Friday, March 8, 2013

Coded Hermeneutics

Further to my rant about the coded meanings of "sola scriptura," and the danger of its oversimplified application to bible interpretation...

Briefly, in review, "sola scriptura" (the text alone) is too often "coded language" for one or more of the following hidden assumptions, any of which can get in the way of treating the holy text with respect, honesty, and objectivity:
  • "I have sufficient expertise in reading the Bible to judge whether it teaches something or not, without any help from you (and if I haven't seen it there so far, I'm never going to see it)."
  • "All I need to know about religion, I can and do learn solely by reading the Bible (and anything I had learned beforehand, from whoever taught me to interpret it, is hermeneutically insignificant—like the dark matter that makes up 84% of the mass of the universe)."
  • "If God expects me to believe something that I find hard to accept, the burden of proof is on him (and it may take mile-high letters of fire to change my mind)."
  • "God's revelation is always clear and never vague or confusing (so if I run across any word or assertion that conflicts with my reason, I stroll past it, whistling, and pretend it is not there)."
A second "coded hermeneutic" is the famous "Scripture interprets Scripture," which I discussed in passing during my debate with the Blanks. Again, I see some hidden assumptions riding the backdraft of this important principle:
  • "If I find the tension between two biblical teachings too uncomfortable to maintain, all I need do is marshal a few verses proving the one and—poof!—the other disappears. Thus, no patient acceptance of a difficult statement, paradox, or mystery will be necessary."
  • "If one passage says something I disagree with, I can veto it by quoting any other passage that superficially seems to support my views—no matter how remote it may be from the context, or how irrelevant to the teaching in question. Because, don't you know, all Bible verses have equal authority in relation to any topic."
  • "The catena of Bible verses (or even just references) that I was forced to memorize at a crucial stage of my faith formation—or maybe I swallowed them willingly because they seemed to 'make sense' at the time—contain the answer to anything. It will never be necessary for me to reconsider my position, even in the face of overwhelming biblical evidence."
The third "coded hermeneutic" I want to consider today is the "Inerrancy of Scripture." This concept was coined amid the early 20th-century Pentecostal and Charismatic movement and spread like wildfire throughout the Evangelical movement and conservative, "mainline" denominations. Without entertaining even the slightest suspicion that the Bible contains errors, however, I worry about the cost of accepting "inerrancy" into our hermeneutical panoply. For one thing, there are too many irreconcilable schools of thought on just what "inerrancy" means. For another thing, there are too many disturbingly disparate doctrines that all claim to be founded on the study of the same "inerrant" text.

In the third place is a concern frequently pointed out by the magazine where I worked until recently. To wit: A definition of the nature and character of God's Word that only discusses the Bible (as opposed to other forms taken by God's Word), or that only stresses authority, clarity, sufficiency, and inerrancy but goes no further, ignores the best part of what Scripture teaches about itself. No "doctrine of the Bible"—nor a body of doctrine built on it—can be complete without showing that God's Word is living, active, powerful, efficacious, killing, life-giving, and at work in us and among us. It makes such a huge difference that it might be the right answer (or a right answer) to the often-asked question, "What is unique about Lutheranism?"

But in the fourth place, the proposition that one's theology is based on "biblical inerrancy" also has about it the whiff of a coded meaning or two:
  • "Everything printed and bound within the covers of the Bible is beyond question. (And by the way, have you turned in your check for a copy of the Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear Self-Study Bible with Expanded Footnotes? Hurry up, because it takes a lot of pages to print a Bible with an inch of Scripture to every six of commentary, and paper doesn't grow on trees you know!)"
  • "If you disagree with our interpretation of Scripture, no matter how novel our position may be or how far back in church history yours goes, you are a damnably counter-scriptural heretic (I love that phrase!)." From which it may be further inferred:
    • "Only those who subscribe to our sectarian views constitute the true Christian Church on earth."
    • "The majority of so-called Church History is the chronicle of an unreal semblance of Christianity, because the Holy Spirit deserted the apostles and has only come back to earth in this latter day, now that we have restored Jesus' true teachings." (Several restorationist and Anabaptist teachers have said pretty much exactly this, flat out.)
I'm saving for a later post, when time and energy are more in my favor, a refresher on "rightly dividing Law and Gospel," and an essay on whether God (or more specifically, Christ) wouldn't ever seriously teach something that his audience couldn't be expected to understand.

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