Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Making sense of the claim that "we do not interpret Scripture"

There is a claim that gets bandied around every now and then that (as preachers) 'we do not interpret Scripture'. Recently I heard it coupled with the claim that 'there is nothing cultural in the Bible... except headscarves in 1 Corinthians'
It comes from an understandable unease with modern historical criticism that places the reader at an uncrossable cultural distance to the text of the Scriptures.

Robert Jenson has (in my opinion) a good discussion of this in his Systematic Theology.
Quoting Ebling, he notes
"Within Christianity's construal of reality as history, discovery that Paul in his time and place did not necessarily think or experience what I am in my time and place presuppose everyone must is a necessary first step of his authority over me. Paul cannot enrich my apprehension of the gospel so long as I presume his apprehension and mine must obviously be the same" (Sys Theol Vol 2, 278)

Yet Jenson recognizes the crisis this causes.
If we actually pay attention to a texts meaning within it's own historical and cultural space, how do we then let it speak today.
"Ironically, what usually happens is that preachers and teachers are defeated by such questions and relapse to whatever moralistic or theological platitudes they would have proclaimed anyway" (279)
and yet, and this is where Jenson is on to something
"Whatever hermeneutical gaps may need to be dealt with in the course of the church's biblical exegesis, there is no historical distance between the community in which the Bible appeared and the Church that now seeks to understand the Bible, because they are the same community"

"The error of almost all modern biblical exegesis is a subliminal assumption that the church in and for which Matthew and Paul wrote...and the church in which we now read what they produced are historically distant from each other"
"Past and present do not need to be bridged before understanding can begin, since they are always already mediated by the continuity of the community's language and discourse"

"Those who interpret Scripture in and for the church are compelled to keep trying to say what it says, and by the mere act claim that Scripture does say something to us; the struggle itself is the hermeneutical principle. Bishops and parish presbyters and scholars in their service are the ones whose labor to read the text honestly and faithfully, and whose assumption of the labor this means in their office, will maintain the authority of Scripture or whose failure to do so will undercut it. The old-protestant doctrine of Scripture gave it a second essential predicate: it is "Perspicuous", by which they did not mean it contains no obscurities or can be understood without effort but that the effort need not finally be repeated" (280, bold mine)

This account obviously shares some affinity with those who claim 'we do not interpret scripture'. It shares an uneasiness with modern hermeneutical distance. But it does so without courting the danger of saying the Bible is obvious, that it requires nothing of us, that it is somehow immediately available, and also avoids the ridiculous claim that 'there is nothing cultural in the Bible' (as though God had somehow blessed/cursed this magical age by erasing the possibility of 'culture')

"The historical distances with which interpretation must indeed reckon and of which historical-critical labors must maintain the awareness are the distances between Moses and the later prophets, or between the prophets and Jesus, or between Jesus and Paul and Paul and us, but never between the story as a whole and us, never between the biblical community as a whole and the present church"(281)

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