Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Scripture, History, and Interpretation

With fundamental questions about interpretation of the bible continuing to surface in our congregation and denomination, I decided to go more into depth with the scholarly work on the subject. I picked up an e-book edition of Behind the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation, Volume 4 of the Scripture and Hermeneutics series, editors Bartholomew, Evans, Healy, and Rae. (The year . . . I can't find the year on the title pages of the e-book. What the ? 2003, I think.)

First, a comment on e-book reading, as this is my first textbook length book read in electronic format. I found not knowing where I was in the book by the weight and thickness of the pages disorienting--or, better put, fatiguing. Many times when I've read dense scholarly works and come upon a section that drags, I think to myself, Well, it can't go on for that long, because there's only this much (perceived by my fingers holding the pages) left in the book. I couldn't do that here. Even with the page numbers labeled at the bottom of the screen, I felt like I didn't have a handle on how much I had read and how much I had to go. I never realized before how important this sense was to my process of reading.

On to content. The contributors to this volume reveal a vast depth of research and knowledge in the field of hermeneutics, history, and philosophy. I gained great insights into the impact of thinkers like Spinoza, Duhem, and Troeltsch--though, taking as long as I did to read this text without a book club, I already feel myself losing the ability to articulate what I read! I had many "Aha!" moments when I recognized within myself patterns of interpreting scripture that come from these modern and post-modern currents of philosophy and their associated views of history and hermeneutics.

The format of Behind the Text, an interaction of scholars with each other's essays in the same volume, made for compelling arguments tempered by thoughtful critique. At times, it also made for some repetitiveness, though for someone not immersed often in this level of discussion that redundancy could be helpful. (I don't use the adjective "Troeltschian" often.) Even when the going was tough because of the high-powered academic writing style, my labor was rewarded by greater understanding.

The capstone of the book was the final article, written by Stephen I. Wright, entitled "Inhabiting the Story: The Use of the Bible in the Interpretation of History." His first insight, which put into words something I sensed reading the rest of the text, was that most of the work so far had been "on the defensive" for historical-critical interpretation of the bible. Coming from the conservative realm as texts published by Baylor and Zondervan are wont to be, I think the milieu of this slice of the academy is generally suspicious of or hostile to the historical-critical method. While I found this apologetic work enlightening for its elucidation of the philosophical contours of historical-critical method, I personally have always assumed the method to have some validity. Wright's pointing to the elephant in the hermeneutical room allowed me to take a deep breath and realize my relationship to this gaggle of articles.

Wright's second helpful insight was his move from "whether the bible should be interpreted with a critical historical eye" to "how shall we use the bible critically to interpret history?" As someone who does this every week--nay, every day--I engaged his closing article with relish. His descriptions of the work of figurative interpretation of the scriptures resonated with my own regular hermeneutical work, and stretched my thinking around new facets of how that work is done.

For any scholar--academically credentialed or not--interested in getting a better handle on the issues of interpretation that arise from the problems of history, this book is worthwhile. It is a reminder that even before we--and I'm thinking especially of pastors and preachers like myself now--begin to think about interpreting a text, we have already made philosophical decisions of which we may not be aware. Part of the value of reading this book, for me, is becoming aware of those decisions and exploring whether I want to make different decisions in the future. What do I assume about history? What do I assume about how God acts in history? Do I want to continue assuming that? If I don't, how will that affect my speaking about and speaking from the scriptures?

~ emrys