Reading Scripture as non-Scripture: Sola Scriptura and the Hermeneutics of Historical Artifact

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“By what right do you claim the Bible for your church and exclude mine?”

Let me come clean right from the start. I believe that the Holy Orthodox Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ and his Apostles. I do not assert this in a polemical or triumphalist way and have no intention in engaging in the “my church is the true church, yours ain’t” debates that internet apologists love. In my experience the ecclesiological claim can be dangerous, both spiritually and theologically. It too quickly falls prey to ideology. Nor does it resolve important disputes as easily as one might think. But if the Orthodox claim is true, then the Scriptures are ultimately given to her, and she is their steward and authoritative interpreter. My argument, however, does not depend on you, the reader, accepting this conviction. It merely asserts that an indivisible relationship exists between the sacred writings and the historic community that incorporated them into its life as Holy Scripture, however that community is identified in the present.

The canonization of specific writings as Scripture is an ecclesial act. The early Christians inherited the Bible of Judaism and then proceeded to add to it the writings we now call “New Testament.” This canonical process of discernment and judgment lasted centuries. There is no need to rehearse the history of the process, which is beyond my competence in any case. The crucial point seems clear: the ecclesial acknowledgement of a given text as the written Word of God, and therefore as worthy of being read and preached in the eucharistic assembly, is an authoritative act of the community of believers.

But once a text has been acknowledged by the Church as Scripture, how does one interpret it? Here is the problem for all who confess sola Scriptura.

The Bible is composed of individual units—units of poetry, narratives, parables, prophesies, letters, sayings, and so forth. Each unit can be examined independently of the rest of the Bible, precisely as historical artifact. This is the playfield of the members of the Society of Biblical Literature and their historical-critical methodologies, as scholars attempt to understand a text within its original cultural and societal context. Let’s call this level of interpretation the historical meaning: what did the text originally mean? One does not need to be a Christian believer in order to determine the historical meaning of individual units of the Bible. This is a game that anyone can play.

The game becomes more complicated as units are brought together into a larger unit, say when the various stories and traditions of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and its wanderings in the wilderness are brought together into one book, Exodus. When this happens a change in literary context occurs. Each individual unit must now also be interpreted in light of its relationship with the other units of the book. Change in literary context necessarily entails change in meaning. Consider the challenge of interpreting Gen 1 in relationship to Gen 2. And the same thing happens when different books are incorporated into a collection of books. Exodus must now be read in relationship to Deuteronomy, the gospel of Mark in relationship to the gospel of John, Romans in relationship to James, etc. As Richard Swinburne explains:

The insertion into a larger whole gives the sentences of the unit a different literary context, a different social context (the author is now the author of the larger whole, and the work is addressed to a different audience), and a different cultural context (the culture is now that of the new author and his audience) … Changing the context of units and sewing them together into a literary work has different effects in different places. One interesting example concerns the psalms. Many of them originally had a social context (in the rituals of the first Temple) which was lost when they came to form a collection of hymns for private or synagogic use. The compiler of the Book of Psalms must have supposed many of the psalms to have meanings (e.g., as expressions of personal devotion) other than their original meaning. (Revelation, pp. 168-169)

The Bible didn’t fall out of heaven as a single book. What we call the Bible is a patchwork of texts that have been redacted and edited over centuries and then brought together, first as the Scripture of Israel and then of the Church of Jesus Christ. Change in literary context necessarily entails change in meaning.

What happens to historical meaning when a given book is acknowledged as Holy Scripture?

(cont)

(6 November 2013; mildly edited)

 

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5 Responses to Reading Scripture as non-Scripture: Sola Scriptura and the Hermeneutics of Historical Artifact

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    “Sola Scriptura” and the sad schisming of the church into so many denominations are separate (but related) issues, I would have thought. I am an Anglican, but from the point of the view of the assembly of the canon and its context, and the first thousand years of its history, your church is my church (and that of all other Protestants and western Catholics too, for that matter). For Protestants to assert “sola scriptura” as a reason to purportedly ignore the tradition is as much a denial of their own history as anything else.

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  2. The only religious text that I am aware of that actually did “fall out of Heaven” is the Qur’an. And that one basically just re-wrote the Bible already in existence.

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  3. Sola Scriptura as it is commonly understood and practiced among Protestants today is so far removed from it’s original formulations that it’s hard to continue holding to it, and repristination efforts among conservative Lutheran and Reformed scholars hasn’t solved the problem because we have essentially exchanged one set of Fathers for another and read Scripture in a new tradition. This isn’t to say that the history of Protestant exegesis isn’t without incredible strengths, but it has created lots of other unforeseen consequences…

    That said, one of the more helpful developments in the recent Protestant tradition is the rise of the discipline of Biblical Theology which attempts to take a canonical reading of Scripture seriously. The results aren’t always great but, it’s one key area I that I think Protestants have made a largely positive contribution to biblical interpretation.

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  4. Steven says:

    “…an indivisible relationship exists between the sacred writings and the historic community that incorporated them into its life as Holy Scripture, however that community is identified in the present.”

    That’s a great way of defining the relationship between Tradition and Scripture in classical/traditional terms without engaging in ecclesial polemics, but remaining accurate.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “There is no need to rehearse the history of the process, which is beyond my competence in any case.” Mine, too, but something that fascinates me in my ignorance is the variety of Scriptural Canons – for example, in how far did, say, pre-Chalcedonian Churches in communion with each other nonetheless have different canons of Scripture? I like looking at the charts in the Wikipedia “Biblical canon” article and that by Vincent Setterholm in its External links. Where the Wikip one says no-one includes the Shepherd of Hermas, Setterholm’s seems to indicate the Ethiopians do have it (in some sense: I haven’t found a key for some of his annotations). Having read it (in translation) it seems to me it would make an appreciable difference if one accepted it as Scripture rather than as delightful edifying reading.

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