Friday, November 17, 2006

all that from a book review?

A few bits jotted down from a book review by Jerry Walls, professor of philosophy of religion at Asbury Seminary, in the 6/21 2006 edition of The Asbury Journal:

Quoting Kevin Vanhoozer's essay "Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture and Hermeneutics" he writes, "Biblical interpretation is the soul of theology. Truth is the ultimate accolade that we accord an interpretation. Christian theology therefore succeeds or fails in direct proportion to its ability to render true interpretations of the word of God written" (106).[1] Wells then goes on to say,

Of course much contemporary hermeneutical theory denies that there are any such privileged interpretations that can be recognized as true ones, or doubts if we could ever determine what they are. . . . Vanhoozer takes seriously the evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy but rejects what he calls a "cheap inerrancy" that would use the doctrine to sidestep legitimate issues of interpretation. (106)

Moving on, Walls discusses an essay entitled "The Rule of Love and the Testimony of the Spirit in Contemporary Biblical Hermeneutics" by Mark Wallace. He writes:

Wallace's attempt to make sense of scripture has led him to the conviction that "discerning the theological truth of the Bible is largely a constructive rather than a descriptive enterprise." The thesis that he defends is "that biblical truth is the ethical performance of what the Spirit's interior testimony is prompting the reader to do in the light of her encounter with scriptural texts." As a practical example of his method of interpretation, he offers as a case study an examination of the "pressing" issues of the ordination of homosexual persons and the blessing of the union of homosexual couples. He suggests that if we take the "Spirit-inspired ideal of love and hospitality toward others as the hermeneutical lodestar" that should guide us in our encounters with scripture, then we will be inclined to accept practicing homosexuals as ministers and bless their unions. (109)

When he gets to Alan Padgett, Wells says

[Padgett] sees "the act of interpretation primarily (not entirely) as the discovery of something that is there in the text rather than the creation of something new." . . . Beginning with the broad notion that truth is "the mediated disclosure of being," Christ is the truth because he is the incarnation of God's very being, and the Bible is true because it mediates Christ to use through its texts. (110)

In the conclusion of his review, Wells takes to task the supposed humility of postmoderns who desire to remain so tentative about truth claims. He asks if this is really humility.

In his Introduction to Christianity, the newly elected Pope observed that "it is nothing short of a fundamental certainty" for contemporary people that we cannot know God himself, which contemporary people somehow understand as "humility in the presence of the infinite." The irony here is not merely in the inversion of what we can take as certain, but also in the ground of humility. Whereas classical Christianity would say humility is required precisely because of what we know about God and ourselves through revelation, [2] humility now is understood as a concession that we cannot really know anything about God. (112)

And I like what he says later on:

As Plantinga points out, the Cartesian standard for certainty and knowledge is an unrealistic one, and many people have made the unfortunate mistake of throwing out claims to knowledge and certainty because they cannot meet this standard. (Ibid.)

Though disjointed, and despite Dr. Walls’ overt suspicion of postmodernism, I find these assorted thoughts helpful bricks in the construction of my own understanding of the pervasive, hermeneutical tradition whose skeleton gives shape and orders the motion of that thing called "a Christian worldview," which is in itself the product of a Christian mind. I believe that Plantinga was right. As my friend John G. would say, "it is about knowledge versus certainty." Christians have knowledge, but we don't have Cartesian certainty. For, if the rumors be true, no one does. The human world is thoroughly hermeneutical--interpretation all the way down as Caputo says--for the scientist as much as for theologian.

Nevertheless, some hermeneutics are better than others. The quote from Padgett gets at this, as is my own renewed appreciation of the fundamental aspect of the logos doctrine.[3] The disjunction between hermeneutical systems is absolutely pervasive--that's where that quote about humility comes from. I'm discovering this same sort of thing in other place, where the obvious meaning of a word turns to be something very different when seen in the context of the Judeo-Christian hermeneutical system.[4] This is true for words like self control, faith, love, hope. Hermeneutical systems, then, can be radically different in meaning though syntactically quite similiar. I can hardly believe how pervasive and thorough-going these differences can be. I feel I'm swinging over an infinite abysss when I glimpse the cultural collusions and the social impotence of the churches. I scarcely know if it is possible any longer to really live anything like the Christian life. Maybe the only thing you can do is ask for God's mercy as you marinate and unwittingly participate in the golden-calf-collusion of the world systems? Maybe we just have to wait for a better age, when it can be possible again? Maybe some future Ambrose, Augustine, Benedict, or Luther will arise who can not only glimpse the real critique a properly understood Christian hermeneutic makes upon the world, but can hold it strongly and clearly enough to demarcate it plainly in word and life so that the example, then, can be better emulated. I included the bit from Mark Wallace. When you begin to see the arrived changes at the slightest demarcations in hermeneutical method, the differences are often astounding, and well-explain why, in my own ECUSA denomination, for example, members of the same tradition come out on such different ends. I think there is some truth in Wallace, but I believe that you cherry pick your "Spirit's interior testimony," without a rigorous historical-critical discipline which attempts as much as humanly possible to respect the author's original intent, however off we may, in fact, be (and I think in most cases we don't go too wide of the mark.)[5] At a recent conference, one of the speakers, Fred Dallmayr of the University of Notre Dame, defined postmodernism in a very helpful way. He said, "Postmodernism means that particularity is being taken seriously again and that no particularity should be allowed to become a generality." I like postmodernism because it takes the legs out from under scientific arrogance, and it reflects to a great degree my experience as a creature seeking understanding. I don't, however, follow it to the end so that no particularity can be a generality. I think one did and is: Jesus the logos. But it isn't that we grasp this incarnated-now-glorified Messiah-God as we would grasp a syllogism. Our grasp is a hermeneutical grasp, and even that is enabled and perhaps even directed by the illuminative, regenerating power of the Spirit working through the medium of canonical Scripture and sacrament, primarily, and ecclesial ministration, secondarily.[6] I've gone on long enough. These are notes are for my own benefit, anyway. I have much further to go, and perhaps have forgotten some important point.

[1] Church historian Rowan Greer in his essay in Early Biblical Interpretation has claimed that the debate about how scripture is to be interpreted, especially how the OT is to be read, definitively shaped the more famous debates about Jesus, the Trinity, and Salvation.

[2] Luci Shaw, Breath for the Bones. "If the gospel is foundational, out of it will naturally flow an art that does not deny its foundation but assumes it. If it is a given, we do not need to be reminded of its existence at every point. If our lives are centered in God's reality, we can risk working out from that center in new directions. And if the work of art truly reflects like experience, then it is itself a small facet of the truth of which Christ is author and co-municator. That is the benison of the sacramental view of life: our realization that all of creation rightly belongs in the house of faith. Put another way: the Logos, which first called the universe into being now embraces and defines it, assigning it meaning and value at every level. As C. S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Yet with all the phenomena of the universe to write about, we are not free agents. Because we are residents in the house of faith, we are accountable and must shape our gift responsibly to perceive and penetrate to the heart of the matters we address and reveal their true shape and significance to the human community."

[3] Marke this well and take it for a sure conclusion. when god commaundeth us in the lawe to do any thinge he commaundeth not therefore that we are able to do yt but to bryng us un to the knowledge of oureselves that we might se what we are and in what miserable state we are in and knowe our lack that thereby we shuld torne to god and to knowlege our wretchednes un to hym and to desyre him that of his mercy he wold make us that he biddeth us be…” ~ W. Tyndale, from his treatise on the Lord's Prayer

[4] Hannah Arendt grasped this problem of same word different, and perhaps hostile, outcome. Here's a quote I picked up: Arendt's phrasemaking and popularization of notions such as "totalitarianism" developed because she "wanted thoughts and words adequate to the new world and able to dissolve clichés, reject thoughtlessly received ideas, break down hackneyed analyses, expose lies and bureaucratic double talk, help people withdraw from their addiction to propagandistic images."

[5] Peter Machinist. Foreword to Hermann Gunkel, Creation and Chaos trans. K. William Whitney Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), xviii. "[Hermann Gunkel, as other scholars of his late-nineteenth-century German age, believed that] to understand the meaning of a text, its language and motifs, is to understand first where they come from. it is not enough, indeed, it is misleading, to focus simply on the individual text alone, as thought it were a completely independent, free creation of its author. The text must rather be seen as one link in a complex chain of tradition; and interpretation, therefore, must try to discover how its author worked within the tradition, what conditions in his community he was responding to, and why he adapted the tradition as he did in order to produce the text that he did."

[6] Ellen F. Davis. "Introduction" from The Art of Reading Scripture ed. Ellen Davis and Richard Hays. (Eerdmans 2003). "The capacity for fruitful theological wondering resides chiefly in the imagination. Theologian Garrett Green has argued persuasively that in many instances the biblical term "heart" refers to what we call imagination. This notion wonderfully illuminates the use of that word in the eucharistic liturgy: "Lift up your hearts"--lift up your imaginations, open them toward God. Yet an aroused imagination is not in itself a holy state, for the "heart" can be healthy or perverted. Perhaps it is in tacit recognition of this fact that Anglican eucharistic worship begins with the Collect for Purity:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name, through Christ our Lord.

The Collect for Purity introduces the Ministry of the Word. Thus we ask that when the appointed lections are read, we may be changed in order to hear them with healthy "hearts." Yet at the same time, the church understands that through the action of the Holy Spirit, "the word of the Lord" may itself be an agent of cleansing for our imaginations. Therefore, the subsequent reading of Scripture is part of God's gracious answer to the Collect for Purity." I note also a bit from an advertisement for the conference "After Ricoeur" held Oct. 20-21, 2006 at Oklahoma U: "One of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) was the author of numerous works addressing the vast spectrum of human experience. His works addressed such topics as myth, language, cognition, religion, ethics, politics, law, and literature, to name only a few. These diverse subjects informed his study of the human experience, which includes the dimension of suffering in addition to action. Ricoeur came to believe that the human experience is laden with multiple layers of meaning and thus the task of understanding and organizing our world is comparable to a text. We shape its meaning through interpretation and, in so doing, discover the significance of the text as well as the meaning of our own lives."

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