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.

2 thoughts on “On Hermeneutics and Disagreement, Part Four

  1. In the midst of the latest round of controversies, I have been trying to figure out why the Nigerians chose the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as an “instrument of unity” (I think this is now the right term). Reading the early Lambeth Resolutions, I discovered this bon mot in the Encyclical Letter of 1878 at 1.11-12:

    Your Committee, believing that, next to oneness in “the faith once delivered to the saints,” communion in worship is the link which most firmly binds together bodies of Christian men, and remembering that the Book of Common Prayer, retained as it is, with some modifications, by all our Churches, has been one principal bond of union among them , desire to call attention to the fact that such communion in worship may be endangered by excessive diversities of ritual. They believe that the internal unity of the several Churches will help greatly to the union of these one with another. And, while they consider that such large elasticity in the forms of worship is desirable as will give wide scope to all legitimate expressions of devotional feeling, they would appeal, on the other hand, to the apostolic precept that “all things be done unto edifying,” and to the Catholic principle that order and obedience, even at the sacrifice of personal preferences and tastes, lie at the foundation of Christian unity, and are even essential to the successful maintainance of the faith.

    They cannot leave this subject without expressing an earnest hope that churchmen of all view, however varying, will recognise the duty of submitting themselves, for conscience’ sake, in matters ritual and ceremonial, to the authoritative judgements of that particular or national Church in which, by God’s providence, they may be placed; and that they will abstain from all that tends to estrangement or irritation, and will rather daily and fervently pray that the Holy Spirit may guide every member of the Church to “think and do always such things as be rightful,” and that he may unite us all in that brotherly charity which is “the very bond of peace and of all virtues.”

    (emphasis mine)

    I think this shores up your point about Common Prayer quite nicely.

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