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Friday, August 30, 2013

Incarnational Exegesis

I'm sure no one is shocked, but a pretty lady asked me "the Question" last night: "Why'd you become Catholic?" And of course, I was babbling like an idiot, whether because I'm actually an idiot, or, well, you know.

But it's a great question. And it got me to thinking. Because I never seem to tell this story the same way twice. But let me go for it again. [Everyone is sick of reading the same posts over and over.--ed.] Yeah, well, too bad.

When you look at the Sacred Scriptures, when you read them, you quickly get a sense that there is a distance between us and them. All these crazy metaphors, unpronounceable names, cryptic wisdom that makes you say, "What in Tarshish does that mean?" and loads of other things. You almost instinctively realize, "Hey, I'm gonna need some help to understand this" or, "I'm gonna need some book-learnin' right soon." We also realize and confess that the simplest person on Earth can read the Bible with spiritual profit, and even unto salvation. Still, if God has communicated in all these human ways, it behooves us to learn as much about the human means of that communication as we can to best understand what He is saying. And let's be clear: It's not the tools of historical-critical exegesis that lead people astray; it's the assumptions that often underlie their use. So a Christian seeking to be faithful to God wants to start with assumptions that will lead him to a deeper, truer, faith in Christ. Any number of Christian communities do this all the time; they say, "Try to read it this way. We don't want you to end up like [insert preferred interpretive cautionary tale]." Or, "We wouldn't want to reach this conclusion..." because of inerrancy, or Christ's divinity, or what have you. Well and good. And here's where it gets fun, because the community (For the moment, it doesn't matter which one; whichever one you are in) is supposed to safeguard me from reaching the wrong conclusions; its patrimony is precisely how it does this. It even unconsciously shapes how I read the text in the future. I read it like my brothers and sisters before me, and God willing, I will shape those after me in like manner. And this is all fashionable now; I must have heard 1000 variations of, "The Scripture is a word in community." And that's right! The cool Protestant kids nowadays like to put the word "historic" in front of "Protestant," or the name of their community, just to let people know that they are serious and learned, and more importantly, to at least attempt to say that they are not making this up as they go along. But any person is naturally moved to ask the question, "Just how 'historic' is what we believe?" Because 'historic' contextually means, "Authentically apostolic, and of Christ." So I cannot take it for granted that my community is organically connected to the Church of old; honesty demands that I investigate that, even prove it, if necessary. But given the fact that I can observe with my own eyes that there are innumerable communities of which I am not a part, still in good conscience holding things concerning Christ that I do not hold, I am forced to ask, "What makes us right, and them wrong?" And frankly, that's just among communities that explicitly and self-consciously trace back to the Reformation! It's warm and lovely that I do not believe my LCMS friend will burn in Hell for believing differently about the Supper than I do. But who's right? We cannot labor under the delusion that we are "united in the essentials" when we are not. If you actually think we are, try being ordained a Lutheran pastor while holding Calvin's view of the Supper. "Oh, but that's not necessary for Heaven," you say. Fine. You just told me that all these separate communities exist to defend trivialities, then. First off, you don't believe this. And for another, let's ask Luther if he thought Zwingli's view of the Supper was a permitted variation in the doctrine of God. How many of these would I have to tick off before it became a problem?
Quite aside from the fact that "Scripture is the final word" means absolutely jack when everyone says that, using essentially the same tools and methods, and still does not agree. Is it getting warm in here yet? Inevitable Turning-Point: I must either say I am more learned/holy than these others who have reached contrary doctrinal conclusions x, y, and z, or I must conclude that the Holy Spirit is a politician in the bad sense: talking out of both sides of His mouth. Speaking of the "I", if my community reaches a different conclusion than I do, what makes them right, and me wrong, or vice-versa? At what point would my statement, "Oh, well, the Church is not limited to this community alone" become dangerous to my soul? Do you know? And how can I be the arbiter of God's Truth and a humble receiver at the same time? Aren't these communities supposed to defend the gospel? With what? Sola Scriptura makes it doubly impossible: the Scripture does not answer the higher-order questions, and it makes me the arbiter of that truth it does contain, eviscerating that community hermeneutic we're always jabbering about. Trust me, this is one time the customer is not always right. (Maybe the premise is faulty. Just a thought.)
Here's the good news: The creeds point us back to the actual Church, because we realize that those Councils from whence they came weren't offering polite suggestions; they were declaring in the power of the Holy Spirit what the Truth was. [And is, and is to come!--ed.] Amen. Anyway, once you jettison the ad hockery of accepting one or two ecumenical councils and not the others, and you investigate the whys and whats of them/it/the visible Church...well, I won't spoil your fun. Then that Scripture becomes that fruitful word in community. And quite literally, He is the Word in our community.

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