Hermeneutics of Experience and Scripture

Last month Laura wrote on the overturning of Prop 8, and some of the discussion went into revelation and perspective. I believe Richard Hooker’s words on revelation in Nature and Scripture are apropos:

Some things in such sort are allowed, that they be also required as necessary unto salvation, by way of direct, immediate and proper necessity final; so that without performance of them we cannot by ordinary course be saved, nor by any means be excluded from life observing them. In actions of this kind our chiefest direction is from Scripture, for Nature is no sufficient teacher what we should do that we may attain unto life everlasting. The unsufficiency of the light of Nature is by the light of Scripture so fully and perfectly herein supplied, that further light than this hath added there doth not need unto that end. [1]

Reading Laura with Hooker, I find areas of disagreement as well as things I’d like to incorporate from her piece.

The negative: tohuwabohu

While I try to have an open mind, I’m not as comfortable as Laura is with ‘letting go of my more fixed and foregone principles and conclusions, and being open to different ideas, priorities, and feelings’, if this denies ‘a systematic Christian morality that suggests that some things are fundamentally right and fundamentally wrong’. Though wisdom is Other, like a woman, and though higher than the agenda of this man or that man, she’s still definite in her transcendence.

On the basis of our common Adamic inheritance – of relation to God, of essence, of original sin – I claim that there must be things that are fundamentally right or fundamentally wrong for the human race, not because I said so but because that’s the way things work.[2] As Prof. Justice says, the Bible forbids sins because, in God’s natural order, they disfigure both the individual human soul and the relationships in which the soul exists: these sins, at the basic level, are not declared so by fiat but inherent in the rerum natura.[3] Unless Nature’s development is rather amorphous than historically ‘systematic’ in some manner – systematic while also organic and sometimes maddeningly complex – I think I’ll have to disagree with the way that Laura advances.

Instead, I’m going with Hooker’s Laws. Experience, I think, consists of individual experience and collective memory, the latter of which we also call tradition. As the objective and subjective unfolding of the world’s processes in time, experience can fall under the heading of Nature. This Nature, however, is insufficient for knowledge and indeed for consummation of the Truth, which, as Laura urges, is fully known to God alone. With Adam’s fall, it took the Incarnation of a Second Adam to redeem the world. Experience partakes of this redemption, and of this knowledge, only insofar as it’s penetrated by the testament of Scripture.

To boil the process of discovery down to individual experience of general and special revelation is, I suggest, to negate this penetration and thus to return to the ‘elements of the world’ to which Paul refers in Galatians.

The positive: story

On the other hand, part of what Laura seems to be getting at is history, which I’ve called ‘the objective and subjective unfolding of the world’s processes in time’. This is why, I think, she points to uncertainty:

I think the suffering and struggles we experience in our faith actually has more to do with perpetual uncertainty than perpetual self-abnegation.

Against an ahistorical view of things, this historical uncertainty has much to commend it as regards tradition. First, it respects the existence of the catholic Church as a real source for contemporary life, which is more than I can say for the numerous (not numinous) unchurchly articulations of faith that practise either ahistorical primitivism (in which the Bible doesn’t need a tradition to be interpreted)[4] or chronological snobbery. Second, by making space for eschatology, it avoids idolizing the past as a golden age: it sees that there is such a thing as progress, such a thing as growth, in the Christian faith, which from the days of the apostles and through the patristic era and the Middle Ages and the Reformation and on to late modernity has come to new (and not simply ‘recovered’) understanding of God, and which will have a new future yet brighter than before.

Through its catholicity and its eschatological bent, Laura’s historical consciousness frees us to live with roots in Scripture but without ‘timeless’ bondage to, say, the Westminster Confession of Faith as the canonical expression of Truth’s Crystalline Essence. The Kingdom of God is a tree; when all the birds of the air have nested in its branches, we’ll see the consummation of its crimson ovaries.


[1] Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 2.8.3, cited by Steven Wedgeworth.

[2] I am, however, responsible for affirming it, even as Angelo in Measure for Measure bore personal responsibility for executing the force of the law. There may be an objective law written out, external to me, but Shakespeare’s play says that carrying it out is never an impersonal act of which the agent can wash his hands: the executor of the law is an agent, not merely an instrument.

[3] Sorry, I just had to allude to Lucretius, though I don’t subscribe to his random but deterministic ‘swerve’ theory.

[4] Going ad fontes (‘to the sources’ is not the same as primitivism). The Renaissance was not simple nostalgia for a classical Græco-Roman pagan world, nor was the Reformation the abnegation of over a thousand years of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church.


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