Influence, Tradition and Interpretation

I caught some flack for a comment I posted recently on Revelife, to the effect that the Protestant church needs to understand itself as a protest movement within the church catholic to remain intelligible, and that the way sola scriptura is used is often borderline heresy.  (The flack was not public because the person did the biblical thing and approached me about it one-on-one.)

Of the first part of the comment all that needs to be said is that though I am not Catholic, neither do I consider myself a protestant.  The church movement I am a part of (the Church of God Reformation movement, with ministry headquarters in Anderson, IN), has not primarily understood itself in those terms, as it grew out of Wesleyan holiness concerns meshed with Anabaptist social postures.  Still, from where I stand it seems that both the Church of God movement and the Protestant reformation are in danger of losing perspective and seeing themselves as ends in themselves.  That is a problem.

My friend was fine with that, after some discussion, but my comments about sola scriptura still bothered him (since sola scriptura is more or less the battle-cry of Protestants, even today).  So let me explain.  We all have influences, people who have or who continue to influence the way we view the world, the way we think about things and the way we read scripture.  For me, some of my influences are scholars like N. T. Wright, Gregory Boyd and William Cavanaugh, some are professors I had at university, and some are people I’ve known like Mark Shaner, my first youth pastor and Travis Blankenship.

These influences fall in the Catholic category of Tradition.  Everyone who has read and attempted to understand scripture before us teaches us how to understand scripture (or, in many cases, how to avoid misunderstanding it).  The problem with the way Protestants often use sola scriptura is that it often comes to mean not that only scripture has authority, but that only my tradition’s reading of scripture has authority.

Stanley Hauerwas, drawing on ethicist Alisdair Macyntire’s account of moral practices, has written that the individual is wholly unsuited to the task of scriptural interpretation.  The idea of “just me and the KJV” is a myth.  In truth, we can only even begin the task of interpretation once we have been shown how by an individual or a community.  What is more, it is the character of the community that will largely determine how we interpret what we read.  “To put it as contentiously as possible,” Hauerwas writes at one point, “Only a pacifist church can read the Sermon on the Mount rightly.”

This begs the question, then, how does a church become dedicated to nonviolence if not through first reading and understanding Jesus’ teachings?  For Hauerwas, again, the answer is Tradition.  As we grow up in the church, there are saints and martyrs who influence us by embodying what faithful discipleship look like, and thereby giving us a key to interpreting scripture rightly.

If the account Hauerwas (and, for that matter, Stanley Fish) gives us about the nature of scriptural interpretation is anything like right, then sola scriptura is potentially a dangerous and self-deceptive standard around which to rally.

What do you think?

  • Who has influenced the way you think about the world?
  • Has anyone influenced the way you understand scripture?
  • Is this view of Tradition incompatible with your view of sola scriptura?
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