When a Protestant approaches the scriptures in order to rightly interpret them and apply them to their lives, the approach is typically that of a scientist and a historian – they are attempting to abstract and be removed from the context of today’s western world and be found within the culture, language and context of the original authors of divine literature. There is rooted in this approach not only a reliance upon Nominalism (as with all things Protestant) but also the fundamental belief that we are “separate from” both these original authors and from God Himself (He is the “Man upstairs” and Protestant worship focuses on asking God to be present or “show up”). As such, Protestant hermeneutics, if you will, is an exercise in textual archaeology.
There are various strains of Protestant thought, obviously, and they are too numerous to do every sect justice (and the number of variants grows by the hour). While there are some groups today who approach the study of scripture with less of a “scientific” lens and with more of a catholic, Orthodox approach (for example, utilizing analogy, catholicity, patristics, narrative and so forth), they are such a tremendous minority that it would serve little purpose to devote a great deal of time on their efforts. Indeed, the tragic reality is that their sects or movements will be dead before many of their adherents have returned to dust. The reality of Protestantism in America (at present) is that of fundamentalist evangelicalism, and it is to them that the Orthodox Christian in America should pay closest attention.
Among the conservative evangelicals, therefore, we see at least two major trends or “approaches” when it comes to hermeneutics (the way one interprets scripture): literalism and contextualism.
With regards to the “literal” interpretation of scripture, one evangelical remarks:
“The literal method of interpreting the Bible is to accept the literal rendering of each sentence unless by virtue of the nature of the sentence or phrase or a clause within the sentence renders it impossible […] this is only school of interpretation that I believe has a Biblical basis […] We take the Bible at face value.”
Robert Hommel, Biblical Hermeneutics: An Introduction
In other words, things like “allegory” or “symbolism” have little value, and are – at least according to this particular individual – isolated in minute portions of scripture, such as the Book of Revelation. Obviously, I find it hard to imagine how anyone could claim such a thing and keep a straight face. The Apostles who composed various portions of the new testament certainly did not interpret the old testament in an exclusively “literal” fashion, and the majority of their citations of the OT are highly symbolic, allegorical and even wildly out of context, if one is being completely honest about it.
This “literal” approach, of course, leads one to the other, which is that of grammatical-historical context. This method is dependent upon research into the grammar/language of the original authors of the text as well as their “historical context”; that is, where they lived, what was going on in the world at that point in history, what sorts of metaphors or stories were common for their people, etc. As one evangelical “fellowship” advertises on their website, “How thrilling it is to find out what the author meant when he originally wrote the Scriptures and then find principles and applications for our lives today.”
There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to understand these ancient languages or the historical context in which these various pieces of literature were composed, and this does serve as a great aid in our personal reading and appreciation of not only the scriptures but also Patristic writings and the historical development of various aspects of the Liturgy (for example). However, the Protestant must approach this discipline from the standpoint of an historian – that is, from the standpoint of someone completely removed from and alien to the given context (or text). They must rely upon various external sources in order to attempt and piece together what the people in question lived like, how they spoke, what comprised their daily lives, etc. Much like archaeologists, they are attempting to “dig up” facts and truth surrounding these various events and peoples, as if they were far removed from them. Ironically, the idea that we must interpret “scripture by scripture” as most Protestants would contend is found to be impossible in many cases, and is generally ignored when sections of the Bible are found that have no immediately revealed context or scriptural explanation.
Evangelical scholar F.F. Bruce comments:
“In biblical literature, as in all other literature, it is important to determine the literary genre with which we are dealing and interpret it according to the interpretative principles appropriate to that genre, be it prose or poetry, praise or prayer, history, parable or story with a moral, legislation or exhortation.”
F.F. Bruce, “What does it mean?” Christian Brethren Review, 31, 32 (1982): 41-52.
While these points are valid to a certain extent, this also begs the question that each individual is burdened with this intimidating effort. Nothing could be further from the truth, thankfully, from an Orthodox perspective, for we have the benefit of an infallible, catholic (universally agreed upon) and changeless Tradition of the Holy Spirit, that guides us into all Truth (even when faced with texts that are difficult to decipher or that are written in a culture or language we don’t immediately understand).
Protestants admittedly have no real connection or identification today with the people of “the Bible,” paying homage to their Nominalistic foundations (whether admittedly or not). On the contrary, they are typically trying to “get back to” the Bible (“ad fontes”) and the way these people lived, worshipped and studied. (Somehow, they construe worship that resembles a modern pop-rock concert from this endeavor, but I digress.) My point is simply that they see the “Bible people” as one group; the people that lived in between as another; the people of “the reformation” as a third, perhaps; and the people of the times in between and down to today as yet another. These are “clusters” or various groups of Christians living throughout history that eventually lead to themselves, in the modern world of 21st century America – but at no point would they claim that the apostles or the Christians of the first century are also “members” of the First Baptist Church in Anytown, USA. No, the “evolutionary” or dialectic concept of truth is very much alive within evangelicalism, even in its most conservative and fundamentalist manifestations (with few exceptions).
Because of this separation and isolation, modern evangelicals must find ways to try and understand or discern the teachings of these people from “so long ago.” And because they believe that the Bible is the only form of revelation available to them, it is imperative that they “get it right” from an interpretive standpoint. This is where the “science of hermeneutics,” as the above evangelical puts it, comes into play. Each text can only have one meaning, in their understanding (which is why they’d reject an allegorical approach).
By this point, hopefully one can see that this “science” is tantamount to archaeology – an attempt to dig up facts about a distant, separate past – while also being entirely dependent upon modern understandings of language, literature, history and science. These are not people they know, but people they’re trying to get to know. It is in this sense, therefore, that a major divide exists between the way the Orthodox Church approaches scripture (for example) and that of evangelicalism.
Orthodox Christians know the authors of the scriptures, because they are part of our Church. We pray with them; we ask them for prayers; we worship alongside them; we see them every time we gather for the Liturgy in Icons – heck, we even eat them (the true meaning of “communion,” wrongly bastardized as “fellowship” in a modern sense) in the Eucharist. We are participating in and with one another, and so we are not distant from or far removed from them (as Christ and the all-Holy Trinity is not far removed from the Church, just as Jesus promised). We are one Church, with one Truth, for Christ Himself is one and is that one Truth.
Our approach, then, to the scriptures as (one part of) revelation is not that of a scientist or an archaeologist. We do not have to try and “figure out” or “discover” the context of their writings as individuals, because the Orthodox Church has within itself that very context (along with its history, culture(s), language(s), etc.). Saint Paul is not an author we must attempt to decipher, and the first century AD culture is not something we must subject to endless historical interpretation and investigation – this is all part and parcel of the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church.
While the Orthodox approach to scripture within Tradition might not satisfy the obsessive compulsive among us – who want every single word dissected and explained to us in a systematic fashion – we are left wanting nothing. Everything that has been written in order to guide us towards salvation – that is, in order to guide us towards further union with God – is fully explained and given to us plainly within the Tradition of the Church (in various manifestations beyond written text). But my main point in all of this is to stress the fact that we are not “removed” or “separate” from the authors of scripture – they are our people. We are part of them, and they are part of us. We are all united to Christ, and are therefore all united to one another.
Without the realism of the Orthodox faith and a true understanding of the world around us, one will always feel like they’re “on the outside looking in.” They will ever be the frustrated historian – endlessly digging holes in the ground in an attempt to find the hidden gems of truth from a world that has long departed this earth.