Friday, March 01, 2019

Scripture and commentary

A stock objection to sola Scriptura goes like this: an infallible text demands an infallible interpreter. 

I think some Protestant apologists and theologians overemphasize the perspicuity of Scripture. They think that's necessary to justify the break with Rome. I disagree. There are lots of reasons not to be Roman Catholic.

But going back to the original objection, the basic idea is that Scripture is inadequate without an inspired commentary. Yet that depends in part on God's aims and intentions.

As a rule, an author is the first person you'd ask about the meaning of something he wrote. A director is the first person you'd ask about a scene in his movie. And in fact when directors are interviewed, they're asked questions about what something in one of their movies meant. And readers write living authors about the meaning of something in one of their books.

But what's striking is that directors and fiction writers don't generally volunteer their interpretations of their own work. Directors don't write reviews of their own movies. Fiction writers don't compose commentaries on their novels, short-stories, or plays.

That's despite the fact that they are uniquely qualified to explain what they had in mind. So why don't directors and fiction writers routinely include companion volumes providing a detailed interpretation of their own work?

The obvious reason, I think, is that they don't wish to spoil it for viewers or readers. They want each reader or viewer to form his own unmediated impressions. To discover for himself what he thinks it means.

If they think an influential film critic or literary critic is way off base, they may interpose, but usually they keep their own counsel. They may review books and movies by other creative artists, but not their own. 

Here's another way to approach the same issue: I generally read movie reviews after I saw a movie rather than before I saw a movie. If I like a movie, I may be curious about comparing my impressions of the movie with Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael. 

However, I don't want their impressions to prejudge my own impressions. I don't want to filter my experience through their lens. I want to see it first before I see it through their eyes. To see it with fresh eyes, to have the immediacy of that initial experience. To see it for the first time, without any interpretive filter beyond what I bring to the movie or story. Beyond my general background.

It's not primarily a question of plot spoilers and losing the element of surprise because I know what to expect–if I read the review first. Rather, it's about a one-on-one encounter between the observer and the movie or story. There's something special and unrepeatable about that. 

And I think that's a reason why God didn't anoint someone to provide a running commentary on the Bible. That short-circuits the direct encounter between text and reader. This is not to deny the value or necessity of commentaries, but that shouldn't be used to circumvent the act of discovery. To find out for himself what it means. In some cases the reader will misinterpret Scripture, but that's a necessary tradeoff. 

Scripture isn't merely informative but transformative. It has to work on you. Personal struggle is required. Someone else can't do that for you, on your behalf and in your place. That can't be subcontracted to a second-party.  

1 comment:

  1. As far as the concept of "an infallible interpreter" goes, a wise old pastor first told me that Biblical commentaries represent "the collected wisdom of the ages". And so far as I can tell, with advancements in understanding ancient languages (because we are able to factor in more and more ancient texts -- and therefore their meanings -- into ancient lexicons), and with advancements in our historical understandings of biblical cultures and their environments, we are gaining a better and better understanding of what Scripture was, and is saying.

    My life changed dramatically when I started reading Scripture commentaries (especially from writers who hold that the Scriptures are the word of the living God). They represent the collected wisdom of the ages, and something as close to "infallible" as we can get in this fallen world.