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Protestant Hermeneutical Axiomatics
by Robert M. Price
The Challenge of Exegesis: Expecting the Unexpected
What is the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics? They are two phases of biblical interpretation. The first is descriptive, the second prescriptive. Exegetes strive to reconstruct what really happened, what the original writer seems to gave wanted the readers to receive. Exegesis approaches the text as a monument of culture, a window into the soul of the writer (William Dilthey, Pattern and Meaning in History: Thoughts on History and Society. Translated by H.P. Rickman. NY: Harper & Row, 1962: Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics:Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Gen. ed. John Wild. Evanson: Northwestern University Press, 1969). Exegetes seek to discover how the writer viewed things; what were his or her ruling assumptions? And what did they assert on the basis of their assumptions?
There is a hermeneutical or exegetical circle, a back and forth between reader and text: one's questions illumine the text, make it speak. And yet one soon meets resistance; something does not make sense. So one begins to revise one's initial assumptions about the text. Once one adjusts one's lenses in this way, the text starts making more sense. And this process will no doubt repeat several times. In fact, if it seems too easy to grasp the import of the ancient writer, one might start wondering whether one has missed something! Perhaps the greatest danger is eisegesis: reading into the text what one wants to find there.
This is the danger of "engaged scholarship." As Kierkegaard said, your faith and its hunger for verification can cause you to lean too heavily on the saw; a more delicate touch is called for. You won't be able to see how weak your scriptural evidence is if your belief preceded your evidence for it! As long as the verses you marshall are recruits fighting for the "right" cause, you think the battle's won, even if none of them are armed and half of them are crippled! Most biblical apologetics partake of this weakness, leaving outsiders to question the honesty or even the sanity of believers who offer such arguments.
To be honest, one must be ready to see what one doesn't want to see in the evidence. The mindset and beliefs of people in the past may seem quite alien to us, and that is why it is difficult to be sure we have read the ancient authors rightly. What their words suggest to us at first reading may have meant something quite different to them.
Albert Schweitzer (The Mystery of the Kingdom of God; The Quest of the Historical Jesus) chronicled the long scholarly endeavor to penetrate the dogmatic screen of the Gospels, to sift through the evidence, and to delineate the outlines of the historical Jesus, the real Nazarene who lived among men and women, not the stain-glass figure of Christian theology. The result always seemed to be a Jesus tailor-made to play the figurehead for the modern, liberal agendas of the scholars who did the reconstructions! They had made Jesus over, not in the image of Christian dogma, true, but in their own images. And this was not because of any crafty scheme to employ Jesus as a poster boy for their favorite causes. No, they did their best. The problem was that they proved unable to listen for the truly other. All they could see or hear was what seemed plausible, what made sense, to them. This is what modern literary critics call our tendency to "naturalize" the text, to reduce the strangeness of a text to something we can more readily understand on our own terms.
And so a first-century religious radical remained invisible to the questers after the historical Jesus. Schweitzer somehow managed to set aside his own criteria of verisimilitude and likely motivation, opening himself to the Other. And what he heard was the voice of a man whom we would readily call a fanatic: a proclaimer of the imminent end of the world who believed God had sentenced him to die in order to force the slowly grinding wheel of history into motion. This Jesus, Schweitzer realized, would prove an embarrassment to modern religion which had expected to find a congenial Jesus who would vindicate their own more enlightened perspective.
Or think of Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in charge of the Charles Manson case. Bugliosi was certain Charlie had masterminded the series of grisly deaths, but he found it difficult establishing any credible motive. It was only once he began to suspect that Manson was operating from altogether different assumptions than he or the jury or most people would, that he began to piece the case together. He had to outline the delusional apocalyptic scenario which had prompted Manson's horrific deeds. He had staged the killings to look like a race hate crime so as to fan into flame the apocalyptic war of Helter Skelter, Armageddon. Working from conventional, familiar, sane assumptions got Bugliosi exactly nowhere. He had to be open to the Other. The problem, the challenge was well put by Mr. Spock as he explained to Captain Kirk why he had hitherto not been able to detect the source of some malignant radiation. It was unfamiliar; their sensors had not been built with this force in mind. And thus the scanner could pick up only what it had been built to scan for. How to widen the scanning capabilities? That's the task of the historical imagination.
The Challenge of Hermeneutics: Bridging the Ages
Hermeneutics is quite a different matter, a matter of what the ancient text means, or how it applies, now, whereas exegesis strives for the author's intent, i.e., what it meant then, to them, in their circumstances. In other words, can we draw a lesson from what the author meant, either directly or obliquely? The task of hermeneutics presupposes a distance between reader and text, ruling out, at least some of the time, direct application. So great is this challenge, so wide the gap to be covered, that one should not so blithely assume it is even possible. Islamic theologians reject the very possibility of epistles counting as Scripture, since they are directed from one human being to another. The problem is not so much that an epistolary author could not be inspired by Allah; rather, it is the particularity of the intended readership. How dare we read someone else's mail (for example, the Corinthians') and assume any of it pertains to us?
The distance may be due to cultural or philosophical differences, differences between our theological perspective and those of the ancient writers. When we demythologize what the ancients took literally, we have quite a ditch to jump, but hardly less of one when we try merely to systematize their utterances, quipped on this or that occasion. This latter is why we have such differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, for example, since both are attempts to do something the biblical authors never did: to work the various biblical statements on divine providence and grace into a coherent abstract system.
Or, it may be a set of new questions, such as medical ethics or nuclear war, arising since the scriptures were written, which set the distance hermeneutics seeks to span. When certain contemporary issues, such as abortion, are simply not mentioned in scripture, all one can do is to infer general principles from cases that are mentioned in scripture, and then speculatively apply such principles. Anti-abortionists say that the Bible condemns abortion. How is that possible when the Bible never mentions the issue? Because these folk are jumping the gun, failing to draw the vital distinction between what the text actually does say ("Thou shalt do no murder") and what they infer from it ("abortion would seem to be a sub-type of murder"). And they fail to recognize that no inference can be certain.
None of this is really new. All these challenges, pretty much, were faced by the ancient interpreters of even more ancient texts including the Torah and the Iliad. The techniques fashioned to do the job, including allegory, reasoning from analogous cases, etc., were already the stock in trade of the Jewish rabbis and the Stoic philosophers. I am concerned in this essay to identify some major points of tension in a particular stream of hermeneutics, namely Protestant hermeneutics. This approach represented a something of a new departure in the days of Luther and Calvin, and now the approach has fallen on rough times. Once new and revolutionary, Protestant hermeneutics now seem superannuated and even obsolete. We shall see why.
Protestant Axiomatics of Scripture
Protestant hermeneutics are based on Martin Luther's paradigm, the first axiom of which is sola scriptura, which means that scriptural interpretation is logically prior to theology or tradition. One should get one's beliefs from scripture, and not impose one's beliefs on it, as Luther's Catholic foes did.
The second axiom asserts the normativeness of scripture's single, natural, literal sense. It must be read with the same methods one would use to decipher any other ancient writing. Thus Luther's espousal of the grammatico-historical method. One does exegesis of the Bible according to the historical information available on the times and according to the grammar of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic languages. Just as one would never look for allegorical and kabbalistic secret meanings smuggled into Caesar's Gallic Wars by the Holy Spirit, neither should one so approach the Bible. Inspired though the Bible is, it is an inspired human writing, to be read by humans as humans read human writings! One needs no divine X-ray vision to discern what the scriptural authors intended to tell us. Even in the case of the Revelation of John, one does one's homework familiarizing oneself with the codes of the literary genre of apocalypses. Even puzzles are to be taken literally, i.e., strictly according to the known rules for deciphering them.
The inspiration of scripture is irrelevant during the process of exegesis. Where it becomes relevant is in the stage of hermeneutics, where we try to discern our obligation to do what scripture says.
The third axiom of Protestant hermeneutics is the Analogy of Scripture. This is to assume the unity and harmony of the canonical books. If a book violates this "analogy," it is excluded from the canon. Thus Luther waxed bold to relegate Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation to an appendix to his New Testament canon, because he felt that they did not comport with the Pauline gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. But within the canon, the prevailing maxim shall be that "scripture interprets scripture," the "less clear by more clear." If, say, Paul is found seeming to say in one place that people will be saved by performing the works of the Law (Romans 2:6-7, 13), we are to deem this text "less clear" than those in which he ("more clearly") says that no one will be saved by legal obedience (Romans 3::20). The apparent sense of the former may seem clear in its own right. Its supposed lack of clarity comes from its seeming failure to match up with the apparent sense of the preferred texts. "Less clear" is thus seen to mean "apparently clear in meaning, but problematical in implication." The euphemism of "clarity" (or the lack of it) is, as we shall see, important since it masks an important equivocation.
The fourth axiom of Luther's paradigm is the Perspicuity of Scripture. We don't need an infallible interpreter, such as the Pope, since the infallible scripture is plain in its meaning to all sane, unprejudiced, and moderately intelligent readers. That may explain why Luther was scornful of those who disagreed with him: the Pope, Ulrich Zwingli, Kaspar Schwenkfeld. He couldn't allow himself to believe they could rationally or sincerely disagree with him.
A House of Cards is Our Mighty Fortress
But, I am sorry to say, these four cardinal principles of Protestant hermeneutics contradict and devour one another, leaving biblicists with an incoherent mess. The assumption of the Analogy of Scripture is possible only insofar as we have already adopted the dogmatic presupposition of a single Divine Author of all parts of scripture ("plenary inspiration"). And then one feels one cannot read the Bible simply as any other set of texts. No one insists, for example, on harmonizing Calvin and Arminius! One does, of course, seek to iron out seeming contradictions between divergent passages in the work of a single author (St. Augustine, for example), but one does not refuse to admit as a last resort that the writer was inconsistent within a single work or may have changed his mind between one work and the next.
Even biblicists, so-called biblical literalists (though, as James Barr points out, this is a misnomer, since literal interpretation is quickly sacrificed to non-literal so long as the latter is deemed more compatible with the supposed "inerrancy" of the biblical text) will admit that scripture is filled with "apparent contradictions." Apologist Gleason Archer has even compiled an Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties, something one would hardly expect to be necessary with a perspicuous inerrant book, though the irony seems thus far to have escaped Archer and his readers. Biblicists feel they must deny that the Bible might contain "real" as opposed to "apparent" contradictions, because if it contained real ones, then biblicism ("The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it!") would be sunk. If passage A contradicted passage B, how would poor mortals who would have no beliefs on revealed matters if we could not derive them from citing an inspired scripture, know which biblical text to believe and which to reject? Thus it seems better to hold that the contradiction is merely apparent, that the solution to the puzzle is merely elusive thus far. Somehow the seemingly clashing contents of both texts could be shown to agree if we had some extra information. In the meantime we will just effectively ignore the scripture passage that "apparently contradicts" the one which contains ideas we want to believe, that our creed or church tells us to believe. Protestants will readily stake their eternal salvation of Romans 3:20 and the doctrine of grace into which it neatly fits. What to do with Romans 2:6-7, 13? Ignore them, or, which is the same thing, pretend they say what Romans 3:20 says.
How is it possible that biblicists have not yet grasped that "apparent" contradictions are absolutely fatal to their doctrine of "biblical authority," based as it is on the "plain sense of the text"? Remember, it is none other than the plain, straightforward, apparent sense of the text that is authoritative for Protestants, that is, if we are to stick with grammatico-historical exegesis and so fend off mischievous Papistical allegorizing. That is what grammatico-historical exegesis means: the apparent meaning. Luther framed this principle precisely in order to rule out Catholic claims to have dug up some non-apparent "real" meaning of the text. And yet it is just such a stratagem to which inerrantists constantly repair with all their talk of "apparent contradictions"! They are defending inerrancy in the same way medieval Catholics defended the sale of indulgences! Only in their case, the irony is all the greater since the appeal to esoteric meanings of scripture to defend desirable doctrines is an implicit repudiation of the very hermeneutic on which all their other doctrinal beliefs rest!
If one doubts the truth of this, just look at the practical results of the "apparent contradiction" or "more clear/less clear" subterfuge: is not even the biblicist left deciding whether he will accept verse A (e.g., Romans 2:6-7, 13) as normative for faith and harmonize verse B (e.g., Romans 3:20) into pretended conformity with it? Of the other way around? Is Romans 3:20 to be seized on as the true teaching of God's Word, and Romans 2:6-7, 13 subordinated to it? This is exactly the same arbitrary procedure they fear would result if they were to admit that scripture "really" contradicts itself. The sole difference is whether one wants to admit one is setting aside the passage whose plain meaning one does not like.
But is the choice arbitrary? In one sense yes, since one might equally have chosen either. In another sense, the choice is anything but arbitrary: it will be dictated by the needs of one's preferred or inherited theology. There is nothing arbitrary about that. Thus Walter Kaufmann mocked that you can predict how a theologian will "gerrymander" the Bible as soon as you know what denominational label the theologian bears! And then what we are saying is that our doctrine is prior to our biblical exegesis and controls it before we ever even open the Bible. And that is the Roman Catholic view. Moreover, the claim for the perspicuity of Scripture is demonstrably false, as witness the conflict of interpretations. Even if there were no contradictions or patent errors in scripture, the simple fact of ambiguity is enough to rule out "confident preaching of God's authoritative Word" as ridiculous and megalomaniacal.
Is There a "Plain Sense"?
Perhaps the problem in all this is the very notion that there is such a thing as the plain sense of the text, an unadorned, objective meaning that ought to be obvious to any unprejudiced reader. What if there just is no plain meaning, whether that of a doctrine one wants to embrace or that of a contradiction one would prefer to ignore?
With Stanley Fish (Self-Consuming Artifacts; Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities; Doing What Comes Naturally), guru of Reader Response criticism, we must recognize that we belong to self-contained "communities of interpreters," sharing with our fellow members a set of assumptions as to what kind of thing to look for in texts, what methodology to use, and even what results we can expect. We are ultimately reading the text through a lens, feeding the text through a grinder of our own choosing. It will seem to us, secure within this "plausibility structure" (Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality), that we are merely seeking the "plain sense" of the text, but it will seem so only because we naively take for granted a previously controversial reading that our community of interpreters has long ago come to take for granted. For medieval Catholics, some allegorical or anagogical reading that seems preposterous to us today seemed entirely natural, even inevitable. To them, Martin Luther's "truncated" reading of the "grammatico-historical" sense of the text seemed as crazy as it would seem to us if someone urged us to take the parables as straight historical anecdotes with no deeper meaning. Scripture is in the eye of the beholder. This subjectivity is hidden from us by the fact that both our exegetical colleagues and opponents (the only ones we are close enough to, to argue with!) hold the same basic rules and assumptions we do. Within that common frame of mind we can have variations on a theme, but other communities of interpreters are forever sealed off from us. We are playing baseball; they are playing soccer. We can't play on the same field, much less win a victory over each other.
This is what Tertullian had in mind when, in his Prescription against Heretics, he warned the faithful never to engage Gnostic opponents in scriptural argument. They might win! Therefore one must rule out the heretics' appeal to scripture a priori. The scriptures belong to us, not to you! Justin Martyr pursued the same course in his Dialogue with Trypho. He tried to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies - provided, of course, that one approached them from a Christian perspective! "According to your scriptures, or rather our scriptures, since they are no longer yours but ours ..."
The Only Assured Result...
With Paul de Man, one of the chief theorists of Deconstruction, we must come to accept a more modest result from our exegetical labors. No one can ever achieve an "assured result" in biblical study. We can understand a text better and better, but we can never be sure that what looks good to us now will not be overturned by subsequent scholarship, whether our own or that of others. The "truth" of the passage, however we may define it, is ever deferred, always postponed. It is a will-o'-the-wisp that enchants us, leads us on a merry chase, but one with no finish line. The truth of the text is like a North Star for exegesis: one navigates by it, but one can hardly hope ever to reach it! Only a fool thinks he has. We can never boast of having arrived at a correct, definitive "reading" of the text, but only of "misreadings" that are more or less productive of new insights into the text. The prefix "mis" serves to remind us that our exegetical suggestions, while plausible, can never be proven.
Jacques Derrida, the other great Deconstructionist, poses the problem for traditional interpretation a bit differently. Derrida believes that we can often be sure enough that we have discerned what the author of a text intended to tell us, but that we may equally be able to discern within that text a "countersignature," a meaning at variance with the intended one. It will have been set loose by the very fact of the use of language itself, which always ricochets with surprising echoes unintended and uncontrollable by the author. Every utterance, every written sentence, is a stone dropped into a pool, and there is no telling how far the ripples will spread. Eventually they will collide with the banks of the pond and start to retrace their course, crossing with the ripples that are still on their way outward.
An example would be the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Matthew present us with two groups, one whose behavior we are to emulate, the other whose actions we are to avoid. The Sheep took every opportunity to assist the downtrodden, altogether oblivious of the fact that they were serving the incognito Son of Man. Their compassion had been spontaneous, disinterested, and so their true motives were revealed. The Goats, presented with the same opportunities, had shown as little humanitarian concern as Dives had for Lazarus. They protest upon learning that the whole thing was a sting operation, that the street bum they kicked aside was really the Son of Man. No fair!, they cry. Why, had they realized it was the Son of Man, in other words, had they known what was at stake, they would have helped quicker than you can say "asbestos!" But that's the whole point, don't you see? We can only tell what your real motives are if you don't know what's at stake! So... why is Matthew telling his readers what is at stake when they have the opportunity to help the downtrodden? He has not only rendered the whole scenario futile; he has also urged his readers to have the same self-seeking motives as the Goats! This cannot have been his purpose, admittedly. But he had unleashed a counter-message which utterly confuted his intended message. Which of these is "the message" of the text?
Even when texts do not present us with such paradoxes, there is the matter of whether to trust the teller or the tale. Modern literary theorists, from the New Critics on, have insisted that the author is but one more reader of the text he/she has written. The text, once down on paper, speaks for itself. Once it leaves the hand of the author, the author becomes irrelevant. Traditional scriptural hermeneutics occasionally came close to recognizing this point, as for instance when Warfield and Hodge contended that the biblical writers may have had all manner of erroneous opinions in common with their pre-scientific contemporaries, but that God had kept such things out of the text. The writers had been simple conduits for the production of texts.
When traditional Christian hermeneutics said God was really the author of the Bible, not so much Paul, Matthew, Isaiah, et. al., it was surprisingly close to Roland Barthes when he spoke of "the death of the author," that is, his disappearance from the equation. To say that "God" is the author of Scripture is tantamount to saying that no one is the author of scripture, as when an insurance policy calls a random event of destruction "an act of God." No one caused it. Or when Origen said "God only knows who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews," he meant "Nobody knows who wrote Hebrews." We tend to make the same mistake Odysseus tricked the Cyclops into making: "No man is killing me!"
A rabbinic tale tells how, at Javneh, when the rabbis were debating all sorts of halakhic technicalities, Rabbi Eliezer stubbornly held to his view in the teeth of united opposition from all the other sages present. He called the river outside to attest his view, hoping to silence opposition by resort to miracle. Sure enough, the river changed its course in support of his opinion. But the sages ruled out such a prodigy as irrelevant. Not to be so easily routed, Eliezer then called the tree outside to back him up, which it did by uprooting itself. When this marvel, too, was judged beside the point, Eliezer called the wall of the house of study to witness. It leaned inward, though out of respect for the other sages, it did not collapse. Again, inadmissable. Finally Eliezer called on God, whose Voice shook the rafters, pronouncing agreement with Eliezer's opinion. But even God's opinion was ruled out! Why? The chief rabbi pointed out that ever since God had caused Moses to commit the Law to writing, the prerogative of interpreting it has rested with human beings! God's is but one more opinion! God replies with mock dismay, "My children have defeated me!"
But one hardly need delve into the mysteries of Deconstruction to see how facile all the talk of Scriptural perspicuity and plain sense is; comparing several commentaries on a single text will demonstrate it readily enough. Once I read, back to back, and in their entirety, no less than seven commentaries on Romans and was startled to find major disagreements on every hand - and this among critical scholars ostensibly sharing the same methodology! There was little agreement even on points so major as whether or not Paul believed the Torah was still binding on the Christian conscience!
We can make the same point starting from Thomas S. Kuhn's work on the evolution of science via the succession of paradigms rather than via discoveries of new evidence (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). A paradigm refers to a conceptual model, a theoretical construct applied provisionally to the same old data. One has the same set of dots before one; they haven't changed. But one tries a new way to connect the dots using fewer lines than the previous player. This is how Copernicus' paradigm of heliocentricity replaced Ptolemy's paradigm of geocentricity. A new theory gets off the ground by proposing a paradigm that would explain anomalous data that the older paradigm could not explain. If the new paradigm proves more encompassing as well as more economical (fewer variables, few factors involved), it gradually replaces the old one. In this way, we can trace, for example, the succession of "historical Jesus" paradigms proposed by various scholars. He was the Son of God, then a Jewish preacher of Ethical Monotheism, then a revolutionist, then an apocalyptic doomsayer, then an existentialist, a Gandhian social radical, a sort of Zen Master, a feminist, a magician. Same data, new ways of viewing it. Is one of them superior to the others? Each one does highlight elements left out or downplayed by the others, but it's hard to declare anyone the winner. It's the same way in science.
Kuhn never wanted to accept the implications, but Richard Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) and Paul Feyerabend (Against Method) both explained why it is hard to name a definitive criterion by which to choose one paradigm over another: each way of looking at the data carries its own criteria of plausibility and is incommensurable with all the others. One's choice might be called intuitive, even aesthetic in nature, since factors like "simplicity" or "economy of explanation" may have more to do with our minds' tendency to delight in architectonic symmetry and balance than with any inherent priority these factors might have.
Rude Hands/Rood Screen
So far I have argued that recent literary theory makes it impossible for us to claim that we have arrived at the author's intended meaning in a text, and that even if we could, we would not even be able to declare the author's meaning the authoritative meaning. But why not save ourselves the trouble of acquaintance with literary theory? Why not continue in the old ways od naively assuming that we can telepathically divine the meaning of Paul or Jesus or Jeremiah, and then thunder forth our own opinions as the Word of the Lord? We cannot take this route of escape if we are to keep hold on our Protestant membership cards, for what we would be doing is to make the old "commonsense" hermeneutics into sacred hermeneutics. We would be shielding the text of scripture behind a sacred rood-screen to protect it from profane scrutiny. But the whole point of the grammatico-historical method of Luther was precisely to lay profane hands on the sacred ark! Luther knew that the moment one makes the Bible susceptible to privileged means of interpretation, the mischief will never stop! The Bible will come to mean anything each interpreter wants it to mean! Today, for us to interpret the Bible as we would any other text, i.e., any secular text, demands that we apply to it the whole array of critical approaches in which current literary theory abounds.
In the Beginning Was Logocentrism
The fundamental result of our taking all these developments in literary analysis seriously, as we must if we still believe the Bible is amenable to being read like any other book, is that we simply can no longer thunder forth our own exegetical results as "the Word of God." We cannot preach "with authority, not as the scribes," since we are no prophets or messiahs, but merely scribes ourselves! To ramrod home our own opinions by attributing them to God is the worst kind of manipulation and priestcraft.
Why not instead follow the lead of Socrates in our preaching? Why not abandon any appeal to authoritative names and theological pedigrees? The Bible, as in Jesus' parables, raises questions and challenges readers to come up with their own answers: "He who has ears to hear with, let him hear!" Instead of a prophet, dumping the truth like a ten-ton weight onto our hearers, why not be a Socratic midwife seeking to facilitate the drawing forth of the truth from within our hearers' own consciences and minds? That way, it will be their truth in a way a mere quiescent reception of prepackaged dogma never could be. And that way, it will hardly matter whether or not the Bible is a credible candidate for a divinely inspired and inerrant book: one will be able to recognize its truth - wherever it is true - for oneself. There is no need to appeal to external authority at all. What will be lost if we do this? What is it we are afraid of? We have shared with traditional Western philosophy what Derrida calls the Logocentric bias. The proverbs and stories of the Bible are not good enough for us. We have to abstract them, strip them down, use them as raw materials to build theological-ethical systems which we think can alone nourish us. And we seem to thin that ideally every one ought to believe in the same system, to do and believe the same things. This is why we speak of "authoritative" preaching in the first place: we want to intimidate people into conformity with "the Truth." It was quite consistent with this hermeneutical/homiletical procedure when Reformed Protestant governments bloodily persecuted Catholic, Anabaptist and Socinian dissenters. Hadn't God himself dealt with Korah and his buddies pretty much the same way?
Similarly, when we invoke doctrines of inspiration and debate them vociferously, what is at stake but a far that we will perhaps lose the secret weapon we love to use to intimidate conformity of belief. "This is the inspired Word of God; you have no option but to believe it!" Leaving aside the implicitly coercive strategy of the thing, consider the whole approach as an example of discredited "foundationalism," the notion that our most cherished intuitive beliefs ought to be defended by appeal to supposedly still more basic beliefs. Richard Rorty has exposed the absurdity of this. Do we really need to "prove" that love is better than hate? It would be horrifying to think anyone really thought they did! Can you imagine a person who was prepared to reject love if a better argument could be mounted in a debate on behalf of hate? So "open" a mind needs to be closed for repairs!
Do we really think anything would be accomplished if we could demonstrate to the Nazis the untenability of their position? We can never win a theoretical debate with them, because our presuppositions and the Nazis' are utterly incommensurable. There is no common ground between us. Does that mean our confidence in our own values ought to be shaken? Hell, no! We needn't fear moral paralysis because our deepest presuppositions are not demonstrable (that's what we mean, after all, by calling them "presuppositions"!). We just have to decide what we will do about the Nazis. In Woody Allen's Manhattan there is a scene at a cocktail party where Woody's character Ike says "Has anybody read that the Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey, you know? ... We should go down there, get some guys together, you know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to 'em." An effete martini-sipping liberal counters, "There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the Op-Ed page of the Times. It was devastating." Another agrees, "Biting satire is always better than physical force." Ike stands his ground: "But true physical force is always better with Nazis, uh... because it's hard to satirize a guy with, uh, shiny boots on." Exactly. We will have to clash with their beliefs, and with them. We cannot adjudicate our differences by recourse to some imaginary stock exchange of theories and opinions.
No Other Foundation
The same ironies crop up with the wrong-headed foundationalist attempts to secure allegiance to biblical authority by appealing to a doctrine of inspiration. When you say that we need a doctrine of inspiration to make scripture authoritative you are denigrating the contents of scripture. Does you really need some external warrant before you will take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? Does not deep speak unto deep? And if the scare-stories of Ananias and Sapphira, Dathan and Abiram, strike you as no more than superstitious priestcraft, will a claim of inspired authority make them seem less so? Any doctrine of the plenary inspiration of the Bible flattens out the whole text so that the tedious minutiae of Leviticus or Chronicles become no less important than 1 Corinthians 13 or Romans 6-8, and these latter come to be seen as no more significant than the former.
Such foundationalism leads right back again to Logocentrism: it implies that what is really central to our religious existence is a set of theoretical doctrines, as if salvation and Christian existence were one long process of cramming for a final exam. If one excavates deeply enough, one discovers that the ultimate axioms of Protestant hermeneutics are not Sola Scriptura, perspicuity, the grammatico-historical method, the analogy of Scripture, or even the bearing of Christ to the reader, but rather the notion that there is a single privileged doctrine or set of doctrines to which all others must be subordinated as heretical, and which all human beings must be required to parrot and to obey. It is a set of power relations at bottom. It is not so much as if Jesus should invite whoever is thirsty to come to him and drink; it is more like his counterpart requiring everyone who hungers to take the mark of the number of his name to be eligible for a ration of grain.
CopyrightŠ2006 by Robert M Price
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