Reading Scripture: No Easy Task.2

We in PHIL 2200-Survey of Philosophy, have finally arrived at the module concerning Epistemology–or the study of knowledge. As one of the most bed rock parts of philosophy, this has lead directly to discussions about authority. Though it hasn’t come up in class, my personal correspondence in email with Dr. Ben Grazzini has been especially concerned with how this relates to theology–and further specified, Christian theology. I had Ben for PHIL 3180-Environmental Ethics last semester in which I wrote my term paper “Concerning Christianity and Environmental Ethics.” So given my paper and his feedback, we definitely know where we’re at with respect to each others philosophical/theological background.

Most recently he and I were discussing how the Bible might be authoritative. In the first post I wrote with this title “Reading Scripture,” I brought together the thoughts of Stanley Hauerwas and N.T. Wright. I shared that with Ben, and also these questions:

1.) Does the mere idea that translation of a text like the Bible is possible suggest there is no strong distinction between interpretation and meaning?

2.) Have you done any work pertaining to this quandary in particular? In which ways does your expertise in ancient philosophy speak to this question.(Ben’s expertise and doctoral thesis is in Aristotelian philosophy.)

Ben responded:

“I think the relationships among text, meaning, interpretation and translation are complicated. Especially when we’re separated by significant historical/cultural distance—but probably in any case—I’m inclined to say that there is no uncomplicated or unproblematic original (whether I’m thinking about that as the text = words on a page, or the meaning) that we can clearly and firmly hold apart from various interpretations. 
 
One way in which I have to confront this in ancient philosophy is the fact that with a couple of relatively minor exceptions, the oldest extant texts are medieval manuscripts. For Aristotle, the oldest ones anyone has date to the 9th and 10th centuries. For Plato, they’re a little later than that. So, already I’ve got copies of copies with almost 1500 years between the “original” and the texts we have access to. 
 
Add to that the fact that even if I’m working on the manuscripts, I’m still making decisions about which ones are more authoritative than others, which variants or readings to accept, and where, as an editor, I think emendations/corrections are warranted. If I’m not working with manuscripts myself, the text I read as “the original Greek” is a critical edition produced by someone in the late 19th or early 20th century (in most cases)–and so it seems even more the case that what I’m reading, and what I’m using as evidence for my claims about the meaning of the text, is this historical artifact—something that only exists within a tradition. 
 
Given that, though, it’s just as important to me to hold onto the text as one measure of interpretations. Even though it is not a fully free-standing original, the text still offers something like a common standard against which I can compare and evaluate what people say about it. I think that thought also needs the claim that meaning and interpretation are always underdetermined by words on the page—that is, that it’s never simply the case that we can look to the book and settle some question. 
 
From there, I need to try to hold onto a variety of issues: 
What we can know about historical context, and so what a text might have meant/how it was taken up in a particular period or setting; 
To what extent those contexts overlap enough with our own for them to be relevant; 
How far we can go in translating a set of concepts that may not fit with our own conditions into terms that we can recognize/deal with. 
 
And it’s somewhere around here that I run into a really thorny issue, namely, in what ways or to what extent consciousness/understanding is shaped by the material conditions of our lives. Just as one example, I can at least to a certain extent understand the ancient Greek cosmos: what they recognized as planets and stars; how they understood the relationships and mechanisms; and so on. But I’m not sure I can really understand what it’s like to live in that cosmos—to look at the sky and see the sphere of the fixed stars as the furthest limit of the cosmos. 
 
Similarly, I’m not sure that I know what a concept like “nature” or “virtue” meant for Aristotle. I can understand a lot about how he uses it, where it seems to come from, what sense we can make of it—but I don’t know that it has the same sort of connection to experience for us that it had for him. If concepts don’t depend on that sort of rootedness-in-experience, then this isn’t really an issue.”
Ben seems to be suggesting that the text only exists as a thing within an ongoing web of interpretive practices, and this is almost exactly the way that Hauerwas understands it.(See my previous post “Reading Scripture”) In this way, the text itself has no “original meaning” because that assumes that meaning exists prior to interpretive practices. This is by no means the end of the conversation, but I was fascinated to see the perspective of a philosopher that doesn’t devote much time to Christian considerations weigh in on the matter.
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Reading Scripture: No Easy Task

I said this about 2012, I will say it about 2013, and I expect it for 2014. In all the books concerning Theology and Christianity that I’ve read the past couple of years, whether they be written for lay people or academics, a recurring theme continually strikes me as having incalculable significance for today’s Church. Reading the Bible is no easy task, and yet it is vital to the life of the Church.

This past week I’ve read Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture together with N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God. Initially it was very clear that they take different approaches to understanding (and Hauerwas would prefer I said using) Scripture.

Wright appears to fall very neatly into the Historical Critical camp, writing against fundamentalism:

Genuine historical scholarship is still the appropriate tool with which to work at discovering more fully what precisely the biblical authors intended to say. We really do have access to the past; granted, we see it through our own eyes…Real history is possible; real historians do it all the time. Real, fresh, historical readings of the Bible, measured rigorously by the canons of real historical work, can and do yield fresh insight.”

In his book, Wright analyzes the polarization of debates and the need for fresh Kingdom-oriented, historically rooted exegesis. He has an entire chapter that lists out the major misreadings of the “left” and “right.”

Hauerwas takes a different approach, as he usually does I am told. His book is written to ask:

“Is your Bible made in the USA? Most Christians assume that they have a right, if not a pious obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.”

The two most common reactions for folks who haven’t read Hauerwas before are to assume that he is either an elitist lunatic or that he can’t actually be serious, he just means to shock. I can tell you that after having read the book, neither is true. While Hauerwas does want to shock Christians on the one hand, he is doing it with the utmost seriousness, humility, and sincerity. I think the book makes a compelling case in support of the thesis I quoted above. Though, being a History major and having read Wright and others like him for some time now, I still feel comfortable in the higher criticism camp of interpretation. Contrasting with the view Wright portrays in his quote, Hauerwas writes:

I believe that the battle between literalistic fundamentalism and critical approaches to the Bible is the result of the abstraction of the text of the Bible from such practices. They share the assumption that the text of the Bible should make rational sense (to anyone), apart from the uses that the Church has for Scripture. Fundamentalism and biblical criticism seek to depoliticize the interpretation of Scripture on the grounds that the text has an objective meaning. The result is unchecked power to some interpreters over Scripture without such power being justified.”-p.18

Scripture can be rightly interpreted only within the practices of a body of people constituted by the unity found in the Eucharist. The Church, as the body of Christ, stands first and is more full than Scripture. This does not limit Scripture, but it reminds us that Christ appears before us not only in Scripture, but in the Church.” Hauerwas goes on to mention the earliest Christians not having the written gospels, and so text could not be the sole source of knowledge. The Church acted according to the spirit of the Gospel, and the Gospel came to life in the Church. There is a complex relationship between community and text, and in this case Church and Scripture.

Hauerwas also critiques Sola Scriptura when it is used to mean sola text, saying: “That Christians have thought it possible to translate our Scriptures should be sign enough that no strong distinction can be made between text and interpretation.” There is also a lot of good writing about America and individualism resulting in destructive understandings/uses of Scripture.

To the above, Wright responds in his own book: “…one hears it said frequently that all reading of scripture is a matter of interpretation, with the implication that one person’s interpretation is as good as another’s. This is of course a classic postmodern position that there are no such things as texts, only interpretations, since when I read a text it becomes something different from what it becomes when you read it (Heisenberg’s uncertainty again).”

Hauerwas responds:

“Fundamentalists and biblical critics alike argue that their project is to get to the text’s “real meaning.” But of course the text has no real meaning, rather Scriptures are maintained by the Church as having particular prominence because Christians have learned that the Scriptures exist to further the practices of witness and conversion. If i deny the text has a meaning, some biblical scholars fear an uncontrollable subjectivism. Interpreters, especially laity, can simply make of the text anything they wish, creating the meaning of the text at will. Such a presumption however assumes the only entities involved are the text and the individual interpreter. Texts and interpreters, however, work only within contexts that make what they have to say irrelevant or interesting. Of course the Church creates the meaning of Scripture.”

When time allows it, I’d like to lay out completely the ways in which Wright and Hauerwas have written the two books almost completely parallel to the other. Both are incredible scholars, and as I have read so much of Wright the last three years, I am looking forward to owning much more that which Hauerwas has written as well.

The differences are clear, but there is an extremely unavoidable similarity in their books: The need for a transformed self and spiritual formation.

Hauerwas writes: “According to Athanasius, any attempt to make Scripture intelligible in and of itself can only be seen as an attempt to protect ourselves from the challenge of having our lives changed. Such change means making our lives available to others who have begun such a transformation. In short, if we are to understand Scripture it is necessary that we place ourselves under authority, a placement that at least begins by our willingness to accept the discipline of the Church’s preaching.”

And Wright echoes: “We urgently need an integrated view of the dense and complex phrase “the authority of Scripture.” Such an integrated view needs to highlight the role of the Spirit as the powerful, transformative agent. It needs to keep as its central focus the goal of God’s Kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus on earth as in heaven and one day to be completed under that same rubric. The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion: that the shorthand phrase the authority of scripture, when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church–precisely as the Scripture-reading community.”