Interpretation, Finality, Church, Academy — Again

I just finished a long response to colleagues on a subcommittee of a task force of a working group of a project of a Cabinet, which in the normal course of events would go unseen except by a dozen other people. Rather than consign the response to oblivion, I thought I’d drop it here (edited in places, to make it more general); I’ll put the bulk of the letter in a “Continue Reading” link, leaving just the first paragraph above the figurative fold.


In response to the materials you sent: I note particular emphasis on two points: One, the perception that we can arrive at definitive interpretations of the Bible, such that we have them sorted; and two, the perception that a hermeneutical gap separates the academy and the pew.



Relative to the first, I venture to submit that “finality” is not a datum we ever observe in the field of interpretation. Where we seem to attain finality, we generally do so by excluding interpretations that would disrupt our posited finality. These disruptive interpretations come from sources that don’t count, fro conspiracy theorists or misguided autodidacts or loud-voiced ignoramuses. They come, perhaps, from fundamentalists or heretics (and centuries ago we Christians might have added “Jews” and “infidels” and “free-thinkers” to the list, though we have more recently learned to value interpretations from Judaism and from the areligious academy).

We usually speak and write, though, as if we actually had attained the finality that a conspectus of the history and breadth of biblical interpretations teaches us that we haven’t. One can’t, without tiresome repetitiousness, always qualify one’s interpretations by saying “so far as we know” or “as today’s knowledge permits” or “for the time being”.
Still, if our rhetoric in casual discussion expresses at least an aspiration to finality, we ought not be surprised when our listeners and readers infer finality from what we teach. We should in fact expect them to, all the more so when under the stress of controversy, we intensify the claims to certainty of our interpretive ventures over against the erroneous versions proposed by others. So interpreters couch their claims in a rhetoric of overstated finality, and audiences then come to expect interpreters to deliver that finality.
In other words, although interpretation is a long process (an endless process, speaking in human terms), the interpretive habitat in which we participate produces the impression of finality as a predictable result of our hermeneutical discourse. “Provisional” hermeneutical confidence doesn’t suffice to sustain our interpretive claims in this sort of interpretive ecology, so our rhetoric asserts the finality that we can’t supply. We write cheques on the Bank of Finality that our accounts cannot honour.
But this is a systemic problem; we can’t expect to ratchet down the (implicit and) explicit claims to interpretive authority as long as audiences, including especially the audiences that distribute temporal rewards such as publication, advancement, and remuneration, expect them to deliver finality. No party seems likely to deflate its rhetoric of certainty, so we may anticipate that the problem of divergence between a popular expectation of interpretive finality and the historical evidence that all interpretation always proceeds by way of refinement, adjustment, and sometimes even reversal will persist for the foreseeable future. No one’s immediate interests are served by insisting on interpretive provisionality.
Relative to the discrepancy between academic and vernacular interpretation, we ought to acknowledge from the outset that academic interpreters draw on a richer, more extensive fund of interpretive resources. To speak with brutal candour, in the aggregate biblical scholars know more and know better what to make of biblical texts. (That does not, of course, mean that particular non-technical interpreters cannot outshine most academics for interpretive wisdom, nor that particular highly-trained interpreters are necessarily better at interpretation than less-thoroughly-instructed others. It simply means that most of the time, the odds of a sound interpretation are better with an interpreter who (for instance) knows the relevant languages, history, and cultures.) Whatever one thinks of such a claim, it ought not be scandalous; we devote long intervals of time and large sums of money to education in order to produce exactly this effect. Under optimal circumstances, everyone would nod and agree: “That’s why we set them to teaching, and endow them with libraries, and why we attend to their teachings”.
So the problem of a gap between academy and pew seems more likely to me to be the convergence of a problem of communication (on one hand) and of congregational education (on the other). As to the first, I encounter a great many academics who express themselves murkily, and who put no extra effort into enhancing their students’ capacity to communicate. In those cases, we have ample reason to expect that lucid communication not be a frequent outcome of advanced theological education. The lecturer’s ideas will have been awkwardly framed, making it less likely that a student will grasp them firmly and clearly; and the student will have recognised no incentive to communicate clearly, may even model her or his prose on that of the high-flown lecturer, and will thus have a diminished chance of apprehending and articulating clear theological and interpretive ideas.
As to the second problem, several aetiologies come to mind. Perhaps the minister and congregation exemplify the sort of theological inquirer who wants not so much to learn about the Bible and theology as to find authority figures who will reaffirm the congregation’s predispositions. Perhaps the clergy leader feels insecure about his or her own intellect, and so arranges the teaching ministry of the congregation so as to perpetuate their dependence on their ordained leader. Perhaps theological education seems less important to the congregation and minister than some other form of activity. Perhaps education risks stirring up conflict, or undesirable independent thinking. Whatever the cause, education for all the people of God will always tend to minimise the perception and effects of a problematic gap. But we should not think that having abundant highly theologically-literate clergy (were that ever the case) itself constitutes a problem; rather, we should emphasise to one another and to our students the paramount importance of understanding ideas well enough to be able to communicate them clearly, and to build and sustain a congregation’s trust that the leader isn’t patronising them, or leading them by the nose, or manipulating them.
(And after that I concluded the response letter.)

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