Chapter 5, “Hermeneutic Distance”
In this chapter, we finally turn to some lines of argument that are aimed, perhaps, more at the evangelicals than the liberals, though O’Donovan is, as always, carefully balanced. Having established in the previous chapter the necessity of a thoroughgoing submission to Scriptural authority, he now turns to analyze the interpretive task before us as we seek to engage Scripture. The tasks of these two chapters are closely intertwined. On the one hand, we cannot make sense of Scripture unless we are resolved to obey it; on the other hand, we cannot obey Scripture unless we can make sense of what it says.
Before giving my own assessment of this chapter, let me first quote the assessment that is in the back of my mind as I work through it. Wilson says, in his rant concerning chapter 7 of the book, “But how about some exegesis first? O'Donovan tries to anticipate that clever trick by creating some hermeneutical wiggle-room early on in the book [he must be referring to chapter 5 here, though that is not exactly “early on”], which in these pomosexual times is not hard to do. Simple right? Clear wrong? All this deep theology is making my head hurt.” Is this fair? I hardly think so, and I will try to show why.
O’Donovan first makes the rather straightforward point that obedience requires understanding--even “implicit” obedience means that we must understand who is speaking and that they are speaking to us, and that we understand the context of the command enough to follow it.
If we are to obey Scripture, we must determine when it is speaking a command to us. Quite clearly, not every command in Scripture is addressed directly to us, for example (the example O’Donovan uses), when Jesus tells his disciples to go untie an ass in the nearby village and bring it to him. The Old Testament law provides a more intermediate case. Obviously, a great deal of its commands apply to us directly (“Do not kill”), some of it more indirectly (“if your ox gores your neighbor’s ox, make restitution”), some not at all (“put the fatty lobe of the kidney on the altar” or whatever it is those passages say).
In particular, O’Donovan distinguishes between “moral rules” and “public laws” (and incidentally, puts those economic laws of the OT that I have been investigating firmly in the second category). Both sorts, though, involve a framing narrative context; the nature of this narrative context will help us discern how universal is the application of the command. O’Donovan summarizes the import of all this thus: “it is not the commands the Bible contains that we obey; it is the purposes of God that those commands reveal, taken in their context. The purposes of God are the ultimate reason why anything at all is good or evil to do. The Bible is authoritative for ethics because it speaks of those purposes and demonstrates them through God’s acts in history.” (75)
No doubt some will be suspiciously trying to read through the lines, sure that he must be planning to take this in some sinister direction, but I assure you he isn’t, and that he’s saying just what it sounds like, and what it sounds like is really a quite clear and unarguable point. He goes on to make another rather straightforward point--that it is not merely the direct commands of Scripture, but all of Scripture, that has ethical application; but we should give particular weight to direct commands, since they are clearer than deductions we might make from narrative, for example. “If we cannot make our interpretation accommodate the passages where the biblical authors give direct practical guidance, something must have gone wrong. That is why such texts as the condemnations of homosexuality should continue to demand our careful attention, even though they should never be treated alone and in isolation. They are a test of our capacity to achieve a faithful overall reading of the Scriptures. If we can make nothing of them, we should go back to the beginning and start again.’’ (76-77)
This point is clearly aimed more at liberals than evangelicals, but he turns immediately to make a point in the other direction: “There are occasions on which nothing but implicit obedience will do. But recognizing those occasions depends on a general understanding that we have to think through patiently and reflectively. And when the church is at sea, for one reason or another, over how to read the message of the Gospels, only patient attention to reading, interpretation, and obedient thought will bring it to harbor. A shrill call for implicit obedience never substitutes for careful exploration of what it is that must be obeyed.” (77) In other words “simple right” and “clear wrong” are often neither clear nor simple. Our obedience to Scripture must always be thoughtful, and sometimes the result of quite complex thought.
Our thoughtful obedience to Scripture must maintain hermeneutic distance, he goes on to say. “The distance between the text and ourselves can never be, and should never be supposed to be, swallowed up by our understanding. Whatever I may have concluded from my reading of the Scriptures, my conclusion must be open to fresh scrutiny on fresh reading--and will in fact always be, whether I know it or not, because the Scriptures will be its judge.” (78) This is really just the same point as he made back in chapter 2--that because we are the readers, not the authors of Scripture, we must always be, in principle, open to revising our understanding of it. And this is a straightforwardly Protestant point. While he attaches considerable authority to creeds and councils, he maintains that, even with the most authoritative credal formulas, “it remains the case that those words are not in the Bible, and their authority is always a matter of demonstration and argument in light of other words that are in the Bible. The authority of Scripture cannot be made over in full plenitude to my words, or to any other words.” (78-79) No doubt some Catholics might disagree, but O’Donovan is not addressing Catholics here, and neither am I.
Again, then, a warning to overhasty conservatives: “A seriously meant inquiry into what the Bible means and how it may apply to us can never be out of place in the church. We must not, then, in the supposed defense of a ‘biblical’ ethic, try to close down moral discussion prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic ‘conservative’ temptation to erect a moment in scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word ‘authority’ means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief.” What Protestant could disagree with that? Well, actually quite a few would, and perhaps with some just cause.
Must we never “close down moral discussion prescriptively”? I mean, it depends what you mean by “close down”...to gag people and refuse to talk anymore is certainly a bad idea, but I hope O’Donovan doesn’t mean that we can’t start prescribing and enforcing Biblical moral norms until everyone concerned agrees on them. If the adulterer called before the elders wants to keep contending that his adultery is fine, I think that we want to say that the elders are justified in closing down the discussion prescriptively at some point, even to the point of excommunication. I certainly don’t think that O’Donovan means to deny this--if morality is to be enforceable at all, then discussions must be closed down (at least in an important sense) at some point, rather than continuing indefinitely. No doubt, O’Donovan simply means to make a general point about the attitude we should have in such discussions. But in the homosexuality controversy, this point is an important one--is there a point at which the discussion should be closed down and the traditionally understood Biblical teaching should be enforced, or should the discussion continue until everyone comes to an amicable understanding?
With this caveat in mind, however, I will move on to O’Donovan’s response to the concern that he knows he is raising in conservatives, a passage that is worth quoting in full:
Why should we find this so difficult to accept? We are anxious for the church. We are anxious for ourselves. We are anxious about the consequences of admitting any indeterminacy in our understanding of the text, which might give a hostage to fortune. Once we acknowledge hermeneutic distance, we fear, ‘anything goes.’ A host of false prophets will take advantage of our respectful distance. They will rush forward to wrest Scripture from its plain sense, pervert it into authorizing what cannot be authorized. And, of course, this fear is, in the short run, likely to prove well grounded. The public discourse of theology is, indeed, one where anything has the habit of going. False prophets are, and always will be, quick to rush forward. So we must simply expect to hear abominations and absurdities put forward with implausible but brazen claims to be consistent with, or authorized by, Scripture. To this annoyance we are called, as Christ warned and as generations of the faithful have since proved. The question is, what sacrifice of faith we would make if, to avoid this annoyance for ourselves and to spare the church its turmoils, we were to close down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, if we were to declare that there was nothing to discuss any more. To our fears, all too well grounded in the short term, we must reply with the question: is the Spirit of the living God an adequate match for human perversity? Is Jesus’s promise about the gates of hell meant seriously enough to be relied on? Are we prepared to encounter false interpretations with the weapons of true interpretation, the weapons that are ‘not worldly, but have divine power to destroy strongholds . . . [taking] every thought captive to obey Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:4-5)? Precisely those weapons--hand-to-hand, thought-to-thought, unpicking the web of error strand by strand--cannot be used without discourse, without argument and debate, without proper distance on, and attention to, the text in itself, without the waiting and searching that every true work of interpretation demands. (81)
So hermeneutic distance does not call us to relativism, but to patience and faith. The truth may be clear, but we must be willing to wait on God to make it clear, rather than forcing its clearness on others all at once.
Yes, we want to say, but isn’t there such a thing as excommunication, as church discipline, of bishops and such who are authorized to force its clearness on others all at once? O’Donovan turns immediately to consider this point. Yes, in principle there are, there is a ministry of the word “which has the duty of ruling false interpretations out and ruling true interpretations in.” (81) The problem is that in a controversial situation, order imposed from above, rather than order that arises out of patient consensus, is likely to simply create greater disorder: “if the mind of the church is in fact unsettled and uncertain, declaring that a pronouncement is definitive will not settle it, but will only heighten the tension.” (82)
What can they do, then? O’Donovan answers that the bishops can “secure the tradition of interpreting God’s word as a critical point of reference, and so defend the identity of the community as grounded in faithfulness to the word of God. In this way they may restrain the tendency to anarchy and strife that naturally attends on excitement and uncertainty; they may give structure and order to the processes of faithful inquiry, by keeping before the church’s eyes a clear sense of what comes first and what comes after, what is legitimately in doubt and what cannot be in doubt. And in this context--not to suppress dissent or preclude discussion, but to give the discussion the direction it needs in the service of the gospel--they may perhaps declare that some aspect of a question that was once open is now closed, or that some other aspect of a question cannot be opened until more fundamental questions have been dealt with. In these conditions, their gift of the Spirit will be shown, by facilitating real convergence, to have served the search for unity in God’s will.” (83-84) In other words, they can gently guide the turbulent streams of the church, but they cannot attempt to forcibly dam it, or it will burst. O’Donovan notes that this is precisely what the bishops at Lambeth in 1998 did, and that they did declare that certain aspects of the question were closed off, clearly pronouncing against same-sex marriages and ordination of homosexuals. (Of course, we might cynically note that this careful guidance seemed to have little effect, and so why should we imitate it in the future?)
O’Donovan speaks here in a very Anglican way. Presbyterians, despite their conciliar form of government, would scratch their heads at the idea of all this “directing the discussion” rather than authoritative pronouncement. As an Anglican, a scholar, and a modern Englishman, O’Donovan eschews strife--like Neville Chamberlain (to pick the least flattering possible example), he would much rather face the dangers of a diplomatic discussion drawn out far too long, than the dangers of a premature drawing of swords. And in general, this is a rather Christian attitude. But we might ask whether or not there is, in the Bible, a sense at times that chaos must come before order, death before resurrection, amputation before healing. Certainly, the Bible often speaks this way, and God often acts this way--nasty judgment and ugly strife have to come upon the people of God before they can be restored and purified. Does O’Donovan allow a place for this sort of thing, or does he want to preserve peace at all costs? It is a fair objection. However, I think what he would say in response is what he said back in chapter 2: “God may in his judgment scatter a church...[but we must] wait for God to purify his own church in his own time. Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come!” Sure, there may need to be death before resurrection--but God’s the one who must do the killing and raising, not us. (I think my earlier post on the difficulties of mass excommunication is highly relevant here as well.)
This is a call to patience which evangelicals may have great difficulty heeding, and there are certainly many legitimate “on the other hand”s here, but I think on the whole O’Donovan is right. “Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord, and so is the purification of the Church.