When [people] finally got around to writing theories about what they had been doing for some time, such action was inevitably looked upon as a succession of events beginning in the past. In many instances the sequential ordering of the text, the series verborum or narrationis, was simply and crudely imposed on events in the real world. As a consequence of this interpretive activity, the issue of oral and written communication cannot be separated from that of reform, utopia, and primitivism. . . . [An] approach . . . augmenting self-knowledge of course favored the search after origins or first principles that we associate with primitivism. To be better was to be earlier and to be earlier was to find ultimate precedent, which, not surprisingly turned out to be a text. – Brian Stock, “Medieval Literature, Linguistic Theory, and Social Organization”, in Listening For The Text, pp.38-39
Last week’s Supreme Court ruling expanding marriage rights to all persons takes place in a community and context defined and limited by a particular document: The United States Constitution. Public disagreements, when not veering into bigotry, have centered around the meaning of words. “Right”, “freedom”, “equality” are secular holy words in the United States. For that reason, their meaning is contested on a daily basis. How best do we understand them so they can regulate our behavior as citizens, allow us legal and civic space to participate in the common life?
Many people insist that it is best to understand these words as they were understood by those who wrote and ratified them 226 years ago. The simplicity and clarity of James Madison’s text, it is said, does not lend itself either to innovation or the accrual of meaning over time. To be “free” as the Constitution guarantees it, to have a “right”, means nothing more or less than what it meant in 1787.
We Americans, then, are a textual community rooted in a species of primitivism, as Brian Stock defines it. All sides in the discussion claim the Constitution as their authoritative text. The matter is not Constitutionality or its lack. The argument is over the definition of words.
In much the same way, Christian communities, rooted in a particular text, make appeals to it both for innovation and steadfastness; we demand adherence to the text of Scripture with most Christians knowing little to nothing of its content. We are offered particular moral precepts, particular personal and social values, and insist best contemporary practice is exhibited within the stories and exemplars of Scripture. We insist that Jesus was a contemporary radical disguised as a poor itinerant Jewish carpenter-cum-teacher; his death on a Roman cross-tree is proof that his was understood to be a revolutionary movement by the authorities of his day. We are told that particular legal codices not only should but do continue to apply to current social life.
Much of contemporary Biblical scholarship and theology centers around the search both for textual clarity (arriving at as clear an original MSS as possible) and original meaning. With these accomplished, we are told, we will be better able to appropriate the texts for our own time. Since the first historical critical readings of the Bible in the early 19th century (although late medieval and Renaissance scholars engaged in a limited historical criticism), this has been the goal; each interpretive method offered a path through the thickets of additions and subtractions; through difficult questions of editing; once through we shall not only have the authoritative text, but the authoritative interpretation. Whether it’s the Jesus Seminar, the writings of Marcus Borg or N. T. Wright, or the body calling itself The Center For The Study Of Christian Origins, both the work and the larger ecclesiological goal is the Church Universal understanding itself as indistinguishable from our origins.
Not only Biblical primitivism, but also Doctrinal primitivism reigns in many of our churches, particularly my own United Methodist Church. We are told ad nauseum that we as a Body have lost our doctrinal roots. A return to strict adherence to Christian doctrines will help us overcome our current social and cultural decline and internal malaise. Overcoming contemporary liberalism, conservatism, contextual theologies, fundamentalist theologies all require adherence to Church doctrine, which itself is a body of texts rooted in interpretations of the Scriptural texts.
As I pointed out elsewhere, the pursuit of understanding, particularly of societies and cultures long dead, using languages that are also dead (or at best only dimly related to contemporary languages), is an expression of hubris I find both interesting and tiresome. Whether it’s the Scriptural texts or the doctrinal texts, the assumptions behind the claims of a practical primitivism are neither sound nor falsifiable. There is simply no way contemporary scholars, even after decades of work, building on previous centuries of work, can hope, say, to arrive at a clear original presentation of a manuscript. Even form criticism, which pays attentions to minutiae of sentence structure in an attempt to identify additions to a text, can never answer the question of what might have been removed from a text and for what reason. No doctrinal purist can answer with anything like clarity what words like “salvation”, “grace”, “Incarnation”, or even “God” meant for people in the first, second, ninth, or even 17th centuries. For one thing, those words as they appear above didn’t exist. They are contemporary English words that reflect as best as possible an on-going tradition rooted in ancient dead languages (rooted in ancient dead societies and cultures). Pretending the modern English word “salvation” means the same as its first century Greek equivalent is to play kindergarten games with serious issues. It does violence both to the original understandings – whatever, in the end, they may be – as well as reducing our current understandings to little more than word play.
I understand the lure of primitivism. At the end of the day, however, the claims of many primitivists, regardless of their scholarly credentials, should be stopped by the simple act of demanding what their original meanings have to do with people living in an age unimagined and unimaginable to those original authors. Not that historical, textual, and literary criticism isn’t necessary. Rather, there must come a point not only when scholarship needs to end and proclamation should begin; there also needs to be just a bit more humility in our claims at understanding “original meaning” in any text, whether it’s the United States Constitution, Christian doctrine, or the Bible. As the task of the Biblical reader is to allow the text to read our lives, to interpret our faith, and to let it be the foundation for our proclamation and mission, we should always remember that scholarship ends when practical theology begins. If we aren’t engaging in an interchange that moves first from Scriptures to us, then we aren’t reading the Bible correctly, no matter how much information we have in our heads about the original languages, the authors and editors, and how the words of the text were understood by those who first wrote them down.