On Hermeneutics and Disagreement, Part One
A lot of what I said last Wednesday drew on arguments I’ve made before in more technical, less theological language. I didn’t come up with a whole new outlook for the occasion. Roughly summarizing, this is the first part of what I said.
I don’t want to persuade anybody of any particular biblical interpretation today. In fact, for today’s purposes, I want to strengthen even those interpretations with which I disagree, because my assignment is not to arm-twist anyone into thinking this or that, but to help clarify the grounds on which we can exercise our best interpretive judgment.
I try to frame the task this way: How can we best cooperate with the work of the Spirit? We know that he Spirit can accomplish whatever God wills; we can’t stop God. But we may, and sometimes do, resist and impede the Spirit rather than cooperating with the Spirit, and today I want to help us dedicate our energies toward cooperating and not resisting.
How do we resist the Spirit’s work of reconciliation? Oftentimes we resist the Spirit by making flat absolute claims about what something means. We may be right, of course — I’m not suggesting that you aren’t right; I’m pointing out that simply saying “I’m right and you aren’t” (however true the claim may be) doesn’t advance the discussion, doesn’t give our sisters and brothers any particular reason to assent. The claim, “This means X” short-circuits an opportunity to learn; the claim, “The reason I say ‘This means X’ is that [da da da da da da da]” gives us something to work with, helps us to see the basis for an interpretive claim. When we dig our heels in and say only, “I’m right and that ends it,” we give the Spirit less to work with in convincing our interlocutors that they should change their minds.
We impede the Spirit by introducing claims that others can’t examine or test. When we say, “The Spirit is doing a new thing here,” well, who’s to say? People over here think so, people over there don’t. That’s not evidence in an argument, it’s another flat claim — but it raises the stakes by introducing the idea that some people recognize the Spirit at work where other benighted souls don’t. In the context of a discussion, an exploration of how we should interpret the Bible, I find such claims insulting and presumptuous.
We impede the Spirit if we admit of no possibility that we may be wrong. I frequently cite Article 19 of the Articles of Religion: “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” If the Church is susceptible to error even in matters of the faith, then all the more each of us must be ready to consider the possibility that our favored interpretation may be erroneous. I’m not saying anyone specific is wrong; I’m simply saying that if we refuse to admit the possibility that we’re as fallible as the Churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, that we give the Holy Spirit less to work with.
This is a hard one: if we simply pick interpreters based on their proposing readings that throw the names of our favored interpreters at one another, we aren’t advancing the work of the Spirit. We can help others understand our arguments if we explain the basis of what we propose, and we can strengthen those claims by associating them with recognizable authorities — but our authorities aren’t intrinsically more authoritative than their authorities (they don’t deliberately seek out inferior scholars, or less admirable theologians; once we get past the initial invocation of reputable witnesses, we need to let go (respectfully) of them. The game of “my hero is a greater scholar than your scholar” doesn’t facilitate the Spirit’s mission of bringing us to the mind of Christ. Yes, you have favorite expert interpreters who propound good arguments for your position, but we have favorite expert interpreters who propound good arguments for our position. There’s no disinterested point from which to ascertain that one person’s favorite has formed a stronger argument than another’s (if we could tell, we wouldn’t opt for the weaker side).[*]
Finally, I suggest that we impede the work of the Spirit when we ascribe others’ positions to motives less worthy than our own. When we arrive at our interpretations on the basis of high-minded, objective reflection, and explain our neighbors’ interpretations as the ideologically-determined, morally-compromised (or “bigoted”) capitulation to mortal frailty, we give these neighbors no reason to see matters any other way. We can make room for the Spirit by accounting our adversaries every bit as intelligent and clear-sighted as we, or we can resist the Spirit by abusing and insulting our sisters and brothers.
Evelyn Underhill, The Church and War
Trevor and I wanted to run a test tract to illustrate what we were getting at in our vision for publications online, and — rather than ask someone to take a flyer on the premise without any such example — we thought it desirable to reprint something for which we could probably obtain permission. That turned out to be trickier than we guessed.
The text we chose, “The Church and War,” by Evelyn Underhill, has been reprinted often, although not always with explicit consent of the Underhill estate. We figured that consent would be a piece of cake, especially at the present political moment, so we set out trying to track down the copyright ownership for this four-page tract (while I endeavored, under Dorothea’s tutleage, to whip up the XML version). The most recent source I could find was the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship; I wrote them for permission, but received no response. I poked around a little, to no avail. Finally, our buddy Jim Tedrick at Wipf & Stock put two and two together and pointed out that he had contact information for permissions relative to other works by Underhill. I sent off a letter to the heir of the Underhill estate, and hoped for the best.
Meanwhile, we’d generated nice little XML, PDF, and print copies of the tract, hoping for permission to deploy them shortly.
It took a while for the letter that I sent to England to reach its destination because, evidently, the copyright holder has become Her Majesty’s ambassador to Chile! This morning I received a wonderful, gracious, encouraging note granting the Disseminary permission to distribute “The Church and War” — if, in fact, copyright resides with Ambassador Wilkinson at all. It turns out that Underhill’s work lapsed into the public domain before passage of recent retroactive copyright reforms, and Ambassador Wilkinson isn’t sure about the current status of Underhill’s works. But insofar as it lies in his authority to grant permission, he’s granted it, and that’s good enough for us.
So from now on, as long as there’s a Disseminary and until someone who can demonstrate copyright forces us to stop, Evelyn Underhill’s essay against war will be freely available from the Disseminary in HTML, XML, and PDF (subject to fine-tuning). We have a minidisc recording of it that we’ll post as an MP3 as soon as we can copy it. . . .