Textual Stability?

As I review Nancey Murphy’s Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics, I came across this claim:

“If the texts’ ability to perform a definite speech act depends on the existence of a community with shared conventions and proper dispositions, then textual stability is in large measure a function not of theories of interpretation but of how interpretive communities choose to live.”

We United Methodists have the “same” Bible now as we did in the days of Wesley. Sure, we tend to work from more modern translations, but the basic text is the same. Our interpretation of scripture and our use of scripture have changed substantially, however. In many parts of the connection those who argue for the primacy of scripture have won; even those who support revision in important areas try to do so from the perspective of scripture. Having a common text, however, is not leading us to common conclusions.

Murphy observes that for a text to “perform a definite speech act” requires more than just a stable text. The textual community, that is the community that reads the text and counts it to be authoritative, must share “conventions” and have “proper dispositions.” If she is correct, and I think she is, this is a major failing of the sola scriptura approach. The text is not self-interpreting: it is always under view by some community. If that community has no shared reading strategies (conventions) and lacks the right attitudes toward reading and using scripture, reading will go amiss.

One disposition that is all too rare is humility before the Word. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, there is a tendency to submit the Bible to what we think it ought to say. We want to feel affirmed in our practices and convictions. We detest the idea that scripture might show our cherished notions and practices to be in the wrong.

What can we do? Calls to just go “back to the Bible,” insofar as they ignore the interpreting community, thinking the Bible is self-interpreting, won’t get us anywhere other than more conflict. Each position currently takes itself to be faithful to scripture. The opposite position, the the Bible is simply too ancient or confused to be of any current help, wpn’t get anywhere with those who are committed to scripture.

The starting point will be renewed discipleship and a functioning ecclesiology to go with it. Discipleship will have to be more than just going to Sunday school or weekly Bible study class. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a willingness to listen to those who love us and challenge us. It’s going to take growing into a community of mutual discernment. We’re going to be uncomfortable more often than we’re comfortable. I pray we’re up to it.

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One Response to Textual Stability?

  1. chaddamitz says:

    Well said. I am a conservative evangelical, and I believe the grammatical, historical, and exegetical approach to Scripture is vitally important. Though I do not buy into the “reader-response” hermeneutics, and believe the Bible to have an authority over the people of God, regardless of culture and time (objectivity of the Bible), I do agree with you that communities need to work together to find solutions to difficult passages. That’s why the Bible informs us that it is God-breathed and useful for “reproof or correction.” I think it takes wisdom and godly discernment from the faith community to make the right decisions concerning difficult passages. Have a good day!

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