Thursday, March 15, 2012

Who can interpret the Bible? Easy answer, right? Anyone with enough money to buy a Bible or borrow one from the library, or steal one I suppose, and who is able to read, can interpret the Bible, even if they do it poorly. Many professionals interpret the Bible poorly, so there is no reason to let that stand in anyone's way. That is all true enough, but there is a deeper level (or levels) to this question, which my New Testament class at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity has been exploring.

We are exploring this question with the help of Ben F. Meyer's Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship and Peter Williamson's Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture, which unpacks the Pontifical Commission's "Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." In these books, the claim is made that one needs more than reason to interpret the Bible, though this is clearly essential and interpretation cannot be carried out without human reason, including the tools of history, philology, textual studies and literary insights. Meyer talks about the need for "conversion" to read the Bible well and Williamson speaks of the "hermeneutic of faith" and states that "reason alone is insufficient to understand the Bible and its message" (97).

The Church has always privileged as interpreters those who belong to the Church, especially the poor and, at a formal level, those who represent the Church, such as Bishops and the Magisterium, and the Tradition of the Church. This makes sense, the Church, as with any religious organization, ought to be able to interpret and define, as it were, itself. But questions still emerge and these are a few that have been raised by the readings, by the class or by me:

1) If only Christians can properly interpret the Bible, how does one who is not a Christian encounter it? Are they always only reading on the surface? Can they not have genuine insights? What breaks through this closed circle?

2) What about the Jewish people? Can they not interpret their own texts which comprise the Christian Old Testament? Is this not a claim of hubris? Or supercessionism?

3) If one is "open" to hearing the text, is this sufficient for interpretation? That is, even if one ultimately did not adopt the position of the New Testament, would openness or willingness to hear count for genuine encounter with the text and thus ground for interpretation?

4) If this is the case with the New Testament, does it not follow that I cannot interpret the texts of other religions either if I do not share their understanding of, for instance, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch? If I adopt the Church's position regarding the Bible, is not a Christian a)  incapable of reading a Buddhist text or an Islamic text unless it is read in faith? or b) can a Christian take the position of the Buddhist or Islamic text, in an act of openness or goodwill, and interpret the text of the "other" religion well?

5) What is the role of the Holy Spirit in all of this? Would an encounter with the Holy Spirit necessitate a reading of the Bible in light of Christian faith?

6) Does any of this apply to technical skill and ability? Are such claims only made to indicate the ecclesial or traditional understanding of Scripture adopted by Christian interpreters and the Church? Does it have any impact on an individual interpreter's "knowledge" or "understanding"?
Any other questions?

John W. Martens

Follow Me On Twitter @johnwmartens