Grammatical-historical limits

The hallmark of Protestant Bible interpretation is the grammatical-historical method, by which the student attempts to discern what exactly the author intended to communicate by his words. Generally speaking this meaning is held to be identical with what God intends to communicate by those words, so that to discover the first is to discover the second.

In On the Profit of Believing, though, St Augustine points out a major problem with this approach:

For by what proofs shall I so gather the will of a man who is absent or dead, as that I can swear to it: when, even if he were questioned being present, there might be many things, which, if he were no ill man, he would most carefully hide? [§11]

It’s not that we can learn nothing of an author’s intent from what he writes, but that it is at best extremely difficult to do so reliably. And this doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the impediments introduced by the cultural distance between ancient Palestine and us in the 21st century! For these reasons it seems reckless to suppose that mere scholarship is up to the task (to say nothing of the rather dubious proposition that God’s intended meaning is basically nothing other than the human author’s). Consequently it seems rational to do what the Catholic Church proposes: that is, “Read the Scripture within ‘the living Tradition of the whole Church’” (CCC §113). It is unreasonable to suppose that God would allow His Church to stumble into error with regard to those things that we must believe and do in order to be saved; likewise it seems presumptuous to suppose that Professor Modern Scholar is in a better position to interpret the Scripture in 2011 than the Church Fathers. Scholarship has its place, of course—but it isn’t omnicompetent.

Posted in Augustine, Scripture

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