7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform scripture.
From the earliest communities of the church, through whose scriptural interpretation we received the Christian Bible, to the present communities of biblical interpreters, generations of Christians have received this book as a gift from God and sought to order their lives according to the witness of scripture. This chain of interpreters, the communion of the saints, includes not only those officially designated as saints by the churches but also the great cloud of witnesses acknowledged by believers in diverse times and places, including many of the church’s loyal critics. This communion informs our reading of scripture. We learn from the saints the centrality of interpretive virtues for shaping wise readers. Prominent among these virtues are receptivity, humility, truthfulness, courage, charity, humor and imagination. Guidance in the interpretation of scripture may be found not only in the writings of the saints but also in the exemplary patterns of their lives. True authority is grounded in holiness; faithful interpretation of scripture requires its faithful performance.
How much of a gap can be endured between one’s right interpretation of scripture and one’s failure in performance (e.g., churches that practice racial exclusion or unjust divisions between rich and poor)? How do we understand what goes wrong when the Bible is used as an instrument of oppression and division?
I think each thesis just keeps getting better and better. After the halfway point in this progression of theses, there’s a growing emphasis on community. A key element is one that brings in a sort of checks-and-balances notion, one that safeguards against agenda-driven rogues completely writing the standard for everyone else. Recently I’ve felt frustrated with the damn tyranny of the minority that’s going on in my country and in my denomination… Sometimes I’m tempted to be bitter and assert that the current norm for how our lives are ordered runs counter to the actions of the great cloud of witnesses before us. But surely T7 is good for more than enabling me to point out how it seems that the prevailing interpretation and the actions emanating from it disregard the interpretation and action of the saints before us. Of course, it would be wrong to say that the saints’ interpretation and action must not change with the times, as well.
Anyway, the great balancing part about T7 is its suggestion of the virtues of “receptivity, humility, truthfulness, courage, charity, humor and imagination.” I’m entitled to my opinion on what kind of job we’re doing with interpretation and action that stays faithful to that of the saints before us, but if that’s where I stop –if all I do is form my critique– and then move on to write about T8 or something else, I’ve failed. No matter what I think about the current state of things, I’m supposed to engage that critique (positive or negative) with those virtues. I’m supposed to engage those around me with those virtues. I’m supposed to engage my own interpretation with those virtues. And really, my own interpretation must be lived out by me (“faithful interpretation of scripture requires its faithful performance”), and I can hold only myself to that interpretation. For everyone else, that’s where the receptivity… and humility… and truthfulness… and courage… and charity… and humor… and imagination comes in.
- How much of a gap can be endured between one’s right interpretation of scripture and one’s failure in performance (e.g., churches that practice racial exclusion or unjust divisions between rich and poor)? I’m hesitant to draw a line for where you have to declare a person or a church officially heretical or hypocritical; it’s a losing battle because we’re all suckers for legalism. I do think that when you see this mismatch going on, it definitely needs to be discussed, and it’s all the more important to make sure you’re doing your part to kick into high gear the exercise of those above-mentioned virtues.
- How do we understand what goes wrong when the Bible is used as an instrument of oppression and division? What’s gone wrong is that too many people fail to practice T7’s virtues. Things should never get to the point where the majority of those engaged in the interpretation of scripture (or those with the most influence) are seeking to accomplish things that run completely opposite to the spirit of the lives and practices of the cloud of witnesses.
Matt’s post here.