Saturday, September 16, 2006

Reading the Bible, Part II

Ordinary Time

What follows is my response to the kind and helpful comments from the last post. It got a little long, so I thought this would be better...

I think what I'm trying to draw out in the paragraph I've posted is that attempts to interpret a text that begin and end with the question, "What did the author mean to say?" are insufficient. To a degree, the text says what it says, and what it means is what I make up - even if I'm using the best methods of historical criticism and or being very pious and looking for a "plain meaning" in order discern authorial intent.

My point is that either way, the dominant hermeneutic is a reconstruction of Paul. Taking a cue from Adam, I mean that what really happens (instead of his more straightforward and optimistic formula), Author A authors Text X about situation Z and his audience discern significance Y. Historical criticism must try to reconstruct sitation Z (since Author A isn't interested in rehashing what both he and the audience knew) as well as any changes made to Text X, and from reconstruction of Z try to figure out the significance Y that the first hearers attributed to the text, and while we're at it, try to figure out what kind of fellow Author A really was. Through careful reading and reconstruction of all these things, the historical critic hopes to say that in it's original context, Text X had significance Y, and "whatever you guys think you can do with that, it's your business!" We must also remember that the critic assumes it's possible to nail this stuff down. I don't think it is.

(I think Rob's point is well made, that there can be a difference between the historical meaning of the text and the intent of the author - we can't always "get there from here"! Rob, am I reading you correctly? Or perhaps the better question is, reading you as you intended... :0)

The fundamentalist or Protestant reader, as Peregrinator points out, assumes and immediacy between the ancient and contemporary readings of the text. That reader assumes that a "plain reading" of the text will surrender its significance, and along with it both the intent of the author and the interpretation of the original hearers.

And then they will, as Adam suggests, "author A's meaning X can be legitimately said to have significance Y with respect to some contemporary situation Z just in case it is reasonable to assume that, given X, A would adopt Y if he were to confront Z." Because to them, it is always "reasonable to assume." When those steps are taken, Christian teaching and the reading of the present community is being determined by a reconstruction of the author.

Therefore, both the methodologically agnostic historical critical reader and the dedicate Protestant create (more or less) careful reconstructions of the author and then trust them when reading and interpreting the text - and often don't appreciate it when the model is questioned.

And this is all only in terms of the apparent theology of the biblical writers - it's about what those writers apparently thought was theologically true based upon our readings of the text. It's not like we can talk to them. What about what is theologically true, never mind what Paul or Luke or Matthew might have said about any of it? The historical critic will be adamant that it's none of his business (as Asher always says, theology is crap!), while the fundamentalist will say that only things (he's been taught to believe) that are laid down in the text can be theologically true.

James, this might sufficiently clarify my point, but come back at me if it doesn't.

This is why I think that canonical criticism has some important things to say: in a nutshell, that the Bible means what the Church says it means. Since we don't have direct access to what "God" says it means, our options seem to be to say that the Bible
  1. meant what the historical critic says it meant
  2. means what the lone religious intepreter says it means, more or less based on his or her reconstruction of Paul (or whomever)
  3. means what the Church says it means.
Canonical criticism acknowledges that the documents fit together in a canon, as Scripture. The point of the canon is to guide the life of the Church, both when they were written and still when they were canonized. In Robert Jenson's phrase, canonization was like a "republication" for the Church of the future. In the same way that you have to ask how the original hearers would have heard when you're trying to get at the historical meaning of the text, it is also legitimate to let the present hearing of the Church determine meaning here and now.

I'm not doing justice to the position, but I think I'd like your input from this point. To me it means that I don't have to do foolproof deductive and historical work to figure out what the biblical texts once and for all, "objectively" mean (because I don't think that's possible anyway), but rather, with the rest of the Church, try to listen faithfully to God speaking to the Church through the text and cooperate with his ordering of our life for the salvation of ourselves and the whole world.


James Church said...

I understand what you are saying now- and I think peregrinator is correct you should read R.R. Reno's 'Church in Ruins'. I agree with the peregrinator the reformation has given us protestants one enormous headache and I agree with you that cannonical criticism seems to be the only alternative to several divergent interpretations whether they are constructed with the aid of historical or confessional approaches (which are often the same thing except one is led by a literal reading of the text and the other by our reconstruction of the events).

Anonymous said...

One question: Who's on first? What's on second? Third base!

Seriously, Good stuff my friend!

Grace & Peace,


stc said...

You build a consistent case up until the final paragraph, when you seem to take a great leap of faith.

Most of the post seems to argue that we can't know what the text says. But then, in your final paragraph, you suggest it's legitimate just to trust the Church's interpretation of the text. That's quite a leap over quite a ditch.

In my view, the meaning of the text is not nearly as obscure as critical scholars tend to think. For example, I think Paul turned two thumbs down (how Freudian is that metaphor?) on homosexuality, notwithstanding some heroic attempts to explain his meaning away.

How one applies Paul's teaching about homosexuality (I would speak of application rather than Adam's word, significance) in the contemporary situation is more open to debate. Here we may want to take historical considerations into account, and ask how Paul arrived at that position, rather than assume his position must carry over directly to contemporary society.

I must have misunderstood your first post. I thought you were arguing that Christians of both stripes (inerrantists vs. the critical reader) in effect engaged in the same practice.

Inerrantists understand that they must derive principles from the text (e.g. in the case of abortion) in order to act with biblical authority in the contemporary world. Critical readers are doing something similar, even though the rationale for it is very different.

I thought that's what you were saying, and it's an argument worth pursuing. But apparently I was engaging in eisegesis.

Kyle said...

I must have misunderstood your first post. I thought you were arguing that Christians of both stripes (inerrantists vs. the critical reader) in effect engaged in the same practice.

No, that's what I thought I was doing, too. :0) I moved on from that to make an argument supporting canonical criticism.

And I guess there's a question of what kind of "force" to put into the phrase "can't know what the text says."

I think what the text says is pretty plain, but what it "means" is not so plain. Whose meaning are we after, here? Whose interpretation, whose application of the text ought to be trusted, if not that of the Church?

I don't assume that the academy is chock full of biblical scholars who aren't grounded in the life of the Church. I think critical reading with all that entails is absolutely indispensible for the Church's attempts to live faithfully. If I didn't I wouldn't hardly be taking a degree, would I?

I don't know what it sounds like to you, but I'm arguing against a modernist reading of texts being the last word on any interpretation.

rawbbie said...

There's somethings in the Bible that are pretty clear without looking into the scripture too hard. Those should be and usually are the foundations of faith. Things like God's oneness despite his incarnation, our ability and our need to worship this God. The existance of sin and a means of salvation. How all this works out is a matter of looking into the scriptures and people often don't find agreement in these minute things. And that's what they are right? Minute?

Kyle said...

Weeeell, it all depends.

I'm reading a stack of books right now that talk about utter cohesion of what we would call religion and politics in the Roman world. If we suddenly realize that the political order (any order!) is much more spiritual than we've learned to believe, and that the gospel is far more political than anybody's saying, that's a pretty big deal. It's also a question that's only been asked in the last three decades. It's about recovering something that's always been true, but has been obscured for many hundreds of years.

Many people think their reading on the "basics" is about personal salvation for a happy afterlife.

And the "New Perspective on Paul"? Essentially taking off our Reformation, anti-Jewish glasses.