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.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. One of the difficulties that moderns have reading patristic and early medieval Scripture interpreters is an insufficient knowledge of grammar a la Donatus et al.; we rarely recognize where a scheme or trope appears let alone the interpretive possibilities inherent in it. I’m glad folks are finally heading back to this stuff after lo these many years…

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