Biblical Hermeneutics: Whitterings, June 2005

For the record, I understand why people are frightened of knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge is a dangerous thing if you seek comfort and security. It challenges you to continually revise and rethink your worldview and your deepest beliefs. Carl Jung describes the attaining of knowledge as drawing a map in your head with a pencil and constantly using an eraser to erase so as to redraw the map’s boundaries. He said that most people stop true learning about the time they end formal schooling. They then ink in the map and then spend their energy defending the mind map from the truth. Those who continue lifelong learning must use the eraser and pencil forever. This takes up a great deal of energy.

I have said before in this column that as I learn more I seem to have fewer absolute beliefs. Yet the core essentials of my faith have become stronger, although my way of expressing them has had to constantly shift. I find the study of philosophy and other religious theologies, linguistics, anthropology, history, physics, and psychology particularly challenging. Philosophy challenges the way we put together beliefs and meaning systems. The study of other religions makes one question the core components of the religious drive. Linguistics challenges the way we understand what words are and how language works in relation to what is perceived as true. Anthropology challenges our assurance that humans have a set way a behaving and believing. History challenges our preconceptions about how we arrived here. Physics, especially quantum mechanics, challenges most of the common sense notions we have about the workings of God’s creation. Psychology, especially the psychology of consciousness, makes us question our motives and the way our brains actually create our perception of reality. However, it is Biblical Criticism that I find the most challenging at this point in my ministry.

We know more about the Bible now than we have ever known. Biblical interpretation, often know as Hermeneutics, is broken into eleven categories. Few will be familiar with these so I humbly offer a quick summation. I will be specific about the New Testament. I) TEXTUAL CRITICISM works at comparing the diversities between the copies we posses of the NT books as there are no original texts. II) HISTORICAL CRITICISM tries to understand what the literal meaning of passages are within the culture of the day. III) SOURCE CRITICISM studies the antecedents from which NT writers got their information. IV) FORM CRITICISM studies the characteristics of writing and reading different types of passages; i.e. the difference between reading poetry and a biography. V) REDACTION CRITICISM studies how the authors of the NT books creatively shaped their materials in their writings by how they put it together. VI) CANONICAL CRITICISM studies how the NT books take their meaning by their relationship to other NT books. VII) STRUCTERALISM looks only on the final form of the NT books and concentrates on the internal structure of the writing. VIII) NARRATIVE CRITICISM studies the NT books, especially the Gospels, as they function as stories and examines issues relating to who is being addressed by the author. IX) RHETORICAL CRITICISM analyses the strategies used by the author to communicate, as such it tries to understand both the mind of the writer and the reader it was addressed to. X) SOCIAL CRITICISM studies the texts as a response and manifestation of the culture and social settings in which they were written. XI) ADVOCACY CRITICISM looks at NT books from a particular vantage point, feminist or Liberationists, in order to address issues relating to that particular group.

Hermeneutics is challenging to say the least. It has challenged many of the basic assumptions we have held about the Bible such as who actually wrote it, and the historical authenticity of many of the passages. For example, many are now aware that the ending of St Mark’s Gospel was added much later on by the church as the abrupt conclusion of the original Gospel was felt to be unsatisfactory. The critical study of the Bible has shaken the assumption that what is found in the Bible can be taken at face value. This has confused and frightened many within the church for almost two hundred years, really since Schleiermacher.

I find that this leads to an obvious problem in ministry. Many clergy and laypeople are aware of the vast implications of Hermeneutics while many parishioners are entirely ignorant of it. Sermons are supposed to bring make Gospel alive for the day and not for teaching the Bible. So the pulpit is not an appropriate place in which to educate Christians about Hermeneutics. Bible studies are an appropriate forum but few people attend these groups. Then there is the obvious question, do people even need to know, for example, about the complex history of the adding of the new ending to Mark’s Gospel? Does it add anything to the faith? However, how does one preach on the text authoritatively when one is aware of its origins?

As I have said before, I hold little with Ontology, the study of the essence or being of a thing, and interpret most of the faith in terms of Teleology, the purpose of function of a thing, and Soteriology, the salvitic usefulness of a thing. The result is that I find it is important to enter fully into the belief of the Church, Her symbols and rites and the Biblical narrative in order to allow it to transform you. Stepping back at looking at the stories critically seems to breed an objectiveness that is contrary to the intimate, emotive, subjectiveness of faith. Faith originally meant trust. Yet how does one foster trust when one is being taught to question the very texts that give you the security to trust in the first place? Then again how do you retain intellectual integrity in the pursuit of Truth, which is God, if you do not question? St Paul tells us to question everything but if we question St Paul how do we have the faith to take his advice to question in the first place? The paradox is obvious.

What I find most difficult is that I often am teaching and preaching on stories and texts which I do not believe are true in a historical or objective way and some which I know to be of a questionable origin. I feel I must present them at face value in order to draw the importance of the transformative message out of them for the community of faith. What is most important about the Ascension, for example, is the retaining of the experience of humanity through Christ by the Godhead and not the way this was presented to the early church by the story of the floating away in a cloud. The story comes from the universal view of the three tired plane creation of heaven, earth and hell which were separated from one another by height. The Ascension shows how Christ went from the earthly realm to the heavenly one. This story fulfilled that function for the early church. However, for the modern world, it not only does not work in the context of our view of the universe but goes against it.

I am becoming more and more conscious that the very function of my teaching and preaching as a priest requires me to be less than honest a great deal of the time. I teach the metanarrative (a great story by which a cultures make sense of it’s existence) as truth for the purpose of teaching the essence of the particular story while knowing that many people accept the story as ontological, objective truth even though I am aware that this is not the case. I am also aware that this has created a sort of ‘in’ and ‘out’ party within the church. Those ‘in the know’ speak to one another differently about scripture and faith than when speaking to those ‘who do not know’. This is not a good state of affairs. There is also fear in some quarters to challenge the old way of interpretation in case one is branded as an unbeliever. It can also lead to elitism by the ones who think they ‘know’ better.

The central theological problem for me is that to pursue truth is to pursue God and one cannot suppress one without rejecting the other. Yet if the truth (in the superficial objective sense) cause people to stumble and lose the essential truth that lies behind the stories, nothing has been gained. The consequences of how one understands the approach to scripture is not to be taken lightly as the gulf between North and South in the Anglican Communion is currently exhibiting.

I once again have painted myself into a corner (and run out of space). I am not sure what the best way to deal with the issues I have raised. I do know it is challenging and I trust that wrestling with it will produce fruit for the church.