Monday, September 23, 2013

Sense or Sensibility: Why Careful Interpretation is Indispensible

This has been a tough one to hone down to "Blog-Size", so I have decided to turn it into a series. There is so much to be dealt with in the church concerning BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION. It is the hinge upon which all things, i.e., our (the church's) authority to say anything to the world, turn. And yet I have seen some BAD, if not well-meaning, biblical interpretation from most sectors of the church. Throughout history different means of interpreting the Bible have arisen out of successive cultural mileus and philosophical substrata (see my post entitled "Enculturated Gospel: Get Used To It". Also see my page on this blog: "Culture Wars"). Most have given birth to lasting traditions, some of which still speak to us today. We have the soul-feeding , yet highly subjective allegorical and typological interpretations of Scripture from the Early Fathers. The Great Reformers  put the Old Testament in line as a one-two punch of the continuing revelation of God from announcing and presuming and prophesying a coming Christ to a realized, crystallized Jesus the Christ of the New Testament. The early "liberal" theologians gave us text-criticism in an attempt to give us the tools to find the plain meaning of the texts. We have the monastic tradition of Lectio Divina and Ignatian Prayer of Imagination  with scripture where one engages in interaction with a biblical scene as though  he or she were a participatory character.

In several sermons, I have used the analogy of those wonderful acetate transparencies one finds in anatomy books. The first page, super-imposed upon the successive ones, shows the flesh. The next page reveals, in situ beneath the flesh, sinew and bone. Beneath that, organs, and so on. As we approach a passage, the first layer may be to take the words as if you found them lying open on a coffee table. What do the words say, out of context, in plain English? The next layer might be to investigate the audience, the type of literature we have (genre), the original languages, the culture out of which these words arose, etc. A next layer might be to ask God what these words now say to us in the world in which we are rooted. You get the idea.

I am reminded of what one of my former Old Testament professors said: "At the end of the day, after all the interpretative work that you can bring to bear upon the scriptures, I don't want to get anymore out of the Bible than my grandmother did." I know what he meant. And I appreciate that he was trying to relieve of us the angst brought on by the sterility of the critical  "lab". After all the genre analysis, cultural studies, text-criticism, philological application, etc., he wanted us not to lose the ability to sit faithfully before the scriptures and to allow God to speak to us afresh--in the moment, via the Holy Spirit. I get it. And thankfully He does speak to us through those pages.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, we need to know more than our grandmothers did. There are those of us who hold the scriptures near and dear  as authoritative and formative, as well as the source of healing and hope for our very lives. The globe has pressed in upon grandma. We know more than she did. We have many, many more voices speaking on our desktops and in our phones. As culture changes rapidly, we are tempted to haul out those very Words as weapons of defense, rather than as words of life, Good News, peace and unity. Indeed, the Word of God (and the author to the Hebrews was talking about the Old Testament here!) is sharper than a two-edged sword, dividing between soul and spirit, joint and marrow. I am reminded of Hecuba of Troy: "He who has great power must use it wisely." And so we must take great care not to slice unnecessarily someone's soul over a matter of biblical interpretation that we have not taken great, and I mean GREAT, care to understand in its true embedded meaning, as well as its freshness for today. A great sword in the hands of a child (and there are many theological "children" out there) can do indiscriminate and permanent damage.

Among our greatest needs in the church today, as in every generation, is to understand the relationship to us of well over half of what we call our Bible (the Old Testament), what it has to say, if anything, to the New Testament, and vice versa, and to our world.

John Bright (dec), Professor of Hebrew and Interpretation of the Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary, wrote in his book, The Authority of the Old Testament: "The Old Testament is different [from the New] in that it was not in the first instance a document of the church at all: it was not written by Christians for Christians. The more seriously we take it in its plain meaning, the more clearly we see that it is the document of a religion (genetically) related to our own, yet not precesely the same as our own. It is a document of the faith of old Israel, and only secondarily a document of the church. Its message is not of and by itself a Christian message. [!] ( Emphasis mine) Yet we must preach a Christian message from it...if we are to use it in the pulpit at all." (p.182 1975 Baker edition) This seems obvious to me, but p;ease understand something; this makes many Christians uncomfortable. "What do you mean, 'Its message is not of and by itself a Christian message?'" And yet, most Christians I know, even the most faithful among us, do not follow most of  Hebrew Law. Children often expose the truth: "Mommy, why did God kill that guy that tried to keep the ark from falling off the cart? He was just trying to help!" (2 Samuel 6:6-11) This story of retribution for disobedience of the rules concerning who could and who couldn't touch the ark is certainly not, at least on the surface, a message of grace and mercy. "The anger of God broke out upon Uzzah."

Bright goes on to explain that to confront our congregations with the demands and promises of Israel's faith is to impose upon them a perspective that is not, and cannot be, our own. We have to see it as a document that looks for a Christ, but doesn't announce Him. "How is this B.C. text to be preached as a word to the church without distorting its meaning?" he asks.

I'm afraid that this question is not explored with as much diligence as it should be these days. Our failure to grapple with this question with honest intellect, as well as mature spirituality, has crippled the church's ability to be confident as a transformative, as well as a pastoral and redemptive presence in the world. We are to be the world's interpreter of this Word for our time. But once again, our failure to consider history and the faithful attempts of others long gone who interpreted and wrestled honestly with all of scripture, Old and New, and who applied a new hermeneutic for a new generation has kept us from being faithfully relevant to the world in which we now live. They didn't always get it right, and some paid the price of being branded "heretical", but a good study of what went right, as well as what went wrong in those interpretive efforts can be of infinite value, especially when our culture is morphing at light speed.

Marcion, the 2nd century heretic, rejected the Old Testament out-of-hand as being a document about a different god (a vindictive demi-urge) than the New Testament God who is Christ, the "perfect revealer" of the "True God". The Marcionite tendency is alive and well today, although most people don't think of Marcion. Many do not even know who he was. But they do the same thing he did by ignoring the Old Testament, passing it off as irrelevent and lacking in the focus and clarity of love and grace that we find in Jesus of the "new commandment". A hard thing it was indeed to live under YHWH's Law. As written, it was onerus, detailed to the nth degree, and impossible to keep. And yet, He loved them, and called them precious and chosen. In setting before them life and death, He was like the mother lion teaching her cubs: "It is cruel out in the world. If you don't follow me explicitly, death will surely catch you." In the struggles of old Israel, we see our problem. It is a universal one: We can't do it. Period. Anyway, I am digressing.

The irony I see is that while progressive and conservative alike become Marcionite in our chosen dismissals of great swaths of Old Testament Scripture, we only differ in what we dismiss, because we all dismiss much of it in our way. Even fundamentalists and biblical literalists do. We all often cherry-pick the Scriptures to suit our bent. And that's not kosher. Nor is it responsible toward those to whom we preach or give witness. Perhaps it should be more like NFL replay rules. Without definitive and compelling video evidence to the contrary, the play should stand as called on the field by Jesus: "The first and greatest commandment is this, that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And the second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Everything else being a matter of interpretion, we should defer to Love and try to see it through that lens. And yet, in order to do this accurately, and in order to be faithful to the Old Testament (and also, therefore, more faithful to the New) we MUST understand the plain sense it stood then. Or else we are too tempted to play the role of "part-time Marcionites."

Which is the more important? Understanding and exposing moral errors as they read nakedly in Scripture? Or applying imaginative, empathic responses to the moral ambiguity of each age in the hopes of winning with Grace those whom we would otherwise surely turn away? Sense? Or Sensibility? The Old Testament itself is one of the most morally ambiguous collections of writings in all of human history.

Chris Huff +

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