Saturday, June 14, 2008

Who Interprets Scripture?

Today my blog surfing led me to one of those uncomfortable moments in which I found myself feeling the need to provide a bit of a correction to a commonly heard mantra to which confessional Lutherans are sometimes expected to subscribe, viz.,

"We don't use the Scriptures to interpret the Confessions; we use the Confessions to interpret the Scripture."

I understand the principle behind this idea, but I disagree.

Yet not with the first part; only with the second.

Confessional Lutherans rightly reject the idea that one can subscribe to the Confessions only insofar as they agree with Scripture, for by this ruse people have tried to sell themselves as true Lutherans. So they will say, "Sure, we subscribe to the Confessions, just like you." And then comes the asterisk: "insofar as they agree with the Scriptures." By this token one could as well subscribe to the Koran. It renders the confessional subscription meaningless.

I get that, and I agree. We do not subscribe to the Confessions insofar as they agree, but because they agree. Right.

But that doesn't mean the reverse is true, and here we also need to be clear.

To say we use the Confessions to interpret Scripture is in principle the same as someone else saying he uses the Pope or the Councils to interpret Scripture, or the Book of Mormon, or anything else. Rather, we say that Scripture is clear, and we let Scripture interpret itself. Scripture interprets Scripture. Period.

We use the Confessions to express what we believe according to Scripture, but we ought never think of the Confessions as some sort of tribunal giving us the official interpretation of the Word of God, for that would be to place them over the Word of God.

For example, we do not believe that the Sacrament is truly Christ's body because the Confessions have authoritatively interpreted the Scripture on this for us; rather, we believe it because we have Jesus' own word on it, recorded in Scripture. When the Scriptures speak, God speaks. That is His word. On the basis of that word, we then confess our faith. Our Confessions become, then, our own declaration of what we take the Scriptures to mean, especially against erroneous views.

We could say they are our interpretation, or better, our declaration, of what Scripture has revealed to us, but we should not say that they interpret the Scripture for us. The difference here may seem subtle, but it is highly significant.

When the word "interpretation" is used, it carries with it an implication of authority.

We must be careful never express ourselves in a way which even appears to place any authority over God's own authority.

10 comments:

Rt. Rev. Jack Bauer said...

Not a criticism, but you are saying you agree with Loehe instead of Walther, basically.

Wilhelm Loehe:
As highly as one must value the service of the church in preserving for its children God's testimonies and introducing the regenerating truth into the world, yet God's testimony and the truth are greater than even the blessed host of the church which was itself born and is still being born from the Word as the dew comes forth from the dawn. The church is the child of God's Word and can never, never stand above the Word.
[Three Books About the Church, p.73]

As it stands, the statement of Vincent of Lerins can be of no more use to us than to the Romans. It makes no sense if it is not subjected to the Scriptures. According to its wording there would be no true church anywhere. If we interpret it as being said in opposition to the heretics htere could be no "always," no "everywhere," and no "all" unless we understand "all" as meaning all those who took their faith from the clear Word of God or amended it to conform with that Word. In this sense, however, we have nothing to fear from this statement -- if such a human decree is even to be taken seriously. [p.118]

Forget the name and think about the content. Forget Luther and think of the confession and doctrine of the Lutheran Church. Then you will find the church which is now called Lutheran in Jerusalem and in Rome at the times of the apostles and the first centuries after Christ.
[Loehe, p.119]

Rt. Rev. Jack Bauer said...

One more:

http://augsburg24.blogspot.com/2008/06/wilhelm-loehe-on-scripture-and-church.html

Chris Jones said...

Fr Eckardt,

I hesitate to disagree with you, especially since I got beat up pretty bad the last time I did so. (It was useful, though, since I understand the Lutheran doctrine about concupiscence better now, and realize that the doctrine I was dissenting from was not quite what the Lutheran doctrine is.)

Nevertheless I cannot agree with you here.

Your claim that Scripture is clear does not take account of the fact that multiple, conflicting interpretations of the Scriptures do exist -- even (especially) with regard to cardinal doctrines. Given such multiple interpretations, there must be some means of discerning the true from the false. Either we must have an authoritative (if not outright infallible) interpreter, or we must have a rule (or rules) of interpretation that can guide us to the correct interpretation. Or perhaps some combination of those two.

According to St Irenaeus of Lyons, it is indeed the case that we have been given a rule of interpretation, by which we must interpret the Scriptures: the canon of truth received through baptism (see Adversus Haereses I.9.4). According to St Irenaeus, to read Scripture apart from that canon of truth destroys the hypothesis of Scripture and only leads to heresy. We don't judge the canon of truth by Scripture, because it is only the canon that ensures that we understand the overall message (the hypothesis) of Scripture. Otherwise we are bringing our own hypothesis to the Scriptures, and in purporting to judge the canon of truth by the Scriptures, we are really judging it by our own presuppositions that we bring to the Scriptures.

And what are the Lutheran Confessions but an elaboration of the canon of truth to address the errors of a particular age? If that is not what they are, then they are not worth subscribing to; and if that is what they are, then their proper use is precisely as a rule of Scriptural interpretation.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

This: "to read Scripture apart from that canon of truth destroys the hypothesis of Scripture and only leads to heresy" is true.

Thus Scripture is not for mere proof-texting. Yet it can never be subjected to the authority of any other interpreter than itself.

The 'canon of truth' is the heart of Scripture, to which Scripture itself testifies. Hence the old saying goes, you can't know what someone is saying until you know what he is talking about.

Who decides what Scripture is talking about? Again, ultimately, Scripture does. In giving our case that they are talking about the Gospel, we must always appeal to their own authority to demonstrate this, as the Confessions do.

My issue is really with the saying "the Confessions interpret Scripture," because this puts the Confessions in a superlative position, which the Confessions themselves would refuse.

Chris Jones said...

And my issue is with "Scripture interprets Scripture," because Scripture is not a "who".

If the canon of truth is the heart of the Scriptures, and the Scriptures themselves tell us what the heart is, then why did Luke and Cleopas need Christ to open the Scriptures for them (Lk 24)? Were the Scriptures not clear? The Scriptures by themselves never give us an interpretation; Christ must open the Scriptures for us as he did for Luke and Cleopas, else they are forever closed to us.

That is why "in order to receive this faith" we must rely on the ministry of Word and Sacrament in His Church, in which He does open the Scriptures to us. If the Scriptures were "clear," we should simply hand out Bibles.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Rather, we say that Scripture is clear, and we let Scripture interpret itself. Scripture interprets Scripture. Period.

If only.

It just doesn't. I don't think you can get away from the fact that the Confessions confess what Lutherans take the Scriptures to mean. Or, they confess what the Scriptures mean according to Lutherans. That's an interpretation. Isn't it?

Scripture can't always interpret Scripture even on simple, historical, factual issues, such as whether the people traveling to Damascus with Saul heard the Voice he heard (Acts 9:7) or did not hear it (Acts 22:9).

You can resolve the question in various ways, just not, in this and many other cases, by letting Scripture interpret Scripture.

Anastasia

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Anastasia:

We must distinguish shades of meaning at work when we speak of interpretation.

If, say, I have an opinion regarding who heard the voice on the Damascas road, that may be called my interpretation. But I may be wrong.

Yet on the matter of what I believe, the basis upon which I believe it must not be my own opinion, nor the opinion of any man, nor yet even the confession of the church, but the word of God.

Here, when I say that I rely on an interpretation, I dare not allow any to convince me of it except by the testimony of Scripture. For, as Luther has said well, Popes and Councils can err and have erred.

Thus the Lutheran Confessions do not dare to rest on their own authority, but appeal to Scripture. In doing so, they uphold the principle of which I have written.

I suppose it all depends on what one means by 'interpretation'.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

It’s quite simple. To interpret, according to Merriam-Webster, is to explain or tell the meaning of something. An interpretation can be correct or incorrect, complex or straightforward, and it’s still an interpretation. With Scripture, the idea is to interpret correctly.

If you could do without interpretation, there would be no need for anybody to pledge quia subscription to the Book of Concord. They could just pledge it to Scripture alone.

But not to interpret at all is flat-out impossible. Just to say, “The Bible means ‘A’ and not ‘B’ and all I am doing is confessing ‘A’” is already to have made an interpretation. Even if I only decide to send my cousin three Bible verses about predestination and I do nothing more than quote those passages verbatim, I’m interpreting those three as (a) relevant to my the topic (b) supporting my point and (c) supporting it better than the other dozen passages I could have chosen.

The Bible does not always interpret itself, either, although it sometimes does. But note that even to assert it does (or doesn’t) is already an interpretation!

So we cannot escape interpreting the Bible, and not always by using the Bible to do so, as in the example I gave, in which Scripture cannot be used to interpret Scripture. The real question is not whether or not we all do this (use extra-biblical stuff to interpret Scripture). We do, unavoidably, and I suggest it’s time we all faced up to that. The real question is, what to use? Or, as asked in the title of your post, “Who Interprets Scripture?”

john said...

It seems to me that the Lutheran Confessions came about as a result of having to deal with false doctrine. It is true that Lutherans believe that the Scriptures interpret themselves but I don't believe that is the issue when it comes to the function of the Confessions, especially in this denomination-saturated age of ours. The Confessions do separate us from each other but only because it is the false doctrine that separates us. If there was no false doctrine there would have been no need for confessional statements. As it is, the Lutheran Church finds itself in dialogue with the many denominations in existence today and there needs to be a drawing of lines as to what one believes before a dialogue can take place. I think it is a bit of a fantasy to ignore this reality.

john said...

It seems to me that the Lutheran Confessions came about as a result of having to deal with false doctrine. It is true that Lutherans believe that the Scriptures interpret themselves but I don't believe that is the issue when it comes to the function of the Confessions, especially in this denomination-saturated age of ours. The Confessions do separate us from each other because it is the false doctrine that separates us. If there were no false doctrine there would have been no need for confessional statements. As it is, the Lutheran Church finds itself in dialogue with the many denominations in existence today and there needs to be a drawing of lines as to what one believes before a dialogue can take place. I think it is a bit of a fantasy to ignore this reality.