When in Sydney last week I took the opportunity to head out for the first of this year’s Annual Moore College Lecture, to hear Kevin Vanhoozer address the theme, “Mere Protestant Christianity: How Singing Sola Renews Biblical Interpretation.” It was the first of six lectures and I would have liked to have heard the whole series which finished just this morning. At some point the whole series will be available online to download.
The lecture began with a question: “Should the church repent of or retrieve the Reformation?” Vanhoozer surveyed some recent opinions which suggest that the Reformation was responsible for the development of secularism (Brad Gregory), scepticism (Richard Popkin), and schism (Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart). I even learnt a new word during this section: fissiparous, which means—in a non-biological context—having a tendency to divide into groups or factions. Vanhoozer recognised the partial truthfulness of these charges though he also noted that (a) the Reformers never sought division or thought it desirable; and (b) that at least part of these unintended consequences of the Reformation were due to the revolution Luther instigated with respect to biblical interpretation, including allowing individual Christians to read and interpret Scripture. He cites McGrath at this point, suggesting that this is “Christianity’s dangerous idea.”
But, has the Reformation also set interpretive anarchy in play? What are we to make of the fact of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (Christian Smith)? If the Holy Spirit is guiding our interpretation—as so many claim—why are we not led to identical or at least similar interpretations of Scripture? Here Vanhoozer displayed the intent of his lectureship: what is needed is a viable criterion by which we can arrive at a warranted interpretation of Scripture. For Vanhoozer, an over-reliance on sola scriptura when mixed with an individualistic understanding of the priesthood of all believers has resulted in interpretive pluralism. Thus he wants to rethink biblical interpretation in light of the Reformation solas, a corporate understanding of the royal priesthood of all believers, and a commitment to the catholicity of the church.
Nor does all this entail a traditioned interpretation frozen in time. Theology is not simply repetition of positions held in the past, nor repristination whereby previous interpretations are simply dusted off and dressed afresh for presentation in a new environment. Retrieving the gospel requires translation, a style of biblical interpretation and theology which not only looks back with appreciation to explore, understand and retrieve the tradition of the church, but which also looks forward, bringing the word of the gospel in present contexts in light of future hope. Overall the lecture was a great entrée, and I look forward to hearing the whole series to see how Vanhoozer works out these themes in detail.
But then in the question time a funny thing happened. In forums such as these my natural caution (pride issuing in fear?) often keeps me from asking a question. In this lecture, however, because I am familiar with Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible which Kevin addressed explicitly, I asked for his comment on Smith’s assertion that the Bible is inherently “multivocal and polysemous,” that is, inherently capable of various meanings and interpretations because it speaks with multiple voices. At this point Kevin, it seemed to me, back-pedalled. He did not answer my question but instead launched into a brief defence insisting that he did not think that Smith was claiming the Bible had “errors,” for if he had done so, that would be “easy to refute.” Rather, he was taking Smith’s critique to heart to make his own task more difficult. Perhaps Kevin misunderstood my intent, and conscious of his environment (Moore College), felt he needed to utter a defence of inerrancy. I had opportunity the next evening to chat with someone else who was there and who had wondered about Kevin’s response to the question, not understanding why he said what he did.
Nevertheless, the very fact that Vanhoozer seeks a “viable criterion” and is developing a sophisticated hermeneutic for the people of God suggests that the meaning of the Bible is simply not as plain as we often like to believe. It is precisely this kind of simplistic belief, so prevalent in some sectors of the church, that needs urgent redress, and I wholeheartedly support Kevin’s efforts in this direction. Biblical interpretation is an ecclesial rather than merely an individual practice, deeply respectful of Scripture’s provenance and authority, informed by practices of interpretation in the history of the church, and oriented toward a clear re/presentation of the gospel for the church and wider world in its present context, and robust Christian formation in the same context.