Rowan Williams and Hermeneutics

The Blogging Parson’s piece on Rowan Williams and hermeneutics goes a long way to explain the Archbishop of Canterbury’s position–or more precisely his lack of one–in the current Anglican Communion row over homosexuals in the episcopate.  But it also is an opportunity to stop and think about one of the most important issues in Christianity–the role and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.

The advance and acceptance of higher criticism was the main fuel behind the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of a century ago which led to the bifurcation of Protestant Christianity.  Williams’ optimistic view of the Scriptures (their incompleteness as an opportunity for perpetual growth and reinterpretation) reminds one of the Book of Mormon’s take on the Fall: it’s great because it’s a chance to move up again.

There are a large number of problems with higher criticism.  Much of it was formulated in the context of German philosophy rather than the realities of the Middle East, which meant that it had to be revised when people (such as Roland de Vaux and his École Biblique de Jerusalem) actually went there and, in some cases, did some serious digging (literally.)  Moreover it’s hard for anyone who has written a book (or even edited it cut and paste style, as I did for Pile Buck) to understand how, with all of the theories of multiple sourcing for both Testaments, the text could have ended up in a coherent state.

Beyond that, Williams’ idea that the experience of the church can mould its understanding of the Scripture only makes practical sense if that experience is univocal.  And that’s where the problem comes in: it’s not.  The Communion’s current stance is a perfect example of that problem.

  • For liberals in the U.S. and Canada, their experience is moulded by the upper middle class world of TEC/ACC, where homosexuals are important players.  Rejecting them would mean ostracism from the circles they treasure, so they cave, rather than following a world-rejecting Gospel.
  • For conservatives in Africa, their experience is moulded by their contact with Islam, which abhors GLBT people and their lifestyle.  Accepting homosexuals would mean war with Islam.  The Africans’ ace in the hole, however, is that the Scriptures are consistent on the subject of homosexuality, rejecting it in the Old Testament and repeating this rejection in the New.

And what about those of us who come from backgrounds with a strong secular component?  What does the “experience of the church” mean to us, who live in a world of hard politics and economics?  If churches such as TEC or CofE would answer that question reasonably, they might see a pick-up in membership.

“The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Isaiah 40:6-8, KJV.

The search for God is the search for the transcendent and permanent.  It’s inevitable that people will interpret Scriptures in the context of their own experience.  But William’s “moving target” hermeneutics is only a theological version of running Rusty.

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