Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hermeneutics through sola scriptura

Last week, I was caught up in a discussion on the topic of authority in doctrinal discernment: What are the criteria that define the orthodoxy of a doctrine?

Most Christians, if not all, hold that the scriptures is the final authority. This far is clear. What's challenging is how do we deal with the multiple interpretations on so many issues with every one claiming to be faithful to the scriptures and guided by the Holy Spirit?

One of the participants in the discussion strongly suggests that the best way is to interpret the scriptures through the Church Fathers. To him, the Church Fathers are more reliable than us in the present time. So if the Fathers thought that the bread and wine are transformed into physically real flesh and blood of Christ during the eucharist, then that is really what happens every time the Lord's Supper is celebrated.

I have to disagree on this point. The Church Fathers are valuable to us like every other great theologians, but this does not by default means other Christians' interpretation of the scriptures is less reliable. 

Here is the reason why the Reformation's cry for sola scriptura (by scriptures alone) makes so much sense: Every humans can read the scriptures and understand it for one's own conduct and growth as Christ's disciple. If this assumption is questionable, then even the Church Fathers' interpretation cannot be reliable (unless one thinks that they are supra-human or somehow arbitrarily are reckoned to be more illuminated than other readers). 

The Church Fathers' ability to interpret scriptures has to be engaged with in the same way as how we engage other authors.  This is not to say that the Church Fathers have no special authority in interpretation. Rather, their authority is as valid as any other great theologians of the church in the past and present, as long as they are in accord with the scriptures.

Ultimately, only the apostles and prophets in the New Testament era have special authority. This is due to their close proximity to Jesus. Their historical and physical closeness to him is something which the Church Fathers and the Reformers don’t share. These first century's Christian leaders served very different function from the Church Fathers solely on the basis of their historical proximity with Christ. We can read the New Testament and draw our doctrinal truths about God and the world without referring to the Church Fathers. Whether what one draws out is true or not is another matter. The point is that the sola scriptura assumption serves as more coherent basis than the appeal to Church Fathers, or the Magisterium for that matter. In other words, sola scriptura provides a more reasonable epistemological basis (or in Herman Bavinck's phrase "epistemic source") for hermeneutics.
 
The assumption that the best way to interpret the scriptures is through the Church Fathers begs the question on what if they got it wrong? If they got something wrong, and if we insist on following them even if they are wrong, then wouldn't that betrays Christians' emphasis on truth?

Case in point is the Church Fathers' theologically-constructed discrimination against the Jews. Their religious stigmatization of the Jews had so pervaded the imperial power and fueled the populace's prejudice that laws which placed the Jews as second-class citizens were legislated. For instance,
"...the Church influenced the imperial government to exclude Jews from military rank and its accompanying privileges. Throughout the Roman Empire, with the possible exception of Italy, many Jews had served in the Roman Army. So many Jewish soldiers served the Romans that, by the end of the fourth century, the Church had become alarmed. In 418 the Church succeeded in having a law passed that excluded Jews from the army, although they still could serve in the defense of their towns. For a Jew to serve in the military, the law required that he have himself baptized as a Catholic."
(Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 36.)
Here are some references from primary and secondary sources:
"And we say with confidence that they will never be restored to their former condition. For they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind, in conspiring against the Saviour of the human race in that city where they offered up to God a worship containing the symbols of mighty mysteries."
(Origen, Against Celsus, 4:22)

"Tertullian gloated and exulted when he imagined how Christ would punish the Jews for having “thrown God, i.e., Christ, out.” Israel was not merely extra ecclesiam (outside the Church); it was “extra Deum” (outside of God)."
(Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 28, quoting research from David P. Efroymson, Tertullian's Anti-Judaism and its Role in his Theology, (Temple University Ph.D. thesis, 1975), 125.)

"Although those Jews had been called to the adoption of sons, they fell to kinship with dogs; we who were dogs received the strength, through God's grace, to put aside the irrational nature which was ours and to rise to the honor of sons....But see how thereafter the order was changed about: they became dogs, and we became the children....Where a harlot has set herself up, that place is a brothel. But the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts....Certainly it is the time for me to show that demons dwell in the synagogue, not only in the place itself but also in the souls of the Jews."
(John Chrysostom, Against the Jews, 1)

"Now then, let me strip down for the fight against the Jews themselves, so that the victory may be more glorious—so that you will learn that they are abominable and lawless and murderous and enemies of God."
(John Chrysostom, Against the Jews; 2)

"[Jews are] Murderers of the Lord, killers of the prophets, enemies and slanderers of God; violators of the law, adversaries of grace, aliens to the faith of their fathers, advocates of the devil, progeny of poison snakes, . . . whose minds are held in darkness, filled with the anger of the Pharisees, a sanhedrin of satans. Criminals, degenerates, . . . enemies of all that is decent and beautiful. They are guilty of shouting: Away with him, away with him. Crucify him. He who was God in the flesh!"
(Gregory of Nyssa, In Christi Resurrectionem, in Patrologiae, Cursus Completus, Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, [Paris 1863], 46:685–86, quoted in Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 26.)

"Wasn’t it the Jewish people in the synagogue who are possessed by the unclean spirit of demons—as if bound fast by the coils of a serpent and caught in the snare of the devil—and who polluted its pretended bodily purity with the inner filth of its soul?"
(Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke, quoted in Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 23.)

Jerome sermonized that “Judas is cursed, that in Judas the Jews may be accursed. [Just as] you see the Jew praying; . . . nevertheless, their prayer turns into sin. . . . Whom do you suppose are the sons of Judas? The Jews. . . . Iscariot means money and price. . . . Synagogue was divorced by the Savior and became the wife of Judas, the betrayer."
(Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome [Washington, D.C., 1964], 1:255, 258–62, quoted in Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 24.)

"On you, on you, false Jews and princes of a sacrilegious people, weighs the burden of this crime [of deicide. It] makes you the more deserving of the hatred of the whole human race."
(Pope Leo I, Sermon LIX: On the Passion VIII:3, quoted in Robert Michael, A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008], 76.)

In pope Gregory the Great’s writings, both public and private, described Judaism as “superstition,” “vomit,” “perdition,” and “treachery,” and the Jews as “enemies of Christ.”
(Shlomo Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews, Documents:492-1404 [Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1988], 5,12–13,24–26.)

"In his reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Augustine continues his analogy between Cain and the Jews, arguing that the Jews were materialistic and evil deicides who will be punished forever, until they see the light and convert to Christianity. “Not by bodily death,” Augustine wrote, "shall the ungodly race of carnal Jews perish. . . . To the end of the seven days of time, the continued preservation of the Jews will be a proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who, in the pride of their kingdom, put the Lord to death. . . . “And the Lord God set a mark upon Cain, lest any one finding him should slay him.” . . . Only when a Jew comes over to Christ, he is no longer Cain." By identifying the Jews with Cain, Augustine turned the Jewish historical and moral mission on its head. The Jews were no longer the divinely chosen witnesses to God’s moral message, they instead were now a sinful “Witness People” who would prove to the pagans the melancholy fate that awaited those who opposed Christ—a concept that legitimized and sanctified the suffering enslavement of Jews to Christians."
(Robert Michael, Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006], 30.)
John Chrysostom stood out among the Church Fathers in condemning the Jews. Robert L. Wilken, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at University of Virginia, commented that John was applying a rhetorical method known as 'psogos' that demonizes the object: "In psogos, the rhetor used omission to hide the subject's good traits or amplification to exaggerate his worsts features, and the cardinal rule was never to say anything positive about the subject." (Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century [USA: University of California Press, 1983], 112.) 

That was how far a Church Father would go to caricature the Jews. Such theologically motivated discriminatory rhetoric eventually evolved into modern form of western antisemitism which contributed to the holocaust. Those who think that the best way to interpret the scriptures is through the Church Fathers will have to see the Jews likewise. 

To those who adhere to sola scriptura, we are obliged to interpret the scriptures according to the best historical understanding of the biblical context. Therefore we can disagree with the Church Fathers. Sola scriptura enables us to examine how the 'Jews' were understood by the apostles and prophets who were Jews themselves

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