Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Straw Men: Sola Scriptura; Conservatives and Wooden Readings

I have two straw men that I would really like to send to the straw man graveyard. I'm sure that like Freddie and Jason they'll both be back from the grave, but it would be nice to be rid of them for awhile. Both have to do with the interpretation of Scripture.

Protestants and Sola Scriptura
I have heard plenty of times that Protestants, in teaching Sola Scriptura, despise church tradition. I have met very few Protestants who despise church tradition; in my experience these are the exception to the rule.

It was fellow-Protestants who taught me to read the church fathers and built up my knowledge of patristics. Fellow-Protestants pointed me towards Athanasius and Irenaeus. Fellow-Protestants taught me to admire the heroes of the faith who had gone before. It was in Protestant churches that I learned of Ignatius and Polycarp, Cyril and Methodius, and of course Augustine. Protestants gave me copies of Thomas Merton and Vladimir Lossky.

The idea that Protestants as a whole have no respect for the church as a whole is really outlandish. Granted there are fringe groups that anyone can find who disrespect tradition; but what justice is there in finding someone who is not representative and using them as a representative of the whole? The original teaching of Sola Scriptura is that when a church teacher -- no matter how respected -- contradicts the Scripture, that such a dispute will be resolved in favor of Scripture. If Christ and the apostles teach something, it should not be overthrown; if another teaching is presented later than does not trace back to Christ and the apostles, that teaching's prominence can never reach the heights of the teachings that came directly from Christ. That is the point of Sola Scriptura: not that only Scripture be read, but that only Scripture is on that level. Many a church father's small or subtle errors have, over the centuries, shown what may happen as others compound an error that once was small. The church has Scripture to help it correct the errors of the theologians by a return to the source, Christ, and the apostles who taught us of him.

Conservatives and Wooden Readings of Scripture
I have heard a good few people say that conservative Christians -- "fundamentalists" that is, which is largely just a term of insult these days -- cannot possibly understand Scripture, or cannot really interpret Scripture according to such a plain reading as is claimed. I've heard that conservative Christians are obliged to believe that God has a mouth because there are places where it says, "God spoke" or "God said". I've heard that conservative Christians simply do not have either the mental ability or the interpretive framework to handle mere figures of speech. If all that were true, it's difficult to imagine how conservatives manage to watch a TV show or read a book, really, with such limited verbal skills as these outspoken opponents charge. In theory, conservatives shouldn't even understand children's books, shouldn't see why the children's book character Amelia Bedelia is funny when she dusts a house by putting more dust on everything.

The main pieces of evidence I've seen presented for the inexcusably wooden Scripture readings of conservatives are that conservative Christians are fairly likely to be either young earth or old earth creationists (with or without reference to the various ideas in the Intelligent Design movement) and that conservative Christians are fairly likely to believe homosexuality is immoral from a Christian moral framework. Interestingly, large numbers of Christians through many ages past also held similar opinions, and it didn't seem to have interfered with their ability to interpret Scripture or understand figures of speech. I think the whole charge that conservatives' interpretation cannot handle figures of speech is unjust; it's simply not an issue for anyone who can read the Sunday paper and understand it. Neither is the fact that the Sunday paper contains figures of speech seen as a reason why it cannot be read plainly.

9 comments:

Patrik said...

"Interestingly, large numbers of Christians through many ages past also held similar opinions, and it didn't seem to have interfered with their ability to interpret Scripture or understand figures of speech."

I guess this is the heart of the matter: the conservative opinion denies 1. that times have changed, and that our interpretation of bible changes with it and 2. that the fact that we live in a different time from the one where the texts in question were written makes it difficult to distinguish what is figures of speech and what is not.

Weekend Fisher said...

I haven't heard anybody in the conservative camp deny #2, the fact that we live in radically different cultures and have ancient languages poses a challenge to understanding.

The main disagreement, I think, is on #1: given that the times have changed, should our interpretation of the Bible change with it?

Thanks for stopping by.

Take care & God bless

didymus said...

The main disagreement, I think, is on #1: given that the times have changed, should our interpretation of the Bible change with it?

Interesting question. I think in one sense, no, it should not change, but in another, yes, it should. It should not change in the sense that people are still people, sin is still sin, the sinful nature is still sinful, and repentance is still required. We need to be able to read our Bibles and be transformed into the likeness of Christ, to know God and be known by him.

But I think that our interpretation of the Bible should change, indeed it needs to change in other ways. A couple of things come to mind – we 21st century postmodern Americans, whether we know it or not, live in something like a box… we all think like 21st century postmodern Americans (give or take a few conservative and liberal biases here and there) and we all use our good old American common sense to interpret the plain reading of the scriptures. In this we can often miss what scripture really is saying, because they were written with 1st century interpreters in mind (at least the NT was), and not 21st century Americans. In other words, I have found that, even though we think we are just reading the plain meaning of scripture, what is plain for some is not plain for others, and it is often we who are reading it wrong.

The other thing that came to mind was Galileo. Before him, in general (common sense) people saw the earth we walk on as the center of the universe; after all, if it was moving we would all be hanging on for dear life. And the church in its plain reading of scripture, with individual verses backing it up, not to mention the natural evidence that we could see with our eyes that we needn’t hang on to the earth, since it was obviously standing perfectly still, agreed with the common sense of the day that the earth was the center of the universe. Case closed.

But then Galileo came along and changed all that. The earth was no longer the center of the universe. Now it is common sense that Galileo was right, and those verses that once upheld the centrality of the earth are interpreted in a new light, from a new perspective, a perspective that didn’t exist before.

Speaking as a Christian who believes in evolution, we need to today (re-)interpreter the Bible again in a new light, from a new perspective.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

First off - Didymus, Galileo wasnt right and no scientist today thinks that he was. He believe in heliocentricity. He wasnt even the first to come up with an alternative to geocentricity.

We do not interpret the bible differently because we feel differently today. If they were wrong then, they are wrong now. If they were right then, they are right now. It is absolutely imperative to interpret the Scriptures how they were intended to be interpreted.

Second - Weekend fisher, I dont think its a fair assessment of the situation to accuse the orthodox Christians of straw men attacks in this situation.

I've heard Protestants say "oh we believe in authority just not infallible authority like Catholics" but that itself is a straw man argument. When the orthodox make such arguments as you're quoting, we are referring to the original debate - Martin Luther's heresy. At that time, infallibility was not an issue but merely authority. Papal infallibility was not yet dogma.

So the issue is not that Protestants hate tradition, they love tradition like they love the Scriptures thats why they keep most of the Christian traditions alive in their worship.

The issue is that they only like some tradition and that they have new teachings which were never traditions in the Christian Church
(sola fide for starters).

Of course the Orthodox believe Scripture to be inerrant. It is a very misleading idea to say "if the Church contradicts the Bible we must believe the Bible" because it is like saying "if Jesus contradicts the Father, we must believe the Father" or "if the New Testament contradicts the Old, we must believe the Old" ... None of these pairs can possibly contradict each other. They are all true and not contradictory. Your personal opinion may disagree (as Martin Luther's did) but you may not claim that your interpretation of Scripture overrides the Church.

I dont think Protestants disrespect the Church. I think they dont understand it fully (my personal opinion).

I think this was particularly evident with the Da Vinci code scandal (if it can be called that) when Protestants rushed to patristic sources and (did a good job) defending Christianity as a whole. But those same sources they quoted to show the validity of Christianity; Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus are also the ones who ultimately prove .... that orthodox Christianity is far and away the closest resemblance doctrinally and esthetically to early authentic Christianity. And after all, if Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp the disciple of St. John got it wrong, how in the heck did Martin Luther get it right?

Anyway, uh terrible way to introduce myself - TheGodFearinFiddler pleased to meet you. Like your blog- especially your posts on Halloween. Keep up the good fight and we'll get this all straightened out up yonder I'm sure.

Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now & forever.

didymus said...

I hate to hijack Weekend Fisher’s blog post here, but I simply must give into temptation.

Galileo wasnt right and no scientist today thinks that he was. He believe in heliocentricity. He wasnt even the first to come up with an alternative to geocentricity.

Without getting into semantics over the value of Galileo’s contributions to science, I have to respectfully disagree with you.

We do not interpret the bible differently because we feel differently today. If they were wrong then, they are wrong now. If they were right then, they are right now. It is absolutely imperative to interpret the Scriptures how they were intended to be interpreted.

Here I would have to say that, even in light of the above comments that I made, that I wholeheartedly agree with you. I to think it is an absolute imperative to interpret the scriptures as they were intended to be interpreted. But I question if we are really doing that. I think there are many who dogmatically hold to interpretations of scripture that were never intended to be dogmatically held to.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Fiddler

You come across, on first reading, as mostly angry. This discussion's point and purpose is reconciliation, and for this individual post, working towards setting the record straight; participation in that spirit is welcome.

Since my main concern is Christian reconciliation, facts and approach are both of concern to me. For instance, it is a historically verifiable fact that Luther's translation of the Bible contained the disputed books (in response to your website repeating an oft-told myth about Luther removing these books, a myth that just so happens to be false); but setting that fact straight is (to me) relatively small potatoes compared to whether the discussion remains civil. The battle for unity is lost before it's started if we begin by treating each other badly or contemptuously. If we can't even respectfully and accurately discuss matters that are fairly straightforward (Luther did not remove the disputed books from the Bible), then how is there any hope we can respectfully and accurately discuss sola fide, church authority, different origins of traditions, etc., calmly enough for it to be productive?

Are you interested in church unity? If so, we can probably have a fruitful discussion.

Take care & God bless
WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Didymus

I think there are a few reasons there's more resistance over Darwin than over Galileo (or Copernicus if you'd rather).

For starters, the Bible never says "the earth is the center of the universe". There are verses from which people had surmised that as an indirect implication, but it's hardly a necessary implication. Absorbing the new model of the solar system only touched on second-generation or third-generation implications of the texts rather than the texts themselves. That's one reason Galileo (or Copernicus) didn't cause a stir on the same level as Darwin.

I think what amazes me (and saddens me) most is the sheer hatred and contempt with which many treat people on the other side of the divide. Smearing entire opposing camps with "moronity" and "imbecility" gets a pass on even fairly mainstream blogs. And I've known one Christian evolutionist to seriously suggest that fundamentalists may be demon-possessed. Now, I ask myself, is that any way to open up a reasoned discussion? Hmm.

I'm just hoping for more light tha heat. Calling others Morons/imbeciles/demon-possessed is not helpful.

Take care & God bless
WF

didymus said...

Yes, I actually did mean Galileo, not Copernicus. Copernicus discovered the idea, but didn't make waves. Galileo, OTOH, butted heads with the church over the matter. Like many Christian evolutionists today, he challenged the church's interpretation of the Bible, but not the Bible itself.

For starters, the Bible never says "the earth is the center of the universe". There are verses from which people had surmised that as an indirect implication, but it's hardly a necessary implication. Absorbing the new model of the solar system only touched on second-generation or third-generation implications of the texts rather than the texts themselves. That's one reason Galileo (or Copernicus) didn't cause a stir on the same level as Darwin.

Here’s something to think about, just to further our understanding – concerning what you said about heliocentricity above, I can say about evolution:

For starters, the Bible never says, "that evolution is not true". There are verses from which people had surmised that as an indirect implication, but it's hardly a necessary implication. Absorbing the new model of evolution only touched on second-generation or third-generation implications of the texts rather than the texts themselves. That's one reason Darwin didn't cause a stir on the same level as [some future String Theory guy saying there are an infinite number of realities going on (and was Jesus crucified in all of them).]

Anyway, it’s not as much a leap as one might think. Take Origen, 2nd century theologian, for example, although he was in the minority on this point in his time, today he might be thought of as being way ahead of his time, when he wrote:

What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first day, then a second and third day, evening and morning, without the sun, the moon, and the stars? And that the first day -- if it makes sense to call it such -- existed even without a sky? Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human gardener, God planted a garden in Eden in the East and placed in it a tree of life, visible and physical, so that by biting into its fruit one would obtain life? And that by eating from another tree, one would come to know good and evil? And when it is said that God walked in the garden in the evening and that Adam hid himself behind a tree, I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings by using a historical narrative which did not literally happen.

Origen, De Principiis, 4.1.16 translated in Borg, M.J. (2001) Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. Harper Collins, NY, NY p70.

(I found that quote just the other day, and I thought it was pretty cool.)

And I've known one Christian evolutionist to seriously suggest that fundamentalists may be demon-possessed.

I know the feeling; I have had more than one Christian question my Christianity because I believe in evolution. Thinking about it… just last month my pastor spoke a little about evolution in Sunday service. He mischaracterized evolution (created a straw man), and proceeded to tear it down. I was being challenged to change my beliefs from beliefs I already did not hold. It gets a bit frustrating at times.

Weekend Fisher said...

I've also seen evolution caricatured before. And I've seen creationism caricatured. There seems to be a mix: some people don't know that they're misrepresenting the others, and probably a rare few who don't care that they're misrepresenting the others. Then there's the occasional profiteer or gleeful controversialist who delights in caricaturing others, the more outrageously the better.

Myself, I don't get worked up over the young/old earth thing as much as I get worked up over the way the various sides treat each other.

On the textual interpretation, I'm aware of the sun not existing at first so that "evening" and "morning" are a problem to interpret without a sun. Still, with Copernicus/Galileo, there wasn't any basic change needed in how the texts are read. Not so with Darwin. Which I think is why it's causing a bigger stir. From "sun on day 4, plants after one sunrise, animals after the next sunrise and humanity before the next" -- from there to "long intervening ages" is not exactly the plainest reading. So I suspect creationist/evolutionist dialog would go further and faster if the evolutionists started with a simple acknowledgment that it isn't the most straightforward reading of the text, but takes it more symbolically -- like Revelation's multi-headed beasties -- and if it skipped the traditional fundie-bashing/questioning of ancestry and intelligence that would probably be a better start.

I also have some sympathies with people who note that scientific theories keep changing and may yet change again tomorrow. I have no objection to scientific theories changing! All that means is our knowledge and understanding are increasing. But there's little more predictable than that one century's "latest scientific discovery" is eclipsed by the next. I can hardly find it in myself to belittle the intelligence of someone who notices that and expects another change.

My first church experience as a Christian was as a member of a very liberal church. I took it for granted that conservatives were stupid and evil; it was part of the air I breathed. It came as a shock when I got to know a few conservatives and found that they actually had what you might call a diverse perspective that I could appreciate. And that they were, by and large, as misinformed about liberals as liberals are about conservatives.

Getting long-winded (who, me?).

Take care & God bless
WF