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The Church Has So Much to Unlearn

By Walter Brueggemann

Interpretation is never objective but is always mediated through the voice, perceptions, hopes, fears, interests, and hurts of the interpreter and of the context of interpretation. Because interpretation is not objective, it is always partial and provisional. Every interpretation, then, must be kept open to the review of the whole church, which is pledged to listen as a whole community to what God seems to be saying in scripture. In the meantime we must have enough courage and confidence to offer an interpretation that for the moment is given as an authoritative disclosure.

We see such courage and confidence in contemporary interpretation, most clearly among advocates of a liberation hermeneutic, interpretive voices of the Third World and other marginalized communities who speak from and for a certain context and interest. They are voices of the poor and oppressed who read scripture in terms of a “preferential option for the poor.” These interpreters themselves readily acknowledge their own context and how it governs their interpretation. This perspective has now produced a rich trajectory of postcolonial interpretation that reflects and serves the faithful in exploited cultures in the world.

As a result, we are now coming to see that Euro-American interpretation in classic historical-critical modes, offered in the academy mostly by white, established males, is also contextualized and speaks from and for a certain context and interest. This is true for those who speak through scientific methods (liberals) and for those who speak primarily out of a dogmatic tradition (conservatives). This does not mean that such interpretations are wrong or easily dismissed. It means that they must be taken for what they are, statements of advocacy. They may claim no interpretive privilege but must be held, along with other readings, in a church that seeks to be faithful and obedient.

The problem for a church that claims to be genuinely diversified and open is how to practice the normativeness of scripture in a way that permits all serious interpretations be taken seriously. In a practice of genuine diversity all interpreters listen and submit their readings to the judgment of the whole church, without imagining ahead of time that the truth has been spoken in a single interpretive voice. Of course it is the case that every church tradition, liberal or conservative, readily imagines its own trajectory of interpretation to be a faithful one. And because most church traditions are readily homogeneous, there is not often a voice of dissent raised against an advocacy interpretation that reflects both a local consensus of faith and a local vested interest and ideological commitment.

There is enough in the Bible so that every interpreter on the spectrum of stability and change can find textual support. Faithful interpretation, beyond the passion of the ideological commitment, may be required to recognize and take seriously that neither the text nor the God of the text will fully echo or sign on for any particular interpretation bent in either direction.

The result is that our appropriation of scriptural texts is always and inescapably contextual and contested. Faithful reading requires a full recognition of the complexity of the text and an equally full recognition of the complexity of social reality in the midst of which we do our interpretation. In fact none of us is fully consistent about such matters because we do not everywhere, in life or in our reading horizon, come down on the side of “law and order” or on the side of emancipated newness. Nor does the biblical text!

In any interpretive community, then, what is required is contextual adjudication between these tendencies, so that both kinds of interpretation may be taken seriously. In any interpretative community where one side is so powerful and decisive that the other propensity is silenced or excluded, I suggest that the community is on its way to becoming a sect that has forgotten its role as a faith interpreter. This necessary adjudication is not the same as settlement for the lowest common denominator, but it is a resolve to entertain “the whole counsel of God” that is always thicker and more complex than our immediate social interest or moral passion.

Formulations of the authority of scripture are empty mantras until we get down to specific texts. And then it is apparent that issues of authority are transposed into issues of interpretation. It is precisely how authority results in interpretation that is our vexed question. An authoritative Bible that is not the subject of faithful interpretation has little generative power or pertinence for the community of faith. Conversely, interpretation that does not grow out of a sense of authority can rush too readily to become subjective, partisan, and ideological.

In terms of theological rootage our interpretation is to be done in the wake of Jesus who is crucified and risen, who had nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20), who was friend of publicans and sinners (Luke 7:34), who became poor that by becoming poor he might make many rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). I submit that what we know of Jesus is a clue about interpretation. Our interpretation (which is the real practice of authority) is to be crucified and risen to new truthfulness. Our interpretation is not to be done in our comfortable established posture, but as exiles on the way. Our interpretation is to be amenable to the poor and marginal for whom our controlled epistemology, our assured affluence, and our certain morality lack credibility. Our interpretation is an act of our poverty and not of our fullness, so that it might enrich others.

Practically, our interpretation is to be done gathered around the Eucharistic table that is an anticipation of our gathering around the throne of mercy. In my church tradition that table is called “The Welcome Table,” where all may come. Well, we never come without our interpretations. As we watch the bread broken and given to all, we are able to see that faithful interpretation does not speak the truth unless it is broken truth. As we watch the wine poured out, we know that where our lives are not poured out, our interpretation is a lie. The interpretive language that grows from the bread broken and the wine poured out is not the language of certain scholasticism, partisan moralism, or strident revolution. We will not responsibly claim the authority of Scripture unless we recover its language that is the language of trust and amazement, gratitude and obedience. Then the words may match the sacrament!

The challenge of interpretation is for the church to be honest and knowing and then to commit naivete, ready for hearing a word of life and living a life of glad obedience. The church has so much to unlearn about the Bible. It practices that unlearning and relearning one text at a time. Each time it is addressed by a text it may recognize a gracing voice and an open possibility; and so it lives in joy.

Walter Brueggemann is a featured speaker at the 2011 Trinity Institute: Reading Scripture Through Other Eyes. Visit to register or for more information about the conference.

From A Pathway of Interpretation. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

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