Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gregg Allison on Scripture and Its Interpretation

I’m working my way slowly (I apologize) through Gregg Allison’s work,“Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment”.

Throughout, Allison’s method is to show side-by side, the Roman Catholic beliefs, along with what an “Evangelical Assesment” of those beliefs might say. And he does it in the light of a methodology that he clearly articulates at the beginning.

This is necessarily a broad-brush treatment. Other than his role of the explication of Scripture, which describes in the briefest terms the “grammatical historical hermeneutic” by which most Evangelical Protestants understand Scripture, he fails, at the outset, I think, to show how Roman Catholics understand Scripture (in his text here, he makes a brief allusion to the Medieval “fourfold sense of Scripture”. But that is no longer an official methodology.)

Here is one place where he states what Evangelicals believe, without going into much detail of how Roman Catholics understand Scripture. I’ll give Allison’s overview of an Evangelical understanding of Scripture, then I’ll clarify “actual Catholic beliefs” about Scripture below:

According to evangelical theology, Scripture consists of sixty-six books— thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament— and is interpreted according to a grammatical–(redemptive) historical– typological method.

This hermeneutic, or interpretive approach, focuses on the grammar of biblical passages, noting the meaning and function of words, the relation of words and phrases in sentences, the genre in which the text is written, the development of arguments, the flow of narratives, the imagery of poems and figurative expressions, allusions to earlier passages, and the like.

This hermeneutic also focuses on the historical context in which the biblical passages were written, seeking to understand the socio-politico -economic-cultural background of texts, their authors and audiences, and the purposes for which the texts were written, all with the aim of interpreting them in that context and with those purposes.

Specific attention to the redemptive-historical context of the biblical passages is important for understanding their place in the progressive revelation of God, their connection to earlier passages, their anticipation of later passages , their connection to the biblical covenants, and the point they seek to drive home about Jesus Christ.

This interpretive approach focuses additionally on typology, or intentional relationships between an earlier person/ place/ institution/ thing (the type) and a later person/ place/ institution/ thing (the antitype), a structure that emphasizes the unity of Scripture and its promise-fulfillment or anticipation-consummation theme.

Evangelical interpretation does not follow the Roman Catholic “four-sense” approach to understanding Scripture, which seeks to discern four meanings— literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical— in most if not all biblical passages. This view of Scripture and its interpretation stands as the base of the first element by which Catholic theology and practice will be assessed. The second element will be evangelical theology, to which we will now turn our attention.

[Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 641-658). Crossway. Kindle Edition. Pgs 31-22 in the printed edition.]

What he is essentially saying here is the same thing that the Westminster Confession of Faith is saying:

“VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

What this means is that Joe Sixpack, if he chose to sit down and read through the Bible, could understand Who God is and What His Program for Salvation is, without any difficulty. Certainly there are areas of specialization – grammatical or historical or ancient languages. But the Evangelical understanding of Scripture is not rocket science.

This “four-sense” approach that he mentions here is not something that Roman Catholics care much about these days. Although I wish he had picked up on it the Roman Catholic understanding of Scripture – it’s a “third rail” to the other two “core elements” he discusses: “the nature-grace interdependence” and “the Christ-Church” interconnection. Those two concepts did not evolve in a vacuum.

For that reason, I’ve decided to put together a short précis on how Roman Catholicism understands Scripture:

Roman Catholicism on Scripture Interpretation

I can’t tell you how many times, in discussions with a Roman Catholic, I’ve said something about Scripture, and they’ve responded, “that’s your interpretation”.

Roman Catholicism cannot allow that people can read the Scriptures, applying a basic understanding of the historical context of the texts, along with a basic understanding of grammar, to understand what the author is actually talking about.

It’s true, methods of understanding the grammar of the ancient languages, along with the historical context of the writers, has become much more sophisticated in recent decades. But the bottom line is still the same as was articulated in the WCF three and a half centuries ago.

Roman Catholicism believes rather that “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone” (CCC 85).

Note that the “authentic interpretation” does not only tell us what Scripture says, but what “Tradition” says – in that way, Roman Catholic theologians have the ability manipulate what history actually says.

Whether or not that “the living teaching office of the Church alone” [Sola Teaching Office] can give an “authentic interpretation”, it is something that can’t be assumed either way.

However, Rome and its apologists very much assumes this. The very next statement in the CCC suggests that Rome has “the authority” to make those “authentic interpretations”:

Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. (47) This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

The reference (47) is to a Vatican II document, Dei Verbum 10:2:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

Which in turn relies on two other footnoted references (8) and (9):

8. cf. First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chap. 3 "On Faith:" Denzinger 1792 (3011).

9. cf. Pius XII, encyclical "Humani Generis," Aug. 12, 1950: A.A.S. 42 (1950) pp. 568-69: Denzinger 2314 (3886).

Neither of these two references is very old, in the scheme of things. These two references then state:

Denzinger 1792:

1792 [The object of faith]. Further, by divine and Catholic faith, all those things must be believed which are contained in the written word of God and in tradition, and those which are proposed by the Church, either in a solemn pronouncement or in her ordinary and universal teaching power, to be believed as divinely revealed.

Keep an eye out for the terms “deposit of faith” and “sacred deposit”. Both of these indicate what Denzinger 1792 summarized above … ALL those things must believed …. It’s why Calvin goes into some detail about “implicit faith”. The Roman Catholic can’t pick-and-choose among the things they will believe.

Denzinger 2314:

2314 It is also true that theologians must always have recourse to the sources of divine revelation; for it is their duty to indicate how what is taught by the living magisterium is found, either explicitly or implicitly, in Sacred Scripture and in divine "tradition." In addition, both sources of doctrine [both Scripture and Tradition], divinely revealed, contain so many and such great treasures of truth that they are in fact never exhausted.

Therefore, the sacred disciplines always remain vigorous by a study of the sacred sources, while, on the other hand, speculation, which neglects the deeper investigation of sacred deposit, as we know from experience, becomes sterile. But for this reason even positive theology, as it is called, cannot be placed on equal footing with merely historical science. For, together with these sacred sources God has given a living magisterium to His Church, to illumine and clarify what is contained in the deposits of faith obscurely and implicitly.

Indeed, the divine Redeemer entrusted this deposit not to individual Christians, nor to the theologians to be interpreted authentically, but to the magisterium of the Church alone. Moreover, if the Church exercises this duty of hers, as has been done again and again in the course of the ages, whether by ordinary or extraordinary exercise of this function, it is clear that the method whereby clear things are explained from the obscure is wholly false; but rather all should follow the opposite order. Therefore, Our predecessor of immortal memory, Pius IX, teaching that the most noble function of theology is to show how a doctrine defined by the Church is contained in the sources, added these words, not without grave reason: "By that very sense by which it is defined." * ...

This is how Roman Catholicism understands that THE MAGISTERIUM ALONE (“Sola Teaching Office”) has the “authority” to “provide an authoritative interpretation”.

Keep in mind that for Roman Catholicism, “theology” is not doctrine, and what “theologians” say is not the same thing that “the infallible Magisterium” says. “Theologians” study and clarify (or muddify) things”. But none of that is “binding”. Things only become “doctrine” or “binding” when “the infallible Magisterium” “proposes them for belief”.

When you read about Roman Catholicism, keep an eye out for that phrase “sacred deposit” – it refers not only to the Scriptures, but the ever malleable body of information that derives from history and yet has no clear delineation other than what Rome says is “Tradition”.

The “sacred deposit” includes both Scripture AND “Tradition”, only insofar as the “Sola Teaching Office” has “defined” them and “proposed” them “to be believed as divinely revealed”.

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