He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Protestant Intuition: Scripture & Reason

In this follow-up to a previous post on some basic intuitions of Protestant thought, I will be examining some additional intuitions with which I was brought up and have now rejected.

There are many questions related to Scripture which Protestants are very good at addressing.  I know that because I grew up in a Bible-believing family.  I know because I read the entire Bible from cover to cover in 3rd grade and again as a teenager.  I know because I attended many Bible studies and Sunday school Bible challenges both as a child and as an adult.

There is, however, a question related to Scripture that Protestants tend not to be very good at addressing:  How did we get it?

The answer to that question is lengthy and involved.  We get what we call the Old Testament from the Tanakh, a collection of different kinds of books that were eventually written down after being passed down (sometimes for centuries) as oral tradition among the Jews.  This is what Jesus and his disciples would have recognized as Scripture.  This is what Paul of epistolary fame was trained by Rabbinic scholars to understand thoroughly.

The New Testament currently accepted by most Protestant and other post-Reformation Christian communities came about very gradually.  There were written mentions of collections of scriptures within the first few hundred years after the death of Christ.  Ancient Christian traditions often have slightly different canons, meaning that there are slightly different books included in their Bible.  General consensus did not come about until the 4th and 5th centuries regarding the books to be included in the New Testament.  The canon in Western Christianity remained largely settled until Martin Luther and the eve of the Reformation.

After the Reformation, the Council of Trent finally set out very explicitly what was included in the canon of Scripture as a reaction to the disputes about Scripture at the time, disputes which had assumed critical importance as Sola Scriptura became the popular teaching of the Reformers.

Sola Scriptura was the default assumption of most of my family I got to visit regularly as a child.  This was an assumption that was never questioned or discussed.  Everyone just had the intuition that Scripture was authoritative and that we would look to it alone for answers to questions about living the Christian life.

Having studied enough history to know that the Christian life was well established before Sacred Scripture was written (much less compiled), I have since rejected that intuition.  After all, without the personal encounter with the Risen Lord transmitted to us via the oral tradition of the Apostles and their successors, we would not have Sacred Scripture.  The Church could and did survive without Scripture; it could not have survived without the living tradition that developed Scripture.

So when we interpret Scripture, what shall we use as a hermeneutic to ascertain its meaning?  The Protestant intuition (to which I used to hold unexamined) is that we can use the light of human reason given to us by God to find the truth in Scripture.

This seems odd in light of the historical reality that Scripture developed out of Christian tradition.  It would be more natural to look at the tradition that gave birth to Scripture as a means of understanding it.  If you want to understand the meaning of a text, then you consult its author(s) if at all possible.  You consult their descendants and the institutions dedicated to the author if directly contacting the author(s) is not possible.

Human reason is not enough by itself to ascertain the intent of the author and never has been.  We humans have known this for millennia, though it has at times been conveniently forgotten.  As a student of literature, I now find it baffling that any serious scholar would attempt to find the intended meaning of a text based solely on its grammar and some rough historical context.  I know from extensive practice that it is not reliable at all as a method and often produces highly inaccurate conclusions.

I can't help but reject a view that divorces the intent of the author(s) from the meaning of the text so that we can then supplant that intended meaning with whatever strikes us as sensible.  As this is the starting point of Martin Luther's Protestant project, I am only left with the choice to abandon it and search for an authentic and ancient hermeneutic that retains the intent of the author(s) as determinative of its meaning.

For more on Protestant Intuitions and why I have given them up, see part 4 of this series here.

Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.

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