Russell and Duenes

How Does One Know that a Text Means What One Thinks It Does? Part 1

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An old college acquaintance commented and asked me the following two questions:

1) When your interpretation of Scripture diverts from the interpretation of a Church Father – or what’s more, the consensual opinion of all the Fathers – and/or from the official interpretation of a certain passage by the Catholic Church, on what exactly should I base my confidence that your interpretation is the correct one, and theirs the false?

2) In the case when other modern Biblical scholars might dissent from your opinion, how is one to judge who is correct? Surely all would claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

These are important questions; dare I say, as important as any in theology. For even if people could agree that ultimate authority resides in a text, or texts, another big hurdle awaits, namely, how does one know that the texts mean what one thinks they do? That is really what these questions are asking, though there are a lot of layers to the above questions. So let me try to take them in turn.

First, some disclaimers. I am not a scholar of historical theology; neither of Patristics, Medieval, Reformation, or Protestant Scholasticism. So I make no claims of expertise. I’m also not a scholar of biblical literature and language. I have good facility with the New Testament Greek, but I haven’t done much with Hebrew since the three semesters I took back in the late 90s. I’m not “up” on a lot of the technical literature, though I understand its semantics. All of this, however, may not be central to addressing the above questions, since I believe them to be more hermeneutical and epistemological than theological. On to the questions then.

My first thought is a rather elementary one: Since when has truth been decided by majority opinion? The Scriptures say, “Let God be true though every man be a liar.” Truth, whatever it is, is not arrived at always by consensus (though I think consensus is very impotant, as I point out below) Let’s say that the Church Fathers unequivocally agree on a particular interpretation of a certain text, and my interpretation differs from theirs; does that mean that theirs must be correct simply because they all agree? My question to my commenter might be this: Was Jesus offering interpretations that diverted from the majority view of his day? Indeed, on many occasions. On what should I base my confidence that he was right and the Pharisees wrong, since the Pharisees had a consensus against Jesus? What about Paul? My position is not that we jettison the opinions of the Church Fathers. Far from it. We should give their opinions more weight than we do. They were closer to the original language, text, and culture of the biblical writers. We ought not to “divert” from their views without some sound reasons for doing so, but we also ought not to say, in my view, that because they were closer to the originals, we ought to follow them absolutely.

Which leads into my second point: When speaking about “the interpretation of a Church Father” or “the consensual opinion of all the Fathers,” doesn’t this suppose that one is correctly intepreting the Fathers? But how does one know that he is correctly interpreting the Fathers? Both Reformation theologians and Roman Catholic theologians appealed to the Patristics on a wide scale in their theological disputes. So where is the “consensus?” Mustn’t my commenter rely on other authorities subsequent to the Fathers to confirm his interpretations of the Fathers? Why not rely on the Protestant ones rather than the Roman Catholic ones? And mustn’t my commenter rely on other authorities to confirm those subsequent authorities? You see the problem. When one speaks of “the consensual opinion of all the Fathers,” upon what basis is he claiming the Fathers form a consensus? His own readings of the Fathers? And how would this be different than my saying that my own private reading of the Scriptures is correct? The same questions arise when one says that they follow the word of Popes or councils or whatever. A particular exegetical and hermeneutical methodology must be followed in interpreting them as well, many of whom never wrote a word of modern English. And the particular interpretive methodology that my reader adopts must also be chosen on some basis. What basis?

Now, I doubt that my commenter is claiming that merely and solely his own private readings of the Fathers are the basis for his assertions about any Patristic consensus. Rather, he would likely admit that he found his way to his views by being influenced by a certain community of others: scholars, priests, laymen, commentaries, pastors, friends and the like. But even the opinions of these people must be weighed. How does one weigh them? Now, I’m not arguing for some kind of radical skepticism which claims that we cannot really know anything about anything since we’re all finite knowers, biased and conditioned by our own historical contexts. That is to cede too much. Nevertheless, if one is going to claim that he follows the consensual opinion of the Patristical writers, then he will have to give an account of how he comes to “know” what they teach. And if he says that he knows because he follows the authoritative teaching of the Popes and councils down through the centuries – the official Catholic teaching – then he will have to give the same account. In all likelihood, he is relying on the work of others, and he, like me, is weighing what others say and weighing his own reading of texts. How to judge this weighing process is complicated, and I’m not trying to make it simple, or negate the notion of “knowing.” I don’t doubt that we can indeed know, with a fair amount of accuracy, what the Church Fathers taught on a good many biblical texts and topics. But how we come to “know” it can happen through a process that even we may not be able to fully describe, or at least I can’t.

Third, again, we could ask ourselves about lots of authorities. How come we don’t accept the Muslim interpretation of the New Testament? There are tens of millions of them that interpret it differently than I do. Why not take their view? Why not take the general Mormon view? Why not take the view of the Protestants over the last 400 years? Is there such a “Protestant” view? Is there one accurate view of “the official interpretation by the Catholic Church?” If so, from whence comes disagreement over that teaching, for surely disagreement there is, as surely as there are denominational disagreements over “official interpretations” in the Protestant churches. One cannot simply say, “I follow the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, and a lot of people agree with me, so I have a basis for my understanding of biblical texts,” but a Protestant like me is simply following “my own opinion.” In the end, everyone is an individual interpreter of every text, weighing and making exegetical and hermeneutical decisions based on certain criteria and methodology. As Christians, we are told that we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, but as my commenter astutely points out: “Surely all would claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit.” In the end, at least from out point of view, there has to be some subjective element in all of this.

Fourth, I think this should lead us to humility in dealing with interpretations of others, particularly  if those interpretations have been held by a good many others, for a good many centuries, who were closer to the first century than us. Thus, if I’m reading Romans 4:1-8 and trying to accurately understand its objective teaching on justification, should I just reflexively take Luther or Calvin or some other reformer’s view if it disagrees with, say, Tertullian or Gregory of Nazianzus? Not necessarily. Although one does read a point where one comes to see things through a particular theological lens, as my commenter no doubt does. The point being, if the Patristics, or even the Roman Catholic Church, have a teaching on something, and we can come to know what it is, we ought not to throw it away without so much as a thought. I do not think the Reformers who broke from the Roman Catholic church cast off their prior understandings on a lark, and they were right not to do so. And they did not do their theologizing in a vacuum, because no one does. Likewise, I do not attempt to do my theologizing in isolation. I have not merely sat down with the Scriptures and come up with my own private views. My views are formed by the influence of others, and hopefully by the Holy Spirit. Are my views as well formed as they could be, were I to do more prayerful study of historical theology, modern commentary, and the Scriptures? Surely not, but we are all in theological process.

So how does one judge “who is correct?” I’m not sure I can give a full answer. I’d like to have a better answer, and as such, I’m grateful for the question. I suppose I try to follow Luther’s advice, to be convinced “by Scripture or clear reasoning.” I seek to test and evaluate my interpretations by others, both modern and ancient. I try to listen to both Protestants and Catholics where I can (and believe me, there are many teachings of the Roman Catholic church that I adhere to better than many Roman Catholics). I try to put my interpretations out there for others in my context and community to evaluate. I seek to be guided by the Holy Spirit. I ought to repent and follow Luther when he says,

“Your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it please God to accomplish something for His glory—not for yours or any other person’s—He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words. For no master of the divine words exists except the Author of these words, as He says: ‘They shall be all taught of God’ (John 6:45). You must, therefore, completely despair of your own industry and ability and rely solely on the inspiration of the Spirit” (Ewald M. Plass, compiler, What Luther Says: An Anthology, Vol. 3, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 77.)

Of course I welcome any and all comment on this, for I hope to better approach the true knowledge of God, and I believe these issues are crucial toward that end. Doubtless if I have contradicted myself or wandered into a specious or untenable assertion, I should like to know it.


Written by Michael Duenes

January 15, 2012 at 12:45 pm

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