Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Scriptural Interpretation

One of the more disturbing features of Gnosticism for me (out of quite a large menu to choose from) is its approach to characters in the Biblical Scriptures. Because it identifies this world as in some way bad, Gnosticism regularly reverses the value judgements on things in the Bible. So the creator of the world is bad, and as he is the god of the OT, then most of morality and actions of god in the OT is similarly problematic. Eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a good thing, eating from the tree of life a bad thing. In the Apocryphon of John, the character of Jesus claims that he was the one who enticed Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit for their salvation. Some Gnostic groups considered Cain to be a good guy, and even that the snake in the Garden was an agent for the true God.

The thing that’s provocative about this is that the climate of ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ has a very similar outcome. It begins with the observation that the biblical writers had an agenda, and so wrote the accounts in such a way as to lead the reader to take on the account’s view of the events that it narrates. Then it suggests that this serves the interests of the powerful—those who wrote the text. At this point it goes quintessentially Australian and backs the underdog, reinterpreting the text in favour of the marginalised figures—the silent women, the silent Canaanites, the silent Judas and the like. It makes them the hero of the story and so unmasks the immoral stance of the author.

This doesn’t mean that contemporary heremeneutics are Gnostic. Rather, it suggests the point that Peter makes in his epistle:

2 Peter 3:15-16 just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

The point is that interpretation is a moral issue. Words must be interpreted, even as they seek to interpret the world to the hearer or reader. It is not uncommon to hear the argument at present that issue X (whatever is being contested) ‘is not a question about the authority of Scripture/being an Evangelical/being a Christian (etc) but is simply a question about interpretation.’ It’s sentimental, and it’s nonsense. Words are used to communicate, so interpretation is a moral issue because it involves the way you treat another person—the person who spoke or wrote.

And when the words are Scripture, then questions of interpretation are automatically questions about the authority of Scripture, or of what it means to be someone who lives in the light of Scripture. The Gnostics showed their rebellion against God by their attempt to deny that he made the world, despite the fact that it presented itself as an attempt to preserve God’s goodness. In a similar way, we can reject someone and what they are saying just as much by beating our chests about how seriously we are treating their words as by openly spurning their words. We have to interpret, but in interpreting the word, we are judged by that word. Our fundamental orientation to the word is made manifest.

Part of the reason for this is the nature of Scripture. It is an intrinsically moral word—it is a word that makes absolute demands upon its hearer. This is why the word of God can be so hard to understand, why it often seems that understanding it involves so much work. It is not because it is obscure, it is because one cannot truly hear this kind of word in a detached or dispassionate way. Form and content have to come together. The way we listen has to reflect the nature of the word that is being spoken. And the word that is being spoken is unlike any other word we could hear, it is the word that created the world, that sets the boundaries for life, that judges, that sheds the light of Christ in our hearts. This word demands more of us then any word we could speak to each other, just to hear it properly.

James 1:21-22 21 Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.

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