24 July 2006

scripture, authority, and interpretation 2

Earlier I posted excerpts from my side of an exchange with a college friend that I wrote over a decade ago. The previous post touched on topics of God, Christ, creation, and providence as a context for understanding the authority of Scripture. In what follows, I'll post some further excerpts from my side of that exchange as the topic turned to questions of the interpretation of Scripture, the construction of theological viewpoints, and the role of the church and tradition in that process.

Again, this is material I wrote some time ago, when I was much younger than I am now, and I wouldn't necessarily agree with everything I say or state it in precisely the same way today. Nevertheless, it might help to contextualize how my current thinking evolved.

...From what we have said, it is clear that we can never finally say regarding any interpretation of Scripture - let alone any attempt to comprehensively systematize or thematize its teaching - "Ok, now I've got it!" At least we cannot say that if we mean we have all the information in front of us and accounted for, even if everything we have in fact said by way of interpretation and organization is true enough in itself. More can always be said. This is due both to the open-ended nature of the subject matter as well as the fact that interpretation essentially involves approaching the text from the present horizon of interpretation and beginning to find trajectories of application - and new horizons and new situations for application always arise.

Moreover, since human reality is always plural and diverse (as well as unified in relation, analogically reflecting divine life), the Scriptures themselves are diverse materials. Portions of the Scriptures certainly count as "propositional" in character, but there are also commands, questions, poems, images, types, allegories, hortatory subjunctives, visions, and the like. God has given us this scriptural diversity, I think, in order to better capture the diverse nature of human experience so that no aspect of life is left untouched by the biblical story. Additionally, there is a depth and multi-faceted character to the nature of the truth communicated: the truth about God, about Christ, and about us.

Scriptural diversity implies, however, the impossibility of any sort of comprehensive systematization of biblical doctrine. This is not to disparage in the least the usefulness of systematic theology. Indeed, we cannot handle Scripture for very long without beginning to make connections and see patterns. Moreover, in the history of the church, certain errors have arisen and needed correction, drawing upon the breadth of the biblical corpus. We only give up those advances at our own peril (though see below regarding the hierarchy of truths). Still, any theology that tries to organize all scriptural material around a single theme or motif (e.g., the sovereignty of God, the covenant, the sacraments, the Trinity, etc.) will, of necessity, leave out or gloss over other important aspects of biblical revelation (and, indeed, this is true of all the comments I've made so far!)

That does not mean that a theology centered on one theme is necessarily false, but it may be limited and, perhaps, sometimes skewed to the point of falsifying the extensive contents of biblical material (e.g., consider a theology of God's secret electing will that leaves no room for, say, sacramental efficacy and the use of other created means in drawing people savingly to Christ). And so, a richer, deeper theology will have multiple thematic centers and approach the biblical materials from a variety of perspectives and ways of thinking (deduction, narrative, liturgy, eschatology, etc.).

With these points in mind we can begin to examine questions that are more centrally hermeneutical. First, we need to realize that an understanding of the meaning of any text is not neatly separable from that text's application. Texts may have "meaning" in some sense apart from anyone's interpretation of them simply in virtue of the features of the linguistic system in which that text is embedded (though even then, given the rootedness of language in practice, those features of linguistic meaning immediately involve what can properly be done with the text). But the business of interpretation must include understanding the text. A person who claims to understand a text's meaning, however, but is not able to do anything with the text (e.g., determine its truth value, draw implications from it, paraphrase it, see what evidence might count for or against it, etc.) cannot be plausibly said to understand the text. Understanding is incarnate in application.

Second, it follows from the first point that there will always a humanly irreducible plurality of interpretation, even if meaning is ultimately one. Since modes of application, conceptual and institutional contexts of interpretation, and the individual character of interpreters differ, interpretation is multivalent. What a particular text means for an individual, a community, or a culture is shaped by the resources available for interpretation and the ways in which the text can be applied within that context. And that, in turn, depends upon the features of the sitation - what things exist, what concepts are in use, what talents, abilities, and gifts a person possesses, etc....

...One is not required to have the whole meaning (every nuance, connection, and application) of a text in order to have a true understanding of that text. Certain aspects of meaning may only come to light within those concrete situations of interpretation and application that may arise. God alone, who knows all the ways in which a text may present itself and work itself out within his creation, knows the fullest meaning of what he has said...

Third, the multivalent character of interpretation does not imply that there is "no fact of the matter" concerning whether a text is being truly interpreted or not. Nor does it mean that there are no methods for determining whether or not a true interpretation has been given. But more on that later...

...Before moving onto some relevant heremeneutical principles themselves, this is, I guess, the best point to bring in the doctrine of perspicuity, which you had raised earlier. Here's one expression of that doctrine:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
That is how the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.7), a mid-17th century document, defines the doctrine.

I'll note that this was written well before the heyday of Common Sense philosophy and that Calvin and even some of the medieval scholastics had expressed similar views. Thus your suggestion of the influence of Common Sense Realism upon the doctrine seems anachronistic, without denying the possibility that it might have had some effect on how an individualistic hermeneutics, untethered from tradition and ecclesial contexts, has come to play itself out in American evangelicalism.

The doctrine of perspicuity is not that an illiterate or an infant can get true teaching from Scripture on their own. Nor is it that every doctrine, let alone comprehensive system of doctrine, is absolutely clear from Scripture. Perspicuity is a matter of degree.

What the doctrine of perspicuity teaches is that those who are reasonably literate can open their Bibles or hear Scripture read and preached and learn that they are sinners in need of a savior and that they need to trust Christ and his work in order to be right with God. That's all. Perspicuity does not say that just anyone can arrive at the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ or even that faith is the sole instrumental cause by which we receive Christ's two-fold righteousness imputed to us for our justification. Those doctrines, however true and however necessary for the church to discern and maintain, are not of the essence of saving faith. Entrusting oneself to the crucified and risen Jesus is. And that is what the Bible clearly teaches.

Does that mean that one can deny the deity of Christ and still be saved if one has faith in him? Well, perhaps we should distinguish between recognizing Jesus Christ as God incarnate and being able to articulate that in a theologically proper way. Moreover, the deity of Christ is reasonably clear from Scripture and has been authoritatively defined by the church and, since that time, has come to be held everywhere by everyone who claims the catholic faith. If one were to reject it explicitly and deliberately after the doctrine has been clearly and lovingly explained from Scripture, in keeping with the church's understanding, then one is certainly taking a grave risk given that saving faith has content and God's authority comes to us, in part, through his church. Moreover, I would think it would be pastorally fitting for the church to see such a person as placing himself outside her gracious bounds, to warn such a person of his peril, and to withhold any assurance of salvation.

Note that such a person is not in the position of being within an aberrant tradition, being misled by false teachers, or being invincibly ignorant. The Scriptures distinguish between those who sin "high-handedly" and those who are misled (see Lev 4:3-5, 13; Num 15:22ff.; cf. WLC 150, 151). Those who are misled by their traditions and teachers and who stray unwittingly into error are not as responsible as those who knowingly and deliberately reject the catholic faith. And such misled persons we must commend to the mercy of our loving God, even as we bear witness to them...

...Now, with regard to there being a "hierarchy of truths," which doctrines are more clear and more central and which one are less so is a difficult matter to determine, even though almost all Christians and the church over the centuries have implicitly held that there is such a hierarchy. In general, it would seem that those doctrines that have been more widely held within the church for a longer period of time are relatively more clear and central.

Thus, the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity must be seen as pretty clear. The relation between the two natures of Christ is relatively clear. In neither case does this mean that there are no unresolved issues or that believers can't unfold these doctrines further in ways that are less clearly correct. But it does mean that a particular level of doctrinal development has been reached with a fairly high degree of certainty, so much so in these instances, that these doctrines represent catholic orthodoxy. It is also abundantly clear, while less explicitly defined (though there is the Council of Orange), that we do not earn our salvation and that we cannot turn to God in faith apart from grace.

Beyond those sorts of doctrines, we have, for instance, the distinctive teachings of the Protestant Reformation (the "solas"). While I hold firmly to these doctrines as biblically true and pastorally important, they were not all matters on which the church had a single mind at the time of the Reformation nor have they subsequently been received by the whole church, despite substantial agreements on some aspects and ongoing efforts at reconciliation and rapprochement. Thus, I think we must hold these distinctives to be somewhat less clear and less certain in general, even if they are clear and certain to us.

Other matters, of course (particularly as we descend to more detailed expositions of biblical teaching), remain even less clear and, in some cases, are probably up for grabs. For instance, in the matter of general eschatology, it seems there is little that is very definite beyond confessing Christ's return to judge the living and dead, the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.

In terms of Christian ethics, there is a similar pattern. The church has always held to many central obvious biblical norms (love one another, don't murder, don't steal, don't commit adultery, etc.). The church has also been fairly clear on a number of central and immediate implications of the more basic principles: the impermissibility of things such as abortion, outright idolatry, women priests, homosexual intercourse, etc. It has been clear on these issues even when it was not the accepted view in the surrounding culture as a whole, even when it proved a liability to the church's service and witness to the world, and even through various social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. The church has been less clear over time about, say, what counts as usury, the particulars of economic systems, when divorce is permitted if ever, the application of the death penalty, ordination of women to the diaconate, etc.

It seems to me, then, by way of general principle, that when our interpretation of Scripture brings us into conflict with the undivided voice of Christ's faithful through the centuries, then we have better be really quite certain about our exegesis, that we have not given into contemporary values, the spirit of the age, or our own desires of what we wish were true. Chances are that we are in the wrong and that the consistent witness of God's Spirit through his people is right. Moreover, disagreement ought to be the outcome of a process of exegesis, by a person who is competent and trained in exegesis, in piously deferential consultation with existing patterns and traditions of exegesis. Thus, it alwasy ought to be a matter of what the text of Scripture genuinely teaches and never a matter of questioning the authority or inerrancy of the biblical text itself.

I am, however, a Protestant. I do believe that the church can continue to be reformed even in doctrine and practice, even in those areas where some prior clarity may have been achieved - but only if the church, in response to the witness of the Spirit in Scripture, changes its mind in a "catholic" fashion: across denominations, by a process of discernment and consensus, giving weight to the views of those who hold most faithfully to the most clear and well-established doctrines of our holy faith (the authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.). As a Protestant, I don't hold to the absolute infallibility of church councils, but I accept the indefectability or perhaps what we could call the "eschatological infallibilitiy" of the church as she is taught by the Spirit. What I mean here is simply that the collective mind and heart of Christ's faithful will never irredeemably fall into error, but always (albeit by fits and starts) grow up into the truth. Thus it is imperative that we listen to and learn from our brothers and sisters...

...I have not answered your question of how we arrive at less clear doctrines in our interpretation of Scripture so that we can hold to them with any degree of confidence. Is the project of theology even worthwhile if we cannot have confidence in our formulations as they proceed beyond the most central doctrines of the faith? The question here is not only hermeneutical, but also more broadly epistemological. And the most basic answer, it seems to me, is that of Reformed orthodoxy: we interpret Scripture by Scripture. What this means in practice, however, is more complex.

It does not mean that we make no use of any resources outside of Scripture. After all, if interpretation always occurs from within a particular horizion and always involves trajectories of application, then it is necessary to understand the situations to which the Scriptures speak, including its original context and audience, and even if Scripture itself must condition our understaning of those situations and contexts.

Moreover, as Gadamer argues, our own "prejudgments" drawn from our personal historieis, language, and culture, are the necessary preconditions for being able to interpret anything at all. We bring these prejudgments to the text as questions to be asked of the text, frameworks for configuring the data of the text, and the context through which we perceive the text.

Nevertheless, if we are to interpret the text rightly we must be "open to dialogue" with the text. We must allow the text itself to pull us up short, to question our questions, to deny us access to itself unless we begin to compromise ourselves to it. If we are to image God, we must (by his grace) be fully open to his voice, to give our prejudgments over to him in love, to be at the disposal of Scripture, and to allow the text to call into question our ways of thinking at the deepest level. Devotion and exegesis, in this way, are inseparable.

Practically speaking though, how do we enter into this position of radical openness to the text? Several suggestions come to mind, as I reflect upon Christian praxis - what it is that the church in fact has done and continues to do.

The first set of suggestions are in respect to the texts of Scripture themselves: we make the language of Scripture our own language. By this I don't mean learning Hebrew or Greek (though that can be helpful). Rather, we must learn to inhabit the world of the text, to see the world through the eyes of the biblical authors, to name objects and acts they way they do, to share in their values...

Part of inhabiting the world of the text is, secondly, taking on the biblical story as one's own family and cultural history, the story into we ourselves have entered through baptism and which we profess as our own. We all share family and cultural histories through narratives - the story of the first Thanksgiving, of Paul Revere's midnight ride, of great-uncle Zed's trek out west, of that time the car broke down in a snowstorm, and so on. As the church, however, our primary, defining narratives are not those of our natural families or surrounding culture, but those found in Scripture. We read and hear those narratives together as the people of God, rehearsing them through the lectionary and the creeds, living them out in the pattern of the church year, and dramatically re-enacting them in the flow of the liturgy with its sacraments and rites.

Thirdly, the community life of God's people together in fellowship, in confession, in mutual encouragement and counsel and correction, in listening to one another, and yes, also in church discipline, are all means by which we begin to live out the Word. As the Word takes shape in us and among us, that too is a means by which we learn to live in the world of the biblical text. As we live and move in that world, we come to understand and enter more and more into how Scripture interprets and interacts with itself (the prophets' use of the pentateuch, the psalms' theology of the tabernacle, the New Tesatment's use of the Old, etc.).

In that way then the Bible - the voice of Jesus - begins to interpret itself in our own exegetical study and reflection, in our fellowship, in our worship, and in our lives. Our life together will manifest the life-giving Spirit of Christ as we grow up into the mind of Christ. All of this is part of what is meant, I think, by "Scripture interpreting Scripture," when placed in its larger context...

...The story of the Bible must be allowed to challenge, correct, and transform the culture of any interpreter, not in that the interpreter's own context is to be trumped by Scripture. Rather, it is only under the guidance and authority of Scripture through faithful communities of interpreters that their cultural context will be opened to spiritual transformation that brings it to its proper redemptive telos. Our cultures, languages, and histories are both our greatest assets and our greatest liabilities.

In terms of assets, without these contexts we couldn't even begin to interpret Scripture. Scripture itself took shape in a set of particular cultural contexts and within a historical narrative, and God continually changed and redemptively transformed that history and those cultural contexts, bringing them, in and through their historical unfolding, to maturity in Christ. It is only because of this that we can relate to Scripture as a cultural artifact as persons who find ourselves also within culture and history as part of the greater human story. We can see what God had done within the cultural contexts of the Bible and the history of which it is a part and begin to see what implications that might have for us where and when we live.

In terms of liabilities, we live in a world broken and damaged by the power of sin. We do not see as clearly as we ought nor do we always want to. We have blindspots and limitations, in part bequeathed to us by the systemic effects of sin within our culture, language, and histories, and in part due to our own failure to trust and love as we ought.

If cultural and historical embeddedness in themselves, however, cut us off from the world of Scripture, then we would be cut off from Christ in the Scriptures, except perhaps as an abstraction, a moral platitude, or timeless truth for disembodied souls. But then it would be difficult to see how Christ's work could have any redemptive significance for the whole created world and, in particular, the real world of culture and history. If the hermeneutical difficulties posed by sin's effects were utterly insuperable, even by grace, then our faith is in vain...

...How do these points bear upon the issue of arriving at some confidence regarding any particular interpretation? First, it drives us to humility, particularly with regard to those issues on which there never has been any sort of wide agreement among Christ's faithful or where we are following out the less clear implications of more central doctrines. That does not mean we can't adopt a particular interpretation or argue for it passionately. But it does require openness to the possibility of error, to recognize the presence of sin, to allow for additional facets that were missed, to consider other interpretive paradigms and motifs that might better account for some data. Evangelicals often fall short at this point, taking their own situated and contingent interpretations and elevating them to the level of orthodoxy or as simply obvious or as matters over which to divide.

Second, we need to distinguish between the fact of having a correct interpretation (a state of having arrived properly at truth) and being to defend or verify that interpretation (a process of rational support). It's possible, after all, to know what a text means even if you can't perfectly defend that knowledge or be absolutely certain regarding it...

...Third, the previous point is no excuse for laziness in searching the Scriptures and trying to articulate one's own process of interpretation. Neither is it an excuse for arrogance and dismissiveness in respect to other's interpretations. After all, their understanding, if in conflict with my own, may provide reasons for re-consideration or expansion of my own understanding.

Fourth, one should never interpret a text individually and in isolation from the canonical shape of Scripture or the witness of the Spirit in the history of the church's understanding of Scripture. Any interpretation should be checked against other passages, as well as the thinking of Christian teachers and theologians of the past and one's fellow believers today, who also heed the voice of Christ in Scripture and share with you in the Spirit and his gifts. In listening to others one must be open to their perspectives, even if they lead away from where you, as an interpreter may wish to go. Even erroneous interpretations (at least among Christians who trust Christ within the bounds of Nicene orthodoxy) are mostly based upon legitimate concerns, real biblical themes, and genuine theological insights. Without such ongoing listening to others, to the wider witness of the church, and to what the Spirit continues to teach us through the Scriptures, we risk the danger of a sterile parochialism or an idolatrous traditionalism...

...Within catholic orthodoxy, we can consider, for example, the disagreements between Roman Catholics and evangelicals on the nature of baptismal efficacy. Catholics will tend to point to passages in which baptism is seen as a necessary part of entering the kingdom, as the proper response to the Gospel, and as has saving effects attributed to it (new life, being clothed with Christ, forgiveness of sins, etc.). If an evangelical (or even putatively Reformed) view of the sacrament of baptism cannot account for such passages with integrity or cannot comfortably speak the words Scripture speaks, then to that degree such a view is incomplete or requires further exposition.

As Christians speaking the truth in love, we must listen carefully and be open to one another's views, interpreting them charitably, giving them the best possible reading, and striving to incorporate their genuine insights into our own understanding. In this way we can contend together towards the truth and remain, at least to an important and hopefully growing degree, in loving communion with all the church.

Fifth, the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit is ultimately the reason that the church will never fall irredeemably into error. The guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, understanding, and theological construction is not merely an individual matter, for the priesthood of all believers is not merely an individual matter. We are each personally priests because we share together in the one priesthood of Christ by his one Spirit. The guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, therefore, comes through the circulation of Christ's Spirit among his people as they hear his Word preached, share in the sacraments, pray together corporately, enjoy fellowship, give pious deference to the doctors and fathers of the church, and love and enjoy interaction with other Christians. The work of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture is a gift granted to the universal church, both locally and more broadly.

Perhaps even disagreement is part of the Holy Spirit's work in order to move us beyond our present patterns and limited viewpoints in order to think in new ways that better account for the ever fertile richness of God's Word. Such disagreement, however, must always remain within the context of faithfulness to the authority of Scripture, because the Scriptures are Jesus Christ's voice present in our midst and the Spirit always calls us to him, to the fullness of his redeemed humanity in which our own salvation is found...

...I have, in recent years, had a great deal of opportunity to join at various times, formally and informally, together with brothers and sisters in Christ from various traditions: Reformed, Roman Catholic, evangelical, Anglican, Anabaptist, Orthodox, Lutheran. Together we have opened and discussed the holy Scriptures as well as the theological understandings that we build up out of them. While we certainly did not come to agreement on any number of issues, there was always a very basic sense in which we had deep and real agreement in diversity.

This did not come by sweeping differences under the table nor did it come by compromise of our positions. Rather, we shared a common commitment to the Christ of Sripture and the reality that, in Scripture, we find Jesus' speaking presence among us by his Spirit. We also shared a common commitment of faith in that same Christ Jesus as the one in whom God was and is reconciling the world to himself. As ourselves recipients of that reconciliation, we could, in love and humility, begin to be reconciled to one another. Out of those commitments and only out of those commitments, could we listen to each other, begin to understand each other, unmask misunderstandings and miscommunication, and begin to realize the nature of our genuine differences and disagreements. In doing so, rather than being able to dismiss one another, we realized the shortcomings of our own limited perspectives and how we must continue to think and grow in our understanding of the Gospel. "O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!"

As I said before, all of that was written more than a decade ago and, while I would want to revise some of what I've said, it still accurately represents the kinds of concerns and priorities that have shaped and continue to shape me spiritually and theologically.