The discussion over at Tripp’s has prompted this post. Interestingly, Tripp started the whole brouhaha by opining on the recent developments in the Episcopal Church of the confirmation of the election of an openly gay bishop and on the legitimacy of homosexual behavior. But the discussion very very quickly “strayed” from the topic and landed square on the question of authority: who gets to decide whether or not actions which the Episcopal Church took or private consensual sexual acts between two persons (of whatever gender and orientation) are right? Actually, the conversation didn’t stray at all. In fact, the conversation is dealing with the central issue. For it’s not really about Robinson or homosexual acts. It’s really about authority.
On the one hand you have the consistent witness and interpretation of the Scriptures by the Church. On the other hand you have those who would introduce a new interpretation of the Scriptures. These contradict one another. (Note: I’m not saying that all new interpretations contradict old ones. When there is no contradiction, there would apparently be no problem.) The Church’s interpretation (I’m not at this point going to deal with question as to whether there is such a thing as uninterpreted Scripture) prohibits x. (X could be homosexual acts or the ordination of women to the priesthood, or could be a positive command.) The new interpretation says x is allowed (or in the case of a positive command, the new interpretation would abrogate it). These cannot both be true at the same time. If one is prohibited from doing a particular act, one cannot at the same time be allowed to do that act. If one is commanded to do an act, one cannot at the same time be free not to do that act.
So, which is the proper interpretation?
Here the onus of proof rests with the folks who would posit the new interpretation. This is not to say that the Church’s interpretation need not be defended at all. The Church certainly does need to be ready to “give an answer” to those who would question it. But by reason of antiquity, which is to say, by reason of having been tested in many cultures, languages, ethnic groups, geographies, and histories, it has stood the test of millennia, which is not a small thing. It has been questioned and defended within the parameters of human reasoning and has stood the test. But what about the new interpretation?
Here, it seems, there are several routes, but one real question.
1. Proponents of the new interpretation may offer a new interpretive paradigm.
This is completely legitimate in itself. The Church has frequently reassessed the Scripture and its own Tradition from a new perspective. But here’s the difference: these reassessments have not abrogated commands or prohibitions. A frequently used paradigm today is that of “Love” and the use of the two great commmandments to test interpretation. But this new paradigm is never adequately clarified. What do the proponents of the new mean by “Love”? Can “Love” contradict Truth? Can “Love” prohibit and disapprove of specific acts? Must “Love” accept any and every act? But this new paradigm, if it is to be Churchly, must continue in harmony with the apostles’ teaching.
2. Proponents of the new interpretation may assert the continuing revelation of the Holy Spirit.
Here again, this is not entirely illegitimate. Jesus himself said the Spirit moves as it will. But what the new proponents are unclear about is what they mean by “revelation.” Is revelation a completely new thing? Or is it a reinforcement of that which has always been believed, everywhere by all? Can this continuing revelation contradict itself? But if so, wouldn’t this make God a liar? Will God contradict himself? Has God ever contradicted himself? If so, why? And what about those who now claim, in contradiction to the new interpretation, that their interpretation is the revelation of the Holy Spirit? Would God contradict himself in the same time period?
3. Proponents of the new interpretation may assert the development of human understanding.
Humans certainly have developed in their understanding of the physical processes of our planet, the human body, the stars. Some would posit we have a better understanding of the human mind, but I’m not so sure. Still, I’ll not argue that particular point. But here’s my question: so what? Why is human reason to be preferred over the established testimony of two thousand years (or more)? Is human reason, and our “new understandings” of x, such that what we now know will not be set aside for “greater understanding” later? On what basis can we trust human reason over the Church? More to the point, why set human reason in conflict with the Church’s witness? Is it not the case that Faith and reason are compatible?
4. Proponents of the new interpretation may assert the personal accountability of apprehending the Faith.
Once again, this, too, is true. We are called each to apprehend, to the degree we are able, the Faith of the Church. This, of course, will vary according to our age, mental development and ability, and, even more, our development in sanctity. In fact, it could be argued that the personal apprehension of the Faith is revealed by one’s holiness of life. In the Liturgy, at the offering of the Sacred Gifts, the priest chants, “Holy Things are for the holy.” And Hebrews 12:14 asserts that without holiness no one will see the Lord. So the question then remains, may one propose an interpretation that contradicts that which has previously always been believed? And is the authority to assert that interpretation founded on holiness? And if holiness of life is revelatory of apprehension of the Faith, are those who hold to the Church’s interpretation and who are now being killed for the Faith, who live in poverty, are these interpreters to be discredited over our more learned selves?
5. Proponents of the new interpretation may assert the historical limitations of either the Scripture or the Tradition or both.
Once again, true on its face. The Scriptures partake of the paradigm of Incarnation as does the Church and the Mysteries. Scripture is the union of the human and the divine, and the human will reveal itself as located in time and space. Since Scripture is part of the Tradition, this is similarly true of the Tradition. But does this limitation mean then that we may set aside a two-thousand year old interpretation for the new one? And on what basis? Isn’t the new interpretation just as rife with human limitation? Aren’t we just as historically limited? Why are our limitations less limiting than the Scripture’s and the Church’s?
In each and every case, what we are back to is the inescapable issue of authority. Proponents of new interpretations which contradict the received interpretation of the Church have only their own authority to offer. They must critique the Church, the Scriptures and the Tradition to offer their new interpretation and to provide themselves the authority to do so. But that authority falls prey to the same criticisms with which they critique the Tradition. Is the Church prey to sin and not to be believed? So are they. Is the Scripture full of historical limitations and prejudices? So are they. Is the Tradition full of assertion of self over Other? So are they. For every criticism they offer they, too, fall under it. If they take down authority, they have none to offer themselves.
I, for one, know I have no authority to claim anything. And that’s a very, very good thing. Instead, I’ll take the Church. I’ll use my mind to apprehend what the Church says. I’ll interpret Scripture in conformity with the Tradition and the holy men and women of God who, on the basis of their sanctity and martyrdom, have a lot more to say about what’s truly of God’s mind than I or anyone I know does.