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.]

7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. These are good points, AKMA, and the final one in particular rings a lot of bells for me.

    While I agree with you in theory, in practice I have a hard time acknowleding the theological legitimacy of positions or interpretations I find actively offensive (“women are meant to be subservient to men because of thus-and-so in Genesis,” or “gay people are damned because of this verse of Leviticus here,” to name the two most obvious examples.) I agree with you that there’s no real room for dialogue when those who hold one interpretation believe that those who hold an opposite interpretation are bigots, but it’s not always easy to offer legitimacy to a viewpoint that diminishes or demonizes oneself.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this.

  2. Much to ponder here, AKMA. Thank you. Some of my work and study touches on current Anglican Communion issues– I think I’ll be coming back to this post often.

  3. Reading this while listening to Werner Vinge at the front of the room. Your post is way more uplifting and I’m reminded of standing around the piano singing…
    “Every time I feel the spirit
    Deep within my heart
    I will pray…”

  4. These are good ground rules for interpretation. You seem to be asking for a certain generosity of spirit hard to come by in either Church or Academy… It’s still worth asking for, though. 🙂

  5. Let’s forget not only those who would call those they disagree with “bigots” but those who would call those they disagree with “unorthodox” or assume a lack of sincere faithfulness because they approve a certain development often after hard study and prayer. Emphasizing only “bigot” over the opposite tack is unhelpful as it makes clear that none of us are objective. Only G-d can see with a G-d’seye view on the world, and even then it’s relational. That our enterprise in disagreement is intersubjective.

    What of the sense in all of this we’re dealing with people, not issues.

  6. FWIW, *Christopher, I thought he was fair in speaking to both the liberal and conservative sides’ favorite strategies of shutting conversations down.

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