revelation in creation is not ignorance but criminal negligence.
It is therefore the case that, though texts may not force us to obey their communicative intent as demonstrated by the directions they provide (context), God commands us to honor their communicative efforts. This implies, on the other hand, that authors are under obligation to ensure communicative accuracy and are liable for breaking the communicative contract on their end (of course, intended audience matters here).