The Ethics of Interpretation

Current discussions in the area of hermeneutical ethics force us to realize that a given biblical interpretation is ethical only if it was reached in a particular awareness concerning the factors that shaped its reading (such as its own presuppositions about the Bible itself), and there is a willingness to engage in dialogues with other communities that read the biblical texts differently and are impacted differently by conventional interpretations. As a result, if one of these criteria is absent, a plausible interpretation is not an ethical one. Today, when we have to recognize that anyone text can have different meanings, we must consider not just how meaning is derived from ancient biblical texts but why a particular meaning, among several plausible meanings, is chosen.

Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation by Cheryl B. Anderson (p 148)

Richard Briggs has devoted an entire book, The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue, to the ethical virtues of the implied reader of the Bible. His thesis:

Implicit in the Old Testament’s handling of a wide range of moral and ethical categories, we find a rich and thought-provoking portrait (or perhaps series of portraits) of the kind of character most eagerly to be sought after, and this in turn is the implied character of one who would read these texts, especially one in search of their own purposes and values. (p 17)

Anderson and Briggs are coming at the ethics of interpretation from different perspectives. Yet both recognize that interpretation, divorced from certain virtues or considerations, is not complete. This does not mean such interpretations are necessarily exegetically flawed. Briggs will, however, go so far as to state that “all other things being equal, one who is morally virtuous is more likely to make wise judgments. An account of how one judges (epistemologically) finds congruence with an account of how one lives morally in other spheres” (p 24). He is here building off the epistemological reflections of Linda Zagsebski in Virtues of the Mind.

Anderson’s point is not to suggest we become moral exemplars before attempting to interpret the Bible, but rather that we be open and honest about what is motivating us to arrive at our particular interpretive conclusions. This can make the difference between an interpretation that is ethical and one that is not. Briggs specifically focuses on the virtues of humility, wisdom, trust, love, and receptivity. Perhaps the virtue of honesty could be added to his list of interpretive virtues in conjunction with Anderson’s concerns.


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