Communal interpretation

In their Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible , John O’Keefe and R. R. Reno make illuminating comparisons between the function of the patristic “rule of faith” and the use of hypotheses in modern science. Augustine says that whatever in Scripture doesn’t conduce to love of God and neighbor should be interpreted figuratively. This seems arbitrary, but O’Keefe and Reno point out that “the history of science has many examples of ‘figurative interpretation’ of data,” data that doesn’t fit the hypothesis and thus is discarded as bad data (124). The church fathers don’t have this option. All the data of Scripture comes from God and so all is good data. Even those portions that are interpreted figuratively must promote the hypothesis – the unified work of God in Christ to produce love of God and neighbor.

Science and theology are similar too in the fact that they are communal enterprises. No scientist starts fresh. He inherits a tradition. This is inherent in all human intellectual endeavor: “Sophisticated interpretive approaches, whether in science or in other disciplines, require communities or schools of collective, cooperative effort in order to inculcate, develop, and sustain their research programs. No well-develop train of thought can emerge, ex nihilo , out of the minds of individuals, no matter how brilliant they may be.” Irenaeus thus reflects the inevitable conditions for large-sale, all-things-considered interpretation of something so massively detailed and diverse as the Bible” (125).

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