Alternative title: The Doctrine of Scripture – Part IV (Interpretation)
I once had a theology professor who told our class, “I don’t interpret the Bible. I take the text as it stands.” That’s like a soccer player saying he doesn’t kick the ball, he just scores goals. Ya know, there really ought to be a PhD revocation clause for making insanely idiotic statements that reveal a lack of elementary understanding of one’s discipline. A historian who claims it’s not important to read primary source documents? An archaeologist who doesn’t affirm excavation? Demoted! Anyway, if I’ve heard such comments made by actual, well, supposed theologians, you can imagine what I’ve heard laypersons say about the biblical texts’ clarity.
As far as conservatives go, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that Anglicans tend toward a bit more well-rounded perspective. (I suspect this is reflective of their tradition’s historical orientation and the value it has placed on education.) Still, a few minutes clicking around the Anglican blogosphere reveals some pretty simplistic declarations about the perspicuity of Scripture, especially amidst the Anglican/Episcopal divide. One well-known Anglican blogger recently chided, “At the end of the day it comse down to this. Do we take the Bible seriously? Yes or no. Don’t try to get around that simple question.” I commend such passion for fidelity to the Scriptures, but am troubled by the knee-jerk response to boil down complex issues when the going gets tough. It seems to me true faithfulness requires that, at such times, we employ those faculties we’ve been endowed with.
I belief conservative Anglicans ought to be forthright about the fact that the Bible must be interpreted and interpretation is, unfortunately, an imperfect art. (It’s not a science.) Honest truth? We’re faced with a daunting task. Even the Bible’s newest books are 2,000 years old. The cultural-historical contexts of its authors are incomprehensibly different than our own. And its genres are generally foreign to even well-read modern Westerners. Catholics warned Luther that Scripture alone wasn’t enough: If he put the Bible in the hands of the people, they’d come up with all sorts of bizarre, off-the-wall interpretations and have never-ending disagreements over everything. One look around at our bazillion Protestant sects and it becomes obvious that Erasmus & Co. were right.
In my opinion, Anglicans should do two things. First, acknowledge that the historic Catholic critique has merit and avoid the Bible-only, i.e. Sola Scriptura‘s dumbed down descendant, impulse of much contemporary evangelicalism. They should insist that Scripture be interpreted through the lens of The Great Tradition. Their stand should be for historic orthodoxy serving as a set presuppositional parameters guiding exegesis and application. Whether one wants to call it the Rule of Faith, the Vincentian Canon, or Mere Christianity, they should be committed to that which all Christians everywhere have always believed. Second, they should set about the task of rigorously studying the biblical texts and their cultural-historical contexts.
Interpretation ain’t easy. That’s why we should work so hard at it.