Monthly Archives: September 2005


Jeneane cordially picked up my suggestion from yesterday and prolonged International David Weinberger Day with her supportive linkage — it’s the least I can do, to point out that this is also International Blog like a PR Writer Week.

This coming weekend will, of course, be a national holiday in the Philippines, Canada, and the USA as Joey and Wendy get married, and the week after is Halley’s Healthy Heart Week.

Keep your calendars open; someone else will surely step up after that.

International David Weinberger Day

Today Pippa and I heard David Weinberger’s commentary on All Things Considered (she came running downstairs and said, “Dad, David Weinberger was just on the radio!” I, thankfully, had already been listening) (no link yet). And he was renewed for another year of fellowhood at the Berkman Center (along with David Isenberg). Then, too, he’s releasing a new issue of his online newsletter with no recycled content. Tasty, minty fresh, and provocative — a trifecta of Weinbergerian wisdom!

Letter From The Gulf Coast

One of my friends from a long time ago made her way down to the coast of Mississippi, and she wrote me last night with the following report from David Knight’s base of operations:

I got back home yesterday evening after spending a week at the Episcopal Disaster Relief Center at Coast Episcopal School in Long Beach/Pass Christian. I only got to speak a sentence or two to David Knight. I just hope that you will continue to tell people in your blog about the phenomenal thing that is happening there.

The medical team from Duke Hospital was seeing hundreds of people a day, including some minor surgeries — in a gymnasium with parts of three walls blown out. Dozens of volunteers were sleeping on cots and air mattresses in classrooms while other classrooms were set up as distribution centers for food, clothing, and supplies. Priests and volunteers are coming in from all over the country; trucks full of donations are arriving almost more quickly than volunteers can unload them. Within a week the grounds of the school are going to be completely transformed into a “relief city” with tents and trailers for the clinic and relief distribution while the gym is being repaired and equipped to become a “feeding station” to provide hot meals for three months or more. I have never been prouder of my diocese as it steps in to do what needs to be done and I have never been prouder of my fellow Mississippians. Never have I seen race be less of an issue as I have in the last week. The refrain I heard over and over again was “we’ll get through this.” Tired, dazed people who have lost much, if not everything, they owned are treating one another with respect and kindness and gently ironic but not cynical good humor. I have seen the power of the church at its best and I am deeply humbled by the experience. The Spirit is most truly working at Coast Episcopal.

I am not surprised to hear such good things about work in which my friend David is involved, and I’m joyous to hear that Holly could lend her efforts to the work of protecting and sustaining our storm-tossed neighbors. Please continue to support the ministries down in Mississippi and Louisiana — as the initial wave of generosity recedes, our determination to share becomes all the more important.

On Hermeneutics and Disagreement, Part Four

Most of what I’ve said so far has emphasized problems in interpretation, impediments to the Spirit and to harmony; in this last session, I’d like to emphasize the ways we can move toward agreement and articulate reassons for endorsing particular interpretations.

Much of what I will suggest here touches on topics that we’ve discussed before, in different ways. I’ve emphasized, several times, the importance of being able to give reasons for one’s interpretive claims. Here we’ll describe different sorts of these good reasons.

Some good reasons derive from basics about communication. That’s one reason the literal sense (in its full, rich, texture) plays a paramount role. Theories that involve elaborate substitution-codes and conspiratorial deception fail a test of basic communication; they’re tremendously improbable, from the perspective I commend to you (I prescind from ruling them out absolutely, since I may always be wrong — but so far as I can tell, they lack even a shadow of the tremendous compensatory rationale that would be requisite to balance out their comprehensive non-literality). For us to make a persuasive text about how best to interpret a biblical text, we ought to be able to make a case that our claim fits a plausible reading of the Hebrew or Greek itself; the stronger that case, the better.

Some good reasons derive from the unique authority that Scripture holds within the Christian tradition. For instance, I short-changed you when I alluded to Augustine before — when he says, “What more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses?” he actually appends a codicil: “the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine.” This coheres with Augustine’s well-known comfort with interpretive plurality earlier in de Doctrina, where he says, “If. . . [someone] draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious. . .” (I.36.40). Augustine reasons that wherever one runs into confusion about what a passage means, one should look to the concurring testimony of other passages (III.28.39), much as Aquinas points out that “. . .nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense” (Summa I q. 1 a. 10, invoking both the concurrent testimony of Scripture and the literal sense!).

The Anglican tradition includes some specific hermeneutical advice as well. Article XX instructs that “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” The force of “repugnant” might be clearer, but it seems unlikely that it simply means “contradictory” (thought the Latin text does give contradicat here), since the Anglican tradition has typically not been shy about acknowledging the places where Scripture seems to give two opposite versions of a point; rather, I take it more narrowly in the sense that one portion of Scripture can’t be used to negate another. (Chris Seitz has an essay on just this subject, on which I can’t put my hand right now, but as I recall, he not surprisingly construed “repugnancy” in a more restrictive sense than I). At any rate, the point clearly holds that the Anglican tradition weighs in on not being able airily to dismiss the bits that aren’t amenable to our own argument — to say the least.

We agreed that points of orientation on which the church had attained effective unanimity (or near unanimity), such as the Creeds, definitions, and conciliar canons, bore an interpretive authority concomitant with their generality. [Note: I am not suggesting that the Creeds are optional; I’m adopting this way of saying it exactly so as to avoid needing to debate the point. Even people who want to call the Creeds into question must admit that the Creeds’ doctrinal force has been acknowledged at a tremendously high degree of assent, so I don’t need to deal with an argument about just who does and who doesn’t believe what about the Creeds.] An interpretation that presumes to set aside a creedal formulation on the basis of a hunch or a gut feeling, or even on the basis of “no intelligent person could possibly believe that now,” counts for little over against the preponderance of the Church’s wisdom.

What more? Well, prominently, the accumulated interpretive wisdom of hundreds of years of saints who have gone before. In the session, which was taking place at the same time as the hearings relative to John Roberts’s nomination to be Chief Justice, we talked a lot about stare decisis, the force of precedent and interpretive tradition. While we cannot preclude the possibility that the saints have erred, we likewise can’t rule out the possibility that we’re mistaken, and we ought not presume to a certainty that obliges us to suppress the testimony of our forebears in the faith as credulous buffoons. We may place distinct value on guidance from the conciliar church, from particularly Anglican divines, from scholars whose grasp of technical interpretive questions warrants our respectful attention.

Most particularly, it seems to me, we should attend to the traditions of shared worship as recorded for us in the Book of Common Prayer. This criterion is complicated for us by the path onto which the American church seems headed, where the creditable diversity in congregations issues in an increasing number of divergent, arguably incompatible, authorized expressions. I’m not against “diversity” — but I do regard a tradition that depends, to a great extent, on common prayer as endangered by so great a proliferation of forms of worship that the modifier “common” may no longer plausibly apply. That concern bear particular weight at a time when matters of doctrine are called into question; if we codify our doctrinal divergences into the very language of our prayer, we may simply have enacted the dissolution of the “shared” part of our heritage.

So we can draw on vast realms of evaluative criteria in proposing and justifying our biblical interpretations, and any interpretation worth our attention really ought to be able to make a case that appeals to a good many of these. In all this, though, we should remember to keep our eyes on the reasons, not on shorthands or slogans, not on flat assertions or free-floating assurances, not on the names of exegetical heroes or villains. If we share with one another our reasoning, and not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but regard others as better than ourselves — in so doing, we’ll demonstrate our willingness for the Spirit to heal our divisions, we will have offered our very best wisdom to illumine others, and we can await with confidence the divine resolution of temporal confusion.

On Hermeneutics and Disagreement, Part Three

The first parts of my talk with Northern Indiana involved the premise that we do what we can to facilitate the Spirit’s work of bringing clarity where confusion besets the church, and that difference in interpretation doesn’t necessarily constitute a problem. “What more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses?” (Augustine, dDC III.27.38)

The third premise I suggested entailed recognizing that the literal sense of Scripture doesn’t solve our interpretive problems. That’s not to say it’s unimportant or bad; it just doesn’t resolve existing conflicts over interpretation. The literal sense functions most powerfully exactly where we don’t need it in a conflict: where we don’t even consider the possibility of a different interpretation. I coast to a rest when I observe a rectangular octagonal red sign (and you probably do too, unless you’re a practitioner of the Texas Rolling Stop), I don’t hesitate to ponder the various possible senses of the literal imperative to stop. If we experienced an active division, though, about how to behave at red-signed intersections, simply saying that the sign literally means “stop” wouldn’t advance anyone’s understanding of the problem. Put it this way: it’s entirely possible for people who agree about the literal sense of a passage to disagree about what follows from it, and it’s often quite possible for intelligent people of good conscience to disagree about the literal sense itself. If we identify a conflict in which one group avowedly rests its position solely (probably even “principally”) on a non-literal interpretation of Scripture I’ll gladly line up with people who ask that they justify their claims with appeal to the literal sense — but I’m not holding my breath.

Moreover, “the literal sense” can’t be reduced to just one thing. The church’s teachers recognized long ago the necessity of distinguishing the literal, grammatical sense — the sort of technical-literal sense, where words just flat-out mean what they mean — and a more general literal sense, where an expression that [obviously] functions figuratively is construed as a figure (in their terminology, a sensus literalis duplex). When Jesus says, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” we need not reckon that the statement implies an actual specific person’s transit from one city toward another (though that’s literally what it means). Now, we can often find ambiguities and quibbles in the grammatical sense; these supply commentaries and text critics with ample material. The even greater difficulty comes when we try to pin down the more expansive literal sense, the difficulty signaled by my bracketed use of “obviously” in the previous sentence. That which seems obvious to one interpreter doesn’t always seem obvious to another (the doctors caution against a literality that leads to heresy, as Arius’s case illustrates; they used Wycliffe and Hus as examples of the problems that arose from sticking solely to the literal sense) — which engenders interpretive conflict, which is the topic of the whole discussion.

The church, even at the medieval height of figurative, spiritual interpretation, has upheld the importance of the literal sense as an indispensable reference point for interpretation. The medieval church, though, saw that the literal sense itself signified multivalent-ly; it can’t serve as a fixed point for interpretive navigation, but must always be checked against complicating contextual indicators. And once you introduce those complicating contextual factors, the “literal sense” — essential though it be — can’t function simply as the arbitrator of interpretive divergence. As I’ve suggested repeatedly in the course of these remarks, we need to give reasons for thinking that X or Y is the literal sense, and it’s our reasons that contribute to clarifying (if not finally resolving, since once again, that’s the work of the Spirit) our disagreements. And we contribute to the Spirit’s work by making our reasons explicit, and by refraining from clouding the issue with impertinent or tractionless claims.

Again I emphasize that this doesn’t depreciate Scripture, truth, or the literal sense; it simply points to the true dimensions of the problem we’re working through.

All of this points, hard, toward the vitally important final part of my presentation, on criteria. I’ll try to write that up after church.

On Hermeneutics and Disagreement, Part Two

I started out my talk with Northern Indiana by stressing the importance of everyone doing what we can to make the circumstances favorable for the Spirit to clarify what we ought to think by way of divergent biblical interpretations. If we begin with a determination to win, we foreclose the possibility that the Spirit is up to something for which we’re unprepared — and since we’re asking our neighbors to recognize that they’re in error, it behooves us to acknowledge that possibility for ourselves. That’s not because the truth is a matter of indifference, but precisely because the truth is greater than our determinations. In the words of Pope Paul that I’ve quoted before, “Truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.”

So, point one: we do best to make room for the Spirit’s power to convince by forgoing flat claims about the Bible, asserting unverifiable justifications (whether in the name of the Spirit or of one’s feelings), recognizing that we all are subject to error, offering clearly-articulated reasons rather than just name-dropping, and by showing respect to our colleagues.

Point two: Difference is not the problem. Divergent interpretations are part of God’s generous provision for a varied humanity. That does not mean that anything goes, that all are equal, that differences don’t matter (I remember emphasizing with particular vigor the pain that claims about theological particulars “not mattering” give me). First of all, we need to recognize that difference has always inhabited biblical interpretation, and for generations the doctors of the church were entirely comfortable with that. [Added later: Hans Dieter Betz and W.D. Davies and Ulrich Luz and A.J. Levine disagree about how best to interpret Matthew, but the church doesn’t call a conference to cope with that.] Difference won’t go away, and we shouldn’t want it to. Rather, we need to distinguish between differences that contribute to the harmony of truth (on one hand — not that truth itself is plural, but that the unity of truth is constituted by harmoniously-ordered differences), and differences that disrupt, deflect, distract from the truth (on the other). In other words, we need to make clear how the different elements of the truth hang together — and why certain claims don’t belong to the truth.

The “difference is okay” point coheres with the point about “no flat claims” point, as both of them drive people who care about one another to give reasons for their interpretive proposals.

We Interrupt This Disquisition

Tom has extended experience with FEMA, in Florida, last year. So whereas my outrage at the media reports (NPR, Washington Post) describing the National Guard’s ice-hearted disregard for the chaotic, befouled, dangerous misery of the evacuees in the Ernest Morial Convention Center derives from a fundamental sense of human decency — Tom speaks from the bitter aftertaste of his own sips of the poisonous draught force-fed the desperate residents of New Orleans.

Micahel Chertoff, August 31: “I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don’t have food and water.”

Michael Brown September 2 [?]: “I think it was yesterday morning when we first found out about [the Conference Center]. We were just as surprised as everybody else. We didn’t know that the city had used that as a staging area.”

Oh, and this.

On Hermeneutics and Disagreement, Part One

A lot of what I said last Wednesday drew on arguments I’ve made before in more technical, less theological language. I didn’t come up with a whole new outlook for the occasion. Roughly summarizing, this is the first part of what I said.

I don’t want to persuade anybody of any particular biblical interpretation today. In fact, for today’s purposes, I want to strengthen even those interpretations with which I disagree, because my assignment is not to arm-twist anyone into thinking this or that, but to help clarify the grounds on which we can exercise our best interpretive judgment.

I try to frame the task this way: How can we best cooperate with the work of the Spirit? We know that he Spirit can accomplish whatever God wills; we can’t stop God. But we may, and sometimes do, resist and impede the Spirit rather than cooperating with the Spirit, and today I want to help us dedicate our energies toward cooperating and not resisting.

How do we resist the Spirit’s work of reconciliation? Oftentimes we resist the Spirit by making flat absolute claims about what something means. We may be right, of course — I’m not suggesting that you aren’t right; I’m pointing out that simply saying “I’m right and you aren’t” (however true the claim may be) doesn’t advance the discussion, doesn’t give our sisters and brothers any particular reason to assent. The claim, “This means X” short-circuits an opportunity to learn; the claim, “The reason I say ‘This means X’ is that [da da da da da da da]” gives us something to work with, helps us to see the basis for an interpretive claim. When we dig our heels in and say only, “I’m right and that ends it,” we give the Spirit less to work with in convincing our interlocutors that they should change their minds.

We impede the Spirit by introducing claims that others can’t examine or test. When we say, “The Spirit is doing a new thing here,” well, who’s to say? People over here think so, people over there don’t. That’s not evidence in an argument, it’s another flat claim — but it raises the stakes by introducing the idea that some people recognize the Spirit at work where other benighted souls don’t. In the context of a discussion, an exploration of how we should interpret the Bible, I find such claims insulting and presumptuous.

We impede the Spirit if we admit of no possibility that we may be wrong. I frequently cite Article 19 of the Articles of Religion: “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” If the Church is susceptible to error even in matters of the faith, then all the more each of us must be ready to consider the possibility that our favored interpretation may be erroneous. I’m not saying anyone specific is wrong; I’m simply saying that if we refuse to admit the possibility that we’re as fallible as the Churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, that we give the Holy Spirit less to work with.

This is a hard one: if we simply pick interpreters based on their proposing readings that throw the names of our favored interpreters at one another, we aren’t advancing the work of the Spirit. We can help others understand our arguments if we explain the basis of what we propose, and we can strengthen those claims by associating them with recognizable authorities — but our authorities aren’t intrinsically more authoritative than their authorities (they don’t deliberately seek out inferior scholars, or less admirable theologians; once we get past the initial invocation of reputable witnesses, we need to let go (respectfully) of them. The game of “my hero is a greater scholar than your scholar” doesn’t facilitate the Spirit’s mission of bringing us to the mind of Christ. Yes, you have favorite expert interpreters who propound good arguments for your position, but we have favorite expert interpreters who propound good arguments for our position. There’s no disinterested point from which to ascertain that one person’s favorite has formed a stronger argument than another’s (if we could tell, we wouldn’t opt for the weaker side).[*]

Finally, I suggest that we impede the work of the Spirit when we ascribe others’ positions to motives less worthy than our own. When we arrive at our interpretations on the basis of high-minded, objective reflection, and explain our neighbors’ interpretations as the ideologically-determined, morally-compromised (or “bigoted”) capitulation to mortal frailty, we give these neighbors no reason to see matters any other way. We can make room for the Spirit by accounting our adversaries every bit as intelligent and clear-sighted as we, or we can resist the Spirit by abusing and insulting our sisters and brothers.

I’ll continue tomorrow (before or after Hope and Andrew’s wedding. This is just one part of the broader case I made to my hosts in Northern Indiana.

[*Later: I remember now that at this point, we had the occasion to emphasize that expert scholarly opinion can certainly shed precious light on interpretive truth, but it can’t claim to determine interpretive truth. For one thing, the best conclusions of interpreters keep changing — and the conclusion that seems not to have changed for so long as to constitute a fixed point of orientation may be the premise most likely to be changed, refined, reversed tomorrow. Further, the whole industrial structure of biblical scholarship depends on lack of consensus — we can practically guarantee that there’s hardly any interpretation so bizarre that some credentialed biblical scholar hasn’t propounded it. There are defensible (if tenuous) biblical reasons for any of the biblical interpretations prominent enough to trouble the church. Most important, though, the Spirit about whom I’m making so big a deal here doesn’t depend on technical expertise or academic credentials. The people of God have been interpreting Scripture wisely and truly (and sometimes unwisely and falsely) for centuries before the advent of what counts nowadays as academic expertise — and any account of interpretive truth must take into account, or more precisely depends for its credibility on, the saints who have handed along to us the Scriptures and the interpretive traditions in which we stand.]


I really wiped myself out yesterday — more of an outlay of energy than I had guessed — and I spent today mostly gathering myself to re-enter life at school, doing errands with the inimitable Pip, and taking a very restorative nap.

One odd element of today was the arrival of my copy of the French collection of interpretive essays that includes a piece I wrote about a year and a half ago. It had been translated, of course, but also re-titled (I thought I’d provided a snappy title that would do as well in French as in English, so that was a bit of a disappointment) and re-edited for structure! I didn’t see any major disruption of my argument, but until it sank home I was staring blankly at the first few pages asking myself, “I didn’t write it that way, did I?” I also had a hard time reading the French and figuring out whether the translator had made me sound more like myself or him — but it’s been so long since I wrote any extended prose in French that there’s not really a “myself” to have a particular style.

The nap was really good, though.

I’ll try to cobble together a condensed version of my South Bend talk tomorrow. That’ll be a good discipline, plus it will enable me to avoid working on the wedding disquisition sermon homily aphorism.

How Many? When?

Today involved several surprises. The first was that I was still in bed at 6:27 AM, when I thought I had set the alarm for 6:00 (I had started the radio a few minutes before the alarm was supposed to go off; the alarm was set to “radio”; hence, there was no change to hear when alarm-time came). Not a big deal — I hustled through my shower, gathered my notes and supplies, and sprinted to the car.

The second was that I hadn’t put my clergy collar on. Luckily, I noticed before I had driven more than a few blocks.

The third was that three times as many people showed up for clergy day as I had been told to hope for (four times as many as I8’d been told to expect). That sorta shot my “small seminar-like discussion” premise to pieces. (I’m leaving out the cavernous pothole I hit on Lake Shore Drive. That was the next surprise, but really, I should have expected potholes on Lake Shore.)

The fourth was that once I got rolling, I had way more material to work with than I had time to squeeze it into. I was surprised; Jane was not.

The fifth was that the whole day went much better than I expected (especially better than I expected when I saw how many more people showed up than I was prepared for). They had invited me down to talk about Biblical Hermeneutics in light to present ecclesiastical stresses, so I tried to talk about how we all might think through our disagreements in ways that made room for the Holy Spirit most easily to bring about clarity and reconciliation. That entails acknowledging that difference in interpretation is not an intrinsic problem, and if we talk as though difference were intrinsically problematic, we impede the work of reconciliation. Second, I urged us not to just invoke the name of an admired authority figure who says what we like; that amounts only to choosing up dodge ball teams, not really to giving reasons for our hope. There are card-carrying experts who propose all sorts of silly ideas about the New Testament; invoking the name of an author whose work you like doesn’t advance a mutual exploration of contested ideas. Third, I proposed that patience — uncomfortable though it be — provides us the surest way of ascertaining the Spirit’s guidance. (Bishop Little threw me a hanging curve on that one by referring to the Nicene Creed; that gave me the chance to point out that the creed we call Nicene wasn’t simply the product of the first Ecumenical Council, but it preceded a widespread relapse into Arianism, all of which provoked an extended process of deliberation and negotiation at the end of which the church devised the Nicene-Constantipolitan Creed. Plenty of ardent defenders of Nicene theology died before they had the chance to see their arguments vindicated. Patience.)

Then we had a mass (worship often stirs in me the spirit of Ernie Banks, so that I want to burst out “Let’s pray two!”) and ate a delicious lunch that actually included a tasty vegetarian chili.

After lunch, I grasped the nettle and argued that “the literal sense” or “the plain sense” doesn’t solve hermeneutical problems. Partly, that’s an empirical observation. If we’ve gotten into an argument about things, it’s hardly ever because someone hadn’t noticed what certain expressions literally (or “plainly”) mean. It’s also partly a historical argument, since people like Thomas Aquinas argued that “the literal sense” itself engendered multiple meanings. The Doctors of the pre-Reformation Church generally saw multiplicity in interpretation as a good thing, and many taught that “the literal sense” was at least duple, if not multiply various. It’s perfectly fine to regard something as the literal meaning of a text, but our job in controversy is to explain why we regard it as the literal sense. I had a bunch more to say, too, but Pippa’s about to get out of choir and I have to hurry away.

But the big surprise was that it all went so very well, thanks to the patient and charitable participation of fifty or so wonderful Northern Indiana church leaders. Thanks!