Pontifications, Bible Reading, and Stanley Hauerwas

I did some Google-searching last night. I wanted to see if I could find somewhere a reference to when I first started my long-defunct blog Pontifications. I think it was sometime in 2003 but the Wayback Machine could only show me a few pages from early 2004. Pontifications was a very different, and more interesting, blog than Eclectic Orthodoxy—a daily mixture of biting commentary on the Episcopal Church and American Christianity, occasional longer pieces on apologetics and theological themes, and many citations from Church Fathers and my favorite theologians. My writing style back then was vigorous, confident, polemical, witty (at least I like to think I was witty). I loved to engage with other bloggers, and our disputations generated long comment threads. I was the Pontificator! I had not yet been chastened by the years to follow.

In my searching I happened upon the following short piece I wrote on 2 April 2004 on Stanley Hauerwas. I first met Stan in the early 90s, when I invited him to participate in a conference in Baltimore. The other principal speakers were Robert W. Jenson and Joseph Augustine DiNoia. It was a great conference. I asked Stan to address a specific topic—he of course addressed another altogether. Jens warned me he might do that. It didn’t matter. No matter what the topic, Hauerwas is always provocative, incisive, entertaining, challenging, prophetic.

Here’s the article I wrote in 2003:

I figured that my final quotation from Stan Hauerwas in my article “No More Bible Reading” might provoke a reaction or two. 🙂

I remember attending a lecture one summer given by Hauerwas at Princeton Seminary. There were several internationally known Scripture scholars seated in the audience. Hauerwas was asked what he would do to reform seminary education. He replied, “Fire all the Bible scholars!” Needless to say, the academics in the audience were not amused.

But I suspect we need not live in fear that Hauerwas will one day show up at our front doors with his goon squad hunting for illicit Bibles.

Why would Hauerwas outrageously say that the number one priority today is to get the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians? Because we have not acquired the spiritual and moral character and skills, which can only be acquired by a life lived within Eucharistic community, that would allow us to understand Scripture. Because we have not submitted both our hearts and minds to the Church. As Americans we retain the right of a final say. “Don’t tread on me!” Hauerwas again:

North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their “common sense” is sufficient for “understanding” the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead they assume that they have all the ‘religious experience’ necessary to know what the Bible is about. As a result the Bible inherently becomes the ideology for a politics quite different from the politics of the Church …

I certainly believe that God uses the Scripture to help keep the Church faithful, but I do not believe, in the Church’s current circumstance, that each person in the Church thereby is given the right to interpret the Scripture. Such a presumption derives from the corrupt egalitarian politics of democratic regimes, not from the politics of the Church. The latter … knows that the “right” reading of Scripture depends on having spiritual masters who can help the whole Church stand under the authority of God’s Word …

Indeed literalist-fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without the necessary mediation by the Church. The reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, joined to the invention of the printing press and underwritten by the democratic trust in the intelligence of the “common person,” has created the situation that now makes people believe that they can read the Bible “on their own.” (Unleashing the Scripture)

That same week at Princeton I also attended a seminar taught by Hauerwas. I recall him remarking that it used to bother him that he had not read directly as much of the Bible as many of his evangelical friends. Then, he said, it occurred to him that that in fact he knew a great deal of Scripture but as mediated to him through the writings of St Thomas Aquinas–and this is not a bad way to learn one’s Bible! The necessity again of the mediation of the Church and of spiritual and theological masters.

Given the rampant neo-Gnosticism of American culture, which provides spiritual experience galore without true moral and spiritual conversion to Christ Jesus in his Church, is Hauerwas’s argument so far-fetched?

What I do not understand about Hauerwas is why and how he can remain a Methodist. He seems to understand well the need for an authoritative Church, yet he remains a theologian within a liberal Protestant denomination. Might it be because his absolute pacifism contradicts the consensual teaching of the Church catholic, both East and West? Just a thought …

I don’t see anyone like Hauerwas today among the up-and-coming young theologians. They are all too earnest and so very politically-correct. And that is a shame.

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3 Responses to Pontifications, Bible Reading, and Stanley Hauerwas

  1. MJH says:

    “They are all too earnest and so very politically-correct.”

    –At least amongst academics, the early career researcher and the lecturer without tenure, live in great anxiety about job security; most of us lack the guts to rock any boats because we want to be sure we still have paycheque to help feed our families next year. Which is a pity, since it stifles our ability to do more than transform all academic work simply into employment and not a real challenge to how we think.

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  2. Steven says:

    I’m reading “The Nature of Doctrine”, and this post was a nice supplement to Lindbeck’s thesis about religion functioning as a language.


  3. brian says:

    What happened to Paul Griffiths at Duke Divinity School last year certainly indicates that even a scholar of unimpeachable credentials is not immune to the vituperative excess and malice of academic institutions dominated by political correctness. Ideology is always first and foremost a retreat from reality, a form of egophanic revolt (to borrow from Eric Voegelin) that often takes a collective form — it is really a subrational, instinctive kind of condoned erasure of persons who resist officially endorse lies, all under cover of humanitarian rhetoric.

    MJH’s comments recall the way Thomas Kuhn talked about young researchers in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. They also found it politically necessary to stifle creativity and discovery in the name of accepted theories and needed paychecks. The difference is that Newtonian physics retains some validity even when superceded by quantum considerations. Contemporary ideology is often a complete rejection and subversion of Christian truth rather than authentic attempts to wrestle with revelation. The egalitarian demotic way of “reading Scripture” can just as easily become an erudite sophist manner of twisting language and marshalling “scholarship” to give divine sanction to false prophets.

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