Among the many podcasts I listen to is the Slate program Lexicon Valley which is kind of a pop exploration of all things language related, think Radio Lab but with words instead of science. A recent episode discussed the way in which words evolve and the impulse that many of us have to criticize new and novel uses of language. One of the show’s hosts, Bob Garfield, mentioned his great loathing for the way that many people today use the word “literally” when they mean “figuratively” (e.g., “when people misuse language, my head literally explodes”). This is also one of my pet peeves, but as the program progressed, I was stunned to learn that this shift in the way that “literally” is used goes back at least as far as 1903!
There are a million words like “literally” that have shifted in meaning over the centuries, to the point that they now mean almost the opposite of what they once meant. A great example from our Anglican formularies is found in Article X, which says in part, “We have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us…” To the modern reader, it sounds like the article is telling us that we cannot do good works unless Jesus stops us from doing good works, which makes no sense. In fact, “prevent” originally meant to come before or to precede, so that the article’s meaning is that we cannot do good works unless we have been previously enabled to do them by God’s grace.
Regardless of what you think about biological evolution, it is one hundred percent certain that language evolves. Language is not like math. It is not static and tidy, nor is it predictable. Words change over time, as do the ways in which we use them. What seems utterly wrong in one generation might be completely fine in another. Language is an art more than it is a science. And in many ways, it is like a living organism. It adapts to its surroundings. It grows. It makes it own rules, then breaks them, then makes another set and starts the process all over again.
The Way We Read Matters
Given this evolution of language, what are we to make of the words that God has given us in Scripture? Surely, this poses a challenge to the kind of sola scriptura teaching that insists upon a “plain reading” without the influence of exterior factors. In this much, postmodernism, for all its foibles, is absolutely correct. There is no such thing as a reading of a text that is unaffected by a thousand exterior factors. If you take a Bible off by yourself and simply try to live by it, assuming even that you could somehow have the original text, in the original language, with no alterations, you would still not achieve a “plain reading” because there is no way for you to get out of your own head and receive the meaning of the words objectively. Everyone reads a text slightly differently, based on their own experiences and influences, as the comment thread on this post will no doubt reveal about how you all receive even what I am writing right now.
Richard Hooker was no postmodernist, but he understood this principle. In articulating the Anglican position on Scripture as opposed to the Puritan position, he says in Book I of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:
In like sort, albeit scripture do profess to contain in it all things which are necessary unto salvation; yet the meaning cannot be simply of all things that are necessary, but all things that are necessary in some certain kind or form; as all things that necessary, and either could not at all, or could not easily be known by the light of natural discourse; all things which are necessary to be known that we may be saved, but known with pre supposal of knowledge concerning certain principals whereof it receiveth us already persuaded, and then instructeth us in all the residue that are necesary.
Of course, in this statement alone we see the principle of language’s evolution at work, since Hooker uses many words here differently than we would use them today (and that’s after I cleaned up the spelling). But Hooker’s point in regards to Scripture is that we have to come to it with a certain amount of knowledge already intact if we are going to get anything out of it. He will go on to use the example of a person learning to read so that he may read what the Bible says. A person needs to be taught to read in order to read the Bible, which means that a person needs to have this skill in order to receive the gifts of salvation which the Bible has to offer, but the Bible cannot teach us to read. That has to come from somewhere else.
The Church as Living Interpreter
Hooker is by no means trying to undermine the authority of Scripture. Rather, he is trying to help us see just what this authority is and how it should function in the life of the Church. Hooker’s work describes what many other Anglican divines also tried to articulate, the necessity of applying reason and tradition to Scripture in order to properly understand it, something which Hooker believed could only be done effectively in the life of the Church, not off on one’s own. This is why the things that the Church of England fought to preserve through the Reformation–things like the historic episcopate and the practice of liturgical worship–are so important as to be considered essential to the the Church’s well being. The radical notion of Puritanism that still infects much of Protestantism today was that the Christian Church could be rebooted from scratch in every generation through an objective reading of God’s Word. The Puritans rightly believed that the Gospel does not change, but they mistook the words of the Bible themselves for the actual thing, rather than understanding those words as sign posts pointing towards the grace of God. Ironically, this is exactly what many Protestants both then and now accuse Catholic Christians of in our approach to the Sacraments. In point of fact, as Luther argued and Hooker echoed, both the administration of the Sacraments and the preaching of the Scriptures are places where God’s eternal Word transforms ordinary things into channels of His grace.
As Article XX reminds us, the Church is the “keeper of holy writ.” This means not only preserving the text but also passing on the rule of faith which allows the text to be properly understood. Part of Anglicanism’s vocation has been to be a witness for the Scripture’s proper place in the life of the Church. The Church does not exist over Scripture, as if Scripture is nothing but a collection of our thoughts about God, but neither should the Church attempt to empty herself of all other wisdom and receive only Scripture because attempting to do that leads inevitably to radical and grotesque departures from the Gospel. Rather, the Church must patiently apply the tools at her disposal, learning about the culture that produced the texts of Scripture and the evolution of language that has happened since, always coming back to the rule of faith that has been applied throughout the centuries to biblical interpretation, the rule that grounds everything that we receive in the good news of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.
This kind of interpretation can be a slippery business, as we have seen in contemporary Anglicanism’s near collapse. It is easy to misstep in one direction or the other, either falling into the trap of postmodern liberalism and suggesting that there is no real meaning to the text besides what we give it, or falling into the trap of reacting against such nonsense by developing a neo-puritanism that pretends to give us the Bible alone and unadulterated, all the while piling on its own set of cultural baggage behind the scenes. Both of these are heresies. The Bible can be properly interpreted by the faithful Church, but only if the Church does not receive the Scripture in a vacuum, as if nothing has happened since the apostolic era. Rather, the Scriptures must be set within a stream of teaching that has continued unabated since the apostolic era, a teaching that spread around the globe, adapting to new cultures not by accommodating their idiosyncrasies but by speaking their language. The Word never changes, but words do. This is why Jesus established a Church and not a library. A library’s job is to preserve words as museum pieces. The Church’s job is to use them for the healing of the world by the cure of souls.
The Play is the Thing
This means for Christians that we are not to try to live under the authority of the naked Bible, as if the book could jump up and start telling us what to do, but instead to live under the authority of the biblically centered Church. A play comes to life when a director, actors, and others all do their part to bring about a faithful rendition of a script. Far too many Christians seem to think that the play can go on with the script alone.
I remember the first time I read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when I was in the tenth grade. I was a nerdy kid who liked reading, but Shakespeare still did not make any sense to me. The cultural and linguistic distance between the Bard and mid-nineties me was just too much to bridge through my simple reading. But when we watched a recording of a production of Twelfth Night in class, suddenly the whole thing made sense. In that performance, what Shakespeare was trying to communicate came through by means of the faithful witness of the company. The Scriptures can be so much more than mere words, but not on their own. They need the Church’s faithful witness to bring them to life.