Father Stephen Freeman, a Russian Orthodox priest and blogger, fired an excellent rebuke at all those who apply biblical stories to their lives in hermeneutically reckless fashion. While I agreed with Father Freeman’s post, I argued that his criticisms should be extended to all of theology and not just be taken to target only its corruption.
Father Freeman was gracious enough to stop by and address my criticism in the comments section to my post. I reproduce here his reply to me and then my reply to him (also from the comments section to that previous post):
With respect – your characterization of theology and Scripture seem too narrowly informed – sounding mostly like a description of Christian fundamentalism (your only choices are literalism and fable). I understand the sentiment but it fails to take into account the richness of proper Christian tradition (which is alien to Christian fundamentalism). I am an Orthodox Christian priest (Russian Orthodox) and find your characterization foreign to my experience. Just as non-believers are not all one thing so Christians are not all one thing. Do a search on my site for Scripture or Interpretation and see if you don’t find some articles that do not fit your description. Science is sometimes caricatured by Fundamentalism because it has no appreciation for the incredibly rich texture that comprises true scientific thought. By the same token, true, classical Christian thought has a richness that is neither literalistic nor fabulist. There really are other ways to read a text.
Thank you, Father Stephen, for graciously coming to my blog to reply to my criticisms yourself (and for doing so so promptly!)
You are correct that my personal experience of Christianity is primarily an American sort of fundamentalism. I grew up in a low-church fundamentalist Evangelical non-denominational congregation and I studied religion at Grove City College, a conservative Reformed Evangelical college.
While I have studied a wide range of approaches to hermeneutics and theories of Scriptural authority, and am aware that a great variety of Christians do not themselves do exegesis as fundamentalists do, I nonetheless think that the fundamentalist’s strong literalism brings to a head the implicit problems in all theology.
In my post, my primary charges were that Old Testament figures interpreted their lives according to the same hubris you condemn in your contemporaries (and the pilgrims) and that the New Testament authors pluck the Old Testament out of context in a number of hermeneutically dubious ways, seeing prophecies and foreshadowings in the most arbitrary places.
I am arguing that were you blogging back then, or were the NT authors writing today, you would have (rightly) offered a comparable rebuke to them that you offer to the Mark Sanfords and Pilgrims who came after the biblical period. You would have condemned the Israelites’ own genocides as being as presumptuous and self-serving as the pilgrims’. You would have read the fast-and-loose interpretations of Scripture of New Testament authors as being as improbable and narcissistic as Mark Sanford’s. You would have treated Jesus with the contempt I would expect you to offer any other cult leader throughout history.
My concern in short is with the very practice of judging a particular set of writings as special and exempt from the sorts of criticisms you offer to contemporaries.
I do not presume at all to guess what sort of theory of special revelation or Scriptural interpretation that you have, but whatever kind it is—even if it is not a crude literalism—as an approach to specific texts as uniquely sacred, it elevates particular texts and people above normal standards of spiritual and textual criticism in an unjustified way.
I brought up the contrast between literalism and fable not to say that those were the only two ways someone might see him or herself as reading the biblical texts. My point was a different one. It was that if these people thought and acted literally as the Bible depicts, they fall into the same presumptuous habits of thought you rebuke in contemporary contexts. If they are fable characters they may be exempt from the criticism since they are not actual spiritual exemplars per se but characters to be learned from.
But, I might add, even if they are fable characters, the “morals” of the fables are themselves disquieting. A fable Joshua still leads genocides and a fable Jesus still presumes to be God himself. These are hardly stories with uncomplicated moral lessons even as fables.
Again, I do not presume to know the intricacies of your own hermeneutics or theory of revelation. But whatever it may be, I have a hard time seeing how any theory can be devised which does not implicitly endorse as sacred biblical interpretations of personal and communal experiences which if made today would obviously be rejected by all intellectually, morally, and spiritually serious people.
Maybe if you could direct me to a direct account of your theory of Scripture and hermeneutics (or one very much similar to your own), I could see how it helps you avoid this criticism. In the meantime, I will indeed read more of your posts (and pay due attention to your use of Scripture) as I found this first one I stumbled upon to be excellent.
I should concede (or clarify) one major point. When I said that all theology suffers the corruptions that you are targeting at more specific figures, I spoke too broadly. Not all religious thinkers think so sloppily or presumptuously and I over-generalized to imply they all do.
However, insofar as theology is inevitably tethered to sacred texts which I see as clearly suffering from intellectual and moral hubris of the type you criticized, I do think that theology is inevitably infected at its core by the hubris of the sacred texts. While thoughtful people may add no more personal hubris in their own thinking, insofar as they import the audacious claims of their religious founders and sacred texts into their thought and let those founders’ and texts’ claims shape their thought, it transmits those claims and their attitudes. No matter how personally humble and wise a theologian is, his or her allegiance to the intemperate biblical authors and figures as agents of God’s revelation embraces all their unjustified interpretations of themselves and events as revealing God’s will.
Finally, in reading several of your posts on Scriptural meaning and on hermeneutics after writing the comments I reproduced above, I see a rejection of fundamentalist obsessions with propositionalism and with literalism about matters of science, but you still seem enmeshed in the double standard I have been stressing—one in which you criticize contemporary arrogance about being able to divine God’s nature and will while embracing what is essentially the same presumptions when they occurred two thousand years ago in Palestine. And when you write that
Thus it is that the Church itself is the proper hermeneutic of Scripture – having been written by Christ, ministered by the apostles, not with ink, “but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” Thus, to a certain extent, to say that the Scriptures are the Church’s book is a tautology. Either the Church is that epistle, written in the fleshy tables of the heart, or it is not the Church at all. It is partly for this reason that Orthodoxy sees the interpretation of Scripture as something that does not take place apart from the Church nor without the Church, but in the midst of the Church, which is herself the very interpretation, constantly echoing the Word of God in her services, sacraments, and all of her very life.
I find a strong ecclesiastical restraint on individualistic rogue Scriptural interpretation and exploitation of the Mark Sanford variety but it gives me little clarity on whether what is being interpreted is literal or fable and where the justification for the texts’ own audacious claims comes from that makes it worth the Church’s efforts to interpret it and manifest it in its liturgical life and good deeds.