Friday, December 7, 2012

The Church as Hermeneutic

Because the matter of ecclesiology -- that is the question of "What/Who is the Church?" -- was the primary catalyst for my conversion to Orthodoxy, and because my chief witness as an Orthodox Christian is likely to be to groups of friends and family who are evangelical Protestants (or lapsed ones), I've been reflecting on the issue some more. Having found what I view to be the answer to the question, the issue of how to share that answer becomes a matter that requires cultivating a loving, charitable disposition through much thought and prayer. This issue becomes especially acute in the midst of the Holiday season.

It also requires a strengthening of my own understanding. This being the case, I recently read the book The Non-Orthodox and the essay The Church is Visible and One, both by Patrick Barnes. Both cite, and extensively quote, various Orthodox sources -- Patristic and contemporary -- as well as some Protestant voices, such as T.F. Torrance. I also recently re-watched the stellar lecture by David Bentley Hart on The Intersection of Scripture and Theology (below), which on one level functions as a crypto-Orthodox apologia for the Patristic view of Scripture. A topic which inevitably ties back into ecclesiology.

One key takeaway from Hart's lecture is that, contra modern sensibilities, historical-critical methods of reading Scripture -- as valuable as they often are -- in no sense supersede or make invalid the ways the Church has traditionally read and understood Scripture. He specifically is talking about how the early Fathers read much of the Old Testament allegorically (which isn't always to say non-literally, as Hart explains). This is a narrower point that opens into the broader idea that because Scripture can be read and interpreted many ways, and often in contradictory and irreconcilable ways, an authority is needed. A Church who is united in matters of Truth needs a mechanism for settling disputes in how Scripture is understood and taught, as well as in many other matters. The mechanism the Apostles established in Acts 15, and passed down to their followers, was the conciliar model of Church authority. The convening of Church councils, within which the Holy Spirit is judging and guiding authoritatively (Acts 15:28).

While it is a popular (and true, so far as it goes) postmodern paradigm that no text has an inherent, self-disclosing meaning, and that every act of reading is already an act of interpretation, this truth -- along with either an explicit or effective belief in sola scriptura -- is too often used to lend purchase to a broad relativism. A hermeneutic buffet from which we all necessarily must partake. From which we must make interpretive choices which are not inherently superior to another hermeneutical lens, provided both are equally internally consistent. In response to a naive belief in a text that is fully self-disclosing of meaning, we have a reactionary belief in a divided -- not merely 'diverse and not divided', as I incorrectly speculated on in the past -- Church, which can and must permit mutually exclusive and contradictory understandings of Scripture, because there is no governing authority to which to turn. The situation yields as many interpretations as there are interpreters. A distant cry from the New Testament promise that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church "into all truth" (John 16:13) [emphasis mine].

And, where there is broad agreement among evangelicals on their (small number) of central non-negotiables, such as a proper Christology and Trinitarianism, this consensus was very much forged in the fires of the early Church's creedal formulas and the subsequent cleaving to them by the historical Church. That is, it's a product not of strict scriptural exegesis alone (though of course the orthodox position is eminently and uniquely scriptural), but of the conciliar authority of the Church.

Given all this, the Church's self-understanding as professed in the Creed isn't much in question. As Protestant scholar T.F. Torrance says:
[F]or Nicene ecclesiology the focus of attention was on the incorporation of believers into the Body of Christ on the ground of reconciliation with God which He had accomplished in and through His bodily death and resurrection. That is to say, it was precisely the visible, empirical Church in space and time that was held to be the Body of Christ.
The 12th article of the Creed ("I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church") was referring to this one, visible, concrete, historical entity.

So while my understanding continues to develop and cohere, and as I endeavor to make my life a living testament to the riches and truths uniquely found in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, the living Body of Christ, the question of how to effectively witness is a sensitive one. Certainly the guiding principle must always to be to speak the truth in love, and to humbly recognize that the Grace bestowed to the Church is meant for all men equally. Something that is much easier to say, and to understand intellectually, than to actually live out. Pride is the quintessential sin, after all.

I suspect my spiritual Father would advise me that the period of one's catechesis isn't chiefly a time to focus on witnessing in any direct way, since I am still very much a humble beginner whose focus should be on my own drawing nearer to God and spiritual development. A process that acts as its own witness and testimony. Something I very much would take to heart, if he were to advise me thus. Though sharing my experience and fielding questions on these issues, especially with the holidays approaching, is unavoidable, as I'm sure Father Josiah would acknowledge. May the author of all truth, our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, grant us wisdom and the contrite heart of a servant with which to share it.

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