Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Call for More Hubristic Theology

"I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children." -Matthew 11:25 

"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" -1 Corinthians 1:20

Yesterday I wrote that "a comparatively chastened view of the role of theology... is not necessarily bad." My thought was that fundamentalists, as well as plenty of other Christians, need a more chastened view of theology and Scripture, but on further consideration I think that's not quite right.

What is needed--and what Science, Creation, and the Bible actually argues for--is not a chastened view of theology or Scripture, but rather more hermeneutical humility. In other words, the problem is not that Christians put too much importance on Scripture, but rather that some have too little sense of their own limitations when interpreting it. The problem, then, is not taking Scripture seriously enough.

There's a powerful strain of thinking embedded in evangelicalism that claims, as Alan Jacobs puts it, "that, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, the whole of Scripture is transparent to the humble but earnest interpreter." The Bible, many evangelicals believe, ought to be immediately, easily, and equally accessible to every earnest reader, no matter their education or intelligence.

Surprisingly, I've encountered a different yet comparable sort of oversimplification among Roman Catholics. In stark contrast to these reformers, Roman Catholicism places very little faith in the interpretative ability of the individual Christian, to the extent that Roman Catholic laity have a reputation for biblical illiteracy. I can't say that this reputation is undeserved. Still, it should be pointed out that young Christians of all denominations seem uniformly illiterate about Scripture--a grand success for ecumenism!

Despite or, perhaps, in keeping with this skepticism of lay interpretation, Roman Catholics invest an enormous amount of faith in the interpretive fidelity of saints. I am not specifically speaking of the authority of Tradition as a whole here. I'm talking about this rather odd idea that there is a necessary and automatic connection between the holiness of the saint and the saint's doctrinal purity. Not through learning, erudition, or study but simply by virtue of his saintliness, then, the saint interprets Scripture correctly and authoritatively.*

[*A couple examples: I've heard R.C. friends argue for the primacy of the Vulgate over all other versions and texts not so much because of its firm place and sanction in Tradition--not to mention its central place in the Counter-Reformation--but simply because we know that St. Jerome translated (the bulk of) it, whereas the translators of, say, the Septuagint are not clearly known and probably were not Christians. Additionally, I've been told numerous times that, when it comes to commentaries on Scripture, one should only read the saints. I don't know enough R.C. theology to know exactly how widespread this view is, but I can say that it's common among a certain branch of conservative Roman Catholics.]

Connecting these two very different positions is a uniform assumption that earnestness and holiness ensure interpretative correctness. The difference--and it is substantial--is that Roman Catholics look to those whose holiness is ecclesiastically guaranteed. But both assume that education and learning are basically irrelevant to correct interpretation.

The Jacobs quotation above comes from an article he wrote praising Robert Alter's beautiful, erudite, and complex translations. In it Jacobs complicates oversimplified depictions of Tyndale and Wycliffe's vision of interpretation. Yes, they and many other Reformers believed that all things necessary for salvation are clear and plain in Scripture, but they did not therefore think that the Bible as a comprehensive whole could be equally understood by the ignorant and learned alike.

The evangelical idea of Scripture's equal openness to all readers regardless of knowledge has the appearance of elevating Scripture, and it no doubt contributed to Protestantism's laudable tradition of lay reading and study of Scripture. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic exhortation to study the lives of the saints no doubt has had beneficial effects on countless lives.

Even so, I am convinced that both positions result not in greater respect for but rather a trivialization of Scripture. Yes, every believer ought to read Scripture, and the Word of God is efficacious for all who hear. And, yes, the lives of the saints provide incredible guides for living faithfully. But it simply is not the case that zeal for God and personal holiness communicate hermeneutical correctness.

I want to be careful myself to avoid a pat interpretation of the astonishing words of Jesus and St. Paul. As probably a million pastors have said, though, childlike faith is not the same as childishness. There are a thousand different ways in which Christ's life--and, more particularly, his death and resurrection--confounds the wisdom of the ages, both then and now. We can read the words of Jesus and St. Paul as an endorsement of our own understanding over and against that of scholars, if we'd like. We can denounce scholarship as so much foolishness. Or we can see in the words of Christ and St. Paul a call to hermeneutical humility, a call to respect the deep complexity and richness of Scripture. As Jacobs puts it, "transforming oneself into a little child is the arduous work of a lifetime. Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden light, but we don’t like bending our necks to receive it--and no translation, however it accommodates itself to our language and understanding, can change that."

Contrary to the typical depiction, the problem of anti-intellectual fundamentalists--whether evangelical or Roman Catholic--is that they do not take Scripture seriously enough. So then, the response should not be to call for a more chastened view of theology, but rather to give theology and Scripture their due.

It is certainly the case that throughout church history some have expected things of theology and Scripture that they were never intended to provide--a specific political structure for nations, a modern scientific treatise on cosmology, a step-by-step explanation of the mechanism of the Eucharist. A lower view of theology would not help in these cases. The corrective, rather, involves elevating one's respect for Scripture--which requires less arrogance in one's own understanding.

In society at large today, one hardly need fear a too high view of Scripture. Instead, we live in a time when theology and Scripture are seen as purely private matters--and as obscene when presented in the public sphere. The kind of scandal that once accompanied a public display of sex now attends any assertion of theology's significance to the public.

In other words, theology is already plenty chastened. What it needs now is a little more verve.