Stanley Hauerwas on the Self-interpreting Bible

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21 Responses to Stanley Hauerwas on the Self-interpreting Bible

  1. Nick says:

    Very curious about Stanley Hauerwas book Unleashing the Scriptures. Wondering what authoritative guide is he turning to, besides Holy Spirit in order to obtain correct interpretation of the text.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Nick, I think Hauerwas would appeal to the community of faith which uses Scripture to preach Christ crucified. The written text does not, of itself, have a meaning that can be divorced from the life and teaching of the Church:

    When sola scriptura is used to underwrite the distinction between text and interpretation, then it seems clear to me that sola scriptura is a heresy rather than a help in the Church. When this distinction persists, sola scriptua becomes the seedbed of fundamentalism, as well as biblical criticism. It assumes that the text of the Scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense. … God certainly uses Scripture to call the Church to faithfulness, but such a call always comes in the form of some in the Church reminding others in the Church how to live as Christians—no “text” can be substituted for the people of God. (pp. 27-28)

    Elsewhere he writes: “The lives of the saints are the hermeneutical key to Scripture.”

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  3. Nathan says:

    Father Kimel,

    No doubt Hauerwas is a very bright light, penetrating thinker, and analyzer of the Zeitgeist, and I think he goes too far here. I think that Hauerwas, while being humorous, is also tending to an dangerous extreme here: does there not need to be a middle ground here?

    I would argue that while the Scriptures are clear enough so that a genuinely curious atheist could discern their main message (on a careful reading – one would need to latch on to the key passages found in John 5:39 and 20:31, and Luke 24: 24,47), he could not, for example, produce by himself the theological content of the Nicene Creed (or the Book of Concord [I’m Lutheran]) – in other words, determining what is essential and non-essential doctrine cannot be done satisfactorily without the true Rule of faith, that is, without the Church.

    As I recently said in a review of Lutheran theologian Peter Nafzger’s fine book (in which he quotes Hauerwas talking about this as well), “do we want to assert – or give the impression – that when it comes to understanding the key message conveyed in the Scriptures unbelievers who carefully examine them are necessarily less able to grasp what is being said – and to be spiritually convicted – than the believing Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 10, who after all did lack the entire content found in the New Testament – the “good news” about Jesus?”

    By the way, Nafzger’s book is being used in at least one of the classes of the conservative ELCA theologian and First Things writer David Yeago. Its worth a look.

    +Nathan

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I posed the following question over at Nathan’s blog, but I thought I’d re-pose it here, too: if a Martian (who just happens to be able to read ancient Hebrew and Greek) came down to earth and a big box of scrolls containing and Old and Testaments, would he be able to figure out, without any historical background whatsoever, the essential teachings of the Church?

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    • Karen says:

      Nathan, you are aware, aren’t you, that the account of the Ethiopian Eunuch is the proof text of choice for those making the point from the Scriptures themselves that Scripture is not its own interpreter, but needs interpretation? The Ethiopian Eunuch seems to have already been a practicing Jewish proselyte (or “God-fearing” Gentile?). He was obviously well educated and apparently familiar with the content of the Jewish Scriptures which he could read for himself (apparently wealthy enough to have his own copy of Isaiah even). Nevertheless, his question to the Apostle Philip shows he assumed that he needed someone to interpret Isaiah 53 for him to be able to properly understand it. Consider also how dependent upon the extra-biblical Jewish tradition the typical first-century rabbis apparently were in expounding the meaning of Scriptures, who did not speak “with authority” as did Jesus (according the the testimony of the Gospels), but were apparently always supporting their teachings and interpretation of the Scriptures by referring to other authoritative commentators and interpretive precedents within their tradition (the Midrash?).

      Based on testimonies I have heard or read (as well as my own experiences), I believe the folks who come untutored in the faith to their first reading of the Scriptures and come away from that convicted of the truth of Christ, for example, do so because their hearts have first been prepared by the Holy Spirit and then also guided by Him in their understanding of the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:20). Contrast this with those folks (scholars even, raised in traditional Christian backgrounds) familiar with the Scriptures, who completely distort and miss their meaning and reject the truth about Christ that they reveal as well as the orthodox meaning the Church has always ascribed to them. Bart Ehrman? Elaine Pagels? John Shelby Spong?

      It seems clear to me the “filter” of the heart first needs to be cleaned by the action of the Holy Spirit working in the conscience before a person can discern the true meaning of the Scriptures (either with or without the help of knowledgeable others within the tradition of the Church). The Scriptures teach that the convicting work of the Holy Spirit goes on not only in the Church, but also in the world (John 16:8). Given the ubiquitous presence and freedom of the Holy Spirit, I don’t believe Hauerwas or the Orthodox would say that a novice Scripture reader necessarily always needs to have another human interpreter from within the tradition of the Church–only that the Scriptures do not interpret themselves and that their correct interpretation can only be reliably found within the community of the Church that produced those Scriptures guided by the Holy Spirit, and especially in the lives of her Saints.

      Personally, I believe Hauerwas is right on the money.

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  4. Pingback: Unleashing the Scriptures?: is Stanley Hauerwas right when he says the American people have become so corrupt the only thing we can do is take the Bible away from them? | theology like a child

  5. jrj1701 says:

    Could you please relay his response through your blog, it seems like it would be an interesting conversation.

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  6. Nathan says:

    Karen,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Hauerwas does raise good points. I simply assert that he goes to far in making the assertions that he does. I am aware of how people use the Acts 10 passage – even Michale Horton of the White Horse Inn has conceded it. I myself say that the Church is needed and the only way that we can discern the whole counsel of God. I simply insist that much of this has to do with what one believes about the role of language in the world

    “Nevertheless, his question to the Apostle Philip shows he assumed that he needed someone to interpret Isaiah 53 for him to be able to properly understand it. Consider also how dependent upon the extra-biblical Jewish tradition the typical first-century rabbis apparently were in expounding the meaning of Scriptures, who did not speak “with authority” as did Jesus (according the the testimony of the Gospels), but were apparently always supporting their teachings and interpretation of the Scriptures by referring to other authoritative commentators and interpretive precedents within their tradition (the Midrash?)”

    Right – this man had had no personal experience with Jesus. As for the rabbis, this is a point I have made frequently myself (to see this point stretched to the limits and how it fits hand in glove with the Lutheran understanding of the church see my debates with the RCC apologist Dave Armstrong). Here we need to keep in mind that there were many true Israelites, a la Nathaniel and many others the N.T. tells us about who did not get everything, but even before the resurrection of Christ recognized and trusted, albeit very imperfectly!, Jesus as the Messiah promised in O.T. Scriptures. They had much to learn of course post-resurrection (see Luke 24), but there still was very much a sense that Jesus was the one the Scriptures spoke of, as Peter’s confession on behalf of all the disciples attests to.

    I hope you had a chance to check out my post as well. There is also a link there to a post I did in response to Father Freeman.

    Blessings to you Karen – I have a feeling we have talked before!

    +Nathan

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    • Karen says:

      Thank you, Nathan. I would not argue against the reality, of course, that there were varying levels of insight among the “true Israelites” about the Messiah (and also today among various types of “non-initiates” into the nature of spiritual truth and even about the truth taught in the Scriptures). My point was simply this: whereas a “Sola Scriptura” Protestant might argue that this supports his notion of the self-interpreting and “perspicuous” nature of the “basic message” of the Scriptures to a human “common sense” reading, the fully biblical and Orthodox/orthodox understanding on this issue, as I understand this (among other things from 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:16), is not that, but rather that the Holy Spirit opens the meaning of the Scriptures to those who are ready and open to hear their message (and insofar as that is the case) and that this requires a genuine experiential encounter with Jesus Christ (even if it is only at first through the Holy Spirit speaking to one’s conscience). What did Christ say to Peter, himself, when Peter confessed Jesus as Christ? “Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven . . . ” (my emphasis). He did not say, “Blessed are you, for applying yourself to the study of the Scriptures and accurately discerning what they have taught about Me” (though that may also have been the case).

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        That Jesus is to be found on every page of the Old Testament is not something that anyone can learn through the tools of historical criticism.

        Hauerwas’s comments become stronger, I think, when coupled with Swinburne’s analysis of canon and literary context.

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        • Karen says:

          Nathan, I’m not sure I’m following your logic about the nature of the “balance” you see a need for between 1 Corinthians 1 & 2 and Romans 3–perhaps you could clarify–but let me give it a stab. It seems to me whether one is prepared (in some sense) to receive the gospel through knowing the OT (on some level), or not, it is still the Spirit who convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8) and who clarifies the meaning and intention of the inspired written text (both Old and New). IOW, I don’t see how this negates or qualifies my point about the prior, fundamental, and essential role of the Holy Spirit in clarifying the meaning of the Scriptures–even often completely apart from a knowledge of them, as Romans 2 teaches (rather than their being deemed “self-interpreting” and “perspicacious” to a human “common sense” reading in and of themselves–especially since we both understand even the God-given “common sense” with which we were created, through Adam’s fall, has been darkened by sin). Accordingly, if you will notice again with me what it is the Apostle Paul claims enables people to embrace and believe the gospel, it is not simply being persuaded by someone’s arguments–even presumably arguments from Scripture: it is “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).

          How many testimonies have you heard of people being convicted of the truth of the gospel, even after knowing the stories in the Scriptures and many of their basic teachings but being unpersuaded, by seeing it consistently demonstrated (and sometimes even miraculously demonstrated) in the life of a believer or community of believers of their acquaintance? Further, according to Paul, God’s message (preached or written) is “spiritual”, and not perspicacious at all to the “natural” man, i.e., to human “common sense” apart from the conviction/illumination of the Holy Spirit, the “mind of Christ” given to the Church (1 Cor. 2:10-16).

          Now, hopefully you will understand I’m not arguing the Spirit does not also use, among His tools, the inspired Scriptures, as Romans 3 teaches, especially with those who through the Holy Spirit’s work accept those Scriptures as inspired of God and true. What could be more natural, after all, and why else would Acts record the Apostle Paul’s pattern of traveling from town to town and entering the synagogue there first, persuasively arguing from the OT Scriptures, showing how Christ was their fulfillment? I’m just arguing the Scriptures, of themselves (the naked text, the letter), subjected to human reason and hermeneutic theories rooted in human reason are not self-interpreting, nor do they automatically yield in this fashion their “basic meaning” as some of the Reformers and as 19th century Fundamentalists have tried to maintain in various forms.

          I apologize, but you are losing me (with my simple, concrete mind!), with your language of “internal” and “external clarity” of the Scriptures. I also tried following your post at your blog, but your language was getting too abstract for me in many places, so I felt I was not able to properly follow your train of thought.

          P.S. Btw, yes, I am the same (long-winded!) Karen who has engaged you from time to time around various issues at Fr. Stephen’s site and here. Nice to “visit” with you again for another (hopefully enlightening) discussion! 🙂

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      • Nathan says:

        Karen,

        “but rather that the Holy Spirit opens the meaning of the Scriptures to those who are ready and open to hear their message (and insofar as that is the case) and that this requires a genuine experiential encounter with Jesus Christ (even if it is only at first through the Holy Spirit speaking to one’s conscience). What did Christ say to Peter, himself, when Peter confessed Jesus as Christ? “Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven . . . ” (my emphasis). He did not say, “Blessed are you, for applying yourself to the study of the Scriptures and accurately discerning what they have taught about Me” (though that may also have been the case).”

        Karen, we would balance 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:16 with Romans 3 (no one seeks God – at least as He really is!). We would say that the Scriptures themselves could certainly prepare persons to hear that the message of Christ’s forgiveness, life and salvation is *for them* – first they would see however, that they were not *for* Him, but against Him. How? The Holy Spirit might, for example, through a reading of the book of John, convict the unbeliever with knowledge of the end-times judgment of the crucified Savior now (John 12:32, 16:8-11) – yes, ultimately so that they may believe (“internal clarity” of the Scriptures) – but even if they do not believe (“external clarity” of the Scriptures). In other words, first they are convicted by sin and then they are ready to receive Christ – if indeed they do. I note that any unbeliever who picks up the Bible to read it may do so for various motives. In any case, all of them are spiritually dead and enemies of God before they are enlightened by His Spirit. Some persons are so violently opposed to God that they do not want to listen to anyone – or anything (like the Scriptures) – that tells them about “the one True God”. But they are few and far between, and even they can be reached.

        Father Kimel,

        That is true – but I am not sure how it is relevant. Does a person need to see Christ on every page of the O.T. before Christ can do His work? Could you explain?

        That said, this will have to be my last post until Monday.

        +Nathan

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Nathan, Swinburne explains this far better than I; hence it’s probably best for me to refer you back to my recently concluded series and re-read the Swinburne citations (given both in the articles themselves and in the comments).

        What is the plain or literal meaning of a biblical passage? Is it restricted to that meaning intended by the original author or redactor? Is it a meaning that can be discovered through commonsense or the methods of modern biblical criticism?

        If a person says yes, then Hauerwas would say that person is guilty of the heresy of sola scriptura. A sola scriptura practitioner has no rational way of affirming that the historico-grammatical reading of an Old Testament text is ultimately about Jesus. The Song of Songs is the prime example.

        If a person says no, Hauerwas would say that person is now reading the Bible as Scripture and not just as historical text.

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        • Nathan says:

          Father Kimel,

          OK – one more. : )

          “If a person says no, Hauerwas would say that person is now reading the Bible as Scripture and not just as historical text.”

          I guess I do not see why “Sola Scriptura” or “Scripture interprets Scripture” must necessarily mean that one *must say* we are limited to the meaning intended by the original author (which we may not be able to determine with confidence anyway). Further, why would we assume that meaning that can be discovered through “common sense” (understood also in conjunction with the ability to read and be familiar with the language the Scriptures are heard in) – and that would be restricted to the intention of one biblical author in one biblical book, for example – could not be used by the Holy Spirit to bring someone to faith (in other words, whether they are coming to the text as Scripture as not)?

          We need to talk about what language is and is not capable of it seems. What did God create language for? Are there some things in life that are static or relatively static and can be represented by language trans-culturally – or is not necessarily the case. If it is not the case, what are the best explicit arguments that demonstrate this? It seems to me that this is what all these thinkers need to deal with.

          I, for one, do not think it is always bad to speak using all-encompassing “universals” language. As a matter of fact, it seems clear to me that we all do this and really can’t not do this – however cautious one is. Now, if when we use this kind of language others object to it in particular circumstances because they have particular examples or circumstances that do in fact go against it (perhaps personal experiences – but not necessarily so), what should be the response of the person using language that tends towards the seemingly or supposedly static and immutable over the changing and mutable? Well if the person using such language is never willing to listen to the basis, reasons, or evidence for the objections of others, then, I think this he or she is definitely in the wrong! Otherwise, not necessarily so….

          In other words, if language is being used to shut down communication with at least some other human beings – with the intent of cutting them off with finality, relegating them to non-existence, silencing their voice, or simply not having to deal with them – language is not being used in a way that is good, right and salutary – “proper”.

          +Nathan

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “I’m just arguing the Scriptures, of themselves (the naked text, the letter), subjected to human reason and hermeneutic theories rooted in human reason are not self-interpreting, nor do they automatically yield in this fashion their “basic meaning” as some of the Reformers and as 19th century Fundamentalists have tried to maintain in various forms.”

        That’s nicely put, Karen.

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        • Nathan says:

          Karen,

          First of all, thanks for the conversation. Iron sharpens iron (yes, I know you are not a man : ) ).

          “Nathan, I’m not sure I’m following your logic about the nature of the “balance” you see a need for between 1 Corinthians 1 & 2 and Romans 3–perhaps you could clarify–but let me give it a stab.”

          Yes, I see that was confusing. Sorry. Basically, Romans 3 and I Cor. 1 and 2 are saying that people cannot have a true spiritual understanding – and faith – in God unless they are given this by the Holy Spirit. I think what I was trying to avoid when I started writing things out like that was the idea that fallen man can in any way prepare himself spiritually to receive God – i.e. do works that get God’s attention, merit His favor and help, etc.

          Karen, I agree with what you say about the Spirit’s role (and much of what you say in your message), but I do not see that as replacing the regular understanding that comes by the very regular human thing we call reading – rather this goes hand in hand with the ability to read, know a language, “common sense” (biblically understood, not in an Enlightenment way), and even “argue” – it is not opposed to these things. I think that persons when reading the Scriptures can be convicted by the Spirit of their unbelief in Christ through the words, and yet not believe. That, in some cases, may well be why the unspiritual man does not “get it” – not because he has not really begin to understand what he has read.

          It’s like Mark Twain said: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” This suggests to me it is not so much “literal Bible reading” that is the problem, but literalistic Bible reading. I think that more literal Bible reading would actually be a good thing, and I hope that will be clear in what I say below.

          “I’m just arguing the Scriptures, of themselves (the naked text, the letter), subjected to human reason and hermeneutic theories rooted in human reason are not self-interpreting, nor do they automatically yield in this fashion their “basic meaning” as some of the Reformers and as 19th century Fundamentalists have tried to maintain in various forms.”

          Well, that sounds pretty good to me. It seems to me than that neither you or others liking what you say should really have an issue with what I said at my blog, namely:

          “In the midst of the regular human act of listening (or reading), proper interpretation of the Christian Scriptures in man’s imagination in these last days is a gift of God given by the Holy Spirit, has Christ as its focus, and no longer interprets particular books of the Scriptures in, to some degree, the light of the contemporary circumstances of the church within the world, but now interprets contemporary circumstances in the church within the world primarily in light of the whole of the Scriptures, as the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to interpret Scripture, in line with the legitimate oral tradition bound by the rule of faith, and attested to by legitimate miracles, i.e. those performed among men by the Triune God.”

          No, I suspect I can join hands with you regarding “hermeneutic theories rooted in human reason”, – and I would like to – but perhaps I should not speak so fast. I do think that there is a good use of human reason, where it is used in a way that is “ministerial” as regards its approach towards Scripture and a bad use that is “magisterial” in its approach to Scripture. This would be proud human reason, bad reason, including alledged “scientific reason”, defined as that which places itself in a position of authority over the text. Already over 150 years ago August Friedrich Christian Vilmar said:

          “Doctrine as expressive of the deed of redemption is sound only to the degree that it is a true expression of these acts, and belongs to the life of the Church. Through its doctrine the Church responds to the Lord’s acts, or rather to his questions as to whether it has understood and accepted his proofs of everlasting mercy, woven them into its own life, and consequently preserved the word of his patience. In and by themselves therefore, dogmatics and ethics are nothing but confessions of the Church, not the results of experiences, to say nothing of the individual’s speculation in the Church. This point of view, however, was neglected for a century and more. Influenced by the general confusion of the human spirit which turned from real life toward a spurious life of erudition, the theological disciplines cited above as witnesses of what the Church has lived through and experienced have become ‘sciences’ (p. 59, bold mine)

          That said, it seems to me that many of these modern critics, a la Twain, understand more about what the Scriptures really mean then they let on – they just suppress that knowledge en route to thinking that says: “[the] resurrection really happened in the hearts of the disciples rather than to the crucified Jesus”, or something like that. And so they, through some real effort on their part, do not think Paul is actually talking about a something Real – something distinct from man and outside of him that truly invades human hearts. They read in unbelief – perhaps if they ever felt any conviction by the Spirit, they long ago killed that work. Perhaps God leaves them to their false interpretations at least when it comes to Bible reading and chooses to reach them through other means. I realize that some may think my view here to be uncharitable. I think that it is fiercedly biblical.

          Karen, I would be curious to know if you think this post I did has anything to do with this issue: http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/on-with-the-reformation-circa-1567-the-under-appreciated-matthias-flacius-illyricus-part-ii-of-iii/

          Karen, I try to be very concrete as well and avoid abstraction. If you can’t follow something, please ask as I aspire to be clear and concrete in my language.

          This will be my only post for today. Blessings to you (and you to Father Kimel).

          +Nathan

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          • Karen says:

            Thanks, Nathan, for the thoughtful reply. Thanks also for the link to the interesting article about an early Lutheran–and Lutheran debate–I was, of course, unfamiliar with. Yes, it was informative and quite relevant to the issue. It was also easier, I found, to follow, than your other post (but maybe I was just having a bad comprehension day when I looked at that). I often suspect when many Protestants advocate “Sola Scriptura,” they are assuming the Holy Spirit’s illumination, but given where 19th century Fundamentalists took the issue of the “perspicuity” of Scriptures and the meaning of their being the “Word of God”, and their influence on modern Evangelical (and even modern American) culture, if that is not made explicit, I am uncomfortable.

            You’ve covered a lot of territory in your comment, and I only want to touch on one other common theme that tends to arise in these inter-tradition Christian conversations–that is the typical Protestant vigilance against what it deems to be “works righteousness” theologies. In my journey to Orthodoxy, I have been confronted with the fact this particular anxiety is overgeneralized by many Protestants and projected in a way not proper onto their comparison of other faiths (both other Christian traditions and other religions) to what they view as “the gospel”. It is a mistaken impulse, I believe, to impose this framework–its definitions of “works” of “righteousness” and of “salvation” (as justification), for instance–to compare teachings not peculiar to the specific issues and definitions of these terms that were current in the Reformation-Counter Reformation debates. Other religions, and I would have to argue even Orthodox Christianity qualifies as “another religion” in this sense here, have definitions of “salvation” different in some important respects than the “justification” and “salvation” under discussion in those polemics.

            That said, I will affirm the biblical (and Orthodox) faith to teach we cannot earn God’s “favor” or merit our “salvation” (especially if one means by this God changes His mind about whether He wants to save us, or not–as some accounts of atonement as “Penal Substitution” seem to infer) through our performance of works. Pertinent to that discussion vis-a-vis Orthodoxy is the treatise by St. Mark the Ascetic, “On Those Who Think They are Made Righteous by Works.” See here:

            Click to access mark_ascetic-righteousness.pdf

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  7. Nathan says:

    Karen,

    I like that work by St. Mark the Ascetic. I think there is much wisdom in the words you say above. I do believe that we can say the Scriptures are the Word of God though, even as we should not limit our speech about the Word of God to the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit uses oral and written proclamation to bring people to faith in God. And we trust the Word of God by trusting “Spirit and life” words from His mouth – and we treasure them all, for by them we have eternal life.

    +Nathan

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