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Taginterpretation

on hermeneutical democracy

Rod asks about “hermeneutical democracy” and one scholar’s insistence that Protestants “own their Protestantism” by accepting that they have no guide but their individual consciences. The hermeneutical challenges of Protestantism have been a regular concern of mine over the years — see for instance this essay from 2003:

When King James commissioned his Companies of Translators, the people most thoroughly educated in the various humanistic disciplines were also those most learned in the biblical tongues. The celebrated “poetic” or “literary” qualities of the KJV are a function of this long-lost union. But in the last two centuries the training of biblical scholars in what has come to be called the “grammatical-historical” method has assumed a character alien to the literary and rhetorical education rooted in the schools of the Roman Empire. A model of Christian learning shared — not altogether but to some degree — by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin had virtually disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century.

This happened largely as a result of Protestant theologians’ responses to Catholic charges that they, lacking guidance and correction from a Magisterium, were liable to say pretty much anything about the Bible. The charge stung: What was to prevent this or that Protestant leader from offering a bizarre interpretation of some passage of Scripture and claiming as warrant for it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? From the need to answer this charge arose the characteristic trait of Protestant biblical scholarship: an obsession with method. Method would be the Protestant scholar’s Magisterium — that is, his or her principle of constraint and limitation; therefore, ultimately, training in biblical exegesis would become training in the kinds of intellectual skills that could be described in methodological terms: grammar, textual history, historical philology, and so on. Sensitivity to metaphorical nuance is perforce not a part of this training; nor is general literary knowledge.

The elevation of method to magisterial principle was supposed to make it possible for scholars to discern, and then agree on, the meaning of biblical texts. Instead it merely uprooted them from Christian tradition and Christian practice — as Michael Legaspi has shown in a brilliant book — and left many of them unequipped to understand the literary character of biblical texts, while doing nothing to promote genuine agreement on interpretation. In fact, the transferring of the guild of interpreters from the Church to the University, given the University’s insistence on novelty in scholarship, ensured that no interpretative consensus would be forthcoming.

There really is no way to promote general agreement among Christians about the interpretation of Scripture without some doctrine of Holy Tradition.

The need for interpreting arises when a text with which we find ourselves concerned resists immediate absorption into the ongoing stream of our practical life. In this moment of our incomprehension, understanding cannot be coerced by argument or manufactured by method or technique. It occurs when an interpreter finds a responsive word through which the text speaks to us again, so that the varied meanings and force of the text are activated in new and diverse concerns. What word will accomplish this reactivation cannot be predicted or guaranteed. But our capacity to find that word is interpretation’s humane significance and the reason it remains at the heart of literary study.

— Donald Marshall, “Literary Interpretation” (1992)

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