Interpreting the Scriptures Together: Seeking the Visible Unity of the Church

Beverly Roberts Gaventa. Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Volume 43, Issue 3. Summer 2008.

In light of the plurality of scriptural interpretations and the receding notion of the church’s unity, interpreting the scriptures together in service of the visible unity of the church seems more than a little optimistic. For those who yearn for the church’s visible unity, however, the Faith and Order document, A Treasure in Earthen Vessels, offers a promising way forward. With regard to this ecumenical hermeneutic, the document (1) emphasizes the necessity to respect differences in contexts and cultures, (2) highlights the contributions of historical criticism, (3) advocates the use of a limited hermeneutic of suspicion that begins with interpreters, and (4) upholds the notion of the church itself (rather than strictly the academy) as a hermeneutical community. Four additional characteristics are also required for a healthy ecumenical hermeneutic. Such a hermeneutic must be informed by the church’s interpretative tradition, continuously open to the activity of the Holy Spirit, unabashedly theological, and doxological, since interpretation of scripture offers an occasion for thanksgiving and praise. For those who share the convictions that the church is called to interpret scripture together and that the church of God in Jesus Christ is genuinely one, an ecumenical hermeneutic can be embraced with gratitude and expectation.

The title assigned for the 2007 meeting of the North American Academy of Ecumenists was intriguing, “Interpreting the Scriptures Together-Seeking the Visible Unity of the Church.” For reasons that present themselves almost immediately, both parts of the title reflect goals that are highly optimistic, perhaps so optimistic as to seem (or even to be) downright naive. Only people who genuinely believe that the church of God in Jesus Christ is already one and who believe that the one church is called to interpret scripture together could venture such a title in a time when the words “unity” and “together” sound hopelessly superannuated.

As it happens, however, I share the conviction that the church is already one. What I mean is that the church is not to be equated with the fractured and fractious groups of human beings scattered around the globe at any given time. The church is God’s own creation and exists out of God’s own gracious intervention. While we acknowledge—or, better, while we confess—our fractures as evidence of the perduring work of sin in the world, we also hear the words of John 17, in which Jesus prays that believers will be one. We are informed by Paul’s understanding that the body of Christ is a single body. I also share the conviction that the one church is called to interpret scripture together. After all, one of the things we share as churches is the Bible. Even if our canons differ and our doctrines of scripture and interpretation vary, we are distinguished from other faith traditions and other human societies by our relationship to this group of writings.

My conviction about the importance of interpreting scripture together also derives from my vocation as a seminary professor. For several decades now, I have seen what happens when people from diverse contexts—ecclesial, cultural, and intellectual—read scripture together. To take but a single example, among the standard courses in my pedagogical repertoire is an exegetical course on the Acts of the Apostles. Early in the semester, we naturally take up the Pentecost account in Acts 2. Students from Pentecostal traditions arrive at that passage with assumptions about its normative character that Presbyterians, Methodists, and Catholics do not share. When we come to the establishment of the role of the seven deacons in Acts 6, however, the Episcopalians and the Catholics spring into action (exegetically speaking). In Chapter 8, the story of the Ethiopian who is reading scripture when Philip is sent to him and who actively seeks understanding generates a high level of energy and curiosity among African and African American readers. The evangelical students typically become especially engaged by the conversion of Paul. One of my great personal joys is to watch and listen as these diverse groups of readers engage both with Luke’s story and with the varying interpretations of that story around the room. The challenge for all of us in that setting is to avoid retreating into our own established reading patterns and to take seriously, even to take upon ourselves, readings that seem to us at first to be strange.

All of that is to say that I share the values implicit in the conference title, even as I recognize it as more than a little optimistic. In fact, at the present time, it is a highly endangered task. What might have seemed intuitively right and proper in the 1950’s seems downright countercultural in the twenty-first century. Not only have we not made great progress toward visible unity, but the forces that would further erode Christian unity are powerful indeed-political, intellectual, social, economic, and even ecclesial. Notwithstanding certain local collaborations, at least in the United States the denominations formerly identified as “mainstream” seek to protect themselves (ourselves, I should say, since I am part of one of those denominations) by reclaiming our own identity and policing our own borders. Beyond those borders, at least some of the parachurch movements, perhaps especially those that identify themselves with the term “emerging church,” seem to have little or no interest in the church in any institutional sense. And, then, at least in the United States, there are those who declare themselves spiritual rather than religious, people for whom the notion of any sort of community affiliation is odd or unnecessary. In such an environment, the patina of ecumenism has faded.

In addition, we need to admit that the first part of the conference title is almost equally problematic, “Interpreting Scripture Together.” In the guild of biblical scholars, interpreting scripture together has become nearly impossible, since everything in our guild moves in the direction of fragmentation these days. In the first place, we experience a fragmentation of methods. A generation ago, when I was in seminary and in graduate school, we had a single method referred to as “historical criticism.” The handbook that was given to students at Union Theological Seminary in New York detailed two forms of criticism, lower criticism and higher criticism, but both were forms of historical criticism. “Lower criticism” meant establishing the earliest form of the text and translating it, while “higher criticism” involved literary, historical, and theological analysis of that text. Part of the passage into theological adulthood was to be initiated into the mysteries of historical criticism, and the only alternative to historical criticism was that of “eisegesis.”

That hegemony no longer pertains, as is obvious from a glance at the book list of any publisher in the field, to say nothing of the program book of the Society of Biblical Literature. A veritable Wal-Mart of approaches has emerged, including literary criticism, rhetorical criticism, post-colonial criticism, and theological criticism—to name only a few. Scholars now identify their specializations both in terms of texts or parts of the canon and in terms of method. While many scholars continue to affirm the necessity of historical criticism, or at least some of its tasks, others reject the whole project as hopelessly flawed.

Alongside this profusion of methods is a profusion—perhaps more important—among readers themselves. When I entered graduate school, the field of biblical studies was almost entirely inhabited by white males. Those of us who sneaked in from the “other” categories were still largely playing the game by long-established rules. Although change has been slow, it is coming. This year saw the publication of True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. According to the foreword by general editor Brian Blount, this is the first commentary written entirely by African American biblical scholars. It takes its place on our shelves alongside several feminist volumes: The Women’s Bible Commentary, Searching the Scriptures, and The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. As the 2004 Global Bible Commentary attests, we no longer speak so confidently of exporting our methods to other parts of the world, but we listen for what may be learned from interpreters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

At least sometimes we listen. More often, I fear, we listen only to those voices closest to our own group of readers or to our own subspecialty. In part because the flood of secondary literature is more than even the most dedicated and energetic among us can navigate and in part because of sheer unwillingness, the array of readers and methods results in a vast array of tiny balkanized states that occasionally send emissaries to their rivals but expend most of their energy in protecting their own small territories.

In light of this plurality of methods and readers, and in light of the receding notion of the church’s unity, the question then becomes: What kind of hermeneutic can support those who yearn for the church’s visible unity? What kind of hermeneutic is needed for those of us who affirm the oneness of God’s church and seek its convergence? We cannot simply turn back the calendar, ignoring the vast changes that separate our time from that of the 1963 Faith and Order meeting in Montreal. Neither can we shrug off the challenge and resign ourselves to the increasingly fragmented readings of the academy-not if we share a vocation to the church’s visible unity.

The Faith and Order document, A Treasure in Earthen Vessels. raises this very question about a hermeneutic that might be appropriate for the ecumenical movement. If I have understood A Treasure in Earthen Vessels correctly, it arose out of the complex character of the churches’ receptions of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, receptions that highlighted the diverse ways in which the various communions understand scripture. I add the qualifier, “If I have understood” the document, because I know from experience that, however straightforward they may seem, documents from Faith and Order often are freighted with assumptions and code words that may not be easy for those outside the process to understand. A Treasure in Earthen Vessels is quite explicit about some features of an ecumenical hermeneutic, and in what follows I first comment on some of its major points. I will then raise some other characteristics that seem to me crucial for an ecumenical hermeneutic.

First of all, an ecumenical hermeneutic must respect differences in contexts and cultures. This may be the point that the document makes most successfully, and I would have little to add. In God’s providence, interpreting scripture together may yield convergence, but that convergence cannot come about without genuine respect for the differences among us, not only ecclesial but also cultural, economic, social, and so forth.

When I say that convergence cannot come without attending to difference, it may seem that I am simply taking a pragmatic route, suggesting that, since we cannot get around differences, we must go through them. I do hear that sort of grudging realism in certain quarters, coupled with a longing for the day when things were simpler. However, scripture itself presents us with a vast array of texts, cultures, and people that we would do well to take seriously.

Just at the level of literature, we do not (we cannot) read the book of Leviticus as if it were a Psalm, and we dare not ask Paul and Matthew to say the same thing. More to the point, in the portrait Luke paints of the emerging church in the book of Acts, we already witness an amazing array of peoples and places, from the inhabitants of Jerusalem to the Ethiopian eunuch to the Roman soldier Cornelius and the merchant Lydia. While there is a kind of unity in their response to God’s action in Jesus Christ, there is very little that would pass for uniformity. The church that gathers in the home of Lydia in Philippi does not much resemble the church in Jerusalem. What Paul preaches among the philosophers in Athens differs considerably from what he preaches in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch. There is, then, in scripture itself, a single gospel of God’s action in Jesus Christ but a variety of receptions and contexts that should inform our own thinking about diversity.

Second, the text highlights the contributions of historical criticism—and for good reason. The questions of historical criticism played a role in showing us the diversity of scripture that I have just mentioned. There is also a sense in which a convergence emerged around historical criticism (and perhaps still remains) that allowed at least many Catholic and Protestant interpreters to come together in a shared endeavor. Many, many works of biblical scholarship these days cannot be readily identified as “Protestant” or “Catholic.”

Having taken note of the salutary effects of historical criticism, I will also note that the document at some points sounds to me as if it might have been written decades ago. Historical criticism has not determined “the background of the texts, the intentions of the authors, the inter-relationship of the different books” (para. 18). It has produced an all-night showing of proposals, each of which captures the limelight for a few minutes, only to be replaced by some new act with more daring costumes and louder music.

By that statement I do not propose, as would some of my colleagues in the guild, that we can simply dispense with historical criticism. In some limited sense, it is necessary, because, once we establish a text or translate it, we are already doing a kind of historical criticism. What I do propose is that we take care not to imagine that any method is all-sufficient or that, if we could just get our method right, the “right” results would follow. I know what the right method is for baking a cake, and I have the right equipment, but my attempts usually turn out to sag in the center.

Third, the text also advocates, at least in a limited sense, the use of a hermeneutic of suspicion. It does so in a way that I regard as right and proper, in that it advocates being aware of how our readings and those of others are shaped and many times misshaped by “self-interest, power, national or ethnic or class or gender perspectives [that] can affect the reading of texts.” We need a hermeneutic of suspicion so that we may be alert to false interpretations, such as those that produce a Jesus uprooted from the traditions and people of Israel or a Jesus for the Ku Klux Klan. We also need to be suspicious of a Bible that has been reduced to a political tract, however much that political tract may be welcome to us at a given historical moment. That is to say, a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion begins at home, with interpreters, most especially with ourselves.

In the guild of biblical scholars, the phrase “hermeneutic of suspicion” is just as often, perhaps more often, applied to suspicion of the texts themselves. For example, when we read Romans 16, wherein Paul greets a number of women and speaks of them as leaders of the church, then we turn to the book of Acts, which is relatively silent about women in leadership, some of us suspect that Luke’s silence reflects his own interests. In my judgment, a “hermeneutic of suspicion” can be overactive, as when some scholars read Paul’s appeals to God as nothing more than ways of shoring up his own power over others. We need to be suspicious of our own suspicions.

Finally, the document also advocates the notion of the church itself as a hermeneutical community: “The Church … is called to interpret texts, symbols and practices so as to discern the Word of God as a word of life amid ever-changing times and places.” It goes on, “Hermeneutics, perhaps especially ecumenical hermeneutics, is not the work of specialists.” I wholeheartedly agree. While I very much hope that the academy has something to contribute to an ecumenical hermeneutic, this is not a task to be outsourced. The churches must not take the stance I too often encounter that interpreting the Bible is the province of specialists who have doctorates and publication records, who will simply hand over their findings in the form of abbreviated results—pabulum—that the churches can then digest and pass along. The churches dare not wait upon the whims of the academy for the interpretation of scripture, as the Bible is the church’s book. Robert Jenson makes this point vividly with his remark that “outside the church, no such entity as the Christian Bible has any reason to exist.”

To be sure, it is misleading to speak of the church and the academy as completely separate institutions. Many of us who are trained in biblical interpretation are practicing Christians, who are happy to be called upon to teach and advise, who understand our intellectual work as a Christian vocation, and so forth. There are also a number of highly skilled interpretations these days that are implicitly or explicitly anti-church. Such interpretations meet with an eager response in the media, ever hungry for some bit of controversy that might make its way into the next news cycle. (If that is too vaguely put, just recall the fact that announcements about the Gospel of Judas and the alleged ossuary of Jesus both took place shortly before Easter.)

If we are to take seriously the claim that the church is a hermeneutical community, of course, that requires that we must as churches learn to read the Bible better. We must—clergy and laity alike—know something about scripture. Too many of us—whatever our traditions—have only the vaguest idea what is actually contained in the book we regard as formative for our faith.

To this point, I have commented only about things advocated by the document. Now I would like to address additional characteristics that I would propose as required for a healthy ecumenical hermeneutic. First, an ecumenical hermeneutic must be informed by the church’s interpretive tradition. This comment may seem strange, coming as it does from a biblical scholar, and a Protestant at that, since my guild has often hammered away at our predecessors. (Whether we have read them or not is another question.) We have especially dismissed so-called pre-critical exegesis. We know that some of the important differences among the churches have to do with our sense of relationship to the patristic period.

Interestingly enough, one of the academic growth industries at present is the history of interpretation. To take a single biblical book, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, for several years there has been a Society of Biblical Literature program on the history of reception of Romans, which has produced two volumes of essays on specific topics in the letter. Jeffrey Greenman and Timothy Larsen have also edited a more general review, Reading Romans through the Centuries: From the Early Church to Karl Barth, and Mark Reasoner has written a general volume on the history of Romans interpretation, Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation.

In addition, there are at least two series of commentaries underway on the entire Bible that make available ancient and medieval treatments of biblical texts, the Ancient Christian Commentary on scripture (edited by Tom Oden), and the Church’s Bible (edited by Robert Wilken). Only a few volumes (those on Isaiah, the Song of Songs, and 1 Corinthians) have appeared to date in the latter series, but it promises to be especially helpful because the editors are themselves translating the passages included, rather than drawing on existing translations.

This fascination with the history of interpretation is not simply retrieval for an antiquarian sake. In a recently published and delightful book, Reading the Bible with the Dead, John Thompson of Fuller Seminary focuses on “hard” passages in the Bible, including the stories of Hagar and of Jephthah’s daughter, as well as teachings on divorce in the Christian scriptures. Thompson shows that, contrary to our assumption that the church ignored these difficult texts, they provoked our predecessors in some of the ways they provoke and disturb us. Our predecessors actually have things to teach us about reading and understanding scripture.

Thompson’s investigation can be extended well beyond the difficult passages, as he would wholeheartedly support. For example, I suspect that many Protestant interpreters of scripture regard Chrysostom as little more than an antique. We have probably heard him invoked primarily for his critical remarks about Jews and women. I wonder how many Protestants know, however, that Chrysostom also praised Junia and dwelt on the fact that she was identified by Paul as outstanding among the apostles (Rom. 16:7). How many Protestants know that Chrysostom’s sermons also reflect what might even be termed a preferential option on behalf of the poor? To read his homilies is to be amazed by how often—no matter what the text—Chrysostom ended with a rousing call for the rich to embody the mercy they have received from Christ by their generosity on behalf of the poor.

Looking back at the Faith and Order meeting in Montreal, the classic tension over the role of traditions, and the one Tradition, it is interesting to consider this resurgence of interest in the reception history of scripture. This renewal of interest in the long, varied, and rich history of biblical interpretation could prove a genuine contribution to an ecumenical hermeneutics, if interest in patristic exegesis is no longer regarded as the quaint preserve of our Orthodox and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, we dare not allow that respect for interpretive tradition to calcify, so that we assume that there is nothing more to hear from the Bible than what has already been said. Therefore, in addition to acknowledging that an ecumenical hermeneutic must be informed by the church’s interpretive tradition, I want to insist that an ecumenical hermeneutic must be ongoing and must be open to the activity of the Holy Spirit.

However much we respect what our predecessors said about a text and however much we have to learn from them, we cannot simply repeat their conclusions. For one thing, many of those conclusions can become meaningless or even misleading over time. The easiest way to illustrate this point is to look at older translations of the Bible, which are, after all, interpretations. In the Revised Standard Version of 2 Cor. 11:25, Paul writes, “Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned.” Although a number of more recent translations repeat that statement—”once I was stoned”—the translators of the New Revised Standard Version carefully revised the verse to read “once I received a stoning.”

That is but a single, even silly, example of what I mean by saying that interpretation is necessarily an ongoing activity. During my brief service on the Faith and Order Commission, I had the impression that the use of scripture was often fairly static and reductive. The players in the discussion already know which texts are to be slotted in to what discussions. For example, the BEM discussion of baptism makes use of the predictable texts from Paul’s letters but make no reference to Acts 8, where an Ethiopian eunuch is baptized without any clear connection to a community of believers. It also is silent on Acts 10, where Peter finds himself forced to baptize Cornelius and his household after the Holy Spirit has already fallen upon them. A kind of blinder hermeneutic keeps all of us from seeking words from other sources. Indeed, it is interesting how little a role scripture itself actually plays in A Treasure in Earthen Vessels.

I think the reasons for this calcification in interpretation are not hard to find. We inherit discussions of, say, women in leadership that are driven by 1 Corinthians 14, with its strictures on women’s speech, rather than by Romans 16, with its list of greetings to women who are rather obviously engaging in tasks of leadership. We reduce discussion of the eucharist to the passages that quote Jesus’ words of institution, without turning also to the stories in Acts that associate the breaking of bread with the sharing of goods. This is a terrible problem for Christian clergy and leaders of all sorts, not simply for people active in ecumenical work. We read the Bible in much the same way that we listen to old friends, too often with the tacit notion that we already know what they have to say.

To engage in a little armchair psychology, I think that most of us are disturbed, even frightened, by the prospect of reading the Bible with the expectation that we might hear something new. We do not want to hear words that challenge our comfortable lifestyles or our petty preoccupations. We are deeply afraid to hear words of grace, either because we cannot imagine that God’s grace includes even us or because we are deeply afraid that it includes some other people whom we would have excluded. Avoiding these words, we seek to tame or domesticate the text, reducing it to a handful of playing cards that can be distributed as needed.

There is an amazing paradox at work, especially among American Protestants, many of whom affirm that the Bible is the living word of God but who simultaneously assume that it cannot say anything that it has not always said. Yet if we are ever to move beyond the current fractures in the church, we will need a hermeneutic of openness. We will need to imagine, even to expect, that this living word of God will say a new thing to us.

Although it is perhaps implicit in A Treasure in Earthen Vessels, I want to insist that an ecumenical hermeneutic will be unabashedly theological. I am not among those who have concluded that critical methods for the reading of scripture are inherently a-theological or anti-theological. However, I do think that we have become so interested in other questions that we fail to bring the God question to our reading. We want to know precisely which rhetorical genre Paul employs for each of his letters, and we apply the most recent methods of literary criticism to our readings of the Gospels. Our search to understand the social world of early Christianity often reminds me of a footnote in Ernst Käsemann’s work on the Gospel of John. Käsemann begged indulgence for the habit of New Testament scholars (in particular) who think that, as we read the New Testament, we can hear the “grass grow and the bedbugs cough.” Some of our re-constructions have that quality of confidence about them. This preoccupation does not characterize the scholarly guild alone, as is clear from the apparently insatiable public appetite for the next book about the historical Jesus. Many have been convinced that, if we have the bones of Jesus, we will have the answers to all our questions.

Against this historical positivism, an ecumenical hermeneutic will need to ask: Where is God in this text? What is said here about God’s ways in the world? I noted above that one of my regular course offerings is a course on the Acts of the Apostles and that the varying denominational groups read for their various practices and polities. Indeed, I think that most reading of the book of Acts, both ecclesial and academic, focuses on the history of the church that Luke is narrating. The questions then become whether Luke is writing good history or bad history or whether Luke accurately recounts the actions of our ancestors in faith.

Yet that preoccupation can prevent us from seeing (perhaps we are even willful in this refusal to see) the extent to which Luke’s own preoccupation is with God. Luke repeatedly tells us that the things that happen do so because of God’s plan, God’s boulē. One of the features of Luke’s Greek that beginning students welcome is his repetition of the little verb dei (“It is necessary”), as when Peter declares to the council in Acts 5, “We must obey God rather than men,” or when Paul declares that he “must” witness to the gospel in Rome (Acts 19:21). If we are to be responsible readers of the book of Acts, to take only a single example, we will notice that Luke’s understanding of history is that God is in it. God is in it occasionally despite the church itself, which has other plans. Neither Peter nor the Jerusalem community included the conversion of the gentiles in their long-range plans. Indeed, both Peter and the Jerusalem community resisted God’s action in the conversion of Cornelius, just as Ananias earlier resisted the conversion of Saul/Paul. The story turns on God’s persistence in spite of the church.

As with interest in the history of interpretation, there is burgeoning interest within the academy in the theological interpretation of texts that can provide support for an openly theological hermeneutic. For example, the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company is publishing a series of New Testament commentaries, Between Two Horizons, that has as its goal the bridging of the gap between biblical and theological studies. Joel Green, one of the editors of that series, is also editing a new journal, The Journal of Theological Interpretation. Many other examples could be offered in the work of Markus Bockmuehl, Richard Hays, J. Louis Martyn, Angus Paddison, Marianne Meye Thompson, and a number of others.

Finally, an ecumenical hermeneutic will be doxological. One of the strengths of my own Reformed tradition is the high value placed on scripture, but I fear that for my tradition—and mine is not alone—there is more than a hint of utilitarianism in our stance toward scripture. We want scripture to do something for us, to yield up doctrines that we may use, ethical postures that will make our children behave, or at least sermons that will inspire. We speak of scripture as being “used,” “applied,” or “employed,” not of the interpretation of scripture as an occasion for thanksgiving and praise.

Yet it seems to me that an ecumenical hermeneutic—a hermeneutic that interprets scripture in the service of God’s horizon, that day when we all will be one—can only be doxological. What I mean is that, in addition to anticipating that scripture will speak some new word and looking to see what God is doing in the text, we also bring to our reading that sense of praise, gratitude, and wonder that is the rightful stance of the created being toward the Creator. I think immediately of the end of Romans 1, which has in recent decades provoked such a fury of interpretation having to do with the place of gay and lesbian Christians. Rom. 1:18-32 opens with the claim that where human beings went astray was in their refusal to give God the Creator thanks and praise. The withholding of praise—of worship—from God actually wrenches humanity out of its rightful relationship to God. Not accidentally, Romans culminates in chapter 15 in anticipation of the eschatological praise of God by Jew and gentile alike. This stance of doxological interpretation is captured in the lines of Psalm 119:

Your statutes have been my songs wherever I make my home. (v. 54)
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my
mouth! (v. 103)

Doxology is out of fashion, of course. It assumes that we are not autonomous creatures, that we are not makers of ourselves, that we owe gratitude and praise to Another. This is scarcely a stance attractive to much of North American Christianity, with its preoccupation with the church of “What’s in It for Me?” Yet the praise of God is a feature of scripture that stretches from Genesis to Revelation, and a thankless hermeneutic is apt to result in a thankless church.

The topic “Interpreting the Scriptures Together: Seeking the Visible Unity of the Church” remains, from one perspective, hopelessly optimistic. It is an undertaking only for those who believe that God has already made us one in Jesus Christ, and that all of our interpretation has its home in the Triune God. However, for those who do share that conviction, it is an adventure on which to embark with gratitude and expectation.