On the basis of Bishop Landahl’s introduction of Dr. Ralph Klein at the 2007 Metropolitan Chicago Synod Assembly, I thought that Dr. Klein would address options for interpreting the Bible. In other words, he would give us a lesson in hermeneutics. The bishop introduced the professor by reminding the assembly that the ELCA is engaged in a study of the authority and interpretation of Scripture. We are engaged in this study because of differences in how we in the ELCA approach the Bible. I thought Professor Klein might lay out the hermeneutical options before us, but I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t. After all, he ably represents one of those options — historical criticism. If I can trust my memory (since I don’t have the lecture before me), the only other option to which he made reference was the literal interpretation of the Bible as an inerrant script, which most of us in the ELCA have moved beyond. These terms can be slippery. Surely some words in the Bible are meant to be interpreted literally rather than metaphorically. Sometimes a rose is actually a rose.
Most of us pastors (sorry, I can’t bring myself to say “rostered leaders”) were trained in historical-critical methodology in seminary. I continued to study historical methodology in graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. This method aims to get at the historical setting and cultural context of documents and texts. The positive contribution of this method, as far as biblical study is concerned, is that it has given us a deeper appreciation of the world of the Bible. The negative contribution of this method is that historical and social science has been used as a pretext for disqualifying or disabling certain texts. For example, we avoid reading Ephe-sians 5 in marriage services because of its subjection of wives to their husbands (without noting the complementary demands on husbands), and we disable Romans 1 for use in contemporary ethics on the grounds that it is rooted in the apostle’s reaction to the Roman-Hellenistic world of his time.
In reality, it is not the method that disqualifies or disables texts but contemporary ideological biases. Dr. Klein’s ideological biases were displayed in his studious avoidance of the masculine pronoun when referring to God, although the same prohibition did not apply to the use of the feminine pronoun. My ideological biases might show in my continued use of the masculine pronoun with reference to God, although my bias is in favor of regarding gender as a grammatical construct rather than a biological one.
Historical criticism can be easily used to disqualify or disable texts precisely because it leaves texts back in history. As Pope Benedict XVI ably pointed out in the Foreword to his Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007), history is an essential dimension of Christian faith, and therefore must expose itself to historical method. The God of the Bible has entered into the history of his people, especially in the incarnation of his Son. But the downside of historical method is that it has to leave the texts in the past. It would be overstepping the bounds of historical method to say how these ancient texts apply to today’s situation. That’s why historical criticism has limited usefulness for the task of preaching. A theological reading of the Bible is needed in preaching, and that requires discerning the basic unity of the Scriptures as one continuous, if convoluted, story whose principal figure is the God of Israel (a.k.a. the Father of Jesus the Christ). The pope sees “canonical exegesis” — “reading the individual texts of the Bible in the context of the whole” — as the method for providing this theological, indeed Christological, interpretation of the Bible.
This “canonical exegesis” is in large part the product of an American retrieval, beginning with Brevard S. Child’s magisterial Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Fortress, 1993). Childs recognizes that one cannot and should not turn back the clock on the historical-critical developments of the 19th and 20th centuries. He does not want to open the door to a naive fundamentalism or a dogmatic misuse of texts such as we see in the age of orthodoxy. But historical criticism helps us to see how the canon of Scripture came together, and it was at the canonical level that the church fathers did their extraordinary exegesis. Origen and the other church fathers and Martin Luther and the other reformers are also united in their view that the Scriptures convey Christ; that’s what makes them authoritative for the church.
But the proclamation of Christ did not lead them to a “canon within the canon” (Käsemann) in the sense that some books or passages are not to be given the same weight as other books. Luther may have said that James is an “epistle of straw” in comparison with Romans, but he did not thereby de-canonize James. He still regarded it as an authoritative text, and maybe even a needed corrective of Paul for his more antinomian followers. No canonical text is to be disqualified or disabled for contemporary practical application; rather, as in Luther’s practice, the more difficult passages are to be interpreted in light of clear passages. The total biblical witness is to be taken into account in the interpretation of any particular text. Luther found the gospel of justification by faith in the Old Testament as well as in the New
Testament. In fact, the typological interpretation of Scripture, on which the Christological interpretation is
based, makes the Old Testament primary. Thus, the death and resurrection of Christ are a type of the exodus experience of God’s people.
Let us not be coy. The reason why the ELCA is engaged in a study of the authority and interpretation of the Bible is because of fundamental disagreements on homosexuality before this Church. Of course, a study of the authority and interpretation of Scripture is a good thing in and of itself, but there is a context in which this study was inaugurated. And the “canonical exegesis” gives us a different approach to the authority and interpretation of Scripture than is offered by appeal to an inerrant script or historical criticism. In the canonical hermeneutic the seven or so passages in the Bible that deal with homosexuality are read in a continuum that provides a coherent biblical view of homosexual behavior. One may see in this continuum a consistent
view that the elect people of God are not to be like the pagans around them in their sexual relationships and practices (Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Such a conclusion takes seriously both historical study (the cultural context) and canonical interpretation (the consistent view).
Moreover, when it comes to the issue of blessing same-sex unions, texts that have to do with marriage as such cannot be disqualified from consideration. Jesus cites the so-called “institution of marriage” text in Genesis 2 in Mark 10 and Matthew 19, and affirms that God created us male and female, and the two become one flesh (due to biological com-plementarity). Moreover, what God has joined together human beings must not break apart. The indissoluble union of marriage has something to say about the reason for the creation of human beings as sexual creatures. The fact that Jesus said that this God-created union of man and woman is not to be broken is an authoritative statement that disqualifies from consideration the notions that we are free to set aside biblical strictures as outmoded because we know better or that whatever we find within our deepest selves must be God-given. The divine institution of marriage and the traditional teaching of the Church that sexual relations are to be expressed within marriage ought to be considered by the ELCA task force working on the sexuality statement.
In the meantime, a study of the authority and interpretation of the Bible is needed in this Church — maybe even before the sexuality study is completed. Anything that the task force says about human sexuality in the Bible will imply a hermeneutic, and anything the task force says about human sexuality beyond the Bible will raise the question of the Bible’s authority in the life of this Church as “source and norm.” Even these words in the ELCA Constitution are controversial since the Formula of Concord calls Scripture the “sole rule and norm” by which to evaluate and judge teachings and teachers; Calvinists called
Scripture the “source” of faith and practice. We have a lot of basic theological work to do in the next few years to sort things out. It may even take the next generation to do this.