How many times in a religious (or worldview) conversation have you heard someone say, “That’s just your interpretation”?
When someone makes such a comment they are actually trying to say, “What you said is not true because it is just what you think it means.” Basically, your interpretation is just an opinion. I strongly believe that this is a poor argument and an incorrect way of looking at the word interpretation.
Often people like to come up with their own definitions, or society redefines a word, then makes the same argument. For example, how often do we hear someone say, “Christians are intolerant.” In most circumstances, the use of the word intolerant is supposed to communicate that the Christian is saying their beliefs are true, and someone else’s belief is wrong. Many see tolerance as accepting all people’s beliefs or views as equally true. However, if you know anything about logic that breaks the Law of Noncontradiction; two opposing things cannot be true at the same time. The true definition, as defined by the dictionary, is “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own.” Notice that the true definition requires that I disagree with someone to be tolerant toward them, and it does not require that I agree, rather that I have a certain attitude toward them.
The same issue of incorrect defining is occurring with the word interpretation. In a religious or worldview discussion, many tend to see an interpretation as an opinion or more like a way we see it, but for ourself alone. However, the dictionary defines “an interpretation as an explanation of the meaning of another’s artistic or creative work.” It is important to notice that an interpretation is not just what you think, but rather what you think the author intended in their writing. In that case, there has to be a correct or right interpretation of the text or idea. An interpretation will only hold or be a better interpretation than another’s if there are facts to back up the interpretation.
The next time someone says, “That’s just your interpretation”, then there are two ways to guide the discussion. First, you can use one of the Columbo Tactics by Greg Koukl, from his book Tactics, by asking, “What do you mean by interpretation?” Hopefully that will clear up the larger problem, and guide the conversation to clearer understanding for both people. Second, the person must give proof, or evidence, for why your interpretation is not the correct one. As we have seen there must be a correct interpretation based on the definition of what an interpretation is. Not all interpretations are valid, but we do know there is a correct one. For example, if I told someone I just met that I noticed they hated their wife, but had no reason, or evidence, to prove so, then they have good reason to say that my interpretation is wrong. However, that person could only say that I was wrong because there is a correct interpretation of how he feels for his wife.
I hope you can see now that there is a correct or right interpretation of ideas or text, and that they need proof to back it up whether someone is claiming or rejecting an interpretation. Again there are truths in this world, and two contradictory ideas cannot be true at the same time.