I hope I’m doing the right thing, or doing the right thing right, by reprinting this here with full credit. It’s from a short-term personal blog experiment called “Subversive Christianity” that will be permanently deleted on May 19. The suggestion was made that readers “grab” anything they really liked and wanted to preserve, so that’s what I am doing —
and btw, the blog’s header defines “subvert” as
“to turn over; to reveal what is hidden; to uncover roots; to undermine false structures; to rediscover true foundations; to bring what is hidden into the light; to get to the heart of the matter; to prepare for renewal.”
(Snook-cocking salute to Dawn’s DayByDay Homeschooling blogroll for my discovering this in the first place)
Saturday, May 5, 2007
Bible-thumping: the bastard child of bible-reading
Christians who insist on a literal reading of scripture frequently (although not always) call themselves “inerrantists.” As outlined in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy signed by over 200 evangelicalists, inerrancy need not lead to a literalist reading of scripture, but it comes so close that spill-over is entirely likely. Inerrantists are wary of “higher criticism” because they think it threatens to relativize scripture–it’s improper, asserts the authors of the Statement (Article 18), “to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose.”
The Statement also denies that experience and tradition carry the same weight as scripture (Article 2), and all but says that divine revelation ended with the New Testament (Articles 5 & 7). God wrote it–I believe it–End of discussion! is the bumpersticker summary of the Chicago Statement.
Now, the curious thing is that many inerrantists believe that their literalistic reading the Bible is a return to roots–to that ol’ time religion, unadulterated by all this modern exegetical rigamarole (after all, “exegesis” = “exit Jesus”) that denies the Word and undermines the possibility of a saving personal relationship with Christ (whatever this means). For them, shaking off modern “interpretationism” and getting back to the pure way in which the first Christians read their Bible is the goal.
This nostalgia is curious because in fact the early Church Fathers read scripture quite differently than contemporary inerrantists think they did.
One of the many problems with the inerrant approach to Bible reading is that it has a short historical memory. At best, it stretches back to the Reformation’s espousal of sola scriptura. Hard as it is for inerrantists to accept, the patristic Church wasn’t Calvinist or reformed, and it didn’t endorse the kind of inerrancy spelled out by the Chicago Statement.
The Fathers of course considered the Bible to be divinely inspired and the most universal of all books. A few of them insisted that it absolutely superceded the books of pagan philosophy, while others took a less uncompromising attitude to the philosophers (and this tolerance would increase as the centuries progressed). But all understood scripture to be different from other books and deserving of veneration.
But this acceptance of the divine inspiration of scripture didn’t mean that the Fathers endorsed a literalistic reading of it, nor that they assumed that revelation ended with it. The patristic Church accepted two propositions that run counter to contemporary inerrancy: first, that the scriptures must always be read within the context of the Church, and this necessarily means that experience and tradition are also vehicles of revelation. In short, the Holy Spirit’s work is both continuous and communal; second, that there’s more than one layer of meaning embedded in scripture, and to assume that the Bible should be read literalistically, “noninterpretively,” is naive at best, willfully deaf to the full richness of revelation at worst.
Church Fathers were unanimous in their presumption that there are two general “senses” of scripture: the literal and the spiritual. Not infrequently, the distinction was expressed in terms of exoteric and esoteric meaning.
In the preface to On First Principles, for example, Origen asserts that “the Scriptures were composed by the Spirit of God and that they have not only a meaning that is manifest but also another that is hidden as far as most people are concerned.” . . .the point here is that the assumption of scripture’s multiple senses was simply a given in the early Church’s landscape.
Staying on the level of the literal wasn’t sinful, perhaps, but it was superficial.
Recognizing that there are at least two levels of meaning in scripture–I say “at least two,” because the spiritual level was frequently subdivided into subcategories such as moral, allegorical, and anagogical*–the Church Fathers also recognized that sometimes conflicts would arise as to how to interpret any given passage. On what level is it most appropriate to read some texts? If commentator A says literal, and Commentator B says spiritual, how to determine whose is the best reading?
There’s remarkable consensus among the Fathers. Origen says that a scriptural passage may be understood literally when it’s “reasonable” and “not unworthy of God” to do so (On First Principles, 4.2-3). Augustine teaches that the rule is based on “love”: any passage that promotes love of God and neighbor may be read literally with no harm (On Christian Doctrine, 3.15.23). John Cassian says that scriptural passages may be read literally if doing so causes no interior harm to the reader (Conferences, 8.3).
In short, the Fathers assumed that the general thrust of scripture was to direct humans toward a God who is compassionate, just, loving, not contrary to the dictates of reason, and so on. Any scriptural passage which seems to suggest otherwise needs to be read interpretively, not literally.
Inerrancy a return to the simple faith of our fathers? Not quite. It’s more regression than return.
*Rabbinic exegesis likewise accepts this layering of meaning in sacred scripture. A quick overview of this wonderfully rich approach, which informs both Talmudic and Kabbalistic traditions, is here. Thanks to Henry Carse who introduced me to PaRDeS back in 1999 when I studied under him at Jerusalem’s St. George’s College.
Posted by A deacon, by the grace of God, at 4:09 AM
Labels: bible-thumping, biblical inerrancy, Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Church Fathers, exegesis, Patristics