Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Biblical Interpretation

One day some of the brethren came to see Abba Antony,[St Antony the Great, the father of Christian monasticism] and among them was Abba Joseph. Wishing to test them, the old man mentioned a text from Scripture, and starting with the youngest he asked them what it meant. Each explained it as best he could. But to each one the old man said "You have not yet found the answer". Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, "And what do you think the text means?"
He replied, "I do not know".
Then Abba Antony said, "Truly, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said: "I do not know".
From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

   I take Abba Antony's point to be that the starting place for understanding the Scriptures is understanding our own limitations and ignorance. Without proper humility, we will not 'find the way' to a right understanding of Scripture, as our pride will lead us instead to interpretations that make us feel clever, or give us license to do the things we want to do.

   Pope Francis, the current Bishop of Rome, in a recent interview, spoke of the necessity of doubt and uncertainty to our faith, because it leads us to humility. He says, "If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself." Read an article discussing the Pope's words here:

   While Pope Francis was not speaking specifically about Biblical interpretation, I think that what he says certainly applies. Many Christians in the West, under the influence of the Reformation dogma of Sola Scriptura turn to the Bible as a sort of substitute prophet; starting with an idea or intention of their own, they comb through the Bible and pull verses out of context to build support for that idea or intention. The same tradition that concocted Sola Scriptura also invented the idea that each believer is capable of correctly interpreting the Scriptures on their own. The result is obvious and all around us - disagreement, division and individualized faith are the hallmarks of American Christianity. This is the result of our insistence upon individual autonomy. We assume that we know, or can deduce using logic and reason, the mind of God.

   This stands in contradiction to the Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures and their interpretation. The Church as a whole (body) interprets the Scripture in and through the lens of our Holy Tradition. An individual may (and probably will) err, but the Holy Spirit, which is the Mind of the Church, guides the whole into all Truth. Many of the big heresies that have plagued the Church throughout her history were instigated by a person pulling his/her own interpretation of a verse or passage and insisting that everyone but them got it wrong. See Arianism for the uber-example.

"19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: 20 knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." 2 Peter 1: 19-21 (emphasis mine)

"The prophets hear God speaking to them in the secret recesses of their own hearts. They simply conveyed that message by their preaching and writing to God's people. They were not like pagan oracles, which distorted the divine message in their own interest, for they did not write their own words but the words of God. For this reason the reader cannot interpret them by himself, because he is liable to depart from the true meaning, but rather he must wait to hear how the One who wrote words wants them to be understood."

St. Bede the Venerable, On 2 Peter.

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