Community of Interpretation

Excellent post at Christocentricity blog on Community Driven Interpretation, where the author argues proper interpretation should extend from the community of believers. I remember coming across this idea a few times over the last few years, and it has provided a helpful shift in my thinking. I have practiced the communal aspect of interpretation all of my life, but I have been so focused on private interpretation that I failed to realize the impact community had in interpretation.

Thinking of interpretation in the community of believers is needed to correct other models of interpretation. In the Catholic Church, which dominated the Western scene from Constantine to the Reformation, the teaching authority of the church resided in the Magisterium, consisting of the church hierarchical leaders. They were the official interpreters. While leaders of the church should have a prominent role in interpretation, I find this model of interpretation to be lacking. Interpretation handed down in this manner is too limited and fails to encompass other helpful contributions.

In the Reformation, the pendulum began to swing away from an established authority to the individual, and it reached its apex in the American context, where the democratic ideals elevated the individual even further. Every person could interpret the Bible for himself or herself. I find value in recognizing an individual’s ability to interpret, but it, too, is lacking. Individual interpretation, when isolated from community, fails to possess appropriate safeguards. When everyone interprets for themselves, there can be a lack of continuity with the past and little to prevent fanciful and unfaithful interpretation.

I believe that it is within community that interpretation can be done most faithfully. The community values the insights and abilities of all individuals within the body. It prevents the heavy hand of a hierarchy or the fickleness of the individual interpreter. As with the other interpretive models, there are dangers to consider within the community. There could be a tendency for interpretation to take on an air of favoring whatever is popular. Is this just a matter of whichever position has the most votes wins? Christ’s unpopular, unconventional teachings have been co-opted many times in favor of a more flattering message. Does the community model lend itself to this?

Of course, poor interpretation can result if people are determined to have it, but there are many different layers within “community” to prevent misguided interpretations.

  • The history of the church provides the largest community with which to interpret the Scriptures. Saints have been interpreting the Bible since there were written texts, and their insights can be beneficial. The fact that their interpretations come from different locations, cultures and time periods expose an element of universality to interpretation. It’s not something restricted to one culture or geographical region. The history of interpretation in the church bears the test of time.
  • The next community would be the brotherhood of churches. Churches who share a common history and association contribute to the interpretive process together.
  • Finally, the local church provides the community with which an individual will bear the closest association. Interpretation should arise from group study, close interaction, and hands-on experience with the demands of living the Christian life together.

With all of these communities there is a whole host of interpretations, with the level of agreement ranging from unanimity to disagreement. But, all these communities should be participants in the conversation. When there is unanimity across many different Christians through many different times, there’s a good case to be made for the essential character of the doctrine.

While much more could be said, this should prevent any interpreter from singing along with Simon and Garfunkle, “I am a rock; I am an island.”

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2 Responses to Community of Interpretation

  1. Pingback: Hermeneutics: Community Driven Interpretation (2) « christocentricity

  2. Pingback: Thinking about The Women | The Backlist

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