The “Rule of Faith” and Biblical Hermeneutics

Robert W. Wall

Scripture’s legal address is the church. Not only was Scripture formed for its various uses there, but its essential nature is decided by what the church believes about this biblical word. This matter is not incidental but pivotal to its interpretation. As J. Webster has correctly observed, Scripture’s misinterpretation during the modern period, when the biblical text is approached as the mere literary artifact from a particular period and region of the history of religions, is largely a matter of its “dogmatic mislocation” (Word and Church [T&T Clark, 2001] 9-11). The normative meaning of the text is necessarily understood in terms of an author’s response to his historical situation in antiquity. Whenever this is the aim of biblical interpretation, not only is there posited a vast distance between its first audience and the contemporary reader rendering the text more or less irrelevant for today, but the kerygmatic witness of that text once thought sanctified by the Spirit is effectively silenced.

Although one should not deny modern criticism’s noble effort to protect the Bible from its careless and self-promoting interpreters, when the normative meaning of a text is reduced to the intentions of its author(s), shaped in response to a particular historical situation, then the logical constraints that regulate interpretation will necessarily—at least first of all—be humanistic and historically oriented. John Barton’s especially fluent statement of this point in The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Westminster John Knox, 2007) contends that the theological appropriation of a text by its faithful interpreters is perfectly acceptable but only after its normative meaning has been determined by the tools and virtues of humanistic criticism. Barton argues these tools generally concern the literary analysis of the text, which is illuminated, when possible, by socio-historical criticism. The aim of biblical criticism is the “plain sense” of a literary text, unadorned of ideological bias, but which then can be appropriated for the ideological ends of the self-critical exegete.

Of course, the problem with this approach, as clearheaded as Barton proffers it, is what Webster then terms its “dogmatic mislocation.” The consequence of protecting the sacred text from abuse is its relocation from the confessing church, whose interpretation was typically prejudiced by prior beliefs, to the academy, wrongly judged as a neutral place, where Scripture’s authority as a holy text is attenuated on epistemological (or cultural) grounds and its vital uses in worship and catechesis to shape the faith and witness of God’s people has been necessarily compromised.

Although celebrating the salutary gains of modern criticism in understanding the background and plain sense of the biblical text, the practices of theological interpretation intend to restore the Bible’s rightful role as discerned at its ecclesial address in the company of the indwelling Spirit. These Bible practices in whatever expression are deeply rooted in the church’s core beliefs in what the Bible is as the church’s Scripture and, on this basis, what roles the Bible as Scripture is authorized to perform. Within this ecclesial setting, the true origins of the biblical text, now approached in faith as a sacred text, ought not be its point of composition but rather the historic moment the church recognized upon using it that the Spirit had sanctified it for holy ends. It is on this spiritual basis that the church then gathered the sanctified text together with other texts the Spirit selected for holy ends into discrete collections, finally shaping them over many generations into a single biblical canon.

The biblical canon, then, is hardly the arbitrary production of a politically minded religious movement but the literary result of purposeful decisions made under the direction of the indwelling Holy Spirit that would facilitate the ongoing communication between the Risen One and future generations of his disciples. It is on this pneumatological basis that the Bible continues to be used in the worship and for the catechesis of disciples, then where two or three disciples are gathered together is where Scripture must be located to hear a word from the living Lord who is present there with them through his Spirit (cf. Matt 18:20).

If the biblical canon is formed under the Spirit’s direction to form the church under the Spirit’s direction, then what is true about the nature of the church is also true about the nature of its Scripture. According to its ecumenical creed, the church confesses itself to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, which are all inclinations or marks of the indwelling Spirit. If Scripture is believed to be of a piece with the church that formed it, then the marks of Scripture must also be one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Indeed, any affirmation of the Bible’s continuing authority rests upon this ontological claim, analogical of what it means to be the church, which in turn explains its role as an auxiliary of the Spirit for sanctifying a covenant-keeping community.

Each one of these four markers—one, holy, catholic, apostolic—is of decisive importance for underwriting Scripture’s authority for the church and may even be translated into a set of dogmatic criteria that underwrite the Bible’s epistemology and canonicity. The focus of the present essay, however, is more limited and concerns the analogical relationship between the apostolic Rule of Faith and the theological meaning of Scripture as God’s word (cf. R. W. Wall, “The Rule of Faith in Theological Hermeneutics,” in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology [ed. J.B. Green and M. Turner; Eerdmans, 1999] 88-107). Put simply, if we believe the Bible has continuing authority for the church because of its “apostolicity,” then its interpretation for Christian discipleship should be regulated by the apostolic Rule of Faith. This move does not discount the importance of historical and literary strategies in getting a plain sense of what the text actually says. These exegetical strategies are themselves regulated by additional rules of textual engagement, but stand prior to an appropriation of the text’s plain sense as a word from the living God for today’s faithful.

Two general observations will frame my reflection on this topic. First, the history of the Bible’s formation into an auxiliary used by the Spirit to form the church is itself guided by the Rule of Faith. While the formation of the biblical canon is studied as an historical phenomenon (Historie)—a “canonization from below”—it should hardly be viewed as an arbitrary process that produced an ancient artifact that requires humanistic strategies to translate its past and present meanings. Rather, the choices made by the church over several centuries that finally formed and fixed the biblical canon may also be understood as a process of spiritual discernment led by the Holy Spirit (Heilsgeschichte)—a “canonization from above”—which was regulated by testimony of what the apostles actually heard, saw, and touched of the Incarnate Word (cf. 1 John 1:1-3).

Second, the biblical canon is not the church’s Rule of Faith but analogical of it. Not only did the Rule of Faith come prior to the formation of the biblical canon and did not originate from it, the Rule of Faith subsequently functioned during the formation of Scripture as norma normans (“a rule that rules”) to confirm the apostolicity of all its parts. This self-evidently does not concern their apostolic authorship, but rather, the content and consequence of their instruction. In this sense, both creed and canon are norma normata (“a rule that is ruled”).

A hermeneutical circle is thus forged for every faith communion of the apostolic tradition that insures a right handling of the word of truth: this same apostolic Rule of Faith—first used in Christ’s absence by his Spirit to guide the theological formation of his disciples—supplied the canonization of Scripture with its hermeneutics that continues to guide its reception and ongoing interpretation within today’s church under the Spirit’s direction. In Tertullian’s apt phrase, it is interpretationis or “governor for interpretation.”

It should be said in passing that the socio-historical circumstances that occasioned the morphing of the apostolic Rule of Faith into the Bible, as though the two are one and the same, is especially transparent in the Magisterial Reformation during which Scripture trumped, if not replaced altogether, the canonical traditions of the catholic church as the via medium of divine revelation (especially in some pietist adumbrations of the Reformation). Sola scriptura is the catchphrase of Protestant hermeneutics according to which biblical exegesis and theological interpretation are collapsed: what the Bible says is what the church believes. Without offering criticism of the epistemic problems inherent in this formulation (for this see J. E. Vickers, Invocation and Assent [Eerdmans, 2008]), let me only suggest that modern criticism has made the Reformation’s “Scripture principle” practically untenable. Humanistic criticism and its attendant historical and literary rules have created a vast distance between the meaning of the ancient text—“the” meaning intended by the author for his first audiences (as anachronistic as this critical formulation is)—and the Bible’s current readers for whom what the authored text meant in antiquity for its first audience has no relevance for today’s.

What, then, are the theological agreements that make up this apostolic grammar? In its various articulations from antiquity forward, the apostolic Rule of Faith retains its narrative shape, its Trinitarian substance, and relates together the core beliefs of Christian discipleship in a way that allows believers to confess and communicate their faith in a coherent way to one another (as a mark of their oneness) and to outsiders (as a mark of their holiness or distinctive “otherness”). Accordingly, knowledge of God is inseparable from knowledge of God’s Son and Spirit; and such knowledge is impossible apart from its revelation in the events of or actions within history: inaugurated by God’s creation of all things, testified to by the prophets, climaxed in and by the life and work of the risen Jesus and the Pentecost of his Spirit, whose work continues in the transformed life and transforming ministry of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and will be consummated by the Creator’s coming triumph at the parousia of the Lord Christ. The catholic and apostolic church’s confession and transforming experience of this narrative of God’s gospel, deeply rooted in and confirmed by its collective memory, supplies the Rule of Faith’s raw material. I will leave the details to others and claim only this: The results of biblical interpretation must ever conform to this confession and experience.

Although biblical interpretation with purchasing power for Christian worship and catechesis will cohere to these theological agreements, different communions come to articulate their apostolic faith according to their peculiar histories and experiences. Yet these different denominational “rules,” if genuinely Christian, will bear a striking family resemblance to each other. Upon closer scrutiny each will conform, more or less, to the core beliefs and deeper logic of the apostolic Rule of Faith. A particular communion’s rule of faith is the product of many small changes that have taken place over time in every fresh attempt to respond faithfully and often courageously to new contingencies and cultural movements the church catholic has encountered, always in creative and open-ended dialogue with the stable truth claims confessed according to the single Rule.

The Free Methodist communion in which I serve as elder was founded in an historical moment of great social upheaval and religious apathy that shaped a more collaborative notion of salvation, so that in partnership with Christ and mediated through the sacraments (primarily of prayer, Scripture, and Holy Communion) God’s grace forgives, heals, transforms, and ultimately sanctifies the believer to respond in active and ever-perfecting love toward God and neighbor (see, e.g., R. W. Wall, “Toward a Wesleyan Hermeneutic of Scripture,” WTJ 30 [1995] 50-67). I would argue that this Methodist rule of faith, which regulates (or should!) the Bible practices in my faith communion, has been safeguarded by the Spirit (whenever allowed!) to give shape to the theological interpretation of Scripture apropos of Wesleyan believers. Whether to correct or to nurture the faith of those belonging to a particular tradition, the deeper logic and bias (or “reductionism”) of biblical interpretation for its tradents will conform, if only discretely, to their own particular rule of faith.

We need thus to be reminded from time to time that Scripture itself is “many books” in “one book” and these testimonies to the gracious purpose of God stand in complementary and mutually correcting relation to one another. Given the nature of these texts, then, we should not be surprised to discover similar variation within and among our various Christian communions. This kind of relativism can be abused, of course, if performed in an uncritical fashion, so that every interpretation is tolerated as equally cogent and important for Christian formation. Alternatively, it can be abused if embodied in a provincial fashion, in which congregations or communions adopt a sectarian isolation from other congregations and communions. A critical theological hermeneutic requires that every rule of faith must bear close family resemblance to the apostolic Rule of Faith.

At the end of the day, the community of interpretation must replace one kind of reductionism, one which seeks to conform a text’s interpretation to an absolute and abstract Belief, with another more massive and synthetic one that congregates the rich diversity of all those reductionisms sounded by a complex of interpreters, past and present—each of whom confesses beliefs that are truly Christian, although not with the same emphasis or detail, and lives a life that is truly Christian, but in and for a particular context. Only in such an interpretive community of dialogue, where each inflection maintains its own distinct timbre, can the word be fully vocalized for all to hear, and in hearing, to know what saith the Lord God Almighty.

Posted Nov 01, 2009