Sunday, 29 March 2009

Response to Phillip Tolliday

I quite like the history of ideas. Ideas that we take for granted were not always so obvious. Quantification is an example. We think it obvious that phenomena can be considered in a consistent and even manner. But it was not always so. Almost a thousand years ago the hours of the day in Western Europe were not standardized across the year. In winter, when there was less light, an hour was shorter than it was in summer when there was more light! (We keep the length of an hour standard, but have less daylight hours in winter because we recognise standardised quantification.) Another example is the medieval picture of a city with no 'space' in the city, just all the buildings crowded together. Part of the reason for this is because former ages did not have a concept of nothing and absence quite like we do. Unused space did not need to be represented. Similar to the use of zero in the late middle ages and Renaissance; it took a long time to catch on because representing nothing seemed odd. Time is another example of a shift in understanding toward equal quantification. But to us now it seems odd not to recognize nothing. The difference in ideas from one age to another is part of the hermeneutical that must be negotiated by any interpreter of the past. Phillip has done us a favour by focusing our attention on a number of different ways theologians and interpreters have attempted to bridge the gap between Scripture and themselves.

Phillip's assertion, corroborated in the post, is that Scripture is sufficiently plain for the theological task (and therefore Christian living). Importantly, however, the plain sense does not mean we should expect a single interpretation of the text. On the contrary, a variety of interpretations, by both a single interpreter or across the history of Scriptural interpretation, is to be expected and desired. Each plain sense reading must be a constant negotiation between text and some kind of 'rule'. Whether the rule be the doctrine of God (Calvin) or a community's interpretive conventions (see Phillip on Kathryn Tanner), or an eschatological perspective (Rowan Williams) that, in some way, discourages nailing down the meaning of a text for all time, the meaning of a particular text will become plainer. The relationship between Scripture and 'rule' needs further elucidation, of course. But the point remains: in the history of interpretation, faithful reading of Scripture has resulted in a variety of plain meanings. Phillip is not suggesting that a former age's plain meaning can no longer function in this way now. Multiple plain meanings synchronically and diachronically is not a clever way of disarming the integrity of Scripture and descending into individualised and subjective personal readings of the text.

If we follow the detail of Phillip's examination, and follow the trajectory, where does this lead us in the current debate in the Anglican Communion? For one thing, it should help us see that the multiplication of interpretations does not mean necessarily that some people are not taking Scripture as authoritative. It could mean exactly the opposite. Second, to naively claim that some interpretations are obvious, and that contrary interpretations are therefore wrong, needs a lot more justification. Granted, a particular interpretation might be plain, but somight the other. Part of the work needed is an honest confession of what 'rule' we use to negotiate the text. is the rule derived from the overall plot of the Scripotures (as Phillip mentions)? My penchant for a doctrinal approach makes me wonder if some of the diametrically opposed views on the issue of who has sex with whom might be due to majoring on something less than major.

A good precise piece of work Phillip.

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