Friday, April 28, 2017

On the Outside Looking In: Thoughts on Misinterpretation


I was reading a book on how Westerners misinterpret the Bible. It made the point that we have cultural blinders which lead us to give meaning to things that were never originally intended. Ironically, the book gave an unintended example of this when talking about the Protestant Reformation trying to recover the original meaning of words:

Viewed from one perspective, the Protestant Reformation began as an effort to correct a mistaken assumption about equivalency in language. Over time, the Roman Catholic church had developed a doctrine of confession that included works of penance, such as reciting a certain number of prayers (think “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers”) and, most disturbing, the purchase of indulgences to assure forgiveness of sins. By the late Middle Ages, church leaders insisted this system is what Jesus had in mind when he called sinners to repent—that do penance was equivalent to (meant the same thing as) repent


E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 76.

The book went on to argue that this was not what early Christianity meant by repenting. The problem is, this is also not what Catholicism means by repenting. The section started with an error and wrote on what Martin Luther was “saving” people from. Except he didn’t.  The authors wrote about how Catholics in the Middle Ages confused the concept of penance with the Greek word for repenting. Except we didn’t. They wrote about how we created this in medieval times. Except we haven’t. The Orthodox churches also have the concept of the sacrament of penance, and some of them have been separated from us since the 5th century

The problem with the authors is they assumed that the distorted vision of Catholicism they received was true, and created a view of Catholicism which had nothing to do with us. They had cultural blinders that caused them to misread us. Catholics have never believed in indulgences being sold, let alone for the forgiveness of sins! When it comes to the Latin word Paenitentia, the meaning is: regret (for act); change of mind/attitude; repentance/contrition (William Whitaker, Dictionary of Latin Forms). Properly going through the sacrament of confession requires us to regret our actions, change our attitude, and intend to do right in the future. In other words, the same meaning as the Greek metanoia. There was no error of understanding on the part of Catholics. There was an error of understanding on the part of those on the outside looking in because they assumed they knew without investigating whether it was true.

I bring this up not to ridicule these Protestant authors, but to illustrate a point: We too can go wrong if we either assume others think like us, and focus on what we think it means, and we can go wrong if we get so distracted by the differences that we miss the point behind those differences.

Missing the Meaning

The further we are removed from the original meaning, the more likely we are to diverge from what was meant. These can be linguistic, cultural, historical, or many others. Once we include history, we add the difference of time to the difference of language and culture. What people experienced in AD 17, 517, 1017, 1517 and 2017 are widely different. Laws, government, customs and the like would change over time even in one region. Once we go to a different region in a different time where they used a different language, and there are many ways we can go wrong if we forget these differences exist. 

For example, when an English speaking critic reads a transcript of Pope Francis today, there is a difference of language requiring a translator and there is a difference of culture between a member of the clergy who lived in Latin America and a lay blogger living in the United States. If the critic does not take these differences into account, the odds are good that the critic will get things wrong. For example, when the Pope spoke of a large number of marriages possibly being invalid, and of some couples living together being closer to the true meaning of marriage than some married couples, people went berserk. They assumed he was talking about 21st century American marriages and justifying cohabitation. He was not. He was talking about vicious customs in South America where people sometimes face insurmountable difficulties getting married while others treat the sacrament of matrimony as merely part of the celebration.

In other words, people assumed his words against vicious customs which they never witnessed were about marriage in the United States—which has its own set of problems. They forgot about these differences and thought that what he said must be directed at them. They missed the meaning because they were blind to differences facing Catholics in different parts of the world.

We can learn, despite these differences. But we need to learn the intended meaning, and not assume the people of different times, cultures, and languages think like 21st century Americans. Otherwise we risk attacking the Church because we think the Church is “attacking” moral values when she is in fact responding to cultural problems. For example, the radical feminist who sees “patriarchy” everywhere or the radical traditionalist who sees “modernism” everywhere because they assume that their interpretations are the norm, refusing to consider the possibility of their own error.

Missing the Point

On the other hand, we can go wrong by being distracted by differences of cultures. Sometimes these differences involve the existence of things we today know are morally wrong. We’re offended by the fact that a saint from another century speaks about them as if they were normal, and miss the point he was trying to make. 

For example, in reading some of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies, I’ve come across the reference, in one of his homilies, to the slave market. At this time, the Roman Empire was about a thousand years old and had slaves for the entire time. This can be quite jarring. Because of our experience with the ugliness of  slavery, segregation, and racism in the United States, we are rightly appalled at the evils. So, the fact that a Saint talks about slavery in a matter of fact manner can be shocking. But if we stop at the differences, without understanding them, we miss some real insights.

St. John Chrystostom makes reference to Our Lord being a noble at a slave market asking us (the slave) if we will choose to serve Him. In the 21st century, our egalitarian views balk at this image of Our Lord buying slaves. But in doing so, we risk missing the point that would have been clear to 4th century Greeks. St. John Chrysostom was invoking an image the people of Constantinople could understand with the differences of social rank

That Our Lord, in the role of the noble, offers to purchase (redeem) us from the slave market of sin and asks if we are willing to serve Him showed a difference between God and man that our egalitarian views might misunderstand. Recognizing an image of Jesus as a Noble Lord, us as the lowly slave, and the purchase price being His own blood, we can see an image showing how great God’s love for us is when He is so far above us and is willing to pay so great a price for us if only we will serve Him—a choice that is not forced on us.

If we stopped at the level of being offended with the existence and mention of slavery, we’d entirely miss the point of the homily on what Jesus has done for us in relation to what He asks of us.

Yes, sometimes saints in one era say things in a way that seem cringeworthy or excessively harsh in our time. That doesn’t mean the saint was in error or promoting evil. We have to understand the context and meaning if we are to profit from it, rather than be members of the Church of Perpetual Indignation. Otherwise, we risk accusing the Church (falsely) of supporting evils she does not.


The point of both examples is this: If we stop at what we think is meant and don’t actually investigate what the person we were offended with actually intended, then we do wrong. We judge rashly. We accuse them of supporting things they do not. Whether it is accusing the Pope of contradicting Church teaching or accusing a reformation era saint of holding to a heresy, the fault of rash judgment is with us if we do not investigate what the person we think offensive actually means. If we’re scandalized by a Bible verse, a Church teaching, a saint, or a pope, we need to recognize that the Church was not cruising on autopilot, rubber-stamping error when she confirmed the canon, made a teaching or named a saint. 

If we feel like something the Church has affirmed is error, that’s a warning sign that we need to reassess our own interpretation and see what we missed when viewed in context.

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