Saturday, February 13, 2010

The inadequacy of the liberal Protestant approach to biblical interpretation?

Ephraim Radner (quintessential conservative Episcopalian) reviews a book by Tobias Haller (quintessential progressive Episcopalian). You can probably guess what the book is about from reading these last paragraphs of the review:

"I admit to finding the liberal Protestant paradigm of biblical interpretation inadequate, for many reasons but especially for its ultimate loss of Scriptural joy and life: what historical reason has left behind must inevitably wither. Reading Haller on Leviticus, for instance, a book for which I have had a special concern, is like reading a chemistry problem. Ironically, given his frequent (if anachronistic and decontextualized) citation of rabbinic material, Jewish tradition has always seen Leviticus as a cohesive and living word, bound to the fullness of both Torah and the prophets and writings.

It is just here that, to my mind, Haller misses so much in trying to minimize the book’s broad theological reach that itself acts as an authoritative interpreter of Genesis 1-3, and not merely as an outlying problematic. And it is just this cohesion of scriptural word that goes utterly missing in Haller’s approach. In Berkeley’s phrase, Haller reads Scripture like a “minute philosopher,” picking it apart to throw away the useless bits and to get at its “essence,” but in the process losing the form and the shape that has in fact ordered the Christian tradition most especially in its development of a relatively stable understanding of marriage.

Ultimately, the kinds of “objections” to same-sex marriage that Haller is trying to refute emerge from such a larger scriptural vision, and not from their status as discrete arguments. The central element of procreation in marriage, for instance, is bound up with the character of Israel’s calling in fallen (and the Fall has no place in Haller’s scheme) human history — genealogy — and ought not simply to be examined in terms of this or that individual person or couple (a rather modern obsession). But this cannot be grasped outside of a coherently engaged Scriptural text. I t certainly makes no sense through the lenses of a truncated and dissected Scriptural witness, translated into abstracted principles of individual relations. The same is true of the traditional understanding of sexual differentiation and so on.

One sorry side effect that has come from the migration of theological argument to the debates of the blogosphere — swift and rhetorically pointed, but also inevitably constricted in time and length — is just the loss of context for the extended kinds of scriptural reflection that Pope John Paul II in fact offered in the addresses collected in his Theology of the Body. The arguments over same-sexuality and marriage deserve such continued reflection. Haller’s book will have its uses, but not in that context."

The whole review, published by The Living Church, may be found here.

The book details are: Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality By Tobias Stanislas Haller. Church Publishing. Pp. 192. $18. ISBN-13: 978-1-59627-110-4

POSTSCRIPT: Tobias Haller himself has commented below, requesting that the book itself is read, rather than an assessment made about the book by relying on the review itself. (The review has been severely critiqued here for instance). I encourage readers to read the book. I shall be ordering a copy for the Theology House library! However I posted the review excerpt primarily to offer an instance - a snapshot if you like - of the ongoing character of the debate between "liberal" and "conservative" on hermeneutical matters; secondarily to note a specific book on homosexuality, and some specific issues in the debate over hermeneutics and homosexuality. One issue which Radner highlights (and which may or may not be a problem in Haller's book, one must read it to make a determination) is whether the question of homosexuality and the Bible is better approached from (what I call) a biblical theology of marriage and human sexuality, or by discussing individual texts.

1 comment:

  1. Might I suggest you read the book rather than entirely trusting to this reviewer's impressions of it? I actually think I apply hermeneutics such as described in your sidebar -- classical Anglican submission to the test as meant in its time, in reflection over what the church has said, and what it means for us.