Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What Happens When We Read the Scriptures as Scripture?

Over at the blog Pontifications, the author (Alvin Kimel) makes some interesting observations with respect to biblical hermeneutics. Kimel begins by stating that any biblical passage must be interpreted within its larger context in order to ascertain its literal meaning and authorial intent. Little shock there. But what happens when a six-chapter book like Galatians, a few hundred years after it is written, now finds itself to be but a small part in a sixty six-chapter book like the Bible? All of a sudden, the context of Galatians is much larger than it is when consid-ered in isolation.

Why is this significant? Well, if Galatians is not a book but a chapter in a Book, and if that Book of which Galatians is a chapter is authored ultimately by God, then in the same way that Galatians 4 must be read in the light of the epistle’s other five chapters, so Galatians as a whole must be read in the light of the rest of Scripture in its entirety. And if context determines and expands a text’s meaning, then the epistle’s human authorial intent may not be the same as its divine authorial intent. In a word, when we read Galatians as Scripture, its literal meaning may or may not be identical to its canonical meaning.

This, Kimel argues, is why the grammatical-historical method of interpretation alone is insufficient for determining a biblical text’s true significance. According to this approach, anyone can interpret the Bible provided they have the requisite tools and employ the proper methodology. “Poppycock!” Kimel says (or at least he would have if he appreciated how awesome that word is). The Bible is not like any other book, nor is it merely a species of a broader genus known as “Holy Writings.” Scripture is sui generis, unique, one-of-a-kind, meaning that even if a passage’s literal meaning can be deduced, its sensus plenior—or fuller sense—is beyond the grasp of the mere earthling.

The point, as the Reformers insisted, is that the Bible is the church’s book and must be interpreted in conjunction with, and never in isolation from, those who have gone before us. Moreover, Kimel (citing Swinburne approvingly) draws the conclusion that if Paul himself taught a seminary class on his own writings, his voice would be but one of many seeking to determine the true meaning of the epistles he penned. And further still, since the Bible is unique and one-of-a-kind, the rules for interpreting it cannot arise from Scripture itself (any more than I could invent a new language and then write a book attempting to teach you, in my new language, how to speak it). No, Kimel says, hermeneutical principles must arise from within the community to which Scripture has been given, and from which it has emerged. And more specifically, the task of interpreting Holy Writ is given to those who have been set aside and ordained for the task, i.e., ministers of the Word lawfully called.

So much for American, egalitarian, Bible only-ism….