Friday, November 30, 2007

Only maybe tangentially theological

As someone with both theological and legal training, the printed word has figured prominently in my education and continues to be a great source of interest. I was editor-in-chief of one of the law reviews at my law school, and it was among my duties to be the final editor to ensure that every reference, every spelling, and all punctuation were exactly as the rules require. (There may be some reason to my being named most "anal-retentive" of my law school class.)

Punctuation is difficult to deal with in the area of biblical studies because the ancient manuscripts contain virtually none. The translations reveal the peculiar tastes and notions of the translators. Lawyers are notoriously poor writers, and they especially expend or withhold commas to demonstrate their splentic attitudes at the moment. Theologians (and English academics, ironic to say) are just as bad. (Does no one teach the "serial" or "Oxford" comma anymore? It's required in my edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.

The point: Now that the Almighty Nine (i.e., the Supreme Court of the United States) have decided to weigh in on the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (what hath God wrought!), I figured that I could stand a little review. I can recite it from memory, but I was surprised to see the punctuation when I looked it up. Here it is:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Now, even allowing for the fluidity in spelling, grammar, and punctuation that was the rule in the late 18th Century, the excess of commas in the Amendment make it extremely difficult to read on its face. "Plain meaning" exegesis will be really interesting, if the Court should claim that. (As for original intent devotees, I'll wait eagerly for how they deal with what seems to be the limiting condition: A well-regulated Militia['s] [] being necessary to the security of a free State.) But chiefly, what is that comma between "Arms" and "shall"?

When I was in seminary, "Hermeneutics" was the class that virutally everyone feared. I'm not quite sure why that was: Ignorance is bliss -- often! But since that time, I have offered thanks on uncountable occasions for the insights into the interpretive process that I gained from the professing of Lorez Nieting and Robert Jenson. It made me a fan (though far from a knowledgeable or obesssed fan) of "hermeneutics." And I realize that that task is not just a fancy "behind the scenes" class one had to take to get through Gettysburg Sem. It is an everyday reality in the lives and vocations of many of us.

So I'll watch with interest the hermeutical work of the Fab 9 as they undertake to divine the meaning-for-today of that piece of near gobbledygook from long ago.


Anonymous said...

You're missing a ) at the end of your 2nd paragraph.

Wollom said...

Dwight, do not forget that one of the several important, and arguably most important, aspects of hermeneutics is the caution not to allow one's own predispositions to infringe upon what the text itself is saying. Allow the text it own integrity. WAJ

Dwight P. said...

Anonymous: That's why we have others proofread our materials. Thanks for pointing it out, and I'm going to leave the error on display as part of my Advent discipline.

Wally, You are, of course, most certainly correct. But I think that it is nearly impossible to do that. We work to polish the hermeneutical lens to as clear a finish as possible, but no Lutheran preacher can possibly abide by your rule: The Pauline overlay is applied too heavily in Lutheran training. (If that were not true, Matthew would figure more prominently in Lutheran teaching than it does.) And within the realm of literary theory, there are all kinds of schools of thought that assert that the text has no integrity apart from whatever "meaning" I or we bring to it.

I approach the Matthew study with an attitude that we must read for the clearest understanding of the text as we have it (that is not to posit the perfection of any English translation -- or even any one Greek manuscript, of course) and let the chips fall where they may. But all meaning requires context. So, for example, I am regularly struck by how much Hauerwas sounds just like Matthew (or is it the other way around?) who sounds like Bonhoeffer -- and we know what that means!


Wollom said...


Thanks for your response and please accept my apology for being so tardy in responding. I am deep in the Advent schedule and just haven't had time to give you a proper response in return. Please allow me to complete this Season and then I can give you a more complete response.

In short, however, I agree that there are numerous schools holding to the theory that a text has no meaning apart from that which the reader provides. Basically, communication theory holds that meaning lies in people not in things. I fully agree with that idea. Especially when that concept is applied to a piece of writing/literature. As Jenson was fond of saying, (and I paraphrase here) "Shakespeare has said all he's ever going to say." However when dealing with Scripture (NT to include Matthew) we are not dealing simply with literature or a text, we are dealing with the Word who became flesh and dwells among us. Therefore, to say that the text of Scripture has no meaning apart from that which we bring to it, is just not a part of the vocabulary of faith. Ergo, just because there are several schools holding to a particular notion does not necessarily mean that those schools are correct.

I wish that I had more time to respond, but I promise I will be looking forward to a more leisurely conversation following Advent.

Dwight P. said...

I'd welcome your thoughts, Wally. I am not theorist, just someone trying to make some sense of things that come into my life. When you're ready to say more, draft it up and post it as a guest post. No need to hide the light under the bushel of "Comments."

All Advent blessings -- makarios (makarioi?) are those who know the spirit of Advent and celebrate it appropriately.