Friday, June 26, 2009

Biblical Interpretation and Authority.

A friend recently dropped me a note in response to some thoughts I had shared with him about biblical interpretation. Like me, he's from a Protestant background but loves the Catholic tradition. He said he's basically torn between "believing that Petrine doctrine is the only way out of the theological mess" or "agreeing with Luther that individuals reading the text with the guidance of the inner light is the only way to subjectively legitimize interpretations."

Now, I'm not sure Luther really felt the need for "the guidance of inner light." As I read him, he seemed to think that the literal meaning of scripture was plain for everyone to see and anyone who didn't read it like him was clearly succumbing to the leading of the devil. Luther was easy to get along with like that. On the other hand, my friend is a scholar of comparative religions, and I know he doesn't really believe the Petrine doctrine in a literal way any more than I do.

So that had me mulling things over again. What does the Bible really mean, and who says so?

On the one hand, I'm a bit of a Luther fanboy, and I tend to agree with him on the fact that the meaning of scripture is plain enough. On the other hand, fanboy or no, I disagree with him on an awful lot of the fine points of his reading, so it's kind of silly for me to agree with him on simply reading the plain meaning. On the third hand, the backdrop to the above mentioned discussion was a comment I had made of a bit from the Foreward of Pope Benedict's book Jesus of Nazareth in which he talks about the process by which the community gathered around the sacred texts reinterprets the texts, and how this is good and reasonable because the text created the community and the community created the text and so the text was somehow open to the reinterpretation all along. So there's something there of an ecclesial authority in interpreting the text which I believe and accept.

But the more I think about it, the more I think the problem is with how we try to locate authority relative to the Bible. We say the Bible is the final authority on matters of faith and doctrine, which I hope we understand to really mean that God speaking through the Bible is the final authority on matters of faith and doctrine. But the really big problem is that our interpretation of the Bible tends to become the de facto authority which we are trying to follow.

That is, we recognize the authority of the Bible and tip our hat to it, and we try as diligently as we are able to uncover the meaning of the Bible, and then we effectively legislate our behavior on the basis of the meaning we arrive at as our best guess at the meaning. This is essentially the logical outcome of the Protestant model, and I'm going on record right now saying it's wrong.

So what's the alternative?

First, let me suggest that in try to arrive at the meaning of the Bible, we're already a bit off track. The Church has long recognized multiple meanings embedded in Scripture. Some of these have been dismissed in modern times as silly, pious imagination. Nevertheless, as modern reading has given way to post-modern reading, we've been forced to acknowledge the simple fact that words, inspired and otherwise, tend not to have a single meaning.

And so I think we do well to look back at the history of how the Church has read various passages and see what may be gleaned from it. I think we also do well to consult Jewish traditions. And we do well to try to come at the text fresh (as if such a thing were possible) and hear it with new ears and respond. In all of these ways we will find many treasures, old and new (Matthew 13:52).

Does the Bible really mean all these things? Maybe. Maybe not. I think perhaps we should look at biblical interpretation as being somehow akin to wine tasting. A person can pick up a glass of wine, take a gulp and glibly say, "It tastes like wine." But an experienced wine taster may come along side and suggest that this person look for the hint of fruitiness in the finish. And perhaps the person takes another sip and finds this fruitiness. And so on. Merely having heard the suggestion of what's there gives us the ability to discern it where perhaps we did not before.

So that's interpretation. But what about authority?

I'd like to suggest that the authority of the Bible is also more like the authority of wine than it is like the authority of a constitution. Wine exercises its authority by the mere fact of having been imbibed. Even so with the Bible. The authority of the Bible is, and should be, in the effect it has upon us, the way in which it can transform us, not as something we can point to in order to support our arguments or to justify ourselves. It may be that I have misunderstood the meaning of the Bible, but in the act of engaging it and seeking it's meaning, I am transformed. It may have more to say to me, and the same passage may have more work to do with me, but having been transformed to the extent I have, I am to act as I have been led.

And so when I apply this to a controversial issue, such as same sex relationships, it's a mistake to lay out a list of verses and say, "These are the passages which justify my position." Instead, I can simply say, "Jesus calls me to love my neighbor, and this is what that seems to me to mean," and I am more genuinely placing authority in God through Scripture than if I were to cite chapter and verse.

You and I may even arrive at different positions in this way. That's OK, I think. We're not done. As long as we're both still opening ourselves to the authority of the Scripture and the action of the Holy Spirit upon us, we'll be moving, I hope, in the right direction.


Johann Cornelius said...

Well said... I was wondering if you have participated in any of the Book of Faith programs. "Opening the Book of Faith" discusses four distinct ways of reading and interpreting scripture, with the implication that by using all four methods, we come to a fuller appreciation and understanding of the text.

Christopher said...

I'm hoping to do an independent study about this very issue after internship. I like to think I know my bible, but application/authority always seems to be a slippery thing. Thanks for your thoughts--I like 'em.