Part 16 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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Yesterday I began commenting on recent changes in the exegesis exam of the Presbyterian Church (USA). For the first time in ages, the PC(USA) will no longer require candidates taking the exegesis exam to demonstrate a knowledge of ancient biblical languages or to find the “principal meaning” of a passage. Now, candidates can pass the exegesis exam without showing that they know the original language of the text. And instead of trying to explain what that text originally meant, they need only to offer a “faithful interpretation” of the text.
What does this mean, exactly? Who’s to say whether an interpretation is faithful or not? In the end, who can say those who have injected their personal faith into a text that their interpretation is not faithful? I suppose if one defined “faithful” as “faithful to the original meaning of the text and to the use of the original language,” then we could argue about the faithfulness of an interpretation. But this is clearly not what the PCUSA means by “faithful interpretation.”
Let me offer an example of one reason why I have a problem with “faithful interpretation” as the new standard. When I was teaching New Testament Exegesis for San Francisco Theological Seminary (Southern California), I would assign a biblical passage to my students. In 15 pages or so, they were to provide an exegesis of the passage, showing their understanding of the passages’s linguistic basics, context, theology, etc. One year, I had a student from an ethnic minority write a paper that showed almost no attention to the original language, context, history of interpretation, and so forth. What he wrote was a “faithful interpretation” from his ethnic perspective. To that extent, his paper was fascinating and insightful and full of his own faith. But it had very little to do with what the text actually meant, or what the text’s author intended. When I gave this student a low grade, he was incensed. How could I suggest that his interpretation was wrong? It was, after all, his interpretation. It reflected his experience, his insights, his worldview, his feelings. The fact that he failed to deal with the experience, insights, worldview, or feelings of the original author was irrelevant, as far as he was concerned. To use the language of today’s PC(USA), his interpretation was certainly “faithful.” It reflected his faith journey and relationship with God. But it had little to do with what biblical exegesis is all about, which has to do with digging out the original meaning of the ancient text. Once one has labored to discern that “principal meaning,” then one is free to make all sorts of “faithful interpretations” in the work of teaching and preaching.
What the PC(USA) is saying, in effect, is that the original meaning of the text doesn’t matter nearly as much as one’s personal, faithful interpretation. Now I’m 100% in favor of personal, faithful interpretations. But I also believe that the principal meaning of a text matters. In fact, it is the principal meaning of a text that allows us to determine whether a purportedly faithful interpretation is, in fact, faithful to the text. For years, many Christians offered faithful interpretations of Scripture that were racist. Yet these were not faithful to the text of the Bible, when properly understood, even though they reflected the faith of the interpreters. Once we make faithful interpretation the measure of exegetical skill, we have lost the ability to critique those who get it wrong. We’re left simply with competing faithful interpretations, but no common ground upon which to discover a truthful interpretation.
The committee offers almost no rationale for their choice to jettison “principal meaning” in favor of “faithful interpretation.” They supply one comment from someone who said: “Rich passages of Scripture contain more than one ‘principal meaning’, and may lend themselves to several interpretations which are valid.” Well, that’s a theory worthy of debate, to be sure. But it’s certainly not so obviously true that it deserves to be accepted without argument. Nor is it consistent with what most Presbyterians have believed for centuries. We have traditionally affirmed that even rich passages of Scripture do contain one principal meaning, though this meaning may have many nuances and multiple applications. Moreover, we have not affirmed that biblical passages may have several valid interpretations. Several interpretations, to be sure, but not several valid ones. We have admitted that we may not be able to interpret a passage correctly. And we have realized that our best interpretations do not fully represent the text’s original meaning. But, nevertheless, we have sought to discern the original meaning as accurately as possible, using the tools of historical-critical exegesis, including knowledge of the original languages. Now the PC(USA) officially expects its pastoral candidates to come up with faithful interpretations, nothing more.
These changes in ordination exams are indicative of much larger issues in the PC(USA). They show how biblical interpretation has moved from a scholarly, relatively-objective discipline to a subjective matter of experience and feeling. They show how the original meaning of Scripture has lost its authority, since it either cannot be accessed or isn’t relevant if it can be accessed. “Faithful interpretation” is enough. The changes in the exam show precisely why the PC(USA) is in such a mess over the gay/lesbian issue. While some of us continue to believe that the Bible’s original meaning is still discernable and authoritative, others in our denomination do not feel the need to anchor their theology in the bedrock of the Bible’s original meaning. So, then, while some of are saying that the Bible reveals homosexual activity to be sinful, others are not especially moved by this claim, or even eager to engage with it. They are satisfied with their own “faithful interpretations” of Scripture, in which they take their particular faith in God and read it into the text. Their loving, accepting God would never expect gay and lesbian people to be celibate. So, in spite of what the Bible actually says about homosexual activity, they are willing to endorse gay and lesbian behavior, and to ordain those who practice it, and even to claim that their position is biblical. It is biblical if, by “biblical,” we mean “according to my own faith.”
I expect that nobody on the exam committee of the PC(USA) meant to make such a monumental statement about biblical authority and interpretation. And I’m quite sure that nobody on this committee believes that their two changes to the ordination exam are contributing to the demise of the PC(USA). But, in my opinion, what we have seen is indicative of why this denomination is reeling, well on its way to oblivion. We have lost touch with the common ground of biblical truth on which the PC(USA) was founded. And we no longer have any reliable way of getting back to that common ground in a denomination filled with equally-valid faithful interpretations. The changes in the ordination exam add up to a placard that reads: PCUSA . . . the end is near!