Monday, February 02, 2009

Misreading Scripture

A few years ago, Al Kimel tried to justify his switch from Anglicanism to Catholicism. He did a running series on the subject:

He has a rambling, repetitious style: I’ll try to excerpt his major arguments. I won’t necessarily comment on every idea of every statement I quote. I may comment on one idea, then, when he repeats himself, I’ll comment on another idea. That way I avoid being as repetitious as he is.

Sometimes he quotes other people. Since he quotes them approvingly, I won’t go out of my way to distinguish the speaker.

Before we delve into the details, I’ll make a general observation. Kimel is better at asking questions than answering questions. He poses some good questions. But he doesn’t have good answers. So he stops looking. His conversion to Rome is an act of despair. Because he can’t think of good answers to his questions, he resorts to the deus ex machina of the Roman Magisterium.

Who decides which interpretation of Holy Scripture is correct? And here I have been forced to confront one of the fundamental weaknesses of my Protestant faith. Since my conversion, I have always considered myself as a catholic Anglican.

This illustrates the close connection between one’s starting point and one’s conclusion. It was a short step from Kimel’s “catholic Anglicanism” to his Roman Catholicism. But since I don’t begin where he began, I don’t end where he ended.

This is, I am now convinced, the source of our present crisis. Our fatal problem is not the rejection of biblical authority. Our problem is the dual Protestant assertion of sola scriptura and private judgment. This is why the churches of the Reformation have been unable to maintain the catholic faith in the confrontation with modernity. The private individual will always be able to justify to himself and others a new interpretation of the Scriptures.

Shifting from Protestant to Catholic doesn’t change anything in that regard. You simply shift from liberal Protestants to liberal Catholics. Theological liberals have no more regard for ecclesiastical authority than they have for Biblical authority.

How do we interpret the Bible with the Church?

i) This assumes we are supposed to interpret the Bible with the Church. Did OT or Intertestamental Jews interpret the OT scriptures with the Church?

ii) It also assumes a particular definition of the church. Which church? Whose church?

How do we read it as Scripture? As noted by Richard Swinburne, “The Bible does not belong to an obvious genre which provides rules for how overall meaning is a function of meaning of individual books.”

Swinburne is a philosopher, not a Bible scholar. Bible scholars frequently identify the literary genre of this or that book of Scripture.

Take Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Does Swinburne think a letter doesn’t belong to an obvious literary genre? Did Paul invent the epistolary genre? Did no one ever write a letter until the time that Paul penned the letter to the Galatians? Was he the first man in history to write a letter? No precedent for this literary genre before the ministry of St. Paul?

This is a critical philosophical observation–at least I found it to be such when I first read Swinburne’s book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy ten years ago.

It’s critical to Kimel’s argument. It’s one of the faulty presuppositions of his argument.

Swinburne gave me permission to unprivilege the critical-historical reading of Scripture and to begin to appreciate and affirm the rich and variegated interpretations of the Bible found in the patristic and medieval periods.

“Rich” and “variegated” interpretations of Scripture. Aren’t those pretty synonyms for fanciful and contradictory?

If the Bible is one book, whose ultimate author is God and whose audience is the Church, then we simply cannot assume that the canonical meaning of a given text is identical to its authorial meaning.

i) Is “the Church” the audience for the Bible? This is another one of Kimel’s strategic equivocations.

High churchmen like Kimel always employ a top-down methodology. They begin with some abstract category, like “the Church.” They take their definition of “the Church” for granted. They then impose that framework on the subsequent discussion.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with the use of abstractions in theological analysis. But what’s the basis of the abstraction? How did we derive our abstract category?

ii) Kimel ought to employ a bottom-up methodology. Start with the concrete data.

It doesn’t even occur to him to ask a rather obvious and elementary question like, Who was the audience for the Book of Exodus?

Was “the Church” the audience for the Book of Exodus? Is that the logical place to begin? Or should we begin with Jewish nomads in the Sinai desert?

iii) Why does he even assume the Bible can only have one audience? Take Jn 6. Who is the audience for the Bread of Life discourse?

a) There is the audience for the speech itself. The narrative audience. The audience for the spoken word. The Jews whom Jesus was talking to at that particular place and time.

Not only were these Jews instead of Christians, but they included unbelievers as well as believers. The effect of his speech was divisive. Many of his nominal followers fell away as a result of hearing his speech.

So the audience for the Bread of Life discourse included unbelievers. In was directed, in large part, at them.

This is quite different than saying it was written for the church.

b) There is also the audience for the Gospel. The literary audience. The audience for the written word. John recorded the Bread of Life discourse for their benefit—whomever they happen to be. What nowadays we would call the implied reader.

Keep in mind that (a) and (b) are not the same audience.

c) There is also posterity. The future audience. Christians throughout the ages.

Mind you, that involves a fairly flexible definition of “the Church.” That audience includes the Amish milkmaid and Appalachian hog farmer. Nothing distinctively high churchly about the future audience.

iv) And every audience does not supply the hermeneutical frame of reference. If I’m reading the Divine Comedy, I’m part of Dante’s audience, but as a modern reader I need to adjust to his historical outlook. I need to buy an annotated edition of the Divine Comedy which will explain his medieval Florentine references and allusions.

“We may hanker,” writes Swinburne, “after the ‘original meaning in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork and context changes meanings.”

But what the Church proclaimed as Holy Scripture were not individual books, let alone the units out of which they were made, but the whole collection. Putting the books together into a whole Bible involved giving them a change of context and, in consequence, by processes similar to those involved in the formation of an individual book, a change of meaning. The process produced a change of literary context: what were before books on their own became parts of a big book. And it also produced a change of social and cultural context, but just what the change was depends on who we suppose to be the author of the whole Bible and who was its intended audience. For, as we have seen, it is the social context and the cultural presuppositions of the author and his audience which dictate how the book is to be interpreted. The Church put the Bible together, but it did so by selecting books deriving from prophets or apostles in which were recorded what in its view was God’s revelation through them to man. God, in the Church’s view, was the ultimate author of the Bible–working, no doubt, through human writers with their own idiosyncrasies of style, but all the same inspiring the individual books.

This is a rather careless way of putting things:

i) Exactly what Church put the Bible together, and exactly when did that happen? It was not until the 16C that the church of Rome formalized the canon. Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox all have differing canons of the OT.

ii) The Bible was never a collection of isolated books. For example, Luke-Acts and the Pentateuch were originally written as literary units.

So how do we then discern the canonical meaning of Scripture?

I think the “canonical meaning” is a misleading expression, although you could use it as a shorthand expression. But, to go along with his usage, the canonical meaning would, by definition, involve interpreting any particular book of the canon in relation to the canon, not the church.

By learning to interpret the Bible as the early Church did.

That doesn’t follow from the “canonical meaning” of Scripture. The church is not the canon. The canonical meaning would be a self-contained meaning—a meaning internal to, and restricted to, the canon itself, and not something extraneous to the canon.

Or to put it somewhat differently, by adopting the rules of interpretation that were employed by the same folks who canonized the Old and New Testament books.

Notice the number of equivocations in this one statement:

i) What folks canonized the OT? Was it only one set of folks who canonized the OT? Does he think the church canonized the OT, but the Jews didn’t? Did the Jews have no canon of Scripture before the church canonized the OT?

This is another example of how Kimel moves in the rarified air of fact-free abstractions.

Would it not be more historically accurate to say that more than one set of folks canonized the Bible? For example, the Jews canonized the OT. The church then had to either reaffirm the Jewish canon or disaffirm the Jewish canon and substitute an alternative canon in its place. So, in a sense, the church also canonized the OT. Both groups canonized the OT.

The Jews originally canonized the OT. The church received the OT from the synagogue. The church then had to decide whether or not it was going to reaffirm the Jewish canon.

ii) What folks canonized the Roman Catholic Bible? That would be the Tridentine Fathers.

So, using Kimel’s criterion, we should discount the hermeneutical principles of the church fathers and medieval theologians. We should confine ourselves to the hermeneutical principles of the Tridentine Fathers.

iii) But that raises some additional problems. The decrees and canons of Trent didn’t pass by unanimous consent. Some Tridentine Fathers voted one way, others another way, while still others abstained from voting. So which subset of Tridentine Fathers sets the standard?

iv) Even if we go back to the church fathers, it’s not as if the church fathers have a uniform set of hermeneutical principles. Just for starters, isn’t there an elementary distinction between the Antiochean school and the Alexandrian school?

v) For that matter, the church fathers didn’t have a uniform canon. So which subset of church fathers sets the standard?

And if we do this, we suddenly find ourselves reading the Bible in ways that would have horrified the Reformers and their heirs. Yes, I’m talking about typology, allergory, tropology, anagogy, and all that good stuff.

i) And does Kimel apply the Quadriga to extrascriptural statements as well? What’s the anagogical interpretation of Vatican II? What’s the tropological interpretation of Humanae Vitae?

Does Kimel interpret the church fathers allegorically? For example, Augustine favors the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Does this result in a double allegory? We allegorically interpret Augustine’s allegorical interpretation?

ii) Any heretic can use the allegorical method to legitimate his heresy.

I’m not merely saying that any heretic can use the allegorical method. In the case of a sound methodology, it’s possible to misuse or abuse the method. But in this case, since no allegorical interpretation literally corresponds to the truth, no allegorical interpretation is wrong.

So there was a wide tradition in the early Church of reading the Bible metaphorically and not always literally; it was the Church of the centuries which established the canon of Scripture which taught that this was the way in which it ought to be read. It was the Bible understood in that way which they declared to be true…

By now I should have said enough to alert the reader to the many equivocations in a statement like this. Moving along:

Of course if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the ‘original meaning’ of the text, that original meaning is often false: there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted…. Yet the rules are there, sanctified by centuries of use by those who claimed in accord with Christian tradition that the Bible was “true.”

Several problems:

i) When Swinburne makes a statement, should we construe his statement according to the original meaning of his statement? Or should we disregard the authorial intent of an author like Swinburne? Perhaps we should interpret Swinburne’s statement allegorically. When he refers to the Bible, I interpret that statement to be an allegorical reference to Tiny Tim.

ii) Swinburne tips his hand. His real motivation for favoring the allegorical interpretation of Scripture is his low view of Biblical inspiration. But that’s an autobiographical projection.

He then resorts to a face-saving expedient to salvage the credibility of Scripture. But if he thinks that Scriptural statements, as they were understood by the original author and audience, are often false, then who is fooled by this face-saving expedient?

iii) A final problem is that Swinburne’s position is equally applicable to the church fathers. By his lights there is often scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the church fathers. So how can patristic hermeneutics set the bar for the interpretation of Scripture? Isn’t that using an erroneous lens to view an erroneous text? Doesn’t that multiply error? Layering the errors of the church fathers onto the errors of the Bible writers?

The acid test is the “Song of Songs.” A number of years ago I led a Bible Study at a clergy retreat, using Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary as my guide. Afterwards, several of the priests came up to me and told me how interesting and helpful it had been for them. We all agreed that new vistas of interpretation for preaching and devotion had been opened up for us.

It’s true that if you interpret the Song of Songs allegorically, that will open up new vistas of interpretation. Suppose I treat the Song of Songs as an allegory of Grand Theft Auto? That would be a very “interesting” interpretation, all right. Substitute pimps, cop-killers, gang-bangers, drag-racers, and Vice City for the original setting.

Simple fact: the Song of Songs was admitted into the canon because it was seen as a love story between God and his people.

i) Statements like this evince Kimel’s lack of a historical sense. I assume he’s alluding to rabbinical and patristic debates over the canonicity of Canticles. What’s the problem with that frame of reference?

Let’s assume that Canticles was written by Solomon. I won’t take time to defend traditional authorship. For a good discussion, cf. D. Garrett, Proverbs. Ecclesiastes. Song of Songs (Broadman 1993), 348-52.

If we accept a Solomonic date, then Canticles had been kicking around for about a 1000 years before these rabbinical debates arose. So what status did it enjoy for all the preceding centuries? Does Kimel think that someone wrote it, put it in a draw, and forgot about it until it was rediscovered 1000 years later?

Of course, Kimel takes a liberal view of Scripture, so he’d reject Solomonic authorship. But, remember, the question at issue is the grounds on which the Jews incorporated Canticles into the canon. Unlike Kimel, the Jews affirmed the Solomonic authorship of Canticles.

And that’s why they would incorporate this book into the canon. Based on Solomon’s reputation as a divinely inspired sage. And that would greatly antedate later rabbinical debates. Subsequent debates at a time when Judaism was suffering an identity crisis in the wake of its disastrous wars with Rome. When Judaism was trying to define or redefine itself after it’s expulsion from the Holy City and the Holy Land.

ii) Another problem with Kimel’s argument is that he’s trying to validate a historical outcome by appealing to the historical outcome itself. But that’s viciously circular.

iii) Moreover, it doesn’t occur to him that we can have our own grounds for accepting the canonicity of Canticles. We aren’t necessarily dependent on someone else’s argument.

It is ludicrous to suppose that any Church Father, even the most ‘literal-minded’ one, would have supposed that [the Song of Songs] meaning was its meaning as a book on its own.

It might be ludicrous to a church father. But why should that supply the standard of comparison? It’s not as if Canticles was written to a church father.

On its own it is an erotic love poem.

And what, exactly, is wrong with that interpretation? On the most probable interpretation, the poem is about a couple betrothed to be married. Is there some reason the Bible can’t celebrate their anticipation?

They would all have said that its meaning was to be understood in terms of its place in a Christian Bible. Just as the rabbis had interpreted it as concerned with God’s agapeistic love for the old Israel, so now the Church Fathers normally interpreted it as concerned with God’s (or perhaps Christ’s) love for Israel, new (the Church) as well as old. Even those Church Fathers who protested against the allegorical interpretations of other passages interpreted allegorically here and no doubt in some other places as well. There is no justification whatever for them or us to regard the Song as a special case; whatever rules apply to it apply generally.

I don’t regard Canticles as a special case. Kimel’s objection cuts both ways.

But is Kimel consistent? How does Kimel interpret the Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, and Resurrection? Are those literal events? Or does he interpret those stories allegorically?

The genetic fallacy that origins determine present operation leads us to suppose that we understand the meaning of a text when we understand its literary history. But we do not; what we need to know is its literary context, not its literary history.

That is not the genetic fallacy. Here’s a standard definition of the genetic fallacy: “A critic commits the genetic fallacy if the critic attempts to discredit or support a claim or an argument because of its origin (genesis) when such an appeal to origins is irrelevant.”

First, we must recognize that although Scripture is itself a collection of ancient documents, written, redacted, and edited by many individuals over a period of a thousand years, Scripture is itself one book. Its divine author intends it to be read as a narrative whole.

I basically agree, although I don’t share his views on higher criticism.

Hence the insistence of the Articles, as cited above, that one part of Scripture may not be expounded to contradict another part of Scripture.

That’s not at odds with the grammatico-historical method.

“The New Testament is hidden in the Old,” explains St Augustine, “and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”

This is so vague that it could be true or false depending on how it’s developed.

To the eyes of faith, the Bible enjoys a wondrous unity, and that unity is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

“To the eyes” of faith the Bible is unified? Does this mean the unity of Scripture is a private projection onto Scripture rather than an objective feature of Scripture? Is the unity superimposed by the allegorical method?

Every verse, every passage must be read within the one story and revelation that is Holy Scripture.

That’s pious bunk. Although the OT has an overarching storyline, many verses are simply factual or practical. Amos supplies some autobiographical information in 1:1 to introduce himself to the reader. There’s nothing messianic about 1:1. Solomon gives some cautionary advice about prostitution in Prov 7 because it’s good advice. There’s nothing messianic about Prov 7.

Everything in the OT isn’t meant to be prophetic or typological. The Bible contains many mundane statements because the Bible is descriptive of life on earth—with all its physical necessities. They don’t always point to something else. To turn the OT into an elaborate allegory converts the OT into a work of fiction—like Bunyan or Dante. But every bush is not a burning bush. Every dove is not a theophany.

Second, the Bible is the Church’s book and is thus to be read in the Church and with the Church, in the community of the Holy Spirit.

The church inherited the OT from the Jews. The modern church inherited the NT from the NT church.

We are privileged to share this heritage, but that doesn’t mean we get to redefine it. We are to be faithful custodians, not revolutionaries who remodel the estate handed down to us by OT Jews and NT Christians.

The Bible did not fall from heaven, but was collected and formally canonized by the community of believers.

From a Catholic standpoint, that’s false. The community of believers doesn’t have the authority to formally canonize the Bible. Only the extraordinary Magisterium can do that.

Historians read the Bible as ancient literature; Christians read the Scripture as contemporary revelation addressed to the Church for eternal salvation.

Kimel drives a wedge between what it meant and what it means. That’s a false dichotomy. Since the Bible was written for the benefit of all believers, what it meant remains perennially relevant to all believers—past, present, and future. One doesn’t need to alter the original meaning to make it relevant.

I have found helpful and persuasive philosopher Richard Swinburne’s little book Revelation. The Protestant rule “Scripture interprets Scripture” is philosophically hopeless, he says. Why? Because the meaning of a given text changes when it is incorporated into a wider collection of texts that is intended to be read as one book. It’s not enough, in other words, to determine the historical-critical meaning of a specific passage. The act of canonization effects a change in literary context and therefore in meaning. Every book, ever chapter, every verse must now be interpreted within the context of the whole. This means that even if St. Paul could come back and explain to us precisely what he meant when he wrote his Epistle to the Galatians, he would not be able to determine for us the true significance of his words. The meaning of this letter has been altered precisely by its incorporation into the collection of Holy Scripture. It is the entire canon that the Church proclaims as Scripture, not just individual texts.

The ever provocative Stanley Hauerwas has presented a similar argument in his book Unleashing the Scripture. Invoking Stanley Fish for support, Hauerwas writes:

Once Paul’s letters become so constructed canonically, Paul becomes one interpreter among others of his letters. If Paul could appear among us today to tell us what he “really meant” when he wrote, for example 1 Corinthians 13, his view would not necessarily count more than Gregory’s or Luther’s account of Corinthians. There simply is no “real meaning” of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians once we understand that they are no longer Paul’s letters but rather the Church’s Scripture. Such examples remind us, according to Fish, that texts only exist in a continuing web of interpretive practices.

Swinburne suggests that the passages be read historically, i.e., as local instruction not necessarily universally applicable. He then states:

And I re-emphasize that reading the passages in such a way is not saying that that is what St Paul meant by what he wrote. People sometimes write what they do not mean; what they mean is determined by the context, and if the context is the whole Bible as a Christian document inspired by God, the meaning of these passages may be quite other than St Paul meant them to have. (p. 200)

i) I appreciate the graphic illustration of what rejecting sola Scriptura and original intention leads to. This puts Kimel, Swinburne, and Hauerwas on a collision course with apostolic authority. And, in so doing, puts them on a collision course with divine authority.

If they were to try that line one of the Apostles, they would have been excommunicated. Such an attitude would disqualify them from membership in the NT church, which is the paradigmatic church.

ii) I’d add that this is exactly how liberals in the church treat the Bible. Liberals appeal to the evolving consensus of the living community of faith. They claim the Holy Spirit is leading the church into newer and truer interpretations of Scripture.

iii) Appealing to tradition is no solution, since, if Scripture has no “real meaning,” or if the meaning of a Biblical statement may be quite other than what the Bible writer meant it to have, then one can apply the same hermeneutical relativism to the church fathers, Scholastic theologians, ecumenical councils, papal encyclicals, &c.

Our interpretation may begin with historical exegesis, but it cannot stop with a merely historical reading. The Bible as God’s Word given to us today. Thus its proper location is the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist.

Of course, that’s just a grand assertion, screaming for an argument. Not even the NT is centered on the Eucharist.

Third, because the Bible as the Word of God does not belong to an obvious genre of literature and because it does not itself provide us with rules on how to read it as one book, we must look to the community of the Bible to show us how to interpret it properly.

i) He keeps saying it doesn’t belong to an obvious literary genre. What does that claim even mean? At one level, the Bible doesn’t belong to any one literary genre because it represents several literary genres.

What he seems to be saying is that Scripture, as the word of God, is a unique genre. Inspiration creates a unique genre. But does it? He seems to be assuming that inspiration can’t express itself through the medium of a preexisting literary genre. If so, where’s the argument?

And why does revelation require a different set of rules? Once again, where’s the argument? Didn’t God reveal his will in human language? Through human linguistic and literary conventions? Indeed, isn’t God ultimately responsible for these preexisting media?

Very early on the Church insisted that the Scripture must be interpreted in accordance with the creeds of the Church. Later the Church insisted that it must be interpreted in accordance with the dogmas of faith established by the Church in ecumenical council. In other words, the Bible can only be rightly interpreted within the Holy Tradition of the Church. We do not come to the Scriptures as solitary individuals nor is our reading of Scripture limited to contemporary concerns. We read the Bible in community with the saints and martyrs. “Tradition,” G. K. Chesteron remarked, “refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

i) Have you ever noticed that Catholics reason like Marcionites and anti-Semites? It’s as if the Chosen People never existed. They’re like the prediluvians. We’re starting from scratch. Wipe the slate clean.

ii) What is the papacy or episcopate if not an “arrogant oligarchy”?

We may legitimately question the arbitrariness of limiting the authoritative Tradition to the first four ecumenical councils, but what is crucial for us to see is the insistence that Holy Writ must be interpreted through the hermeneutical lens of the Fathers.

i) If it’s admittedly arbitrary to limit authoritative tradition to the first four ecumenical councils then why should we limit our interpretation of Scripture to the hermeneutical lens of the Fathers?

ii) Does Kimel, in fact, so limit his interpretation of Scripture? If the church fathers interpret Scripture geocentrically, does that commit him to a geocentric interpretation of Scripture?

iii) Is there a patristic lens? Aren’t there several different patristic lenses? What happens when one church father disagrees with another? Which patristic lens takes precedence?

iv) Why must Scripture be interpreted through the lens of the church fathers? It wasn’t written to them. And it wasn’t written for them, in some exclusive sense.

v) Do the church fathers have some special expertise on Egyptology or Assyriology?

Yes, the Scriptures must be interpreted in light of new developments in historical, economic, and scientific knowledge. We understand more clearly today, for example, the inherent wickedness of slavery than we did fifteen hundred years ago. The Spirit leads us into deeper understandings of God’s Word, even as we sometimes forget the truths learned by earlier generations.

So how does he reconcile that claim with the primacy of the patristic lens? He doesn’t. He merely places two contradictory hermeneutical principles side-by-side.

It’s important to recall that the meaning of a sentence changes when it is incorporated into a wider work. Context changes meaning. This means that the meaning that God intends in his Bible is not necessarily identical to the meaning intended by a given biblical writer.

That’s a muddled claim. What context is he talking about? Authorial context? Authorial context doesn’t alter authorial meaning. The author intended his statement to be construed in light of the authorial context.

We note that Augustine allows for extra-textual factors to compel a metaphorical interpretation of a given text. If a literal interpretation contradicts the doctrines of the catholic faith or violates the love of God and neighbor, then a figurative interpretation is called for, regardless of the intent of the biblical writer.

If the original intent of Bible writers can be set aside, then what’s the basis for believing in the love of God and neighbor, or the doctrines of the catholic faith?

Elsewhere Augustine acknowledges that knowledge gained through scientific and historical inquiry may also compel metaphorical interpretation. For example, Augustine argued that the days of creation in Genesis 1 should not be taken literally because a literal day requires the existence of the sun. Now Augustine may be wrong in judging that the biblical writer literally intended twenty-four hour days; but what is important is the interpretive principle.

To merely cite Augustine’s opinion is not an argument.

The beliefs shared by God and the Church of many centuries which force metaphorical interpretation on the text will be not only those of Christian doctrine, but those of science and history, provided by normal secular enquiry. God knows all truths in these fields; so if the Bible is addressed to the Church of many centuries, then truths of which that Church also becomes aware may force metaphorical interpretation on biblical passages which, taken literally, contradict them….This point was not a modern discovery but well recognized in the centuries which preceded the final canonization of Scripture, and is therefore among the understandings with which it was canonized.

If you conceded that God omnisciently inspired the Bible writers, then there would be no need to adjust your interpretation in light of future developments inasmuch as God took future developments into account when he inspired the Bible writers.

In determining the meaning of a given text, it is often critical to identify the audience to whom the text was addressed and to find out as much as possible about that audience. So to properly understand Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, I need to understand the Corinthian church in its historical and cultural context (as much as that can be determined). But First Corinthians is not just an isolated text. It belongs also to a book that we confess to be Holy Scripture, whose author is God Almighty and whose audience is the one holy catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. One implication of this confession is that the canonical meaning of any given sentence may not truly become clear until many generations after the text was originally composed.

Why should a sentence in 1 Corinthians mean one thing to the Corinthians, and something else to a later audience? Why isn’t a later audience responsible for taking the original situation into account?

Does the meaning of 1 Corinthians change from decade to decade and place to place? Notice the hermeneutical relativism implicit in his position.

The author of Genesis 1 may well have believed that the world was created in seven twenty-four days; but the Church Fathers “knew” that the ultimate author of Genesis, God, intended the seven creation days to be interpreted metaphorically.

So uninspired church fathers knew better than inspired Bible writers?

We have seen how Augustine allowed that scientific discovery forced metaphorical interpretation on a text; for it was scientific “discovery” which suggested that in a literal sense there were not separate “days” of creation. And Augustine belonged to the century which promulgated a canonized Scripture. But if the intended audience of Scripture is the Church, not only of the first century (many of whom, presumably, Augustine would have regarded as scientifically backward) or the first four centuries, but of later centuries and millenniums, then … truth evident to the latter (especially as the Church of later centuries is by numbers of members much larger than the earlier Church) must also be allowed to force a reinterpretation on the text in the way that truth evident to Augustine forced that. New scientific and historical discoveries may force that kind of reinterpretation.

i) To begin with, the apparent tension between day 1 and day 4 of Gen 1 is not a scientific discovery. The fact that we already have a diurnal cycle in place on days 1-3 is given in the text. That’s not an extratextual finding. And that, in turn, raises the question of whether days 1-3 are solar days, and how they relate to day 4. These are hermeneutical questions, not scientific questions. The text itself supplies the data for these reflections.

ii) Moreover, Kimel’s explanation leaves us with the absurd conclusion that Gen 1 had no target audience until the advent of the church fathers. The author wrote Genesis with no one in mind, put the scroll in a drawer, where it gathered dust for centuries upon centuries, bypassing generations of Jews, until the church fathers opened the drawer, dusted off the scroll, and told us what it means.

The future of catholic Christianity thus lies … where else but with the two traditions that are truly catholic–Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Both traditions deny the formal sufficiency of the Bible. Both reject the sola scriptura of Protestantism. Both insist that the Scriptures are to be interpreted through the living Tradition of the Church. And for this reason, both communions have the structural capacity to say No to modernity and to maintain, by the grace of God, the core doctrines of Christianity.

Does Catholicism say No to modernity? Doesn’t Catholicism make many concessions to modernity? It tends to be tardy in its concessions to modernity, but it has a way of catching up.

The Scriptures are themselves the product of Holy Tradition. “Tradition is the matrix,” Fr John writes, “in which the Scriptures are conceived and from which they are brought forth.” This is most clearly seen in the relationship between the New Testament and the apostolic Church.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this is true. By his own admission, the OT is an exception of this principle. But surely the OT is not a minor exception? Indeed, Jesus and the Apostles rely on the OT to a great extent.

The relationship between Bible and Tradition is therefore a closed hermeneutical circle. Holy Scripture is God’s Word to his Church for salvation and is thus the canon by which all traditions are judged and authentic Tradition is determined. The Holy Scripture, on the other hand, is birthed within the Church and by the Church as the normative expression of her Holy Tradition. Holy Scripture is Tradition, the normative part of Tradition, yet not independently of the whole of Tradition. Holy Tradition thus determines the canonical limits of Scripture and provides the interpretive community in which Scripture may be rightly read and interpreted.

i) But that’s obviously false. The OT wasn’t birthed by the church. Moreover, the NT wasn’t birthed by the church. It was “birthed” by individuals. Kimel is equivocating.

ii) And what was the interpretive community for the Pentateuch, or the Psalter, or Ezra, or Jeremiah? The church? The Jewish community doesn’t count? Only the church? Why is the OT covenant community irrelevant to the interpretation of the OT? Why is the NT covenant community irrelevant to the interpretation of the NT? Why is the interpretive community shunted off to the church fathers or the medieval doctors?

iii) Moreover, Kimel is equivocating in another respect. For him, the “church” is code language for the church fathers or the Magisterium. That’s the “interpretive community.”

To the patristic mind, what makes this seemingly circular approach not only possible but necessary is the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who guides the Church and her inspired authors both to preserve and transmit the essential elements of Tradition, and to produce the canonical or normative writings which Tradition spawns and shapes in terms of their content. Without this inspirational work of the Spirit, both Scripture and Tradition would be purely human products, devoid of any claim to ultimate truth or authority. It is the work of the Spirit that enables the Church both to generate and to interpret her own canon or rule of truth, and thereby to preserve intact, as she must, the true hermeneutic circle constituted by Scripture in Tradition.

i) So the Holy Spirit signed an exclusive contract with the church of Rome. Only Roman Catholics enjoy the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Not uncircumcised Protestants.

ii) Yet Kimel is quoting an Orthodox author. In that case, why does the Holy Spirit guide Catholics to believe one thing, and Orthodox to believe something different?

How very different this approach is from all Protestant formulations of the authority of the Bible! The Protestant sola scriptura seeks to exalt God’s Word and authority over the Church, and yet, ironically and contrary to intention, ends up exalting the private opinion of the interpreter over all.

Even if we accept this characterization of Orthodoxy, how does that apply to Catholicism? When you claim infallible authority for ex cathedra pronouncements of the pope, that ends up exalting the private opinion of one interpreter over all in a way alien to Protestant theology.

A question for my unrepentant sola scriptura brethren: Both Orthodoxy and Catholicism reject sola scriptura and construe a circular relationship between the Holy Bible and Holy Tradition. Which is more likely to be a late innovation? the catholic approach or the Protestant approach?

Several problems:

i) Kimel likes to play both sides of the fence. He doesn’t object to novel reinterpretations which are leveraged by modern science, &c.

ii) There is also the question of “innovative” in relation to what? Yes, you can say the Protestant Reformers are innovative in relation to the church fathers. By definition, they occupy a later date in church history.

But the church fathers are innovative in relation to the Bible writers.

iii) Moreover, Kimel admits that he is advocating novel interpretations of Scripture—novel because they deliberately disregard the original intent of the Bible writers, whereas conservative Protestant scholars try to honor the original intent of the Bible writers.

So, at a substantive, rather than merely chronological level, Kimel’s version of the hermeneutical circle is self-consciously and defiantly innovative. You couldn’t get more innovative than that if you tried. That’s a paradigmatic form of theological innovation. Novelty isn’t side-effect of this approach, but central to this approach.

A very interesting argument. I first ran across it in Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation and Stanley Hauerwas’s Unleashing the Scripture. Once an individual’s writing is incorporated into a collection of writings (in this case, the canon of Holy Scripture) it must be interpreted in light of the changed literary context; it must be interpreted within the entire collection of writings. This means that we must entertain a distinction between grammatical-historical meaning (what the text means according to the author’s original intent) and canonical meaning (what the text means within the context of the whole of Scripture, according to God’s intent). It is this traditional distinction that seems to elude so many of us today. Swinburne explains:

So there was a wide tradition in the early Church of reading the Bible metaphorically and not always literally; it was the Church of the centuries which established the canon of Scripture which taught that this was the way in which it ought to be read. It was the Bible understood in that way which they declared to be true…. By and large this general spirit of interpretation continued, despite much more emphasis on the literal meaning, during the later Middle Ages and even the period of classical Reformers. But in the nineteenth century the Bible came to be interpreted by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants in perhaps the most literal and insensitive way in which it has ever been interpreted in Christian history. This literalism was encouraged by the basic philosophical mistake of equating the “original meaning” of the text, gradually being probed by historical enquiry, with the meaning of the text in the context of a Christian document. We may hanker after the “original meaning” in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork and context changes meaning…. The genetic fallacy that origins determine present operation leads us to suppose that we understand the meaning of a text when we understand its literary history. But we do not; what we need to know is its literary context, not its literary history.” (Revelation, pp. 206-208)

This is deeply confused:

i) For one thing, it fails to draw an elementary distinction between authorial intent and audient understanding. For example, I have a better understanding of 2 Corinthians if I’ve read 1 Corinthians. It’s more meaningful to me. It makes more sense to me if I read 2 Corinthians in light of the background supplied by 1 Corinthians.

That, however, doesn’t alter Pauline intent. It doesn’t change what Paul meant to express by the words he used. Rather, the more I know about the circumstances underlying 2 Corinthians, the better I know what Paul had in mind. I have a better grasp of what he meant.

ii) We also need to distinguish between authorial context and canonical context. Reading another writing by the same writer (authorial context) can sometimes help you understand what he meant.

That’s quite different than using a different writing by a different writer. As a rule, we shouldn’t use one writer to interpret another writer, for one writer didn’t write with a view to the other (unless it’s, say, a correspondence).

iii) We also need to distinguish between sense and reference. There is a historical subtext to a lot of Scripture: a pattern of promise and fulfillment. Knowing the outcome gives you a clearer sense of what the prophet was talking about. That, however, doesn’t alter or augment the meaning of the words. Rather, it supplies the future, extralinguistic referent.

iv) One problem with the reader-response theory which Kimel is advocating is that, his position notwithstanding, “the role of an audience appears to be primarily to understand a text, not to establish its meaning. An audience tries to get the point made by an author or user; not to impose a meaning on the text it reads or hears. Audiences feel constrained by the meanings they understand texts to have. This is why they often criticize the views expressed by texts, or modify them to fit their own views,” J. Gracia, “Meaning,” K. Vanhoozer, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Baker 2005), 496a.

The canonical interpretation of the Bible ultimately requires a catholic understanding of Church, canon, and dogma; otherwise, Scripture becomes a wax nose that can be construed to mean anything we want it to mean—always, of course, under the alleged inspiration of the Spirit.

Of course, that’s an artificial solution to an artificial problem. First, he unnaturally divorces meaning from intent. Then, to avoid the promiscuous consequences of that divorce, he must introduce the makeshift solution of Magisterium to restrain hermeneutical debauchery.

In other words, we may adopt a figurative reading of a given text only when we are constrained to do so by ethical and theological considerations.

In other words, our theology and ethics have no basis in Scripture. Rather, we use these extrabiblical filters to screen out anything that doesn’t pass through out strainer. Why bother to go through the motions of using Scripture at all?

We should also add that new knowledge in the scientific and historical realms may also compel us to interpret a biblical text metaphorically, as evidenced by Augustine’s own interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. But as the Bishop of Hippo makes clear, our interpretation of the Holy Scripture always begins with the literal meaning of the text. We may depart from this literal meaning only when legitimate considerations force us to do so, when it is clear that God could not have intended the literal meaning as his Word to his Church.

Of course, Bultmann had a word for that: demythologization. He applied that solution to the entirety of the Christ-Event.

If we feel free to resort to blatantly anachronistic interpretations, then the Bible is just a game of scrabble, where we keep rearranging the pieces to form new meanings.

And it won’t to do invoke Sacred Tradition as a constraint on this process, for there’s no reason we shouldn’t treat Sacred Tradition as metaphorically as we treat Holy Writ.

But not so the grammatical-historical critics of the past hundred and fifty years. It is an axiom within the academy that faith has no place in the interpretation of Scripture. In a recent article published on the Society of Biblical Literature website, Michael V. Fox argues that “faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer.” He acknowledges that faith-interpretation of the Bible has a place in “synagogues, churches, and religious schools,” but it is not scholarship. I agree with him. There is such a thing as the grammatical-historical exegesis of the writings contained in the Bible. This form of critical reading treats these writings as man-made documents that can be objectively interpreted by any individual trained in the use of approved scholarly apparatus. The historical exegete does not read the Bible as Scripture. He reads the Bible, or more accurately, the individual texts contained within it, as historical artifacts.

i) Kimel is confusing what the author means with what the reader believes. These are distinct issues. At one level, I treat Homer and Moses the same way. I try to ascertain what they meant.

ii) Whether I agree with them is a different issue, and quite irrelevant to exegesis.

iii) But part of exegesis is also to ascertain the viewpoint of the writer. How does he view himself? If a writer claims to be a prophet, then I need to evaluate his claim.

The act of exegesis is not, of itself, intended to verify or falsify that claim. That’s a different operation.

The question then becomes, Of what interest to the Church is the grammatical-historical interpretation of the Bible? I remember attending a lecture given by Stanley Hauerwas on how to read the Bible. In the audience were a number of esteemed scholars, including Jack Dean Kingsbury. Hauerwas was asked what he would do to reform theological education. “Fire the Bible scholars!” he declared. In his book Unleashing the Scripture, Hauerwas states that he no longer trusts “the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis.” He acknowledges that the historical-critical method may provide readings of Scripture that are helpful to the proclamation of the gospel, but he rejects the privileging of such readings.

Underlying Hauerwas’s approach to Scripture is the catholic conviction that the living reality of the Church is prior to the written word. “You do not have or need ‘a meaning’ of the text,” states Hauerwas, “when you understand that Church is more determinative than text.”

Of course, one small problem with this position is that it’s self-refuting. Kimel is quoting from the spoken and written words of Hauerwas to prove a point. But if we disregard authorial intent, if we don’t have or need a meaning of a text, if we don’t distinguish between exegesis and eisegesis, then his statements have no fixed meaning or objective sense.

Before the Bible, there is the Word of God dwelling in the heart of the Church. It is this faith in Holy Tradition that enables the Christian to find Christ in every sentence of Holy Scripture—holy eisegesis indeed.

Has the Vatican issued a commentary on the Bible in which we can find Christ in every sentence of Scripture?

The writers of the biblical books are all dead. We cannot now ask them what they meant when they wrote what they did. We cannot put our questions to them. They are not available to clarify and correct what they meant to say nor amplify on what they wrote. Nor can we ask the subsequent redactors and editors who pulled the material into their final written forms what they intended. All we have are the texts. With the death of the original authors and editors, the reader necessarily assumes an independence over against the text.

Of course, that ignores the rationale for a written record. Bible writers wrote for those occasions when they were unavailable. Because they couldn’t be two places at once. Because they were mindful of their own mortality. As one scholar explains:

“It is a fact that we have a text because we had an author(s) who produced a text for us to seek to understand. Interpretation then very naturally should be concerned, at least initially, with what the author who produced the text sought to communicate through it…the purpose of exegesis is to articulate what the author expressed, since the text is the ‘voiceprint’ of an author. Even when we do not know an author’s exact identity, as is the case in a book like Hebrews, we can still examine his text for his meaning…A text is the recorded product of an author so that even if the author’s identity is not known or the author is dead and unavailable, the text gives access to the author’s expression and thought,” D. Bock, “Opening Questions: Definition and Philosophy of Exegesis,” D. Bock & B. Fanning, eds. Interpreting the New Testament Text: The Art and Science of Exegesis (Crossway 2006), 24-25,28.

Thus the historical problem. How can we figure out, with any degree of accuracy and authority, what the dead biblical writers—or individuals, like Jesus, who are quoted within the texts—meant when they said what they said?

i) There are limitations to this process. But God is aware of the limitations. We’re responsible to do what’s possible, not to do what’s impossible, in that regard.

Through the OT and NT, Jews and Christians are commanded to heed dead Bible writers. Bible writer who were by the time the newer generation was commanded to heed their inspired words.

ii) It’s not as the church furnishes any alternative. The church can’t hold a séance to interview Daniel or Isaiah or Luke or John. The church has no greater access to dead Bible writers than the rest of us.

iii) Is Kimel suggesting that we should simply disregard all writings from the past (e.g. the church fathers) and rely on the spoken words of a living prophet, from one generation to the next?

This is where the historical-critical method ostensibly comes to our rescue. Let the historians immerse themselves in the literature and artifacts that have survived and let them tell us what the texts mean. But it hasn’t worked out quite like that. Perhaps it can’t work out quite like that…C. S. Lewis’s essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (Christian Reflections [1967], pp. 152-166) offers a helpful perspective.

i) Needless to say, it’s a truly stupid move for Kimel to quote Lewis at this point, for Lewis is dead. He died in 1963.We cannot now ask him what he meant when he wrote his essay. We cannot put our questions to him. He’s not available to clarify and correct what he meant to say nor amplify on what he wrote. All we have are his texts. With the death of the Lewis, the reader necessarily assumes an independence over against his text.

ii) And even if we could interview Lewis, remember Kimel’s approving citation of Hauerwas (as well as Swinburne), according to whom we don’t have or need a meaning of a text. If Lewis were to interpret his own statements, Hauerwas would feel free to brush aside that interpretation.

iii) Moreover, the quote from Lewis is misleading. Many books of the Bible state the author’s purpose, or the situation which occasioned the writing. So this isn’t a case of trying to psychoanalyze the hidden motives of the author.

Remember, too, that Lewis is attacking Bultmann. Bultmann didn’t take his cue from information which a Bible writer volunteered about his own motives. To the contrary, Bultmann disregarded that information as pseudonymic pose. That’s why Bultmann found it necessary to peel back the alleged layers to discover the “true” sitz-im-leben.

Who will defend Scripture when the Church is confronted by two or more contradictory interpretations of Scripture? As Chesterton observed, we cannot put a book in the dock and ask it what it means. Here we confront a problem inherent in every text.

In that event, why is Kimel quoting Chesterton? Chesterton is one of those dead writers. We can’t put Chesterton in the dock and ask him what he meant. Yet Kimel doesn’t bring the same scepticism to his interpretation of Lewis and Chesterton.

In his book Revelation (1992), British philosopher Richard Swinburne notes that the meaning of a text may change when it is incorporated into a wider literary context…Genesis does not stand on its own; it must be interpreted in relationship to Exodus and Isaiah. Paul’s Letter to the Romans does not stand on its own; it must be interpreted in relationship to James, Hebrews, and Matthew. The Old Testament does not stand on its own; it must be interpreted in relationship to the New Testament. And the Bible itself does not stand on its own; it must be interpreted in relationship to the Incarnate Christ, to whom the entirety of Scripture gives witness. Each book of the Bible was in fact divinely intended to be a chapter in the one book of the Bible, even though none of the original authors knew this at the time.

This fails to draw some basic distinctions:

i) Naturally we should interpret Genesis in conjunction with Exodus. The Pentateuch was originally composed to form a literary unit. The five books of the Pentateuch share common authorship (something Kimel would deny).

That doesn’t change the meaning of Genesis, for the author of Genesis never intended that Genesis be understood in isolation to Exodus or the Pentateuch as a whole.

ii) Although Bible writers don’t have the entire Bible in view, they’re aware of the fact that they are writing in a literary tradition, with a view to the past as well as the future. Promise and fulfillment. They look backward and forward.

iii) As I’ve pointed out before, Kimel confuses the meaning of a text with the meaning of an extratextual referent. Historical narratives track historical events. Indeed, in Scripture, they also anticipate historical events. A retrospective knowledge of the future event—future to the original author, but past or present to a later audience—enables the audience to better understand the direction of Scripture. But that doesn’t add new meaning to the text. Rather, that adds an element of recognition.

iv) As a matter of fact, we shouldn’t use Paul to interpret James, or vice versa. We should interpret each author on his own terms, then, at the level of systematic theology, discuss their logical interrelationship.

Swinburne would not agree:

What the Church proclaimed as Holy Scripture were not individual books, let alone the units out of which they were made, but the whole collection. Putting the books together into a whole Bible involved giving them a change of context and, in consequence, by processes similar to those involved in the formation of an individual book, a change of meaning.

The process produced a change of literary context: what were before books on their own became parts of a big book. And it also produced a change of social and cultural context, but just what the change was depends on who we suppose to be the author of the whole Bible and who was its intended audience. For, we we have seen, it is the social context and the cultural predispositions of the author and his audience which dictate how the book is to be interpreted. The Church put the Bible together, but it did so by selecting books deriving from prophets or apostles in which were recorded what in its view was God’s revelation through them to man. God, in the Church’s view, was the ultimate author of the Bible—working, no doubt, through human writers with their own idiosyncracies of style, but all the same inspiring the individual books. What the Church proclaimed with respect to the Bible was not just “here is a book which we have found and recognized as true,” but “here is a book which we have found and recognized as inspired by God and so as true.” (pp. 174-175)

This sort of reasoning commits the division fallacy. For example, the Psalter is an anthology of many different Psalms, written over the course of many centuries. As such, the Psalter has an overall meaning which goes over and above the meaning of any particular Psalm. But by that same token, no particular Psalm shares the meaning of the whole. Psalm 1 doesn’t mean what the Psalter means. There’s no expansive meaning. Although you can go from part to whole, you can’t reverse the process and backload any individual psalm with the total meaning of the Psalter.

The poet who composed the Song of Songs certainly did not know he was actually composing a poem about the mystical marriage between Jesus Christ and his Church.

Kimel keeps using this example as if we should take his allegorical interpretation for granted. That’s highly ironic coming from a man who employs this example to justify his conversion to Rome. Can Kimel cite any major Catholic Bible scholar from the post-Vatican II era who thinks the Song of Songs is really about the mystical marriage between Christ and the church?

Moreover, while each individual text was written for a specific audience, the Bible as a whole is understood as having been written for all mankind in every age. The Bible is Scripture, Holy Writ, God’s Word written. Hence the Bible is a unique book. It stands apart from all other collections of writings. It enjoys no human analogies. Its genre is sui generis. We therefore cannot figure out through any form of historical research how to properly read it. Neutral scholarship is incapable of discerning the rules for its correct interpretation.

i) This is clearly an overstatement. The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. Yes, in some respects, the Bible is sui generis. What makes it sui generis is not that it’s written for everyone. That’s the effect of an underlying cause. What makes it sui generis is that it’s divinely inspired.

ii) Divine inspiration makes use of standard literary genres. There’s no tension between inspiration and genre.

iii) The fact that it’s written for everyone doesn’t mean we’re free to disregard original intent. It’s incumbent on every reader to ask himself what this would have meant to the target audience. We should be so egotistical as to think that Bible use personally written for you and me, without any regard for the immediate audience to whom it was addressed.

I thus find myself in total agreement with Swinburne when he dismisses the Protestant claim of the Bible’s perspicuity. The slogan “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” is impossible, for “the Bible does not belong to an obvious genre which provides rules for how overall meaning is a function of meaning of individual books” (p. 177).

This is another example of Kimel’s glaring incompetence. Having just told us that we should treat every book of the Bible as if it’s a chapter in a single book, so that we must interpret each book of the Bible in relation to every other book of the Bible, Kimel then turns around and expressed his “total agreement” with Swinburne in rejecting the principle that Scripture is its own interpreter.

If critical scholarship cannot provide us the rules for the proper interpretation of Scripture as Scripture, who can? The answer is clear—only the community that acknowledged, and acknowledges, this collection of writings as Scripture can do so. More specifically and practically, we must learn how to read Scripture from the Church Fathers and medieval doctors: they must teach us the fundamental hermeneutical principles of the proper interpretation and application of the Bible. The Bible cannot tell us how to interpret the Bible; only the Church can.

Notice the equivocations. We shift from the “community” to a little subset of the “community—the church fathers—and then we extend that to the medieval doctors—as if Duns Scotus or Thomas Aquinas was responsible for canonizing the Bible.

What could be more arbitrary? Kimel doesn’t begin with the evidence. Rather, he begins with his foregone conclusion. He paints a target in empty space, then paints a fictitious background around his target.

Kimel is welcome to hang his painting in a museum, but for those of us who don’t live in museums, we need something closer to terra firma.

The problem posed by the historical-critical method may be posed as the difference between what the text meant and what it means. Once this dichotomy is clearly and sharply posed, we find ourselves in a crisis of authority. How does Scripture exercise authority in the Church if its meaning is restricted to what the original authors meant? And indeed why should anyone care about Scripture if its meaning is so restricted?

This is another pseudoproblem. You ascertain what the text meant, then you analogize from the historical situation it was addressing to a comparable situation in your own experience. Why doesn’t that even occur to Kimel?

This only creates a crisis if you assume the Bible was never meant to be germane to future generations. If, however, the Bible contains timeless norms and perennial situations, there is no chasm between what it meant and how it now applies.

The only reason these writings have been saved for posterity is because of the commitment of the religious communities to them as Holy Scripture. The existence of the canon challenges the primary presuppostion of historical criticism that a given text is to be interpreted only within the historical context in which it was written. “The very existence of a canon,” Levenson notes, “testifies to the reality of recontexualization: an artifact may survive the circumstances that brought it into being, including the social and political circumstances to which so much attention is currently devoted. Indeed, it can outlive the culture in which it was produced.

Kimel confuses meaning with relevance. The meaning of a text is not dependent on its relevance to the reader. If I read Bertrand Russell book on Marriage & Morals, what he meant is thankfully irrelevant to my own outlook.

What makes the Bible relevant is that Scripture is inspired for the benefit of posterity.

The historical-critical method thus introduces a cleavage that had never existed before—a cleavage between the meaning intended by the biblical writers (the concern of scholars and all other intelligent persons) and the meaning intended by God (the concern of preachers, mystics, and the religiously gullible). For the past hundred years, Christian hermeneuts have sought to bridge this chasm.

One of Kimel’s problems is his failure to distinguish between the grammatico-historical method and the historical-critical method. The latter often presupposes methodological naturalism. The former does not.

Hauerwas again:

North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their “common sense” is sufficient for “understanding” the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead they assume that they have all the ‘religious experience’ necessary to know what the Bible is about. As a result the Bible inherently becomes the ideology for a politics quite different from the politics of the Church….

I certainly believe that God uses the Scripture to help keep the Church faithful, but I do not believe, in the Church’s current circumstance, that each person in the Church thereby is given the right to interpret the Scripture. Such a presumption derives from the corrupt egalitarian politics of democratic regimes, not from the politics of the Church. The latter … knows that the “right” reading of Scripture depends on having spiritual masters who can help the whole Church stand under the authority of God’s Word….

Indeed literalist-fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without the necessary mediation by the Church. The reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, joined to the invention of the printing press and underwritten by the democratic trust in the intelligence of the “common person,” has created the situation that now makes people believe that they can read the Bible “on their own.” (Unleashing the Scripture)

i) This confronts us with a set of false alternatives. It isn’t a choice between either democratic common sense or ecclesiastical mediation. The grammatico-historical method is distinct from either approach.

ii) Every Christian is not equally competent to interpret the Bible for himself. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we default to blind authority. A professional exegete should argue for his interpretation.

The idea that the Bible could be interpreted naked, without a tradition of interpretation which clarified its meaning, is not intrinsically plausible and would not have appealed to many before the fifteenth century. Theology from without always dictated which sentences of the Bible were benchmarks by which other sentences were interpreted. (Revelation [1992], p. 177-178)

i) Once again, this confronts us with a set of false alternatives. The grammatico-historical method doesn’t mean the Bible should be interpreted “naked.”

ii) In addition, one can overemphasize the need for background material. Many statements in Scripture can be understood without a specialized knowledge of the sitz-im-leben. The world of the Bible is not a world apart from the modern world. There are continuities as well as discontinuities. Cultural universals as well as culturebound expressions.

Now consider the vast array of writings that are contained in Holy Scripture. We all know, for example, that the Book of Genesis has been pulled together from various sources—the infamous JEDP sources. In the first two chapters we find two different accounts of God’s creation of the world. Presumably each one originally stood alone; the meaning of each was contained within itself, as it were. But now they stand together within the book of Genesis and mutually interpret each other within the context of the book as a whole. Similarly, Genesis itself belongs to Torah, which belongs to the wider collection of writings that we Christians call the Old Testament, which is coordinated with the New Testament within the one book of Holy Scripture, whose author, the Church confesses, is God Almighty.

i) This is a good example of how, if you begin with a liberal view of Scripture, you’re likely to end with a liberal view of Scripture. You meet yourself coming and going.

ii) However, Kimel raises a valid question, even if he uses a bad example to illustrate his question. No doubt some Bible writers make uses of extrabiblical sources. In that event, to what does original intent apply?

Answer: it applies to the secondary source rather than the primary source. Our concern is limited to what the Bible writer meant to make of his sources. What he intended to do with them.

The Church rightly interprets Scripture because the Church knows the gospel, because the Church has internalized the gospel, because the Church is the gospel. She received this faith directly from the risen Christ and this faith is sealed in the depths of her being by the Holy Spirit. The apostolic and catholic faith has existed within the Church from the very beginning, and it is by this faith that she infallibly determines the sense of Holy Scripture.

Here, Kimel is getting carried away with a personification, as if the Church were a single, immortal personage.

If an alien were to land on earth, buy a copy of the Holy Bible from Barnes & Noble, and then return to his home in a galaxy far, far away, he would not be able to then sit down and deduce from its pages the religion that is catholic Christianity. He would not know that every page, every verse of the Old Testament actually witnesses to Jesus of Nazareth. He would not reason out that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, possessing both a divine and human nature. He would not infer that the Church is institutionally structured around a three-fold ministry of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, which gathers weekly with the laity to offer the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood. And he certainly would never guess that life-long celibacy is considered a high and holy calling.

i) On the one hand, this assumes, without benefit of argument, that we can’t derive certain doctrines like the Trinity from the Bible.

One wonders if there isn’t something viciously circular about Kimel’s entire exercise. How much of this reflects the deficiencies of his theological education? The deficiencies of the Anglican seminary he attended.

ii) On the other hand, if we can’t derive certain doctrines from Scripture, then why, indeed, should we believe them? Kimel begins with a preconception of what we’re supposed to believe, like the real presence or the priestly celibacy. If he can’t find that in the Bible, his response is not to change his preconception, but to change his rule of faith to accommodate his preconception.

But why not reverse the process: If my rule belief-system contains so many unscriptural doctrines, then shouldn’t I change my belief-system to bring it in line with divine revelation?

In 1993 the Pontifical Biblical Commission published its attempt to solve the hermeneutical problem: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. The document certainly has its strengths, but its critical weakness is revealed in its treatment of the literal meaning of Scripture...I find the above confusing and unsatisfactory. If the literal sense of a biblical text is that meaning “which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors,” then it seems wrong to criticize historical-critical exegesis for tending to “limit the the meaning of texts by tying it too rigidly to precise historical circumstances.” On the other hand, if we are allowed to entertain extensions or expansions of the literal meaning of a text, then it seems wrong to insist that “every interpretation alien to the meaning expressed by the human authors in their written text” must be rejected as inauthentic.

The irony of his reaction is acute. Kimel has been steadily attacking sola Scriptura and the grammatico-historical method to justify his conversion to Rome. Yet when he arrives at the portals of St. Peter’s basilica, he finds out that his newfound church has adopted the “Protestant” approach to Scripture which he labored to disprove.

This document comes with the seal of approval of two popes, John-Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI:

Yet Kimel finds it “confusing and unsatisfactory.” It suffers from a “critical weakness.”

I agree with Kimel that this documents papers over some internal tensions. It’s an intellectual compromise, which tries to harmonize past practice with present practice in a way that doesn’t do justice to either.

But that’s not my problem. That is a problem for Kimel.


  1. He has a rambling, repetitious style

    Ha ha.

    Pot -- Kettle.

  2. I have never noticed Steve to repeat himself. In fact, his posts are littered with such comments as, "I've already discussed this so I won't discuss it here..." Then I've got to go look for it. Time well spent, but ...

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