Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Trouble is My Hermeneutic

[Disclaimer: I hesitated to post this, but thought "I can't get any kind of feedback if it remains only on my hard drive." Also, this is looking at scripture from the point of growing spiritually and not academically as doing the latter doesn't always mean the former is happening.]

The word “hermeneutic” is often used to refer to a method or style of interpretation commonly associated with the interpretation of Scripture. No doubt there are any number of hermeneutical methods a person can use when approaching Scripture: hermeneutic of rationalism, historical critical method, hermeneutic of trust, etc. Any person can, regardless of personal belief, approach Scripture using any hermeneutic they see fit to use. However, not ever hermeneutic is equal and not ever hermeneutic is useful in fostering spiritual growth and developing a deeper relationship with Christ.

The Catholic Church has never accepted many of the modern critical methods and hermeneutics used in biblical interpretation and biblical criticism in their totality; She has found them time and time again useful but inadequate in being able to give a complete interpretation of Scripture, for it is that each has their own pitfalls and stumbling blocks, which more often results in an emptying of meaning from Scripture than in a richer understanding of Scripture. Many of these modern critical methods fall under what scholars have named a hermeneutic of suspicion. In short, a hermeneutic of suspicion operates from the mindset that Scripture cannot be trusted in its current form. That the modern mind cannot and does not have access to the meaning of Scripture without first running it through certain textual and analytical filters. A hermeneutic of suspicion encourages the reader to suspect the credibility of Scripture and those who interpret Scripture operating from a different hermeneutic.

A hermeneutic of suspicion stands contrary to what Dei Verbum, the document from Vatican II on divine revelation, states:
“Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation . . . The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels . . . told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (§19)."
The Vatican II document even stands in union with Pope Benedict’s XVI’s utterance of “I trust the Gospels” in his recent book Jesus of Nazareth (xxi). In other words, both Vatican II and Pope Benedict XVI are promoting and encouraging faithful readers of Scripture to approach the text first with a hermeneutic of trust. Something the church has always encouraged, as it states in Psalm 4 to "put your trust in the Lord" (RSVCE). Further, it often benefits the believer to first believe and trust Scripture so that later the believer might understand what it is he or she believes. Saint Augustine said it best when he preached in a sermon: “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe” (CCC 158).

In the early church, biblical interpretation was done differently than how it is done in most present day critical settings. It is not that the early church was uncritical in their approach to Scripture, it was that the early Church was critical about Scripture in a different manner than most modern critical methods. The ancient method included and exemplified a hermeneutic of trust, and interpretation was done according to the rule of faith (the Creed). The historical critical method and other hermeneutics of suspicion do not acknowledge the rule of faith when interpreting Scripture. The early Church sought Christ in Scripture and were less concerned with authorship of the Gospels, the dates the texts were written and under what political hermeneutic the Gospel writers wrote, because the early Church trusted the texts and those who vouched for the authenticity of those texts.

Unfortunately, the hermeneutic of suspicion is a method firmly entrenched in the minds of many scholars, students, church goers and the American public mind. It is a methodology taught and widely used in Universities of both secular and religious natures, high school, and in bible studies of nearly ever denomination. Priests and Deacons even preach the hermeneutic of suspicion from the pulpit at Sunday mass. To the unbeliever, a hermeneutic of trust is an unacceptable mode of operation towards Scripture. But what about the believer? What happens to a believer who uses solely a hermeneutic of suspicion when reading Scripture? How do you engage a believing Catholic in dialogue who approaches Scripture with a hermeneutic of suspicion? What do we do with these suspicious believers?

There are three basic approaches in speaking with a believing Catholic who operates from a hermeneutic of suspicion. The first approach is direct and can be summed up in saying “Because the Church says so.” The other two approaches are geared more at demonstrating that the believing Catholic who approaches Scripture with suspicion often approaches Scripture with faulty logic.

The first approach “Because the Church says so.” is and should be a sufficient reason as to why a Catholic should approach Scripture with trust. Though it is a sufficient reason it is not an adequate answer for the suspicious believer, and this approach is often best saved for a person who is trying to follow the Church’s teachings to the letter, but those people usually already trust Scripture and the Church. Too often a person who is already suspicious of Scripture will stop listening if they encounter the ‘because the church says so” answer because by virtue of not trusting Scripture this leads the suspicious believer to an inability to trust the party, namely the Church, who vouches for the accuracy of Scripture. In other words, to not trust Scripture is to not trust the Church and is akin to saying that the Church herself is untruthful and untrustworthy.

This second approach aims at showing the suspicious believer that believing in Christ, His Church, and approaching Scripture with suspicion does not follow logically if a person is trying to grow in holiness. One of the goals of every believer is to grow closer to Christ. Some Saints would even say the Christian is to have the same mind as Christ. Undoubtedly the suspicious believer will agree that the Christian is supposed to grow closer to God and Christ. They will also normally agree that Scripture is a good means to grow closer in their relationship with Christ. This is where their logic begins to falter.

One can begin by asking “What kind of relationship can you have with another person if you are always and already suspicious of the other person?” I have never met anyone who, when asked this question, has replied, “strong and healthy” to the kind of relationship that can be had when entered into with suspicion. This is because a strong and healthy relationship cannot be built upon suspicion. The relationship nurtured on suspicion is a relationship that is strained, tense, stressed and worrisome. It is like the wife who perpetually believes her husband is having an affair and is in bed with everyone except herself. To live in a relationship built upon suspicion is unhealthy in many areas of a person’s life and will likely end in a separation of the two parties because suspicion does not foster the growth of a close relationship. As it is, Scripture reiterates the point that it is necessary to trust God and that to not trust God, His Word and those who speak on His behalf results in disaster: e.g. "Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them" (RSVCE, Num. 20:21)

The third approach also explores how the logic of the suspicious believer is fickle. No doubt, the suspicious believer will also normally agree that every believer can grow closer to God and Christ by conversing with Scripture. Here their logic falters again. Like with relationships, the question arises, “What kind of conversation can a person enter into with another person when one is already suspicious of the other person and one is suspect of the conversation that will follow before the conversation even begins?” I asked this very question to a group of graduate students in theology, and it was unanimous; they all agreed that to enter into a conversation with suspicion is to have a conversation that is hindered, hard going, awkward, embarrassing, and sometimes the whole conversation is dismissed. The students even shared personal stories of calls home and parents suspecting that their child was calling only to ask for money and how the suspicion of the parent not only hindered the conversation but also resulted in the child feeling insulted and betrayed because their parents did not trust them.

When asked how a person should enter into a conversation, the students did not hesitate to chime in: “open minded” “non-judgmental”, and “tolerant of their views”, were just a few of their responses. Yet, when I applied the same question to Scripture: “What kind of conversation can we have with Scripture if we enter into that conversation already suspicious of that conversation we are about to have?” some of the students held that the Bible was exempt from the above approach. As it was, many of these students had Scripture professors who approached Scripture with suspicion and had passed on that suspicion to their students. So it was no surprise that the rules changed when applied to Scripture.

This was a problem. For by being unable to converse freely, fully, and openly with Scripture and being only able to approach Scripture with suspicion turns Scripture into a kind of supermarket tabloid fit with aliens, biblical doomsday prophecy, and Bigfoot’s baby. Scripture becomes a book of hearsay akin to hearing a story from a friend who heard it from a friend who knows a fellow who says it’s true. Further by conversing suspiciously with Scripture, Scripture resembles a fisherman’s story about the ‘big one’ that got away. Where on the fisher’s first telling, the fish is a reasonable size about ‘ye big’ as he would demonstrate with his hands spread apart. While on the fisher’s last telling of the story, the fisher, equipped only with a rod and reel in a 8-foot skiff, with his wits alone to protect him, fights Moby Dick himself long through the night and into the wee hours of the morning until the fish finally tires and surfaces next to the vessel in time only for the fisher’s line or pole to break before a net sizable enough can be reached, and all the while his camera, on the other side of the boat, cannot be reached in time to document the story That is, only after exaggeration and misinformation have been stripped away can the real meaning be determined. This is a take on Scripture highly contrary from the recommendations of Vatican II, the Holy Father and is different from how the Saints conversed with Scripture.

Finally, to approach Scripture with suspicion is to, by default, approach other parts of the doctrines of faith with the same suspicion, for much of Catholic theology is derived from Scripture. As mentioned earlier, to operate from a hermeneutic of suspicion is to be suspicious of not only Scripture but also the Church who vouches for it. Furthermore to not trust Scripture means that one does not trust the inspiration or the Person whom inspired the holy texts: the Holy Spirit. We know that wherever one person of the Trinity is present so are the other two and every act of God is always Trinitarian by virtue of the presence of all three Persons and the nature of who the Trinity is. So, therefore, to be suspicious of Scripture and to use only a hermeneutic of suspicion when interpreting Scripture is to be suspicious of God and all of His work, and it demonstrates a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit's guiding power given to the Church. In short, a hermeneutic of suspicion is contrary to the Catholic Church’s teaching, to Church Tradition, to what the saints and Popes have taught, to what is found in Scripture itself, and it makes God Himself suspect to the follies of Man.


Larry Denninger said...

Wow - great post, Paul. You've nailed it. I'm going to link to this.

Deacon Bill Burns said...

Great post. I've been grappling with this myself in the sacred scripture courses I'm taking. When you mentioned the idea of entering into conversation, I was reminded of some work I did during my graduate work in English with J. Paul Grice's concept of the conversational implicature. The concept is that two people engage in speech that is intended toward communication and cooperation. Hence, each party assumes that the others utterances are sensical and pertinent to the conversation. This relates to a degree with what you're saying about "entering into a conversation with scripture."

At the same time, we are hindered by our distance from the original language and cultural context. To me, this is one of the reasons why we should trust the witness of the early Church Fathers rather than intolerant of it. It seems just plain silly to me to dismiss Tradition based upon assumptions that the methods being used are actually sophisticated and accurate enough to allow such precise determinations as dating of the texts.

Paul Cat said...

Yeah, I actually sent this post off to a couple of catholic magazines that have an apologetic emphasis, and I never heard back from any of them.

Paul Cat said...


I sometimes like to through out the phrase to people who boil down scripture to be nothing more than words: "Oh and you know this because you were there. Right?"

But I try only to pull that statement out when the conversation starts to go a bit overboard.


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