Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Attractive Nonsense

One of my favorite bloggers who happens to be a first-rate scholar--Mark Roberts--has written two articles on a change in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) standardized ordination exam on exegesis (here and here). The change is rather disturbing, especially since it came not from a General Assembly action but from the routine work of an obscure committee that was elected without a moment of consideration by the General Assembly.

Where once budding preachers would be compelled to find the "principal meaning" of a sermon text--demonstrating proficiency in the original language of the text--now, the test takers must give only a "faithful interpretation" of the text. So what does that mean?

It depends on the principal meaning of "faithful" in "faithful interpretation." So what makes an interpretation "faithful"? We have at least two options:
  1. Faithful can mean full of faith, as in an interpretation that is imbued with the faith of the interpreter. The interpreter ostensibly is a person of faith and uses that faith to whatever extent to come up with a personal interpretation of the passage. Thus, according to this understanding, that would make the resultant interpretation a faithful interpretation. By this meaning, unless the interpretation were done by a raving atheist with no faith, it would necessarily be a faithful interpretation because of the faith of the interpreter.
  2. Faithful could mean instead that the interpretation keeps faith with the original meaning of the passage, that it has fidelity to the original intent. It would be like a copy of a last will and testament being a faithful reproduction of the original. It can mean that the interpretation is authentic, true, as accurate as possible a rendition of the meaning intended by the writer.

So which is it? I would hope that it would be the latter.

I would hope that relativism hasn't so weakened Presbyterian understanding of "true truth" that we've given up hope of ever determining what is the clear, obvious meaning of a text that was written to transmit meaning that God inspired and expected to be effectively transmitted through the text. I would hope that the communication-crippling nonsense of deconstructionism hasn't completely undermined Presbyterian expectations of exegesis.

But I would probably be wrong.

It appears to me that "faithful" was probably intended to denote #1 above. That means that personal impressions, biases, hobbyhorses, weaknesses, blindness, power trips, and blunders would be allowed to triumph over the discipline of exegesis, so that a passage could have a "faithful interpretation" to mean whatever anyone professing any form of faith wants it to mean.

Thus preachers who don't discard or ignore the sermon text altogether could simply transform the text into their own idiosyncratic creation through their "faith." I would argue that we need less of such troublesome practice, not more.

Who could be opposed to something as attractive sounding as "faithful interpretation"? Anyone who knows what is actually being lost and what is sadly being perpetuated when whim is allowed to replace rigor.