Friday, August 05, 2011

Community interpretation (a ecclessial hermeneutic)

Jesus says an interesting thing in Matthew. He tells Peter that the church will be able to bind and loose, and to forgive or uphold sins. Now having been raised Roman Catholic, spent much of my life as an evangelical protestant and now some weird liberational post evangelical Christianarchist, this passage pops off fireworks left and right. Throw in some of my pentecostal beliefs and we really get going.

Now in the Catholic tradition, they take this to mean that the hierarchy of the church has the mandate to both discern proper biblical and life interpretation, and to issue the "sacrament" of confession and penance. In other words the leaders decide what is right and everyone else falls into line. This however seems to be the very system that Jesus replaces, when he issues these words.

In the pentecostal tradition, its talking about binding and loosening demons. But... if you bind the devil... how long does he stay bound for? Does is matter what kind of knots you use? And we mostly don't want to touch the forgiveness thing.

In evangelical tradition we struggle with these passages as well, because in truth we don't really affirm the hyper solo scriptura that is actually far beyond what Luther ever meant anyways. But often we struggle with this post trying to be anti papist rather than looking at it as instructive.

But we see the same things repeated in Matthew 18 where Jesus is instructing us how to live out the faith community. And this passage must be understood as both instructions for church life, and within its cultural context. Now to us this binding and loosening seems weird, but in the first century Jewish culture it was very well known. The priests and scribes (lawyers) were given the power to bind and loose, in accordance with the scriptures. So if you have a dispute with your neighbor you go to court (religious and secular were the same) and these "experts" would make a ruling, binding or loosening you in accordance with the scriptures. This ties in with the follow discussions about forgiving of sins. It was the scribes (lawyers) who determined the fines and conditions of repayment of depts ect. So Jesus was taking the authority away from the elites, and gives it to the church, (Peter and his declaration of faith being the first stone of this metaphorical building).

So what that means, is that we as a church community, faithfully living out the gospel in our neighborhoods, and depending upon the Holy Spirit in our midst, in consultation with the church at large past and present, are granted the authority to interpret scripture. Which brings up a few questions:

Why does one (usually a man) person give the message and interpretation of scripture in our gatherings?

Why don't we make place for communal discernment for scripture and action in our communities?

How do we honor the working of the Spirit in our gatherings?

Can there actually be differing interpretations of scripture that God blesses as the Creator gives the authority to each local community?

These are the questions that have lead us to our practice of reflection on scripture.



seaotter said...

I don't think the people you called "the Bible police" (which might include me,) should get too up in arms about this. You really only asked questions rather than stated positions.

The thought that comes to mind is that the early church community contained a fair (can we say large?) number of people who were really familiar with the Scriptures by virtue of growing up in a borderline theocracy. Those who were literate had become literate by studying Scripture, and most people had grown up hearing the priests and scribes teaching from the Scriptures. I would go so far as to say that most of our modern church communities are not nearly so familiar with the revealed Word (I'm talking written more than incarnate here.)

I bring that up as a caution. It's one thing for people to discuss and interpret that which they know, but perhaps another for people to just read passages and take a stab at what they mean (especially when not familiar with the broader textual context.)

I think back to growing up in some kind of moderate Protestant churches and the common practice of reading something and then going around and asking "what does that mean to you?" Once in a great while I heard some really powerful thoughts and interpretations. Far more often I heard some of the dumbest and/or outlandish things I have ever heard.

One of my teachers once said that I should be less concerned with what the Scriptures mean to me, and more concerned with what they mean. Period. That is really not too far off from the position you like to take of seeing what they meant to the original audience (which I think is a solid hermeneutic.) So I like what you say, but I have some reservations about the possible application.

john jensen said...

I think there is some great insight in what you say brother. I do believe it is important to have the bible "known" and I do believe in a place for teachers obviously as I am one.

I find however, when engaged in the actual work of Christ, caring for the poor, standing against the oppressive agents, healing the sick, preaching the gospel, that "what it means to you" is often "what it means". In addition, if you truly believe in the Holy Spirit, and the presence of Christ in our midst, then we also must recognize the ability of God to speak through even the unlearned.

Some of the most incredible lessons from the scripture I received from my daughters as they sat and discerned with us when they were pre teens.

So we should know the bible better, especially in its context. But often, putting ourselves in proper context will help us see it even more clearly.