Thursday, December 21, 2006

Toward a Post-Critical Hermeneutic of Scripture

What follows is one of the best summaries of where hermeneutics has been and where it is going. Hang on and enjoy the ride!


The Jewish and Christian hermeneutic of the Talmudic and Patristics period and of medieval times corresponds to a pre-modern concept of the world as a sacred cosmos or a symbolic universe: the revelation of the sacred in the space and time of secular experience creates a symbolic world, a global system of meaning. The subject, man or woman, is and feels a part of the objective world with no awareness at all of an opposition between subject and object. A system of myths and rites, a metaphysical theology and a liturgy made up of symbols, explain and celebrate at the same time the origin, the being, the final destiny and regular rhythm of this present life. Myth and reality, word and thing, merge completely and as yet they have not been separated and challenged. The Bible has both a literal and a spiritual meaning which together determine an infinity of meanings, hidden in each expression, each word and even each letter of Scripture.

Modern hermeneutic corresponds to a world in which the I, the thinking subject, and the physical and mathematical universe replace the sacred cosmos as the focal point. Epistemology, the theory of knowledge, replaces myth and metaphysics, explaining not just objective reality but only how it is possible to know the objective world. This puts a gulf between the thinking subject and the object. Critical rationalism of the Enlightenment ends up questioning the God of theologians and philosophers and the critical history of Romanticism puts an interdict on texts in which the revelation of the Bible is expressed.

Post-Modern or Post-Critical hermeneutic is marked by a certain disenchantment with enlightened conscience and some glimpses of re-enchantment with the world. Post-modernism does not reject the values of modernity, rational criticism and freedom from dogma, but it accepts that enlightened criticism is not free from prejudice and its pretensions to objectivity are often no more than wishful thinking. The post-modern world is not the world of the ancient sacred cosmos but neither is it its simple negation or its dissolving in the world of the subjective conscience. It is a world created by language, made manifest in dialogue with the other. Understanding takes place through prior anticipations, through pre-understanding and pre-judice, through the hermeneutic circle of question and answers (Heidegger). Understanding is not a monologue with objectivity but a dialogue with the subjectivity of the other or with the other expressed in the texts transmitted by tradition. Without it being possible to return to the pre-critical world of tradition which has become dogma, contemporary hermeneutic wishes to recover the mediating force of tradition and even the symbolising and imaginative meaning of allegory. Unlike enlightened hermeneutic, Post-modern thinking shows respect for openness to the divine and the sacred and especially to symbolic and religious language in general, typical of the post-modern era.

In this process of re-evaluation of tradition and of the interpretation of symbols and allegories, without however abandoning enlightened criticism of the texts of historical and religious tradition, lies the viewpoint of this book. It does not try a direct approach, supposedly free of presuppositions and prejudices, to the biblical texts of over two thousand years ago, but instead tries to emphasise the mediating role of Jewish and Christian tradition and of post-modern hermeneutic based on the play between literal and allegorical, in every attempt at complete understanding of the texts of the Bible.

--Julio Trebolle Barrera, The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible (Cambridge, 1998), 545-6

Monday, December 18, 2006

It's all Greek to me?? Hardly...

Last Sunday I took my worship class on a fieldtrip to our local Greek Orthodox Cathedral here in Houston for the Sunday Divine Liturgy. The purpose of the trip was solely pedagogical, yet I could not help reflecting on the sad state of my own denomination, and my commitment to remain a part of the Anglican tradition.

Admittedly, the service felt a little alien to me at first, despite the fact that I was quite able to follow the liturgy, and even to respond in Greek somewhat proficiently. That being said, the liturgy was enthralling, and before I knew it I was musing that I could quickly get used to worshipping in this manner on a weekly basis. Then it hit me. I already affirmed everything they affirmed. I believed as they believed. There were no obstacles -- not doctrine, not icons, not piety, not the filioque -- standing in the way of my becoming Orthodox (with a "big-O"), that is, if I so desired. Nothing at all. So naturally I was faced with the question: as a "small-o" orthodox Christian, why remain Anglican?

On the way home that afternoon, I came up with three answers (only two of which I'm ready to share with my readers. The third, still provisional, will have to wait):

(1) I remain Anglican because the Anglican way of orthodoxy is something worth staying in and fighting for. In its best expressions, Anglicanism is a wondrously beautiful vehicle for the transmission of the orthodox faith. Not only do I believe it can be so in the future, but I believe it is so now in the present (albeit in limited contexts). The loss of Anglicanism to the cancer of relativity, God forbid, would be a loss not only for a few Episcopalians, but a loss for the whole Body of Christ as well. Some of my friends have suggested that the Western-Rite option in Eastern Orthodoxy could easily fill this void. My response: Anglicanism is a natural home for orthodoxy (small-o), but Orthodoxy (big-O) could never be a natural home for Anglicanism.

(2) I remain Anglican because I am culturally an Anglican Christian, and I see my culture as a heritage entrusted to me to pass on to future generations. Surely, some of my friends might object, "What profit is there in saving your culture only to lose your soul?" However, I think this is a false dichotomy. As I looked around at the mostly Greek congregation gathered in that Greek Orthodox Cathedral during its Greek liturgy, it was obvious to me that, for that particular congregation, being "Greek" and being "Christian" were practically co-terminous. Corporately speaking, culture is the soul of a church. The Christian Faith is fundamentally incarnational, and thus it naturally incarnates itself in culture -- be it Greek or British.

Simply put, I am an Anglican Christian, I can be no other.

Until next time.

P.S. I'm still pondering this question, of course.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The "Catholica"

The Church which is "Jesus Christ spread abroad and communicated" completes -- so far as it can be completed here below -- the work of spiritual reunion which was made necessary by sin; that work which was begun at the Incarnation and was carried on up to Calvary. In one sense the Church is herself this reunion, for that is what is meant by the name of Catholic by which we find her called from the second century onward, and which in Latin as well as in Greek was for long bestowed upon her as a proper noun. Katholikos in classical Greek, was used by philosophers to indicate a universal proposition. Now a universal is a singular and is not to be confused with an aggregate. The Church is not Catholic because she is spread abroad over the whole of the earth and can reckon on a large number of members. She was already Catholic on the morning of Pentecost, when all her members could be contained in a small room, as she was when the Arian waves seemed on the point of swamping her; she would still be Catholic if tomorrow apostasy on a vast scale deprived her of almost all the faithful. For fundamentally Catholicity has nothing to do with geography or statistics. If it is true that it should be dsiplayed over all the earth and be manifest to all, yet its nature is not material but spiritual. Like sanctity, Catholicity is primarily an intrinsic feature of the Church.

--Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (Ignatius Press), 48-9.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Boys are Back in Town!

I'm excited! After a lengthy hiatus, the Energies of the Trinity blog is back up again. Perry Robinson and Photius Jones, the "boys" over at Energies, are quite heady, but always informative and usually provocative. Be sure to check them out.

The Roots of Sacramental Minimalism in the West

By putting together Augustine's responses to Donatism and Pelagianism one ends up with a baptismal rite and theology which is considerably narrow in its approach in comparison, at least, with the great mystagogues of the West Syrian East and even Ambrose himself. Here, unfortunately, even if his responses to these heretical movements were necessary, we see the beginnings of a minimalistic approach to rite, interpretation, candidate, minister, and Church and a loss of sacramental and liturgical richness in favor of a concern for sacramental validity. While he himself knew a full and rich rite for Christiain initiation there is no question but that: "If ever there was a man who held that the solemn paraphernalia of the actual rite was of little importance, but that the sacrament of baptism by water was indispensible for salvation, that man was Augustine" (Frederick van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop, 1961). This minimalism in rite, formula, and interpretation will continue to reinforce an unfortunate theology of baptism even today as almost a privatized "minute wash" to rid infants, as soon as possible after birth, of the inherited sin of Adam (not necessarily of Eve) and so to ensure their eternal beatific destiny "in case something should happen." On this issue, at least, Western Christianity not only learned its Augustinian theological foundations well but has been abundantly successful through the centuries in catechizing the faithful. Indeed, although the practice and custom of infant baptism comes long before any theological rationale for it is made, from Augustine on, infant baptism will become seen as necessary and expected, rather than permitted, in the life of the Church.

--Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (The Liturgical Press, 1999), 156-7.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Updating my sidebar

I began blogging last April, and, needless to say, my understanding of the blogsphere, its potential, and the resources available has changed drammatically since that time. It's also about time that I did a little house-cleaning. One of the things that needs to be done is to update the links on my sidebar, which includes adding some new links and removing some redundant ones. But I want to ask my readers what blogs and/or sites might be good to add to the list. Any suggestions?

Monday, December 04, 2006

The most significant ecumenical event of 2006? Not that it got any press time...

Yesterday, I spent some time with a friend of mine from England, John Fenwick, who happened to be in Houston for a conference. On July 29, 2006, John was consecrated bishop of the Northern Diocese of the Free Church of England, (an Anglican jurisdiction founded in 1843 in which I served for four years). Also consecrated that day was a former colleague of mine in the Southern Diocese, Paul Hunt, who is now an assistant bishop in the Southern Diocese of the Free Church of England.

Before entering the ministry of the Free Church of England, John Fenwick served in the Church of England, most notably as the Ecumenical Officer for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Obviously, this post provided John with many interesting contacts worldwide. John is also the author of The Free Church of England: An Introduction to an Anglican Tradition (2004).

Of course, I had known about John's consecration for some time, but I had not known the full significance of it until recently. Among the participants pictured above (who actually took part in the laying on of hands!) are bishops from the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, the Malabar Independent Church, the Moravian Church, and the Reformed Episcopal Church. Also present were a Catholic chorepiscopus, and a representative of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion.

It would seem that the FCE has finally answered Apostolicae Curae. But could this meeting of East and West actually have been the most significant ecumenical event of the year?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Conversation with a Bishop's Ghost

The following excerpt was taken from my favorite C. S. Lewis novel, The Great Divorce, which features nearly a dozen encounters between ghosts who have been released -- temporarily -- from Hell to visit Heaven and redeemed spirits who try to talk them into staying.

The following conversation takes place between the ghost of a (presumably Anglican) bishop, on a reprieve from Hell, and the redeemed spirit of younger colleague who tries, unsuccessfully, to convince him that there are "sins of the intellect."

I think you will agree that, though Lewis wrote this over fifty years ago, it is very a timely allegory for today.


BISHOP'S GHOST: "Ah, Dick, I shall never forget some of our talks. I expect you've changed your views a bit since then. You became rather narrow-minded towards the end of your life: but no doubt you've broadened out again."

REDEEMED SPIRIT: "How do you mean?"

"Well, it's obvious by now, isn't it, that you weren't quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!"

"But wasn't I right?"

"Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological..."

"Excuse me. Where do you imagine you've been?"

"Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea."

"I didn't mean that at all. Is it possible you don't know where you've been?"

"Now that you mention it, I don't think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?"

"We call it Hell."

"There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently."

"Discuss Hell reverently? I meant what I said. You have been in Hell: though if you don't go back you may call it Purgatory."

"Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you'll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I'm not angry."

"But don't you know? You went there because you are an apostate."

"Are you serious, Dick?"


"This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken."

"Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?"

"There are indeed, Dick. There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed -- they are not sins."

"I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions."

"Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk."

"What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came -- popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?"

"Dick, this is unworthy of you. What are you suggesting?"

"Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment's real resistance to the loss of our faith?

"If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is mere libel. Do you suggest that men like..."

"I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but me and you. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn't want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes."

"I'm far from denying that young men may make mistakes. They may well be influenced by current fashions of thought. But it's not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed."

"Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith."