Saturday, December 09, 2006

Interpreting Scripture

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I remain a subscriber--and an occasional (formerly frequent) poster--to the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv. (Bishops and recent Deputies may participate; others may watch as "kibitzers.") Today one of the Deputies--someone whose positions could fairly be characterized as "liberal" on the divisive questions of the day--asked for help in understanding the "traditionalist" approach to the following question: "How do you decide which parts of scripture (Hebrew and Christian) to follow and which no longer need to be followed?"

So I took the bait. Originally I intended it to be a private response, but eventually thought my contribution worth sharing, so I posted it to HoB/D, and do so here as well. Subsequently, another member of the listserv told me my answer was "too academic to preach." Oh, well. I hadn't intended it to be a sermon. And it is a little academic, I suppose. But it's an important question, and worth struggling with.

You have posed a fair and legitimate question. However, as you might guess, I have trouble accepting its premise-i.e. that some parts of scripture "still" need to be followed and some parts "no longer" need to be followed, and the question is deciding which parts belong in which category.

The way I look at it is like this: There's a tension between reading scripture as "one book" and reading it as "many books." Since the advent of critical methodology, most in the historic mainstream denominations have emphasized the latter, and we have lots of fun picking things apart, ranging from the "four source" theory of the Pentateuch more than a century ago to the Jesus Seminar in our own time. I really haven't got a problem with this. I find that the insights of critical scholarship often inform my preaching in very positive ways.

Reading the Bible as "many books" leads to judgment questions such as you pose. But we need to maintain the tension. The Bible is also "one book." There is a meta-narrative that runs like a golden thread from Genesis to Revelation. Moreover, both the "Bible-as-one-book" and the unifying meta-narrative are the property of the Church, the community of disciples throughout space and time. The Church, in turn, is a community of mutual accountability. Yes, tradition is dynamic and variegated. But I would submit that there is a discernible core, a center of gravity, in which a consistent and fruitful hermeneutic can be grounded. Different chronological eras and different geographical areas and different sub-strata of piety and spirituality all act as an organic system of checks and balances through which, I would suggest, the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth, including the true interpretation of scripture.

Interpreting scripture, then, becomes a matter of "thinking with the Church."


Kirstin said...


I'm a 2nd-year CDSP student from DioCal, and what you'd call a liberal. I also have good friends in your diocese, which is why I've been spending too much time reading another well-known conservative blog.

You and I see things very differently--but I want to tell you that I respect your honesty, and your wrestling.

Peace be with you.

Dan Martins said...

Thanks for checking in, Kirstin. I guess I am a "wrestler," all right.

Kirstin said...

You're welcome. A blessed Advent to you.