Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Reading Scripture in community

1. A popular Catholic trope is that, contrary to sola Scriptura, Scripture was meant to be read in community. It can't be properly understood apart from the interpretive community of faith. 

To flesh out the argument: the Bible is the Church's book. Scripture was written to and for the Church. The Church promulgated the  Bible by deciding which books are canonical. 

To understand the Bible, you must read it from the viewpoint of the interpretive community. You can't understand the Bible as an outside observer, but only as an insider.

You must experience the Bible as a member of the community. That's not something you can get just from reading the church fathers or papal encyclicals. Community is something you must experience firsthand. There's a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. To experience community is different from reading Catholic expositors, with the critical detachment of an outsider. 

Compare watching a movie at home alone with watching the same movie in a movie theater. Watching a movie in a movie theater is a collective experience. There's a social dynamic. Crowd psychology kicks in. The reaction of the audience has an influence on how individual members of the audience experience the film. 

2. There's a grain of truth to that. Christian identity has a corporate dimension as well as an individual dimension. Christians belong to the family of God. We worship together. And the Bible is a common reference point. But the Catholic trope suffers from some basic problems:

i) What's their reference class for the interpretive community? For instance, suppose everyone in the Christian community reads Rom 4, then the ten most popular interpretations are collected, then a vote is taken. The winning interpretation represents a communal reading.

But, of course, that's not what Catholic apologists mean by communal interpretation. They mean church councils, church fathers, papal encyclicals. But a papal interpretation is individual rather than communal.

ii) By the logic of the Catholic trope, the only way to be Catholic is to be born into the community. It's not possible to become Catholic because an outsider can't break into the hermeneutical circle of the community. Unless he's already a member of the community, he can't experience the Bible in community. As an outsider, he can't know what the Bible means to an insider. He can never compare the two perspectives, for if he's one he's not the other. So that precludes conversion. 

iii) By the same token, suppose a Muslim says the Quran was meant to be read in community. You can't properly understand the Quran unless you share the communal experience of the ummah. A Mormon or Swedenborgian could deploy the same argument.

So a Catholic can't say the Quran, or Book of Mormon, or Arcana Cœlestia, is false–because a communal reading requires privileged access. But if a Catholic can't say what is false, then he can't say what is true. He can't say Catholicism is true without a point of contrast. Catholicism and Gnosticism can't both be true if Catholicism represents orthodoxy while Gnosticism represents heresy. What about reading the Westminster Confession in community? 

1 comment:

  1. This blog reminds me of questions 4-6 at the bottom of Keith Thompson's article "Responding to catholicapologetics.info’s “Some Tough Questions for Protestants"

    Question #4 Why do Catholics claim Christians need to come to Rome to solve the problem of Scripture’s alleged unclarity on doctrinal issues when Rome has only “dogmatically” interpreted about eleven texts for Catholics as even Catholic scholars admit?(22).

    Question #5 Why claim Christians should become Catholic to avoid the risk of Scripture misinterpretation when Catholic scholars admit Romanism can not do away with that risk? Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin admitted, “. . .if you know your Catholic faith well then that will help you discern what a particular passage of Scripture DOESN’T mean, but it normally will not help you identify precisely what it DOES mean. Consequently, there is always risk of error in Scripture interpretation. We [the Catholic Church] can’t eliminate that risk”(23).

    Question #6 How can Protestants logically become Roman Catholics if we can’t study Scripture and find out it allegedly supports Catholic teaching due to Scripture’s alleged unclarity? Should we blindly first become Roman Catholics without first seeing if Scripture supports Roman Catholicism?