Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Common Trend to Protestant and Postmodern Hermeneutics

Catholics and Protestants generally agree that the modernist denial of objective truth and the postmodern methods of securing radical forms of relativism are not born of a Christian worldview.

Yet, the interpretive premises that give rise to much postmodern thought are to a large degree the same as those assumed in the interpretive practice (if not in theory) of many Protestants.

Consider that for postmodern literary criticism (especially that produced by the inheritors of post-structuralist thought), a text has no specific meaning tied to its author's intention. The author, as Roland Barthes once put it, is dead. A text's meaning is simply what any particular reader constructs it to be. Texts can potentially have countless possible meanings, since meanings are ultimately constructed by the reader who occupies a unique social space, values, assumptions, and ideologies. Meaning is ultimately relativized.

Similarly, non-Catholic readers of the Bible, who read the Bible apart from the authoritative Sacred Tradition, have arrived in practice at tens of thousands of different interpretations of its meaning. While some texts have multiple layers of meanings and others have a variety of acceptable interpretations, the different interpretations found between Protestants extend into the realm of pure contradictions. For example, some Protestants believe the Bible promotes a Sunday Sabbath while others contend that the Bible clearly condemns anyone who does not maintain a Saturday Sabbath. There are contradictions within Protestantism about virtually every doctrinal and moral issue one can think of. Behind all of these contradictions is often an unspoken acceptance of the fact that the Bible's meaning is pretty much just what we make of it. While many people pray that the Holy Spirit guides them, no one can have any assurance that they are following the Holy Spirit and not their own spirit, the spirit of their pastor or congregation, the spirit of the Bible commentary, or perhaps even an unholy spirit.

While postmodern, poststructuralist assumptions may do little harm when it comes to texts whose authors truly are dead, Christians make a grave mistake when they transport these assumptions to the study of the Sacred Text, whose author is very much alive, and whose authority is very real. While he still walked this earth, Jesus established a Church in whom he invested all His authority. In this Church, Jesus deposited the fullness of the faith, the complete Word of God, which was passed down orally and by letter. After His resurrection from the dead, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to remind the apostles of all that Jesus had spoken, and John points out that all the books in the world could not contain all that Jesus said and did. The Holy Spirit today maintains the meaning of the Sacred Scriptures through the institution of Christ's Church, the Roman Catholic Church.

As Peter Kreeft points out in his talk Moral Theology and Homosexuality, the Church can not change one iota of the message Christ left with her to transmit to the world. The Church, Kreeft describes, is like a mailman who is charged with faithfully delivering the mail from the King to you and to me. Anyone who attempts to change just one iota of the message has committed no small error. In fact, such a person changes him or herself from the mailman to the author. Even more damage is done when you and I receive a message that we think is from the King that is really just from ourselves.

Only one Church on this planet has never once opened the envelope of doctrinal and moral teachings and changed the message. This Church also claims the LEAST authority of any Christian church on the planet, for its response is always: "no author but the King!"

In the Old Testament, we read of a people who try by their own power to build a tower to reach God. Seeing this, God confuses their language, twisting their tongues so than no one can understand another. Similarly, Man's search for God seems inevitably to end up in a plentiful confusion of interpretations and practices.

The true religion does not result from Man's search for God but rather God's search for Man. God provides us a way home to himself, and on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit of God seemed to reverse the tendency inaugurated at the tower of Babel. The Holy Spirit enabled listeners of different tongues to hear the Gospel message preached by Peter and the Apostles.

Many Christians today who love Jesus are still in fact searching for Him. These Christians are looking for the Truth, who is ultimately Christ Himself. Given the sad division of Christians whose ancestors left the Catholic Church into so many denominations, it has become impossible for them to know whether the message the receive has been faithfully delivered or has been tampered with by a human author. Yet, we long for the Truth, because we long for Jesus.

May we thank God that Christ's promise that the gates of Hades would not prevail against His church assures us that there remains a faithful messenger. Christ once told his apostles that "he who hears you, hears me." At the end of John's Gospel, Jesus breathes on the apostles saying that as the Father sent Him, so He sends them. He then gives them the authority to bind and loose sins, making them ministers of reconciliation as St. Paul elsewhere describes them. In the Gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus giving the apostles the power of binding and loosing, and to Peter in particular, the keys of the kingdom, that ancient symbol of highest authority.

May we thank God that Christ is faithful to His promise. May we, in turn, be faithful to the fullness of the message delivered by Christ's messenger, the Roman Catholic Church.

If Christians today can begin to recognize that Christian hermeneutics ("hermeneutics" simply refers to the art or science of interpretation) ought to look radically different from postmodern hermeneutics, we may begin to realize that the burden of interpreting the Scriptures privately does not fall on each individual Christian's shoulders. As Peter writes in his second letter, "no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." (2 Peter 1:20-21).

The author of the Bible is alive, not dead. But the author of the Bible does not guide each Christian individually when it comes to matters of universal truth. Rather, the Truth was given once and for all to the Saints and has been faithfully preserved through the Catholic Church since its establishment two thousand years ago.

I pray that my non-Catholic brothers and sisters take another look at the Babel of Protestant denominations and the glorious catholicity (in time and space) of believers united around their bishops, most especially the successors of Peter. Now is the time to come home!

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