“What sort of reader should I be?”: on interpretive virtues

What I am trying to generate with this question is some discussion about the role of virtue in the act of interpreting Scripture. Is there such a role? What would that role entail? What would it look like for the everyday reader of Holy Scripture?

The predominance of the historical-critical method for interpreting Scripture has made it difficult, or at least not self-evident, to speak about the place of interpretive virtue. For example, when reading Augustine’s On Christian Teaching with my students, they don’t quite know what to do with his interpretive model. Augustine first outlines the necessity of the reader’s fear of the Lord, holiness, and obedience to Scripture (even if we don’t fully understand it!) prior to the stage he describes as “knowledge” (II.11-26). Without the prior establishment of the reader’s disposition before God and their relationship to him through obedience, Augustine simply doesn’t consider him or her ready to pursue the knowledge of the Scriptures we would most readily associate with “finding its meaning.”

To give us someplace from which to begin, we might take the list of interpretive virtues provided by Richard Briggs in his recent book The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue (Baker, 2010). Briggs’ study is an extended exploration of what kind of reader one should be in order to be “best situated to receive, understand, and embody the life-transforming concerns of the Old Testament.” He lists the following five virtues, and I will give you an extended look at the later four: humility, wisdom, trust, love, and receptivity.

Wisdom – probably the strongest candidate for a virtue greatly to be sought after by the reader of Scripture [...]

Trust – the virtue of hermeneutical trust is just beginning to reemerge in recent theological reflection after a lengthy period where suspicion has been so easily the default mode of biblical interpretation [...]

Love – despite the all-too-common popular preconception that love represents the New Testament’s trump card after the harsh rigors of the Old Testament, it is clear that love is a key characteristic in the Old Testament vision of the moral life, once we have tuned in to the various ways in which the Old Testament itself wishes to set the agenda for what constitutes love.

Receptivity – it is important to consider explicitly the ways in which human virtue is understood in ‘responsive’ terms in the Old Testament, not as a self-sufficient moral category but as a way of life that is ‘summoned’ by the presence of the God of Israel (p. 43-44).

I was most intrigued by his treatment of receptivity mainly because it places in its proper place the importance of considering divine agency in the reading of Scripture. It is God who summons the interpreter, and this is something Augustine (and the Apostle Paul) knew well. Taking heed of this reality will cultivate the “receptivity” before the text essential for Christian reading of the Scriptures.

Thoughts?

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5 thoughts on ““What sort of reader should I be?”: on interpretive virtues

  1. I think the re-emergence of “a hermeneutic of trust” is an important move, not one very many of us were offered in the academy any time recently, but one which the laity have often preserved. Richard Hayes has written some helpful pieces on this.

    The “hermeneutic of suspicion” had/has its place as a way to ask questions of social location and bias. But it is often a bar to the “receptivity” that Briggs is talking about. I also think it often gets it wrong and finds grievances that are more in the imagination of the reader than in the text.

    I learned as a preacher to always read the lessons through several times and see what they have to say to me and what questions they raise before I crack a commentary to see what the “experts” say.

    I also don’t dismiss hard texts easily. I think one needs to respect the canon and go the extra mile even with the passages that beg to be tossed aside. Brevard Childs’ extensive project on a canonical approach was very helpful to me as a preacher for over thirty years.

    One last thought I got from P.T. Forsyth from 100 years ago, “the historical critical method is a good servant but a dangerous master.” If we had heeded this early warning we may have been able to hear texts as a word, even the Word, addressed to us rather than only seeing their pieces and parts.

    • Thank you for your remarks Richard, and I appreciate the quote by Forsyth. I had not heard this one before, but it strikes me as altogether right. Could you pass along the source?

  2. It’s not just Christianity that calls for this: was it Kant that also noted that to be educated, just for a student to listen to a teacher or a new philosophy, calls for at least a temporary “suspension of disbelief.”

    Here’s the concept: to be broadly and well educated, we need to listen to many different ideas; even those that first seem outrageous to us. And to do that in turn, we need to put our initial objections and possibly negative emotional reactions to an idea, aside for a moment. To then give the idea a chance to make its (in Kant’s case) rational argument. In the marketplace of ideas, we don’t just shout down an argument we don’t like, and turn the microphone off; we let even an unpopular opinion make its full case, first.

    So 1) “suspension of disbelief” – and for that matter, 2) a related “freedom of speech” are useful.

    But 3) should we next, follow Augustine one step further? and demand not just a suspension of disbelief, but require a prior, positive belief or reverence, even before listening?

    No doubt to be sure, elements of the Bible stressed “faith. But other sections of the Bible warned that there are many “false prophets,” bad “scriptures,” bad priests, even a “false Christ” out there. So that finally the Bible itself did not stress “blind” faith, in even priests or scripture, before reading them.

    No doubt to be sure, a good academic always is enough of a gentleman to temporarily suspend disbelief, to consider any and all ideas that present themselves in the marketplace of ideas. But even the Bible itself, properly read, does not quite advocate a prior, blind acceptance. I would argue.

    So I don’t quite entirely agree with Augustine if prior acceptance is what he asks for.

    When teaching a class full of young theological skeptics? Who want to argue everything, up front? Even argue against Christianity itself, in every single aspect? In that case, I would use that at the format of the course: let the class be a continuous debate, between skeptics and believers. On every single point in religion, if someone wants that.

    In academic theology or religious studies – much of it – nearly every single point in traditional religion, is continually debated. In scholarly writing. To be somewhat skeptical, to be a critical thinker, is the very basis of scholarly theology. It is not to be blindly faithful; but to have the “mind of Christ.”

    Which is a mind that knows there are many “false” things in prophets, in religion. Even among those who present themselves as Christian priests and prophets, crying “Lord, Lord.”

  3. Richard:

    I think it’s good that you took the trouble to note/qualify that your philosophy of religious education, worked for you “as a preacher.” Many of us might intuit that the theology /philosophy /religion hermeneutics that works for a practicing 1) minister, could be significantly different than what works for a 2) professor.

    A 1) minister or Sunday School teacher, is often occupied with bringing wayward children (and criminals), into a state of faithful, civilized obedence to, and respect for, traditional ideas of what is Good; what is God. Teaching the rebellious and willful persons, with uncontrolled passions, to quiet down; to learn respect for tradition, adults, authority, the social conventions and the status quo. The emphasis here with this kind of audience, might rightly be on faith and obedience and quietude; quieting down, and faithfully following the rules, the normal conventions of what absolute truth and “God” were like.

    But 2) a professor is usually meeting a different situation. A professor is meeting – even in freshmen – an often already-civilized group. EVen freshmen are (usually) already following the rules reasonably well; they usually got reasonably good grades in High School; they are usually at least in the top 30% of their peer group. And they got there, by being quiet, suspending disbelief for a second; to listen faithfully to the rules, conventional knowledge, and beliefs.

    This latter group probably needs fewer basic rules than some: they got where they are, because they already know the basic rules of civilization. Even if they are heathens. Because even the Gentile “knows by nature what the law requires”: respect your parents; don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t murder. And so, the lessons for this group – religious or otherwise – are not quite the same as for say, “children”. (A group often addressed in the Bible; but not the only one).

    But especially, finally 3) what about, next, those students who go on to graduate school, to become professors and researchers? In that case, total Faith in traditional ideas (of God or otherwise), is exactly the wrong thing. A professor is supposed to do original research.

    You can’t be a professor or researcher, if your only orientation is to simply, faithfully follow or repeat, widely-known rules laid down by others; that would make it impossible for you to make an original contribution, to do original research, or to add to knowledge, and to commonplaces.

    While the Bible commands us not to “despise knowledge,” and to “grow in wisdom,” as Jesus himself did. Which would suggest that we are supposed to progress beyond common, received opinions and even theologies. To walk through the narrow door; not the broad one.

    One theology, one hermeneutic, does not fit all. Even in teaching theology, it all depends who your audience is.

  4. Kent,

    After reflecting on various virtues and /or qualifactions for interpreting the theological content of Scripture, I would
    go with the virtue of an “irenic spirit.” I think a both/and approach gets closer to the teachings of the Bible than an either /or polemic stance.

    Perhaps, I gather this from 1 Peter 3:15-16. He seems to be reminding his readers that one’s hope should be reasonable, rational, and relevant. I discuss this virtue to studying theology and the Scriptures in Theological Perspectives.

    There are many virtues that are necessary for study of Scripture– humility, respect, intellegence, relationship, trust, etc.

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