I’ve used the phrase “history of interpretation” in church a few times recently. Briefly, it means that the ways that we interpret things, such as texts and traditions, are influenced by the ways that they have been interpreted before. In turn, each of those previous interpretations were influenced by what came before them. This is not just a nerdy, academic buzz phrase; there are lessons to be learned.
Lesson #1: Things have not always been as they are now. I remember when the movie for The Shack came out (haven’t seen it, haven’t read it, probably never will) and Michael Youssef penned a warning of “Thirteen Heresies in THE SHACK.” Aside from the fact that all of his “heresies” were questionable – one being literally the doctrine of the Trinity – it struck me as odd that a Protestant, non-denominational minister was concerned about heresy. As Protestants, our very existence is heresy, particularly these later strains of non-denominational, evangelical Christianity. I say this as a proud heretic. As a Baptist, I don’t take direction on doctrine or polity from a larger church body. Yet, evangelical Christians today act as though what has only come into being in the last hundred some odd years is not only the way it has always been, but the only way it could ever be, that this understanding of the faith is the very definition of the faith. But it’s not.
Lesson #2: Good ideas do not always win. In this long chain of understanding, some ideas came to dominate. They did not necessarily do this through any intellectual virtue. More often, ideas prospered because of the institutions empowered in a particular time and place. And often those institutions were more concerned with sustaining themselves than any grand theological aspiration. Relatively early in the history of Christianity, in the mid-second century, there was a group called the New Prophecy who understood the Holy Spirit to be the final authority. Its ministers spoke ecstatically in the Spirit. The proto-Church leaders were (perhaps rightfully) concerned about some of their ideas, but their main concern was that these prophecies might be understood to overrule the emerging Christian Testament – and the emerging Christian leadership. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the New Prophecy ordained women as bishops and deacons, thus it was sometimes women making these ecstatic proclamations, whereas the proto-Church was led by men. Today, Pentecostals hold similar beliefs about utterances of the Spirit. Even the very unecstatic United Church of Christ has used the slogan “God is still speaking” in recent years. The proto-Church chose authority – male authority – over growth in the Spirit and openness to a changing world. And today we have a church that is largely masculine, abusive, and corrupt. The Good News is that there is and always has been a Spirit-filled counter-narrative, ready to be told again.
Lesson #3: We’ve got options. The Christian Scriptures themselves are a testament to a variety of points of view. Christianity was born in Jesus’ death on the cross. His followers were traumatized and his movement was in crisis. As one does in these circumstances, people started to try to make meaning of it. They didn’t all agree, not exactly. And yet, they might all be right. The event of the cross is overloaded with meaning, so the stories we tell ourselves about it have more to do with who we are than the event itself. It might provide comfort or conviction, guilt or glory, depending on what we need it to provide. And to tell the story we need to tell, we might need to dredge up an old, long forgotten story. Or maybe we make up an entirely new story and see how it works. Jesus himself, as presented in the Gospels, was an interpreter of his tradition, leveraging what people knew about the God of Israel and the prophets that spoke on God’s behalf and the hopes invested in a Messiah to come, to expand the faith, to reach out to all the marginalized peoples of the world. If we are to follow Jesus, the Christ, we should do the same.
Lesson #4: Hold on loosely. Whatever story we tell, whatever meaning we make of our texts and traditions, it won’t be the last. It probably won’t even be the last that we tell ourselves, much less the last to ever be told. We’ll learn things. The world will change. We’ll need a new story. If we shut ourselves off to those possibilities, we’ll miss God’s call.
When I was growing up, the thing we were taught to fear the most was “cultural relativism,” and I can see 15-year-old me terrified about where this leaves us. It is argued that openness to some possibilities requires us to accept all possibilities uncritically. But I always go back to three rules for evaluating ideas in a pluralistic world. This was given to me in my orientation before beginning seminary and it has really stuck.
- Where did it come from? What are it’s sources? On what authority does it rest?
- What is it? What does it actually say? Is it logical? Is it internally coherent? Does it cohere with our experience?
- Where does it take us? What future does it imagine? In holding this view, who do we become? If everyone held this view, what does our world become?
I hope these will serve us well as we continue to tell the story of our faith in the hope of becoming God’s dream of peace and justice.