Monday, February 19, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Prolegomena

What is the correct way to use and interpret Scripture? This is a very important question, and part of what makes it difficult is the way that presuppositions are made which prejudice the results, presuppositions which are taken as obvious, so obvious they need not be stated, and yet which, when stated, lack defense.

So in this series of posts I wish to explore this question for two purposes: to outline what I believe is the correct way to understand the use and interpretation of Scirpture, and second, to explore the way that hidden presuppositions can color the results.

This impinges upon me the need to describe where I start.

Historical Continuity

I take it as a given that the Church is a historically continuous entity, and that nothing can be essential for all Christians which did not exist for some. (This leaves open the possibility, of course, that something can be essential for all Christians after some point; to defend such a possibility in a particular case requires a clear explanation of what changed at that point.)

We are investigating the proper use and interpretation of the Scriptures within the Christian Church. There may be uses and interpretations of Scripture which are found outside the Church; nothing here prevents such investigation, but neither can that investigation be relevant to the ecclesiastical task.

We necessarily find, therefore, that the Church existed before the New Testament; that it is incorrect to state that the Scriptures give birth to the Church. The Church existed fully and completely on the Day of Pentecost; moreover, no word of the New Testament was penned except by members of the Christian community seeking to inform or govern other members of the community, and the text was received as such as any other communication from the same author would have been. (We can see this in Paul most directly, who clearly writes as if a live communication would have the same authority as a written, and indeed, stresses that his written communication should be received as if he were present in person. Clearly, then, the written text of Paul's letters derives its authority—at least for its first hearers—from the authority of Paul, and had no particular additional authority that other forms of communication from him would not share.)

Under this heading also, we must be committed to a robust conviction of the historical continuity of the Church in its use of Scripture. Just as we cannot unchurch the first generation of Christians, we cannot unchurch the rest. We may well have criticisms to make, but we cannot make them in such terms that we render unrecognizable the Church of a given age, or rather, to make a criticism of a certain depth requires that we cease recognition of this or that group as being the Church. And, if this in turn means we must see a fundamental break in the continuity of the Church, we must go back and reform our criticism. It is thus that historical continuity is a brake upon arbitrary claims of new understanding which render all previous understanding unimportant. (Such a break happened, for example, in the thought of the Protestant Reformers; their accusation that the medieval Church simply was not the Church must tell us that in fact their accusation was incorrect [or the historical continuity of the Church would be lost].)

Finally, historical continuity operates in a "softer" fashion, requiring us to examine the use and interpretation of the Scriptures throughout the history of the Church and not merely at present. We are not obliged to sanction every practice, but we must be very hesitant about jettisoning this or that as being a fundamental misunderstanding; this would be very close (if not too close) to saying that the practitioners in question have made such a fundamental misunderstanding that they are unchurched.

Liturgical Priority

Because the Canon of Scripture was initially determined specifically with reference to what is read in church, we must not lose sight of this fact. The Canon is simply and plainly, what is read in the church as Scripture. What distinguishes the Bible from other books is, in the first instance, that it is used liturgically in a different manner from other books. Only as a secondary question comes the use of the Bible as a doctrinal or juridical standard, as a tool in private prayer, and so forth.

Whatever ascriptions of authority the Church makes for the Scriptures are made in virtue of this primary liturgical use. It is because the text is received and heard in this manner that it can be confessed as Scripture. Two consequences follow: first, the Church is not of one mind about what can be read in this way, and second, the exact bounds of the Canon admit some curious flexibility.

Any description of the use and interpretation of the Scriptures which insists on a clear bright line rule, or that the Scriptures are self-authenticating (as John Calvin and Karl Barth seemed to think) must fall. We would be forced to do violence to the historical continuity of the Church if we begin asserting that the disagreements about the bounds of the canon are determinative for the being of the Church. Likewise, we must take account of the complex ways the Scriptures are used in the liturgy, in all their actual complexity. (For example, we must note that the Orthodox accept the Revelation to John, but do not read it in services; we must note that Anglicans do read the Apocrypha in services, but do not permit doctrine to be established from it.)

Actual rather than Ideal Use

We must focus on the actual use and interpretation of Scripture in the Church, in all its breadth, and not on only some small subset. Barth, for example, writes in KD 1/1 as if the principal point of the Scriptures is to ground homiletics and dogmatics. True enough that the Scriptures are importantly used for those purposes. But we must also consider that the Scriptures are used as sources of prayers, as material for lectio divina, as historical information, as a source of artistic and literary material, as the occasion for Bible study, as liturgical objects in their own right (consider the book of the Gospels!), and so forth.

We may well judge that a given use is inappropriate, but we must not simply disregard certain uses, or start with the assumption that this or that use is inherently determinative. This focus on actual use exists in some tension with the liturgical priority rule. If we find that we are using the rule of liturgical priority in such a way as to preclude an independent look at some other use of the Scriptures, we have gone too far. Likewise, if this independent look cannot be related faithfully back to what is done liturgically, then we must be prepared to mount a criticism of the liturgical practice (which may, in turn, do violence to the insistence on the historical continuity of the Church), or else we must criticize the independent look.

Thus, the liturgical priority becomes not a way to judge all other uses, but rather a way of ensuring that the other uses are interrelated and not with violence to each other. The liturgy functions as the hub of a wheel.

Public Interpretation

All seem to be always agreed that the Scriptures are not of private interpretation. But the issue here is not about whether the ideas are published; the question is whether they have authority. To agree that the use and interpretation of Scripture is a public task, one which must ultimately be responsible to a public standard, is to grant the legitimate use of authority in determining the bounds of that use and interpretation.

This grounds the canon and the liturgy as well: canonical text is that read as Scripture in the services of the Church by the authority of the Church; the liturgy is that public worship which is officially done by the Church as such and not simply the particular worship of this or that group. In both cases, the existence of authority is central to the normative status of the result.

Moreover, while the Scripture is often appealed to over and against a local authority (local in time or space), it is in the last analysis the job of that very authority to judge the question. If the authority judges wrongly, we can only (in extreme cases) separate ourselves from it: and if we do so in such terms that the historical continuity of the Church is threatened, we can know that it is we who are in error.

The process by which the authority of the Church established the canon of Scripture is continuous with its authority in other matters: there is no special "Scripture-sanctioning" authority in the Church, nor are the structures and procedures for its exercise radically different in these cases than in others. As we have seen, the Church establishes the canon by liturgical legislation.

We cannot therefore begin by assuming any particular priority of authorities. It is incorrect to say that the Church stands under the Scripture, if we mean by this some transhistorical judgment of the Church by the Scripture. At most, we can use this language of "standing under" only as a recognition that the Church must be responsible to its own past (historical continuity) and its present (structures of authority). And nothing about those qualifications is limited to the Scriptures: the obligation to be responsible to the past may also apply in the case of creeds, immemorial liturgical customs, and so forth.

Incorrect Starting Places

We must not start by thinking that the job of the Scripture is to communicate truths from God to human beings. This immediately restricts the use of Scripture to being primarily or only a question of determining the meaning of what the text says.

We must not assume that any single hermeneutical category will suffice for the entire Scripture, or for all uses and interpretational goals, or for all time. There is no question (at least, not at the outset) of presuming that we can find a "hermeneutical key" which will shed light on all the Scripture. Most importantly, the "discovery" of such new categories, if they are intended as totalizing statements of the correct method or procedure for interpreting the Scriptures, will do great violence to the historical continuity of the Church.

If we are led to a negative hermeneutical category—one which tells us not to read a text in this or that way (examples include Bultmann and Spong)—we must be particularly attentive to the historical continuity of the Church: if that way of reading was once permissible and is so no longer, we must hesitate until we have a clear indication of when the change occurred and why. We cannot allow ourselves to simply dismiss earlier reading as uninformed, primitive, or "culturally alien".

We must not assume that every use or interpretation of the Scripture will yield a consistent "meaning". We must not assume that a given passage (or the text as a whole) has "a meaning"; we must not say that an interpration of passage X is incorrect because it yields an answer different from the interpretation reached of passage Y. We must allow, as well, that interpretations can differ as the uses of Scripture differ: a use may be permissible in homiletics but impermissible in dogmatics. (For this reason, the Barthian clam about dogmatics as a check upon and a monitoring of homiletics must be partially incorrect.)

We cannot adopt maxims such as sola scriptura or let Scripture be interpreted by Scripture itself except as they can be justified as any other hermeneutical principle must be. In particular, we must be attentive to the use of such maxims as negative principles, often intended to exclude prior strategies of reading the text; these must be rejected when they amount to an assault on the continuity of the Church.

Interpreting the Prolegomena Itself

The principles (both positive and negative) which I outline here are not theological starting places; they are principles which can be defended. They are not assumptions but merely indications (with some reasoning attached) of what I believe are the only appropriate places to start this investigation.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

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