The Problems of Biblical Reductionism II

2. The Problem of Hermeneutics

Biblical reductionists, or adherents of sola scriptura, cannot answer, and for the most part do not even try to answer, an extremely important question: What hermeneutical method is the “biblical” one? That is to say, since the Bible is never uninterpreted, what is the right way to interpret it, and on what authority can this claim be made?

In the narrow view of sola scriptura, where every belief and practice must be founded on explicit or inferential biblical precedent, this is mostly a matter of inconsistency; these adherents do not practice fully what they preach. For surely, if there were ever an inescapably essential belief and practice that must be established on the basis of Scripture alone, it would be that of the proper way to interpret Scripture. In the broader view of sola scriptura, where beliefs and practices must not contradict Scripture but where there is otherwise latitude if they do not, this is far less of a practical problem, or one of inconsistency per se. But it remains a problem for all positions along the spectrum of sola scriptura in that it ultimately elevates not Scripture itself but the private interpreter or his group over the Tradition and over Scripture itself. That is to say, biblical authority rests, necessarily for sola scriptura adherents, on the interpretation an individual or group derives from the Scripture.

In the narrow view of sola scriptura all of Tradition is seen as antithetical to Scripture in that Tradition is understood as originating in man, while Scripture has divine origins. Thus, to adhere to Tradition, especially when such beliefs or practices are not clearly enunciated or directly inferred from Scripture is tantamount to elevating human opinion over divine revelation. But as I noted in the previous post, sola scriptura adherents, especially those who hold the narrow view, cannot escape that they are necessarily adhering to extra-scriptural Tradition (which in their view would be mere human opinion) in the acceptance of the canon of Scripture. In the broader view of sola scriptura Tradition is seen as necessarily subordinate to Scripture, or rather, to the interpreter’s (or his group’s) explanation of Scripture; for while many beliefs and practices which are not clearly enunciated in Scripture or directly inferred from it (such as the use and veneration of icons) may well be allowed and even encouraged, it is Scripture, or, rather, its interpretation, that sets the bound for Tradition, and not Tradition for the understanding of Scripture.

By on the one hand cutting off Scripture from Tradition and on the other hand subordinating Tradition to Scripture, the private interpreter or his interpretive group is elevated over Tradition, and, by corollary, even over Scripture. For in the final analysis, Scripture means what the interpreter or his group takes it to mean. For objective evidence of this assertion, one may simply note the plethora of distinctive and contradictory “study Bibles” each parsing Scripture through their own interpretive grid.

This is precisely why Scripture itself disallows private interpretation, as we read in 2 Peter 1:20:

Knowing this first, that every prophecy of Scripture cometh not out of private explanation, (2 Peter 1:20)

“Private” here is the Greek idios, which refers to one’s own, what we might call “idiosyncratic,” individualistic. And “explanation” translates a New Testament hapax legomena, epilusis, which occurs only about three dozen times in the extant literature, mostly in various fragmentary texts, though two primary instances are in Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes line 130 (where it indicates a release from fear), and here in 2 Peter (where it means an explanation).

Some object here noting that we cannot but help reading and working to understand the Scriptures for ourselves, and that this will necessitate “privately” interpreting the Scriptures. And in any case, this text isn’t talking about reading the Scriptures per se but about proclaiming Christological prophecies. So this text isn’t really about forbidding individuals interpreting the texts on their own, but forbidding private prophetic utterances regarding the Christ. But let’s note the full context:

For we did not follow fables which have been cleverly devised, but we became eyewitnesses of that One’s majesty and made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. For having received from God the Father honor and glory, there was borne along by the magnificent glory such a voice to Him, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I am well pleased.” And we heard this voice which was borne along from out of the heaven, when we were with Him in the mount, the holy one. And we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which ye do well to take heed, as to a lamp shining in a squalid place, until the day should dawn and the morning star should rise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that every prophecy of Scripture cometh not out of private explanation, for prophecy not brought about at any time by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke while borne along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 2:16-21)

Notice the plural “we” that is used throughout. Notice that the author (which I assume to be St. Peter) pointedly affirms that he (and the others with him, namely, James and John) were eyewitnesses of the Transfiguration. Note that he enjoins upon his readers the authority of his eyewitness account (“ye do well to take heed”), and that this eyewitness account was not some sort of idiosyncratic fantasy, or the assertion of personal authority, but the divine revelation of God prophesied and now fulfilled in the apostolic community.

In other words, this text is all about authority, specifically apostolic authority. And note that this authority is received and transmitted. No single individual can claim this authority but it must be manifested in the apostolic community. The principle of hermeneutics in the Church, the proper method of interpretation, is to have this mind that is in Christ, to have the unity of the faith and not to be carried about by every wind of doctrine. It is to submit ourselves and all our lives to Christ our God as he has revealed himself to his disciples, as far as they were able to bear it, and from whom we receive both the revelation and its meaning.

In other words, the Faith (here summarized in the Transfiguration) is received from approved men (the apostles) into the community formed, shaped and led by them. Individuals, no matter how charismatic or forceful, do not have the authority to provide their own idiosyncratic determinations of God’s revelation.

To say it bluntly and clearly: there is no private interpretation in the Church, but all interpretation must be submitted to and through the apostolic community. Sola scriptura adherents, however, necessarily and inescapably violate this norm. They do so either by cutting off Scripture from Tradition, or they do so by subordinating Tradition to the Scripture, making Tradition coextensive with the interpreter’s (or his group’s) explanation of Scripture.

In other words, on the historic Church’s view, there is one single thing, which we term Tradition, and Scripture is one manifestation of that single Tradition. There is no subordination of Scripture to Tradition or Tradition to Scripture, but both are expressions of the authority of the apostolic community, the instantiation of the divine life of the Spirit in the Church. Scripture means what the Church, the apostolic community, says it means, not because the Church is the official institution of the religion, nor because the Church wrote the Scriptures, but because the one divine mind of Christ permeates all, the Church, the Scriptures and the Tradition. It is all one single expression of the Truth that Christ is.

The dogma of sola scriptura necessarily cannot instantiate this mind of Christ, for it is not found in it, either in the Scriptures or in the Tradition. Which is why sola scriptura can only foster private, idiosyncratic interpretation, which relies on the personal authority or force of the interpreter or his group. It is also why sola scriptura can offer no solution to the problem of discrepant and contradictory interpretations.

[Next: 3. The Problem of Time and Consensus]