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3 ways Bible interpretation is like map-making

Mappa Mundi British Isles crop

3 ways Bible interpretation is like map-making

I love maps. I have historical atlases, and I also have world map books that date to before the Second World War. Swathes of pink denote territories within the British Empire. Many national boundaries, especially in Europe and across Central and South Asia, are different to today.

Maps are political artefacts. They define the extent of claimed sovereignty, reveal the resources and trade routes that can be used and/or taxed, and they make explicit what is militarily defensible or not.

Maps are also religious artefacts. The Mappa Mundi conveys a vision of what is ultimate — Jerusalem is at its dead centre; a vision of final judgment before God is at the top of the map.

Maps are also practical artefacts. They enable trade. They invite exploration.

One of the world’s greatest mathematicians, the German Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), proved in his Theorema Egregium that a sphere’s surface cannot be represented on a plane without distortion. In other words map-making, which seems so simple, is fraught with complexities.

The many theories of map-making have led to multiple practical solutions to the difficulties. There are many different projections, perhaps the most popular being the cylindrical projection developed by Gerardus Mercator in 1569. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says of Mercator’s projection:

This projection is widely used for navigation charts, because any straight line on a Mercator projection map is a line of constant true bearing that enables a navigator to plot a straight-line course. It is less practical for world maps, however, because the scale is distorted; areas farther away from the Equator appear disproportionately large. On a Mercator projection, for example, the landmass of Greenland appears to be greater than that of the continent of South America; in actual area, Greenland is smaller than the Arabian Peninsula.

The limitations of each projection are accepted. And practice has coalesced around map-making conventions, such as placing what we call ‘north’ at the top of the map.

OK, but how do maps relate to Bible interpretation?

We need to work the metaphor a little harder to show the connection. Maps are diagrammatic representations of the actual terrain. And diagrammatic representations of reality can be very useful.

I am put in mind of the work of the amazing designer of the iconic London Tube map, Harry Beck. To set his work in context, here’s the ‘true’ map of the London Underground railway system.

Map Description automatically generated

And here is Beck’s innovative but stylised map of the London underground railway system.

Diagram Description automatically generated

We see that Beck’s ground-breaking 1931 ‘version’ of the reality of the London Tube network is both inspired and deceptive. True scale is lost. Exact bearings are ignored. Yet the result is truly helpful as can be seen when the real map and the stylised Beck map are compared. The utility of Beck’s methodology is evidenced by its being copied the world over.

Bible interpretation is like map-making

In the discipline of bible interpretation we also make maps. We make thought-maps of the terrain of Scripture. We have names for these thought-maps: creeds, confessions, statements, papal encyclicals, and so on. There is tremendous merit in these maps, and in making use of them. Just as there has been considerable mathematical thinking to give rise to the best possible maps of the physical world, so also there has been centuries of refining the theological methods that gave rise to the creeds, confessions, and statements to which the different Christian tribes give loyalty.

The first way bible interpretation is like map-making: care.

Map makers and users must take care. We are at risk of assuming that our map is the terrain. It’s not. Maps of the earth are miniaturised, flattened, thin, smooth, pocketable. The earth itself is three-dimensional, rough, thick, heavy. And when we try to map the universe any observer feels insignificantly small.

In the task of map-making theology, our terrain is the revelation of God, and of his person, and of his ways, and of his call as revealed (1) in the Bible, but also (2) in the Creation. The Sages who wrote the Wisdom Literature of the Bible claim that the Creation itself, being God’s handiwork, reveals something of the nature of God and his purposes… so the Creation is also the proper terrain that we seek to map in the endeavour of Theology, in addition to Scripture. But whether we seek to make maps based on Creation or Scripture we will tremble. The object of our contemplation is not unknowable, thanks to his choice to reveal himself, but he cannot be made flat, thin, or pocketable. If our efforts do not produce worship something is awry.

Thus, through our encounters with the immanent and transcendent God, we are reminded that maps are a representation, an approximation — very useful but never to be mistaken for the terrain itself.

The second way bible interpretation is like map-making: accuracy.

Just as maps of the earth are profoundly political artefacts, so also are all maps of theology derived from Bible interpretation. There are better maps, and worse maps, and some downright misleading maps. Provenance and methodology need assessment. We must ask how often the map is recalibrated by taking fresh bearings and measurements of the actual terrain itself. The Mercator projection makes Greenland look far larger than it is. Misleading maps of theology make one area of theology far larger, more primary, than is justified by the terrain. Many theological convictions we hold to be primary are, if mapped properly, seen to be secondary — still important but, nevertheless, second order matters.

The Theologica blog aims to be part of the ongoing communal effort to re-examine the terrain.

When you are orienteering it is sometimes necessary to rotate the map to align with magnetic north. To do this you want a good quality compass. You will also sight landmarks to help you interpret the visible terrain against the representation on the map. Along your route you will almost always find that the terrain differs from the map. Footpaths on the map do not always exist in reality. Fenced bypasses that were not on the map, can bar your progress. Riverside walks can be impassable because the bank has been eroded and the path has collapsed into the river. Sometimes the truth is that the mapmakers simply got measurements or bearings wrong.

In Theology we need to utilise good tools such as logic and philosophy. We need to take fresh bearings from the actual terrain so we can update our maps.

bible interpretation
Bible interpretation

The third way bible interpretation is like map-making: we learn in community.

At Theologica, we place the authority of Scripture as God’s self-revelation above other sources of authority — but we do also respect the authority of the church, by which we mean the community of Bible interpreters throughout time and space. In saying this I (Andrew Ryland, the author of this post) self-consciously identify with that approach that I understand was first described by the church fathers such as Irenaeus and Origen — the value of ‘the rule of faith’, of a living commitment to a body of apostolic doctrine sustained by a tradition of teaching in the church that we might call Nicene Christianity. I wholeheartedly agree with Edward Fudge who said, ‘If it is new, it’s probably not true. And if it’s true, it’s probably not new.’ For this reason, we take the ancient maps — the creeds, confessions and statements — very seriously. But we take Scripture far more seriously because God has chosen to reveal himself both (1) in the Creation, but also more explicitly, (2) in Scripture. So the terrain we seek to map is God himself as revealed in both the Creation and the Bible.

But we do not reject the community of learning. There be dragons. Rather we seek to participate in the wider endeavour of theological enquiry. That requires engagement with those inside and outside our tribe, with both those alive now and those who have gone ahead of us.

Let’s use the wisdom from above — James 3:17-18

At Theologica we believe that this engagement should never descend to personal attacks. The beliefs of others should always be represented fairly. We should assume the best of intentions in conversation partners. We embrace such values on the basis of the humility required of all of us as God’s fallen image-bearers. We neither canonise nor demonise others. No source other than Scripture is infallible… but ancient creeds, confessions and statements should not be set aside lightly. No human interpretation can be assumed to be final but, on the other hand, Scripture recommends care before moving ancient boundaries (Proverbs 23:10) and recommends the use of well-worn paths (Proverbs 4:11, see page 34 of William P. BROWN (1996), Character in Crisis: a fresh approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, William B Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan).

If you care about bible interpretation/theology this endeavour may well generate heat as well as light. We are impassioned because truth matters. Truth sets free. Error enslaves and misleads. The implication of getting things wrong are too consequential for us to be careless in our pursuit of a greater clarity of the truth taught in Scripture. Thus, I agree with John Milton that “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” (Milton, Areopagitica). But it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

Epistemic humility is a two-way street.

At the end of Matthew 11 Jesus is recorded saying:

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants. 26 Yes, Father, because this was your good pleasure. 27 All things have been entrusted to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal him. (Christian Standard Bible)

Jesus’ words demand humility. Too often I wanted the other party to be humble and accept the truth as I taught it – my Bible interpretation. But how can I call others to be ready to repent, to have a change of thinking, if I myself will not display that same readiness to listen, to enquire, to give up cherished traditional beliefs or attitudes, to embrace interpretations that better represent Scripture, and more fully fit with all the Biblical data, and that more faithfully explain the experienced Creation?

Curiosity is what humility sounds like.

Whenever I dismiss and fight new understanding I manifest pride. If I am able to be curious, enquiring, whenever I encounter those people and ideas and habits and cultural artefacts which are ‘other’ to me, then I manifest humility. But true humility is never a pushover, never beholden only to the next fad. At its most insightful, humility sees the foolishness of mere novelty, especially in an age like ours where the new is so often esteemed better than the old, despite little evidence to support it. We should ask ourselves why we are so besotted by the new, why we are so eager to welcome and worship what is novel. True humility will be, as John Stott taught, tentative where Scripture is tentative, and definite where Scripture is definite. Such is our hope for the Theologica blog.

And if you’re uncertain why you might ever think about theology, I recommend Dave Horsfall’s blog post here: https://cym.ac.uk/resources/blog/why-study-theology

Meanwhile, let’s keep on orienteering and exploring the terrain of Scripture. Let’s do so, as Will Willimon urges us, not with the aim that ‘we got it’ — but rather with the aim that ‘it got me’. God’s purpose in giving us Scripture is that we may be undone, be won, be changed, see ourselves, others and God himself a little more clearly, and also be sent out — and all of this as Christ is formed in us by grace through faith.

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