Friday, March 24, 2006

Argument Becoming More Clear

Another day of reading has brought some clarity to Hauerwas' position in my last post. He seems to be arguing against a kind of reductionistic approach to interpreting scripture which says that this reading is the reading. As mentioned earlier, he specifically takes on both the liberal historical-critical approach and the fundamentalist literalistic approach. He attacks both of these for their very Western democratic assumption that anyone, on their own and using some plain, common sense, should be able to arrive at what scripture definitively means.

To the historical-critical method, he says that it can tell us what scripture meant at a particular point in history, but not what it means in a contemporary context. This is because scripture continually speaks within the Church, and so new readings are brought to scripture as it is adapted to a new context.

The historical-critical method is often concerned with the intent of the author. But Hauerwas argues that when a piece of literature becomes, for a community of faith, scripture, then the author becomes merely one interpretive voice among many. While he uses this to discuss the way in which Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Barth, and many others enrich our reading of Paul (and their enrichment, he argues, is not diminished by the fact that Paul may not have agreed with what they bring to his text) this speaks directly to the mode of scriptural interpretation which I brought to my piece on whether Jeremiah speaks to abortion. In it I argued that since within Judaism at the time of Jeremiah there was no concept of the soul, Jeremiah could not possibly be arguing that an ensouled being is killed in an abortion. As such (and for a few other reasons) the text ought not be manipulated to speak to abortion.

Hauerwas, however, might argue that this overlooks the way in which that text is read and interpreted within a community of faith who considers abortion to be a heinous sin. In that community of faith it might be perfectly reasonable to interpret passages from Jeremiah as speaking out prophetically against abortion.

I see the value in recognizing that for scripture to be scripture it must continue to speak to the people of God. I see the need to continually reinterpret scripture to speak to contemporary situations. But I am also reminded of a great line by a Southern Baptist pastor I knew when I was the Methodist pastor in his small town. He was not a dispensationalist, and did not like the dispensationalist interpretations of Revelation, which he saw as sucking all of the meaning out of that book, reducing it to merely a handbook on the end of the world. He said: scripture can't mean what it never meant.

That reminds me of what my scripture professor in seminary, Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos, taught. In her lectures she constantly repeated this refrain: understanding the historical context of a passage of scripture allows us to set limits on the possible interpretations of that passage. We can't allow scripture to mean just any old thing. Historical-critical tools establish the interpretive parameters, ruling out ridiculous interpretations, even though those interpretations (such as the dispensationalist approach to Revelation) may well speak to a very broad segment of the Church.

I'm not sure that Hauerwas would argue against any of that. He acknowledges that the historical-critical approach is a useful tool. But he also points out its limitations. And one of its biggest limitations, he seems to argue, is that it tends to reduce scripture to a voice which is frozen in time, unable to speak in a contemporary setting. I'm just not sure that the historical-critical method is limited in that way. Perhaps Hauerwas and I are speaking of different things.

He argues primarily against interpreting scripture outside the community of faith; of reading scripture in isolation. While he argues against Christians doing this - establishing themselves as individuals isolated from and over and against the broader Christian tradition, this argument also speaks to the way in which non-Christians read the Bible.

Hauerwas argues that in order to understand and properly interpret the Biblical text, one needs to undergo moral and spiritual transformation. One also needs to, as part of this, be established within a community of faith, which acts as an interpretive agency. Reading the scriptural interpretations offered by the good folks at Debunking Christianity I can see why he might say this. To understand the scriptures one must hold some of the most basic assumptions of the community of faith which holds those scriptures to be scripture. If not, one is liable to see them as ridiculous, and as such offer ridiculous interpretations.

For instance, one person there said this:

I'm greatly honored to receive the invitation to join such an elite group of freethinkers. I don't have a fraction of the experience or credentials that the majority of the authors here hold, but I nevertheless hope that my writings will play some minor part in the deconversion of those who are starting to have doubts about the veracity of Christianity. I am by no means a theologian, biblical scholar, or former minister, but as I often like to point out, it doesn't take an expert to realize that donkeys can't talk.

That assumes that the story about Balaam's ass presents a talking donkey as normative. That assumes, in other words, that the story in question is to be taken literally as arguing that donkey's talk. Of course, read in any kind of context that isn't what the story is about at all. But reading as an individual, and assuming that an individual is capable of properly interpreting scripture in isolation, guided by a general education and some good common sense, this is a possible and ridiculous interpretation, and an interpretation which obviously refutes the veracity of the text.

That does not mean, I think, that in no cases can non-Christians shed some light on scripture, or help us to interpret it. But it does show how reading scripture in isolation from the community of faith for which that scripture is scripture can help one make silly interpretations which fail to understand the depth of the text, or the way in which it speaks to the community of faith.

I was going to add some insights into the interpretive errors of fundamentalists, but this is long enough, and I'm out of time to write this morning. Anyway, much of the last post was devoted to Hauerwas' argument against fundamentalist interpretations, which he says make similar errors to the ones above. They too interpret scripture as though an isolated individual, guided by common sense (though perhaps also by their understanding of the Holy Spirit), can come to the "plain meaning" of the text. It is plain to me that many "plain meanings" aren't what scripture means.

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