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July 16, 2011


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Brian Zahnd

Very good.

"The de facto interpretive authority is, in fact, the real authority."


Which is why we need the whole church -- the church of historical length and ecumenical width -- in order to interpret Scripture. The Bible is not given to "me," it is given to "us." It takes the whole church to interpret the whole Bible.

What I've learned to do is acknowledge the various lenses of translation, tradition, and interpretation, and try reading Scripture through different lenses -- Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical, Charismatic, etc.; plus the lenses translation, historical-critical method, allegorical, mystical, lectico divina, etc.

A fundamentalist is a person reading scripture through a thick pair of lenses, but unaware he is wearing glasses at all.

Another thought...

Sola Scriptura makes it virtually impossible for one to explain why they believe the Bible. They believe the Bible because it's the Bible, because it's the Bible, because it's the Bible... Well, fine, but they should abandon any pretense of apologetics and simply admit to a kind of fideism of the Bible. The Josh McDowell kind of pop apologetics are really disingenuous; the adherents of that kind of Sola Scriptura simply believe the Bible because it is the Bible and they should not pretend otherwise.

My faith in Scripture is more nuanced. It works like this:

1. I believe in Jesus. I believe in Jesus because of my subjective experience with the risen Christ; an experience that can neither be proved nor disproved, it can only be witnessed to, and thus believed or disbelieved.

2. But my faith in Jesus is not unmediated; it comes through the witness of the church; i.e. it is because of the faithfulness of the church within the world that I have received the word of Christ whereby I believed. Thus I come to have faith in the church.

3. Finally, the church says to me, "We have a sacred and canonized book." And they give me the Bible.

I believe the Scriptures because I believe in the church, because I believe in Jesus.

Or something like that.


Brad Jersak


Thanks for laying out the interpretive issues involved in treating Scripture as authoritative. Thanks too for outlining the approaches that the historic church took to their hermeneutics.

It sparked memories of my first hermeneutics classes (on the grammatical-historical-literal approach as 'the only right way' to handle Scripture). The four-layered system of Origen et al was often dismissed far too easily for reasons that I now consider more modernist than evangelical. I suspect that the allegorical and mystical ways to Scripture were seen as too 'subjective' and creative... dangerous to the scientific mind. We wrote them off as 'spiritualizing' and had little grid for the Spirit's role in interpretation (a la 1 Cor. 2). Anything pre-Reformation had no place at the table in those days.

Later I was introduced to Brevard Childs' 'canonical-contextual' approach. I found it very helpful in that it recognized the authority of the text as we have received it in its final form, rather than obsessing over the hypothetical inerrancy of original documents that we no longer have. Whatever form written revelation first took, it was clearly edited, expanded, redacted and gathered into its current canonical shape. Childs also saw the key to interpretation located in the text itself, rather than the plenitude of speculative reconstructions of bygone people and cultures that we simply have no access to. Finally, he also recognized the role of the Church in the authorization process, rather than positing it solely in the moment of revelation (and which moment? when Joel heard God? when Joel spoke what he heard? when his words were recorded? when his words were gathered and published?).

Through all of this, I found it odd that we were obviously creating and using different hermeneutical principles than those used by Jesus or Paul or John when they drew from the Hebrew Scriptures. E.g. If Paul could use Midrash under inspiration, why were we not learning to use Midrash? Again, it may have left too much leeway for the interpreter ... but surely we take liberties in any case.

It strikes me that in the end, we believe in the authority of God in Christ as our first and final authority, as mediated through the Spirit, the Church and the Scriptures in a three-legged tandem. All three are necessary to truly know and obey God. Charismatics lean heavily on the Holy Spirit, Protestants on the Bible, and the Mother Church tradition on the witness of the tradition. But this too is a bit of a caricature and generalization. For example, it is remarkable how well charismatics often know their Scriptures and it is surprising how charismatic my Orthodox friends are. Meanwhile, Protestants are waking up to the importance of the tradition of the Church Fathers.

But my point is that if God himself is to be our authority, we will need a solid dose of all three sources (and our Methodist friends would add Reason to complete their quadrilateral) if we are to have any hope of hearing the authoritative voice of God in Christ through the host of de facto filters that Ron has mentioned. As critical realists, our discernment will have to be sharply tuned to the Word, the Body and the Spirit ... but if Ron is right, and I think he is, we will also need to keep a sharp and critical eye on our own distorting lenses. We'll also need to be much better at listening for help from those tribes of Christian faith beyond our own limited boundaries.

To me, this is a great adventure and we haven't had such an opportunity for a long time. For all its downsides, the internet era allows us to contact world class scholars or the monks on Mt. Athos or the Classical works from antiquity to help us sort through questions of the faith and difficulties in the text. We've actually become aware of each other and moved from isolation to conversation. On this front, at least, I'm encouraged.

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