Saturday, June 14, 2008

Backing Up

Before I go further in this "Hermeneutics" thread, I should step back and examine an assumption that, like a trusty footman at a banquet, has stood all but unnoticed behind my arguments on analogy of faith, context, and sedes doctrinae. I have alluded a few times to the "true meaning" and even the meaning "intended by the Holy Spirit." So to head off charges that I am reckoning with hidden terms, let me open this up a bit.

I do not regard a belief in the inspiration of Scripture as a biblical hermeneutic, or principle of interpretation; rather, I consider it the one basis on which Christian Bible interpretation can be done. In deference to 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21, etc., I accept the Holy Spirit's authorship of the Bible as a necessary axiom prior to any useful discussion of what the text means. At the risk of destroying my credentials as an serious scholar, I submit that no objective evaluation of the text's meaning can be attempted without granting its claim to be God's written revelation. So, consequently, the task of interpreting the Biblical text amounts to answering the question: "What meaning did the Holy Spirit intend to get across?"

Sure, one hears of present-day scholars evaluating Scripture under the assumption that it isn't true; that, far from being God's Word, it was not even written by the men it claims as its authors. But their studies do not produce an interpretation of what Scripture means. Rather, their efforts are bent toward scraping the Biblical text away and discovering the truth that (they think) lies behind it. Good luck to them. But when it comes to actually interpreting the text, the question remains: "Why did God say this to us?"

A necessary adjunct to Biblical inspiration - like a mathematical theorem derived from an axiom - is the truthfulness and accuracy of what the Bible reveals. In a word, inerrancy. My flesh crawls at the very mention of this word, because we orthodox Lutherans share this premise with many evangelical Christians, who carry it to different and (I think) harmful conclusions.

In brief, the evangelicals hold that the Bible's inerrancy is the basis for its reliability and authority to reveal the way God wants us to work out our salvation. Inerrancy becomes the handmaiden of moralistic biblicism on the one hand, reductionist fundamentalism on the other; so that evangelical Christians are both burdened with spiritual expectations they cannot meet and deprived of the liberating and life-renewing comfort of the sacraments, which are not considered "fundamental." Plus, the same principle of "inspired inerrancy" is used by countless religious wackos to harangue the gullible into joining their fruity little sects. An avowal of the inerrancy of Scripture may only thinly cover a ruthless abuse of Scripture.

"Inerrancy" as such is not a biblical hermeneutic, so beware the teacher who presents it as one. Belief in inerrancy properly implies a pledge to accept whatever meaning emerges from a proper interpretation of Scripture. We submit ourselves to the clear doctrine of God's Word, regardless of whether we can fully comprehend it. Our assumption of the Bible's absolute "reliability and authority" applies more to the application of the meaning we discover in it: what weight we put on that meaning in preference to reason, philosophy, tradition, other writings, and the decisions of any group or person, living or dead, outside the Bible itself.

Some treatises on hermeneutics will enumerate separate principles having to do with these other would-be authorities and how they relate to judging the Bible's meaning. I think we can dispose of them all at once, prior to any further principles of interpretation, by saying this: Other authorities, such as the church fathers, can be worth consulting. They can even, perhaps, suggest profitable avenues of interpretation that would not occur to you otherwise. But they must also be judged by Scripture. If they give information beyond what Scripture reveals, or conflicting with it, these additions or contradictions must be subordinated to the authority of God's Word. The credence lent these other authorities must be in proportion to their faithfulness to the (everybody now!) analogy of faith, context, and sedes doctrinae of Scripture.

[EDIT: By golly, that's the principle of sola scriptura (Scripture alone)! I've gotten ahead of myself! While I'm here, I might as well point out why the riposte "But Scripture is never alone" is so completely asinine. Of course the proclamation of the Gospel is God's Word; of course the Sacraments are God's Word; of course religious writings formed by faithful adherence to Scripture is itself God's Word; one might even assert that the living voice of the spoken word, applied directly to the hearer, has advantages over the dead letter of the written word. But all spirits, all revelations, all proclamations, all ceremonies, all theological treatises, are judged by Scripture. If they are not in accord with the Bible, they are not Christian. That a doctrine has a long history of unbroken currency in the Church is indeed a powerful incentive to defend it; the witness of bygone believers can be a powerful means of defense; but the basis for defending it must be, ahem, "Scripture alone."]

So if "reliability and authority" are not the proper inferences to draw from the inspiration of Scripture, what is? I do not deny that the Bible is reliable, authoritative, or inerrant. I deny nothing that God's Word reveals. If you find this too ambiguous, tough. Send me a questionnaire demanding to know what I think about a six-day creation, Jesus' virgin birth, bodily resurrection, etc., and I will refuse to answer out of principled, French-American rudeness. But I believe that when SS Peter and Paul write of the Holy Ghost's authorship of Scripture (including the New Testament writings: 2 Peter 3:15-16), we were meant to infer more than just the inerrancy, reliability, and authoritativeness of the text. God has inspired, has "breathed into" it; the Holy Spirit dwells in it. It is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16) precisely because it is the Spirit's vehicle, with world-creating, sin-forgiving, miracle-working power. Scripture is not just a second-hand record of revelations experienced by men of God; it is, by God's inspiration, God Himself speaking to us the Word that brings faith, peace, and life.

No comments: