Re: historically informed interpretation (way too longish?)

James H. Vellenga (
Fri, 20 Dec 96 16:06:55 EST

Randy Leedy has written (parts excised):
> To add my own comments to the thread, if meaning is not transferable
> across cultural gaps, then I seriously question whether it is
> transferable across the smaller gaps that separate even individuals
> within a single culture. There is no difference in principle between
> these two kinds of gaps; it is simply a difference in degree. And if
> we cannot communicate with other individuals within our own culture,
> surely we must conclude that communication itself is impossible.
It seems to me that we need to leave some leeway for the less than
black-and-white interpretation (even) of words such as "meaning" and

Some of you will no doubt be familiar with Shannon information theory --
relied on heavily in communications engineering (I'm talking mainly
electronic communication here, but it seems to apply well to
communication between humans as well). In information theory, there are
three parties to a message: the sender, the medium, and the receiver.
All can be (and almost always are) to some extent lossy or "imperfect."
There are ways of designing each so as to minimize the lossiness, or to
compensate for it by adding consistency checks and asking for
retransmission in case of inconsistencies. But there are always, in any
real system, unrecovered failures.

Humans, in fact, communicate in similar ways. Language, as she is
spoke, is highly redundant, fragmented, etc. We use the redundancy to
make up for the ambiguities of individual words, phrases, and semantic
constructs, as well as the losses through noise interference, distorted
hearing, or typographical errors. In many cases, we detect
inconsistencies and ask for "retransmission" -- "What did you say?" or
"What did you mean by that?" or "Are you saying that ..."

But nonetheless, we do communicate, and we do transfer meaning to each
other. Sometimes that meaning is distorted -- my wife, for example,
because of certain childhood experiences, has been (more so in the past)
predisposed to take any comment of mine as criticism, and vice versa.
(It has taken us a long time to work out of this, but by the
graciousness of God, it's happening.) But I do not expect our transfers
of meaning ever to be perfect within this life.

As a computer scientist, I have also struggled for many years with the
problem of writing precise "specifications." What I found was that as I
continued to push the envelope of precision, I reached the point where
no one was willing to take the time to understand the document -- it was
too lengthy, and sometimes repetitive. So I actually have scaled back
to leaving some complicated interactions (we call them "corner cases")
undefined so that my audience is more willing to pay attention to what I
have to say.

So in general, my belief is that there is an absolute reality out there
that we try to represent in words, but that all our attempts to express
it by means of words is finite and hence to some extent imprecise in
trying to describe what is after all an infinitely varied reality (if we
take quantum theory seriously -- I also have a degree in physics).

> Some, of course, may wish to maintain precisely that, and they are no
> doubt correct if by "communication" they mean a perfect transference
> of thought with no gaps or misapprehensions. But the impossibility of
> perfect communication does not equate with the impossibility of
> communication at all. Surely we may accept it as a given that
> ADEQUATE communication is possible between individuals; that is, that
> you and I may express ourselves to one another sufficiently well to
> accomplish the purposes we entertain toward one another. If this were
> not the case, then why even bother with a discussion list such as
> this one? Of course we do fail to communicate adequately from time to
> time, but in nearly every case we could make up the lack if we had
> opportunity and inclination to work a little harder at it.

On this much, Randy and I seem to agree.

> Only when
> the differences between us are extraordinarily great do we utterly
> fail to communicate with one another. Even then I suspect that the
> impossibility is not inherent but rather results from our giving up
> trying.

Here I disagree with Randy. We can also give up trying to refine our
communication when the additional refinement is not worth the effort --
that is, when our interactive communication is good enough for us to
feel that we can move on. We have achieved, say, 90%, or 95%, or even
99% complete transfer of meaning, but that's good enough.

> [clip]
> Perhaps we would all agree with this in theory but would differ in
> the practice of ascertaining just what God has revealed. At any rate,
> any of our list members for whom this thread may be covering new
> territory should be aware that it will be very difficult for someone
> to maintain a firm evangelical commitment to the whole Bible as our
> only reliable guide to faith and practice without holding to the
> adequacy of human language as a vehicle for communicating meaning
> objectively. The field in which we especially enjoy freedom to
> explore and to innovate is that of relating the SIGNIFICANCE of the
> Bible's meaning to our own situation. A commitment to singleness of
> authorial intent regarding meaning is the only possible anchor to
> guarantee the legitimacy of our explorations regarding significance.
> Some disclaim any need for such a guarantee; if the plain sense of
> the Book we're studying proves a reliable guide, the day will come
> when that view will change.
Here again I respectfully disagree. Even if the original text is
a) totally precise as to meaning, and b) not lossy in transmission
through the ages (which seems plainly not to be the case), and c) not
lossy in translation to our native tongues, then we the receivers add
our own distortions. I find that I gain increases in both meaning and
significance as I study the Bible more and more. As for meaning, it's
not that the meaning wasn't there before, but that I didn't have the
background (or sometimes opennesss) for copying those mental models into
my own brain. And when the mental model is changed, sometimes that has
real significance for my behavior and sometimes not much.

In addition, I feel that the Bible, as mere words, is limited in its
descriptions of what is after all an infinite reality. Yes, it's
meaning may be fixed, but there are only a finite number of bits there
(a bit is a formal amount of information in information theory), and
reality (and I expect God) has a lot more variety than that. I
personally treat the Bible with a respect that I have for no other
document, but it is the living LOGOS who has expressed himself through
it that I really want to get to know.

Anyhow, them's some thoughts from a computer scientist and ex-physicist.