I need to finish an essay by the end of the week. 5000 words discussing this quote from Gordon Fee:
(Hermeneutics is a fancy word for "interpretation".)
It still feels all messy (on the page as well as in my brain), but I'm way more interested in this topic than I thought I would be. It might prove to be some groundwork for my thesis. Who knows?
Anyway, the basic argument goes like this:
- Hermeneutics "must be" a community affair because every interpreter is affected by the community, culture, and tradition they come from.
- As Christian interpreters of Scripture, we are "indebted" to the church in history in that there have come before us a "great cloud of witnesses" who have been interpreting and living the Scriptures ahead of us.
- To interpret inside the great Tradition of the church, then, is to take seriously the hermeneutical practices of those who have come before, especially the ancient church, where the New Testament was being written and the canon was being formalized.
- This does not mean we abandon sola scriptura, but simply that we have a better understanding of what it actually means.
- Since everyone interprets out of a "tradition" and according to "rules" it only makes sense to interpret out of the great Tradition of faithful Christians who have gone before, and using the "rules" of interpretation that were common to the early church fathers and the Reformers.
- This means that we can adopt the three basic principles of interpretation that were present in the early church fathers: (i) interpreting according to the "Rule of Faith" (the essentials of the gospel), (ii) interpreting through the lens of the wholeness of Scripture, (iii) interpreting with Christ at the center of the whole Bible.
That's not a refined outline, but you get the picture. What concerns or questions do you have when you think about taking seriously the interpretive practices of the early Christians?
The question that pops into my head is how this choice to align oneself with the ancient church’s practices relates to the historical-critical approaches that have dominated the church in the past century. Some of the ancient church’s allegorical interpretations of scripture seem pretty fanciful. Of course, there can be a similar tendency coming out of modern approaches — is there really a place in Palestine called the eye of the needle, where you had to unload camels to get through, and do you really need to know this to understand Jesus’ parable?
JR Rozko says
Ben, this is a great quote, outline, and promises to be a great paper. Hope you get to share it. As I have wrestled with this topic, I have been helped by folks like Hauerwas and James McClendon who emphasize the place of character and virtues within communities. Without that sort of dimension to the discussion, everyone’s opinion is taken on equal ground with no real way to differentiate between faithful and less-than-faithful interpretations and contextualizations of Scripture. Good luck.
Ben Sternke says
Thanks for your helpful comments.
The early church’s allegorical interpretation did sometimes seem to get out of hand 😉 but part of how we deal with tradition is receiving it as a dynamic, organic entity, not a rigid fixed point. So we can challenge as well as submit to tradition. And I love the connection you made with historical-critical interpretation, because many don’t seem to realize that it’s a “tradition” of interpretation, just like anything else. It can be helpful, but just like we can allegorize everything to death, we can also squeeze the life out of a passage by insisting that the point is verifying or disproving whether or not it really happened. (And I don’t think there actually is any reference to a gate called the “eye of the needle” – I’ve heard that’s a “scholarly” legend, one of those that everybody says but no one fact-checked…)
I have read some Hauerwas, and I agree that character is much more important in discerning interpretation than intelligence. Stephen Fowl’s Reading in Communion is what first made me aware of these kinds of discussions.
the only thing I would add is that church history is a global conversation going far beyond the western tradition of interpretation… often these other voices from the past still survive in the interpretations of the eastern bishops.
(If you’ll pardon my commenting on the first visit to your blog…)
First, there’s a bit of a circularity in all this. For instance, does the “great cloud of witnesses” influence how we interpret the passage about being surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses?
Second, scripture itself, from Genesis to Revelation, is assembled by the community of faith. It’s impossible to divorce the text from its community because community is its source.
Third, I think any discussion of a communal hermaneutic has to discuss the working of the Spirit. How does the Spirit work in community in ways that it does not work in the individual? Is it possible that in some cases the Spirit actually desires that there be no single accepted interpretation.
Well, those are the questions that came to mind.
Benjamin Sternke says
Thanks Nate – those are great questions, some of which I addressed in the paper and some I did not (can’t go over 5000 words!). Thanks for your comments!