Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic

Article excerpt

One of the things that has benefited me most in my study has been the occasional question-posed by a teacher, a student, a colleague-which I could not get out of my mind. The first time I met Cynthia Kittredge, now several years ago, she asked me such a question, namely this: "Is there any text you would reject?" I had just presented a paper on the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), a text that many consider to have no revelatory value. Her question was for me the most memorable thing said that evening: "Is there, then, any text you would reject?" A question that simple has the potential for being haunting; and indeed, it has recurred to me periodically since, whenever I have come up against an uncongenial, even repellant text. I begin with this story because it is relevant to the task which Cynthia Kittredge and I set for ourselves in this presentation. We conceived of it as a dialogue, a presentation whose two parts were developed in some conversation with one another. And when I sat down a few months ago to begin lining out my part, I realized that our dialogue on biblical hermeneutics had already begun several years before, and it has continued (in my mind, at least) whenever Cynthia's question reoccurs to me.

"Is there any text you would reject?" The beauty of the question is that it is confrontational in the best sense. It poses with inescapable simplicity the most basic ethical question of biblical hermeneutics: What should we in the Church do with biblical texts that do not seem to accord with a well-considered understanding of the Christian faith? Can we precisely as Church increase our understanding through listening to such texts and acknowledging the difficulty? Probably all of us would answer, Yes, of course, up to a point. But beyond that I think we probably differ. I am fairly confident that within this group-as among my students, as among biblical scholars-we would find very different opinions on this further question: Is there a point at which we have to give up the struggle and admit that in this case edification is not possible? This particular biblical text must be repudiated as a potential source of valid theological insight; it is disqualified for public or authoritative reading in the Church.

This seems to be the position taken by Elisabeth Schissler Fiorenza. While acknowledging that all biblical traditions should be transmitted through teaching, she comments that not all traditions are "meaningful and relevant" to Christian communities today. -In some situations it would be wrong to proclaim certain biblical traditions, and at some time one is not able to do more than keep the traditions of biblical faith. We cannot preach all traditions because we do not understand them or they do not come alive for us." And further: "biblical revelation and truth can today be found only in those texts and traditions that transcend and criticize the patriarchal culture and religion of their times."1 While I agree with her that the biblical text is not to be equated simply with divine revelation, it seems to me that the criterion she suggests threatens to reduce the scriptural base available for theological reflection to a relatively small "canon within the canon."2

So my own bias is to say, No, no biblical text may be safely repudiated as a potential source of edification for the Church.3 When we think we have reached the point of zero-edification, then that perception indicates that we are not reading deeply enough; we have not probed the layers of the text with sufficient care. The idea that the biblical text may say quite different things when considered at different levels of interpretation is congruent with Augustine's principle of charity as set forth in De Doctrina Christiana.4 Invoking Augustine would be a good Anglican line of defense; yet if I do not take that approach here, it is because I see our current interpretive dilemma as so grave that I must make my argument directly from the biblical text itself. …

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