Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon

Today, Gaunilo was writing on the topic of Evangelicalism, and raised an issue for me that has been rolling around in the back of my mind for a while. Looking back on his post I realised that what I had to say did not flow directly from what he said, but was related only tangentially. So rather than comment there, I decided to post here.

This issue is this: evangelical Christianity (in fact, American religion generally) is deeply suspicious of structure and authority. Deep dualisms abound, like spirituality versus religion, faith versus dogma, conscience versus creed, scripture versus tradition, internal versus external, and substance versus form, all in service to the anti-authoritarian axiom. (The latter term in each of these dualities flows out of a community, whereas the former is proper to the individual.)

And yet every movement, even one which is anti-authority and anti-structure, needs some cohesion, some authority, to continue existing. American evangelicalism is a fascinating mix of Reformed Orthodoxy and warm-hearted pietism, mixed with American pragmatism and (often) business and marketing sensibilities. But the thing that holds it all together is the Bible; it's the only authority they will acknowledge.

So what does it mean when a movement is suspicious of external authority and against visible structure and yet are united on ascribing authority to a sacred book?

It would seem a quandary, especially to the degree that one emphasizes individual conscience in interpreting Scripture. What sort of governor can be placed on the vagaries and idiosyncracies of 'individual interpretation'? And how can that governor, that structure (stricture?) of interpretation itself be acknowledged, without bringing in an external (non-textual) authority?

I'm not convinced it has been done successfully. But it has been tried in three steps, in an attempt to make authority proceed straightforwardly from the text. First, there is an insistence that the Scripture is perspicuous, that it is clear in all that it intends to say. Second, it is maintained that Scripture is not only clear, but univocal: it means one thing, and only one thing. Third, it locates that univocity in the mind and intention of the original writer. So therefore, to grasp and live under the authority of Scripture, one must hear the clear and univocal meaning of the text, which flows from the mind and intention of the author. Anything less is attempting to resist obeying God.

The problem is that these are theological claims masquerading as textual claims.

Texts -- at least the ones worth wrestling with -- are not perspicuous; they are multivocal, often embarrassingly so; and the author's intention, while important, never exhausts the meaning of the text, at least a Scriptural text. And it is notoriously, almost self-defeatingly* difficult to determine the intention of an author who is dead and gone and separated from us by centuries. Trying to approach the intention of such an author is like trying to walk to the horizon: you can make headway, but it remains far off.

(Excursus: This separation might not be so great with a more robust ecclesiology -- one which includes the communion of saints, for example. I heard for the first time this week a delightful anecdote about St. Thomas Aquinas, who when writing his Biblical commentaries, reached a section that tied him up in knots so that he couldn't make headway. A monk passed by Thomas' solitary cell one night to hear him conversing with three other voices! When the monk asked Thomas about it the next morning, he replied that he had reached the end of his rope trying to understand the text, and prayed for understanding. Whereupon who should appear to him but Saints Peter and Paul, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who laid it all out for him!)

So these are not textual claims but theological claims, along the lines of "God speaks, God speaks clearly, God speaks univocally, God speaks through these people," and so forth. This is not necessarily a problem, except that the claims themselves do not flow perspicuously and univocally from the intention of the authors of Scripture. Or as my favourite Regius Professor of Divinity puts it, "these doctrines of Scripture are not themselves Scriptural."

In other words, you can hold these doctrines, but not purely on the basis of Scripture -- it has to come from somewhere else. When you admit that much, the jig is up, because it involves you in theories of the church's teaching authority, or the status of tradition, or the conclusions of reason, and so forth. Not a bad place to be, in my estimation, but one that many evangelicals would be chagrined to find themselves in. (Not, of course, that I would claim that any of these -- authority, tradition, reason -- are simple, clear or univocal either.)

If one doubts that the Scriptures are less than perspicuous and univocal, then witness the amazing profusion of Biblical commentary, (even the need for Biblical commentary in itself adverts to the need for explanation and elaboration) which only proliferates more today than ever, evangelicals being among the forefront. If the Scripture were univocal and perspicacious, then it would seem that the need would be for one person, once, to express the Bible's timeless meaning and then for it to be dusted and done. Rather like Peter Lombard's Sentences, we would just have one book that did it all.

Part of the problem is that American evangelicals -- like almost all of us, myelf included embarrassingly often -- have drunk deeply at the wells of Enlightenment epistemology. (Even if the phrase is unfamiliar to you, the habits of thought will not be.) And so thoughts about authorial intention and hermeneutics (interpretation of texts) are foremost in the minds of these Bible scholars; they exegete the text to find the grammatical and historical-contextual meaning of what the author meant, and nail down a meaning of the text.

But I wonder if this is truly the best method. If indeed we believe the Scripture to be the 'trysting place' (to use David Fagerberg's suggestive phrase about the liturgy) between God and humanity, then doesn't it seem that rather than using a tool to pull apart the text, we might be better to approach it with prayer, love, humility, openness -- in short, with an attitude of worship? I do not mean to create my own dualism here, repeating the anti-intellectualism that I was just critiquing; there is no disjunction between rigourous exegesis and prayerful, worshipful engagement with the Scripture: but why does exegesis come first? Why might not God come first? Again, if the Bible is the trysting place between God and humans, then why should we be surprised to find many, many meanings, perhaps infinite meanings there -- one of which is the historical?

Perhaps there is a different way of thinking of the word exegesis. It is a verb from Greek, made up of two parts, ex, and ago, meaning more or less "to lead out". {I have been told by someone who knows that this parsing is incorrect (see comments) -- but I stand by my portrayal of the usual practice of exegesis, and the alternative I suggest; the image of 'leading out' is still useful, if not philologically faithful. -ed.} So when one does exegesis, one leads out the meaning from the text, as if one were leading a flock of sheep or a herd of cows. Usually, when this is done, it is a matter of putting all of the animals in the right pens and making sure that they are closed in and controlled, and that none escape. It could be considered a form of domination, but it might also just be a fearful caring that the text doesn't get out and hurt itself. But maybe that's not the best way to think of 'leading out' a text. Perhaps we are meant instead to open the pens, and lead them out into the open. In doing so, we may let the text lead us out, down into paths that we have never taken, willing to follow it wherever it might go, as far as it might go, all the while waiting to be met by God.

* What I mean here is that the practice of trying to determine the author's intention of this sort of text is so incredibly contested -- sometimes the same arguments can be mustered in diametrically opposed cases ('this letter is a clear example of the apostle Paul's writing style, seen through comparison with his other writings,' versus 'the author of this letter followed Paul's writing conventions a little too closely in trying to make this letter sound authentically Pauline, and it doesn't convince.').


Blogger AKMA said...

I hate to be pedantic, Jason, with relation to a post with which I’m generally so sympathetic — but “exegesis” does not derive from ex - ago. It’s from ex√™geomai, and its interpretive use carries the sense of “expound” or perhaps “narrate at length.”

Plenty of people do construe it as “leading-out,” and that contributes to the hermeneutical problems you astutely point out; just don’t blame the little Greek children for this one.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005 2:36:00 PM  
Blogger Thunder Jones said...

Strangely enough, however, American Evangelicals are not afraid or even hesitant about vesting authority in secular powers.

American Evangelicals turn out in hordes to vote for conservative politicians that make their "morality" legislation. This uneasiness about religious authority, which has led to a Free-Church structure, is a curious partner to their lack of worry about coersive legislation.

I don't get it. At one time I drank the Kool-Aid, but once you grow up and think about it, it becomes nonsensical.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005 4:41:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Wow, the esteemed AKMA! Feel free to chime in anytime -- especially to correct my cruddy Greek. Although, to be precise, I wasn't blaming the Greeks but contemporary exegetical practice. (I thought my more fanciful construction did better justice to the (wrong) sense of 'leading out'.) Pardon my howler. I am pleased to know -- my speculations aside -- that the semantic range of the term does generally support what I am saying here.

This is odd, I agree. Just today I ran across a book by Regina Schwartz which attempted to make some sense of this (on a broader scale than just evangelicals and the American government). Maybe I'll post something more about this later.

To anyone else:
Thanks for reading all this way! You are counterevidence to the claim that people don't read large blocks of text!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005 7:08:00 PM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...


Fantastic post. I'm completely in agreement (of course!) on the issues of authority and duplicitous hermeneutics. What I find especially interesting here is the suggestion of a hermeneutic done from the church - ruled by praxes of charity and catholicity rather than norms of literary reading that have a rather dubious history, post-modernly, of efficacy.

I've been interested by the richness and practice of patristic exegesis of late; granted the excesses of some allegorical interpretation, there still remains the fact the text had theological potentiality we have distanced ourselves from in the name of univocity.

I'm posting a tangential response to your tangent. Perhaps we'll be able to carry on the conversation in Philly!

Thursday, November 17, 2005 3:47:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Lee said...

I recently finished Stanley Hauerwas' Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible From Captivity to America, and his diagnosis is very much the same. The literalist/fundamentalist take on scripture is merely the other side of the same coin upon which the historical-critical method is based; they both assume that the the text can "speak for itself."

The error here, of course, is that the text of the Bible cannot be rightly interpreted outside of that people we call Church. Also, the text will never be able to substitute for the the Church, although we do take it very seriously.

For all the anti-tradition talk that I often find within the literalist view, what I find so ironic (and I'll admit deliciously so), is that sola scriptura is merely another tradition :)

"The problem is that these are theological claims masquerading as textual claims."

That bit was probably the most profound nugget of wisdom I've read in a while concerning this discussion. Thank you!



Thursday, November 17, 2005 8:14:00 PM  
Blogger Sarah Dylan Breuer said...

I agree with your post generally, but why say that there's only one historical meaning? I think the current generation of historians, having caught on in a mere 40 or so years to insights literary critics have been discussing, wouldn't say that, and even in the previous generation of historical scholarship people studying the gospels were catching on to how many different points of view are reflected in the text and its various reading communities.

In other words, historians aren't your bogey here, except those whose work is conditioned by presuppositions you criticize, such as that there one "true meaning" of biblical texts, and their colleagues are probably calling them on that already.

But yes, "sola scriptura" is a rather "unscriptural" movement, unless you're a Sadducee.

Friday, November 18, 2005 1:38:00 AM  
Blogger Thom said...

Personally, I think you all sound pretty self-satisfied.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005 7:06:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

I'm sorry you didn't choose to say more; your blog seems to indicate you might have more to say that would be thoughtful and helpful to the conversation.

I don't take self-satisfaction to ever be a good sign of anything, and I try to avoid it. Naturally, I fail at times. So help me, and perhaps the others, to see what you are indicating.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005 5:10:00 PM  

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