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Preach Scripture!April 17th, 2005

Last week I received a very thoughtful email from one of our readers. He entitled it “A Protestant’s Questions” and he posed the following to me:

I think that the principle of “sola sriptura” should be assessed as a mere corollary of “solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide”. That is, it should be assessed, not as a formal principle, a part of the prolegomena to theology, but as a matter of theology proper, and indeed of Christology and soteriology, not of hermeneutics. You said in one recent posting that protestants don’t understand the veneration of BMV because they view it within their own theological framework, in which it doesn’t make sense: I would like to suggest that, similarly, you see “sola scriptura” within a catholic theological framework, in which it doesn’t, and can’t, make sense. What the 39 articles of your church say - that scripture contains everything necessary for salvation - is, I think, the decisive argument for protestants: Scripture (and scripture only!) gives clear witness to salvation through Christ alone, by faith alone, by grace alone. If that witness of scripture is true, if it is to be trusted, than nothing that goes beyond God’s grace through faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. And if that is so, then nothing that goes beyond what scripture teaches is necessary for salvation. And if that is so, then nothing that goes beyond what scripture teaches necessarily forms a part of the proclamation of the church. And if that is so, then nothing beyond scripture could be binding for the doctrine of the church. And, contrariwise, if anything that is not contained in scripture is deemed binding for the teaching of the church, how can anyone avoid the conclusion that that something is also necessary for the proclamation of the church and, hence, necessary for salvation; and if that were so, how could anyone avoid the conclusion (since, going beyond the witness of scripture, that “something” must be something other than grace through faith in Christ), how could anyone avoid the conclusion that salvation is not by grace through faith in Christ, but by something else (or by grace through faith in Christ plus something else, which is much the same as salvation by something else)? And if so, how could the church avoid abandoning the teaching of the apostles?

I suggest that this is the reasoning, or the theo-logic, behind “sola scriptura”, and I confess that, personally, I still find it compelling. I further suggest that this theological understanding is the only possible defense of sola scriptura. All those formal questions concerning the history of the canon and the decisions of councils and the authority of the church etc. simply miss the point. You asked readers to identify points of interest for your future writing: This is the one point that I think every critique of “sola scriptura” must address, and as far as I see you haven’t done so yet. Hence my obstinate refusal to be convinced.

I know that fifteen years ago, when I was deeply immersed in Lutheran theology, I would have had a better grasp on the above than I do now. When the four solas have captured one’s heart, it all hangs together and makes compelling sense. But the questions arise when one starts to analyze matters more closely. Let us begin, therefore, with the gospel. We have heard the gospel, we have been baptized into the gospel, we speak the gospel, we eat the gospel. Because we know the gospel we know that we are saved by Christ alone, by grace alone. Solus Christus! Sola Gratia! This is the gospel declared to us by the Apostles and traditioned in the Church for the past two thousand years. This is the gospel upon which magisterial Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy agree.

But then we come to the sola fide, and the spirits divide. Are we saved by faith alone? It all depends on how one defines one’s terms. “Faith alone” means one thing in the monergistic framework of Luther and Calvin; it means something very different in the synergistic framework of the Greek and Latin Fathers (or John Wesley). For the purpose of this article, it is unnecessary to discuss the sola fide in depth (see my articles on Justification). All that is necessary is to point out that the Reformation construal of justification by faith alone was a dramatic innovation in the history of theology. Or in Alistair McGrath’s oft-quoted phrase, it was a “genuine theological novum.” This fact alone should lead Protestants to question what they have been taught by their evangelical pastors and to question continued separation from the Church of Rome.

So immediately we are confronted with the question of authority. Who is rightly interpreting the Scriptures? Luther was convinced that he had discovered the true meaning of St Paul’s Epistles, and no Father of the Church could dissuade him, not even the Doctor of Grace: ‘Augustine has sometimes erred and is not to be trusted. Although good and holy, he was yet lacking in the true faith, as well as other fathers … But when the door was opened for me in Paul, so that I understood what justification by faith is, it was all over with Augustine’ (LW 54, 49). Elsewhere Luther writes: ‘It was Augustine’s view that the law … if the Holy Spirit assists, the works of the law do justify … I reply by saying “No”‘ (LW 54, 10). Most of the other Fathers fare even worse: ‘I know no doctor whom I hate so much, although I once loved him ardently and read him voraciously. Surely there’s more learning in Aesop than in all of Jerome’ (LW 54, 72). Of some other early Fathers of the Church, he writes: ‘I have no use for Chrysostom either, for he is only a gossip. Basil doesn’t amount to anything; he was a monk, after all, and I wouldn’t give a penny for him. Philip’s (Melanchthon’s) Apology is superior to all the doctors of the church, even to Augustine himself. Hilary and Theophylact are good, and so is Ambrose’ (LW 54, 33). (Biretta tip to Bill Tighe for these citations.) Thus Martin Luther pitted himself against the Holy Tradition of the Church and set himself up as a prophet of the Almighty. Luther’s consciousness of his special authority became even more pronounced in his conflicts with his fellow Protestants (see Mark U. Edwards Jr, Luther and the False Brethren [1975]).

One can well understand why traditional Catholic churchmen of the 16th century heard the teachings of Luther with as much horror as many traditional Episcopalians of the 21st century hear the teachings of Frank Griswold. Just as Luther believed that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit in his reading of Scripture, so Frank Griswold believes; just as Luther was unwilling to submit his personal theology to the judgment of the Church, so Frank Griswold refuses. Martin Luther was a theological revolutionary; so is Frank Griswold.

Now it just so happens that I am far more sympathetic to the views of Luther than I am to those of Bishop Griswold. Luther’s positive themes are deeply rooted in the catholic faith (see Why Only Catholicism Can Make Protestantism Work). And at least Luther acknowledges an authority external to himself, namely, Holy Scripture, even if he asserts himself as its privileged interpreter. But though Griswold speaks Christianese, he speaks it with a neo-gnostic lisp. His is a theology of the inner experience of the divine, and how does one argue against someone’s inner experience? Give me Luther as a theological opponent any day! But ultimately my preference of Luther over Griswold is simply an expression of my private judgment. And that is the problem. In the absence of magisterial authority, all we are left with is private judgment and our conflicting interpretations of the Bible. Who interprets Scripture to the Church? Who is divinely authorized to defend the true meaning of Scripture from the enemies of the gospel?

Which brings us back to the Reformation declaration of sola Scriptura. Because Scripture clearly witnesses to Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, my correspondent writes, then “nothing that goes beyond God’s grace through faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. And if that is so, then nothing that goes beyond what scripture teaches necessarily forms a part of the proclamation of the church. And if that is so, then nothing beyond scripture could be binding for the doctrine of the church.”

There is one sense, I think, in which a catholic Christian might properly affirm sola Scriptura—as instruction to the Church to speak Scripture and to preach on the basis of Scripture. Here we distinguish between Scripture as living Word in the Church and Scripture as norm for theology. It is the first use, I suggest, to which the sola Scriptura slogan properly applies: Speak Scripture! Use Scripture! Exposit and apply Scripture! The Bible is given by God to nourish, vivify, and sanctify his Church in the truth and life of the gospel. Because Holy Scripture is the faithful record of God’s history with his people, culminating in the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ and the Pentecostal creation of the Church, the Scripture is the foundational text for the Church’s ministry of preaching. The gospel is a story, and the Bible is the primary and normative written expression of this story. Preachers preach from the Bible. Robert W. Jenson writes:

The first and foremost doctrine de scriptura is therefore not a proposition about Scripture at all. It is rather the liturgical and devotional instruction: Let the Scripture be read, at every opportunity and with care for its actual address to hearers, even if these are only the reader. The churches most faithful to Scripture are not those that legislate the most honorific propositions about Scripture but those that most often and thoughtfully read and hear it…. Scripture’s fundamental authority is simply the fact that its viva vox is present in the church, and so present as to shape her life. Insofar as theology is called to measure the church’s faithfulness in this matter also, the decisive questions are therefore questions about elementary churchly practice. What stories, lines of argument, and turns of phrase actually come to furnish the minds of those supposedly instructed in the faith? When prayers and hymns are chosen or written, what vocabulary and what narratives of invocation and blessing come first to hand? Do we witness the preacher struggle to be faithful to the readings, whether successfully or not?

The primary doctrine of Scripture may be stated: privilege this book within the church’s living discourse. And that of course does pose a theoretical question: Why should Scripture be thus privileged? The answer is almost tautologous. The gospel is a narrative, and this book is that telling of the narrative from which all others draw, quite apart from any need for their correction by it. Systematic Theology [1999], II:273-274)

But the sola Scriptura does not stand on its own. The Bible is preached properly only when it is a preaching of Christ Jesus who saves us by grace and mercy. Solus Christus, sola gratia. The Bible is preached properly only when it is a preaching of the good news of the crucified and risen Lord. But how do we negotiate conflicting interpretations of this good news?

My sola scriptura correspondent continues:

You said several times (as did so many others) that scripture is not clear, that authority is necessary in order to determine the meaning of scripture (or so I think I understand from several of your postings). You even seem to suggest (and I seem to remember that you do actually say so somewhere) that scripture, in and of itself, doesn’t have any meaning at all, that meaning must be given to it in interpretation. Now, quite frankly, that seems to me an extremely dangerous argument for any christian theologian to use, whether catholic or protestant. Is it really wise to use deconstructivist hermeneutics in order to get rid of the authority of scripture? Catholics and postmodernists make strange bedfellows indeed, or so it would appear to this protestant.

But here, again, my main point is a theological one. If it were true that meaning is only given to scripture in interpretation, then I fail to see how it could be claimed in any meaningful sense that any one interpretation of scripture is true. If meaning is given to scripture in interpretation, because it hasn’t got any meaning in and of itself, then the corollary of that is that each and every interpretation of scripture is arbitrary. In other words, the interpretation of scripture would be, not a matter of truth, but one of power: a strangely nietzschean notion, to my mind. A church that wishes to determine the “true” meaning of scripture by its own authority, in so doing necessarily destroys the very concept of a true interpretation, even where its own interpretation happens to be in agreement with scripture (”if they can give scripture any meaning they like, why can’t we?” - there’s revisionism for you!).
Contrariwise, if the teaching of the church does not give meaning to scripture, but safeguards the meaning that scripture has in and of itself, then the corollary of that is that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to distinguish between the teaching of scripture and its interpretation by the church, and that scripture must be the criterion by which the teaching of the church has to be measured.

Let me first correct one point: I have never stated—at least I hope I have never stated—that Scripture does not have any meaning except that which is given to it by the reader. Stanley Hauerwas, whom I have cited a couple of times on this matter, does seem to come close to saying this; but I’m not sure if he really does.

What I have argued, following Orthodox philosopher, Richard Swinburne, is that the historical-grammatical meaning of the biblical text, i.e., that which the original author actually intended to say is not necessarily identical to the canonical or divine meaning of the text.
Swinburne’s argument is simple—context is everything. If we wish to determine the meaning of a text, we need to know all sorts of things. We need to know who wrote it and why. We need to know its intended audience. We need to know the literary genre to which it belongs. We need to know its social context, etc. Now let’s consider what happens if a piece of writing is incorporated into larger context. An obvious example is when an author publishes a collection of previously published essays, but with a prefrace stipulating how particular arguments are to be understood or perhaps even stating his disagreement with his previously published arguments. Newman did this when, as a Catholic, he republished his Anglican sermons and writings. “In such a context,” Swinburne explains, “the author is not stating the views contained in the papers but rather quoting them; and the meaning of the whole is what the author says it is in the preface, with the qualifications which he makes there—even if that was not the meaning of the papers as originally published” (Revelation [1992], p. 63).
Now consider the vast array of writings that are contained in Holy Scripture. We all know, for example, that the Book of Genesis has been pulled together from various sources—the infamous JEDP sources. In the first two chapters we find two different accounts of God’s creation of the world. Presumably each one originally stood alone; the meaning of each was contained within itself, as it were. But now they stand together within the book of Genesis and mutually interpret each other within the context of the book as a whole. Similarly, Genesis itself belongs to Torah, which belongs to the wider collection of writings that we Christians call the Old Testament, which is coordinated with the New Testament within the one book of Holy Scripture, whose author, the Church confesses, is God Almighty.

So when we ask, “What does this text mean?”, we have to clarify the literary context. If we are asking for the historical-grammatical meaning, then this is presumably the meaning intended by the original author. This is no doubt an important meaning to ascertain, if possible. It would be nice to know, for example, what St. Paul really meant when he talked about justification in his Letter to the Romans. But the Church cannot stay at this historical-grammatical level. The fact is, the Letter to the Romans now exists—and was intended by God to exist—within a wider collection of writings. It must be interpreted, not only in coordination with Galatians and Ephesians, but also with James and Hebrews and Matthew and Deuteronomy. Hence Hauerwas’s provocative statement:

Once Paul’s letters become so constructed canonically, Paul becomes one interpreter among others of his letters. If Paul could appear among us today to tell us what he “really meant” when he wrote, for example 1 Corinthians 13, his view would not necessarily count more than Gregory’s or Luther’s account of Corinthians. There simply is no “real meaning” of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians once we understand that they are no longer Paul’s letters but rather the Church’s Scripture.

Now I do not know if Hauerwas would agree that this means that Scripture only has the meaning that we bring to it; Swinburne would not agree:

What the Church proclaimed as Holy Scripture were not individual books, let alone the units out of which they were made, but the whole collection. Putting the books together into a whole Bible involved giving them a change of context and, in consequence, by processes similar to those involved in the formation of an individual book, a change of meaning.
The process produced a change of literary context: what were before books on their own became parts of a big book. And it also produced a change of social and cultural context, but just what the change was depends on who we suppose to be the author of the whole Bible and who was its intended audience. For, we we have seen, it is the social context and the cultural predispositions of the author and his audience which dictate how the book is to be interpreted. The Church put the Bible together, but it did so by selecting books deriving from prophets or apostles in which were recorded what in its view was God’s revelation through them to man. God, in the Church’s view, was the ultimate author of the Bible—working, no doubt, through human writers with their own idiosyncracies of style, but all the same inspiring the individual books. What the Church proclaimed with respect to the Bible was not just “here is a book which we have found and recognized as true,” but “here is a book which we have found and recognized as inspired by God and so as true.” (pp. 174-175)

Hence to restrict ourselves to historical-grammatical exegesis is to fail to recognize the change of literary context, and thus change of meaning, that has been effected by the ecclesial act of including a specific writing within the canon. It is to fail to read the Bible as Scripture. Commenting on the Apostle Paul’s exclusion of women from the ministry of teaching, Swinburne suggests that the passages be read historically, i.e., as local instruction not necessarily universally applicable. He then states:

And I re-emphasize that reading the passages in such a way is not saying that that is what St Paul meant by what he wrote. People sometimes write what they do not mean; what they mean is determined by the context, and if the context is the whole Bible as a Christian document inspired by God, the meaning of these passages may be quite other than St Paul meant them to have. (p. 200)

This then raises an important question: What is the literal meaning of a scriptural text? Is it the historical-grammatical meaning or is it the canonical meaning? However we define literal in this situation, Swinburne is convinced that the inspired meaning of the text cannot be identified willy nilly with its “original meaning.” Speaking of the rise of the historical-critical method, he writes:

But in the nineteenth century the Bible came to be interpreted by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants in perhaps the most literal and insensitive way in which it has ever been interpreted in Christian history. This literalism was encouraged by the basic philosophical mistake of equating the “original meaning” of the text, gradually being probed by historical enquiry, with the meaning of the text in the context of a Christian document. We may hanker after the “original meaning” in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork and context changes meaning…. The genetic fallacy that origins determine present operation leads us to suppose that we understand the meaning of a text when we understand its literary history. But we do not; what we need to know is its literary context, not its literary history.

Of course, if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the “original meaning” of the text, that original meaning is often false: there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted. This evident fact led many liberal-minded theologians of the twentieth century to cease to talk of the Bible being “true,” but to speak rather of it being “useful” or “insightful” if read in accord with some rule or other of interpretation; and there have evolved as many ways of interpreting as there have been theologians doing the interpreting. And saying this sort of thing about the Bible hardly gives it a special status—the same could be said of any great work of literature. A general fog settled over “hermeneutics.” And yet the rules are there, sanctified by centures of use by those who claimed in accord with Christian tradition that the Bible was “true.” (pp. 207-208)

The Song of Songs is Swinburne’s favorite example. It was originally composed as an erotic poem of young love; but it was received into the canon as a poem about the love between God and Israel. What is its literal meaning? Perhaps the answer depends on whether we are looking from the perspective of the original poet or the divine and ultimate poet.
Swinburne can go so far as to say that the Bible must be read just like “any other book”; but of course there is no other book that has God as its author, which is what makes the interpretation of Scripture so very interesting.

2 Comments:

Blogger Pontificator said...

Thanks for the kind words about my blog!

5:26 AM  
Blogger the Cogitator said...

So, Roland, you have finally discovered the joy that is Pontifications. ;)

12:47 PM  

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