Thesis #4

4. Texts of scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.
The authors and editors of the canonical texts repeatedly gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions, thereby initiating the process of discerning multiple senses within the text. The medieval “fourfold sense” is a helpful reminder of scripture’s multivalence. The church’s traditions of biblical interpretation offer models and guidance about how the fuller sense of scripture should be understood. This does not entail a rejection of historical investigation of biblical texts. Indeed, historical investigations have ongoing importance in helping us to understand scripture’s literal sense and in stimulating the church to undertake new imaginative readings of the texts.

How, then, do we learn from modern historical interpretations of scripture while also drawing on the church’s premodern traditions of biblical interpretation? Should either modern or premodern traditions be privileged in the church’s reading of biblical texts? What criteria ought to be employed to provide some determinacy to the interpretation of particular texts?

First, I need to come out of the closet and confess that I’m still moving past a stage where theses like this one send up a red flag. Among the thoughts that I fight off: So… you just want to pave the way for anyone to interpret Scripture to fit their own agenda, and say that it is just as correct as an established orthodox interpretation, right? But I think this is a crappy attitude to have if you’re serious about living in vibrant community with other Christ-followers. Yes, people do suck; they have (min)interpreted –and will continue to (mis)interpret– Scripture to advance an agenda. But really, when I think about it, I have to affirm that the Kingdom is founded on principles of grace-permeated disagreements, of charity in debate, of trust for pure intentions, of hope for reconciliation. So should be our faith communities here on earth. Grace allows room for –but does not endorse– heretics. It’s uncomfortable, but the converse of allowing for multiple interpretations (i.e. ruling doctrine with an iron fist) is definitely antithetical to building the Kingdom on Earth. I remember beginning to deal with this tension when Matt brought up the topic of a theo-wiki approach, modeled for instance, by IKON over in Ireland. So, bottom line, I affirm T4. :-)

I could better discuss T4 if I could think of an instance where multiple orthodox interpretations of the same passage peacefully coexist. A horizontal difference. But nothing comes to mind. Maybe an onion-style interpretation difference would work though. Vertical differences. Like, multiple layers to something. I could see that working much more easily. Many of Christ’s teachings fit this paradigm. The deeper you dig, the more meanings the passage takes on. I can live with that. Also, there is the insistence made that “historical investigations have ongoing importance in helping us to understand scripture’s literal sense”… to be legit, new interpretations should be able to collaborate with history. Er… should collaborate with the parts of history that were in tune with the history before that. Shouldn’t shoot off as a divergent tangent. Oh dear, I feel like I’m being pulled into line-drawing here. Here’s why: Colonial America’s slavery, for example, was clearly wrong, but was not a divergence from the history before it. Hmmm… Help? Ok, how about this: Grace dictates that new interpretations must be allowed, but to be legit, they should fit into the overarching narrative of God interacting with his people. Should fit within the idea of “When Love Comes to Town.”

How, then, do we learn from modern historical interpretations of scripture while also drawing on the church’s premodern traditions of biblical interpretation? I’m confused. These questions assume a fairly deep academic knowledge of the history of interpretation. What I see being asked is “How do we combine modern and premodern styles of interpretation to fit into our brave new world of postmodernism?” And if that’s the question, I would reply that we can take lessons from all of the history of interpretation. No part of history is completely useless. It’s reasonably safe to assert that the ancient Jewish emphasis on Scripture as literal honey on our tongues was literal to them, and we now see it as beautiful figurative expression. So, this premodern interpretation shapes and enhances my postmodern search for connection with my Creator. Should either modern or premodern traditions be privileged in the church’s reading of biblical texts? No. Non. Nyet. Neither. This seems silly. Can anyone suggest a weighty reason in favor of privileged position for either eras’ traditions? I’m all ears, but nothing comes to my own mind. What criteria ought to be employed to provide some determinacy to the interpretation of particular texts? “Love Comes to Town.”

Meaty. Thoughts?

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3 responses to “Thesis #4

  1. Pingback: learning to read the Bible again 4 « Scream Without Raising Your Voice

  2. I think this part of the thesis is why we have theology. Theology isn’t, in y very humble opinion, something we can do on our own. Theology is about testing our thoughts, beliefs and interpretations in the fire of debate. That’s how we stop crazy dogma and random application of out of context passages.

    I find great difficulty when people won’t discuss their thoughts (especially when they tell me that they are right so they don’t need to discuss it!). My thoughts, faith and understanding have changed through debate and discussion, sometimes very uncomfortable. But it is only through this debate that we come to the multiple meanings and levels of understanding.

    How many times have you gotten more from a film or a book when you talk about it and watch or read it again? The bible is the same.

  3. Pingback: Thesis #6 « Not all the answers, but a lot of questions.

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