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Public Theology: Congregations as Communities of Interpretation
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Congregations as Communities of Interpretation
The bible contains many communities of interpretation, not one view of God or ethics. This presents the possibility of a new Protestant Public Theology manifested by pastors in local congregations.

By Ed Knudson

The bible does not contain, as so many assume or believe, one authoritative view of God or issues of faith and life. Rather it reflects many different communities of interpretation, just as there are today many communities of interpretation all claiming they find their origins in the one bible. No pastor can stand up and say "this is what the bible says" without having made choices among the many different views of God and faith in that same bible. The differences among the many Protestant groups and within the Roman Catholic tradition can often be traced to differing choices about how to read the one bible and which of the many books of the bible are the most important.

It can be helpful today to understand local congregations as each being a "community of interpretation" of the times in which we live, standing within the tradition of all those who have gone before as they have made their own effort to be faithful to the truth about God in their own times. And each of the Protestant church bodies represent such a community of interpretation. Those church bodies which engage in historical critical study of the scriptures, in fact, now have a new basis for mutual understanding as they approach the scriptures. This provides some reasons to suggest there can be a new form of "Protestantism" itself manifested in many different ways by congregations in local communities. As will be explained later the so-called fundamentalist view of the scriptures where each and every word or phrase or verse separate from the rest of the bible can be understood directly as a command from God is a modernist invention and has never been part of the orthodox Protestant or Catholic tradition.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, there are several communities of interpretation of the meaning of historical events and experience of the people of Israel. The various books of the Old Testament, and themes within some of the books, are written within the context of these differing communities sustained over time. There is not one over-all perspective but several, from the point of view of the priests or several different prophets, for example. Some of the prophets come from outside the established center of government in Jerusalem and some come from within that center. They all are focused on the meaning of the public history of a particular people, who the God is of this people, and whether this God is only related to this particular people or to all people.

There was even a major split in Israel's history which institutionally separated two different "peoples" each claiming the right to interpret the history of Israel in its own way. The bible itself is a record of these differences, of the contests in how best to interpret the history of what God is doing in the world.

The various views represent contested interpretations at the time all still contained and presented within the bible. The single most important event over which there was contestation was the meaning of Israel's military defeat by superior powers and its exile to Babylon. Israel's understanding of God matured and developed through its experience in international relations. They believed that God's nature was revealed to them through the dynamics of history. And they came to believe that this God was the source of all, the creator of every people, not just their own tribal God, and that this God wanted them, Israel, to be blessing to all other peoples. It is quite remarkable that large numbers of people in the world since that time have considered the experience of this small nation of Israel to be authoritative for understanding all of life and history.

In the New Testament the focus shifts from one nation to one individual, Jesus. But there is not just one view of Jesus in the the New Testament, there are four or five or more. The four gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are specifically focused on the life and death of Jesus, and the views of the Apostle Paul are presented in his letters to the churches. Each of these represent communities of interpretation, each remembering Jesus in different ways and pointing to different emphasis of his meaning for life and faith. The singular figure of Jesus constitutes a center of focus for all these writers, but who he is, how best to understand him, and what he means for faith and life are all contested matters among the different writers.

The old synoptic idea, that the different views can be integrated in one authoritative account of Jesus is false. It is much better to think in terms of one person remembered and interpreted in different ways. So each of the gospel writers represent not single authors functioning abstractly as single individuals floating in some eternal universe, but the gospel writers represent real-existing different communities of interpretation of the one figure. That's why we have four different gospels, not just one, each one presenting quite a different Jesus.

Critics like to accuse Chrisian faith as being intellectually incoherent because of these different accounts of Jesus. But they are using a false theory of history in making this accusation. In fact this false theory of history is widely and popularly used to misunderstand any history. It is never ever possible to write one and only one view of any historical event or figure or document. The popular idea that a news reporter standing on some objectively neutral perch is able to watch history occurring in pristine perfection and write it down is naive and ridiculous. There are only contesting interpretations of history in any history writing of any period of history or any particular event or person. So the old idea of a mechanical history, one cause and effect after another, cannot be used against Jesus and the bible anymore than it can be used against any other figure of history such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or Frankin D. Roosevelt. All history is contested history and all figures of history are re-interpreted by each new generation looking at the past from their new perspective of the present. To believe that history is a mechanical process of cause and effect is to apply 18th century views of science inappropriately to the the incredibly complex process of historical unfolding.

So the four accounts of Jesus in the gospels simply demonstrates how historical knowledge itself comes into being, it comes from the act of interpretation, an act that is quite different from so-called empirical methods leading to generalized theories, or "science" as understood today. The act of interpretation occurs by speaking and writing, it occurs through words and addresses the consciousness of those to whom the speaking or writing is being done, the particular material communities existing in real time and space. The speaking and writing of one person is not just one person, it creates a community of persons conscious of themselves as members of a community, a community conscious of itself as existing in relation to previous communities which were engaged in the act of interpretation of this figure called Jesus.

This is an actual, living awareness, consciousness, of what has gone before in minds and hearts today, placing the community in the midst of the on-goingness of history, presenting a certain attitude, or orientation to the forces of the present pushing or pulling toward the future, creating identity in relation to these forces. So the act of interpretation has everything to do with internal consciousness of time and the meaning of one's place in both the present community and what has come before and what will be for both the community and all who are or that which is outside of itself. At least that is the way the bible is always talking, so to be faithful to the bible that is what communities would be doing which take the bible seriously. And in the history of the church it is Protestants who have, indeed, taken the bible seriously.

It is important to realize that the bible came into being in its current form due to a political calculation. The Roman Emperor in the fourth century needed harmony in the empire. Theological conflict threatened political unity. One book accepted by all was one solution. One book, but many views within the book kept the theological debates occurring. I believe it is important for us in the church today to understand this history, for out of these theological conflicts came a forumula for understanding the bible, a formula which we know as the doctrine of the Trinity, an interpretation from the bible of the meaning of God, as expressed in the creeds. For the theological debates of that time continue into our own day in many crucial ways. But what happened then was not only a theological solution in the doctrine of the Trinity but an institutional development: the ecclesiological development of the Roman Catholic Church with its own system of political authority modeled after the empire capable of ruling over the hearts and minds of persons as well as political authorities for several centuries. Harmony within the church was maintained by rigid doctrinal orthodoxy under the authority and coercive power of the pope, though there was during these centuries many and various movements and alternative interpretions and communities which existed within the over-all framework of the one church.

What I want to emphasize here is that docrines and ecclesiological authority became more important than the bible itself with all its diversity, one church, one pope, one doctrine, and this led to the upheaval called the Reformation and the beginning of Protestantism in Germany in the 16th century. Martin Luther believed the church and the pope had become an oppressive religious system that terrified the consciences of the people to its own glory as a human institution. It was all based on a different interpretation of the bible, an act of interpretation. Luther saw in the bible a loving God who could be known through the preaching of a living word into the actual consciousness of the people. The event of salvation occurred within human consciousness of a God of grace and mercy acting through the "external word" of preaching and the "visible word" of the material experience of the sacraments. The central event was what we might call a "word event," a creation of something through words.

Now, it is possible to interpret the Reformation as due to social and economic factors. But the religious meanings cannot be avoided especially for the Protestant Church. Just being a member of an ecclesiological body was not the source of salvation. Just intellectually assenting to a prescribed set of doctrines was not the source of salvation. Doing good works and doing what was commanded by church authorities was not the source of salvation. Salvation occurred through a word event connecting a person with God, God acting through words changing the internal consciousness of the believer. It is not a preacher manipulating the believer, it is a gracious God acting in gospel words which makes salvation happen inside the believer. Martin Luther took the internal consciousness of the individual believer ultimately serviously. It is that dimension of this that I believe is important to realize today. Modern historical interpretation tends to focus on external factors and institutions and does not take seriously the internal aspect of human consciousness and inter-subjectivity, the relations that make up the real actual living experience of human persons. To screen out this experince is to lose the nature of what it means to be a human being and to live within interpretive communities. Luther focused on the actual experience of salvation through words and defined the meaning of life in the community called church as one where gospel words are experienced consciously.

(This article is being written at this time)

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Date Added: 2/19/2009 Date Revised: 3/7/2009

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