1. Past exploration of the theme
14. From the World Council of Churches, from the Christian World Communions and from bi-lateral dialogues, as well as from the councils of each church, a great deal of agreed theological reflection has been produced in the past century. There is always a danger of ecumenical “loss of memory”. Those engaged in the interpreting process need to use the original documents as well as the many explanatory books and pamphlets that make available ecumenical agreements. Particularly relevant from past exploration for the present task is the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order.
15. The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order at Montreal (1963), was able to say:
By the Tradition is meant the Gospel itself, transmitted from generation to generation in and by the Church, Christ Himself present in the life of the Church. By tradition is meant the traditionary process. The term traditions is used…to indicate both the diversity of forms of expression and also what we call confessional traditions, for instance the Lutheran tradition or the Reformed tradition…the word appears in a further sense, when we speak of cultural traditions. (Section II, para. 39.)
Our starting point is that we as Christians are all living in a tradition which goes back to our Lord and has its roots in the Old Testament and are all indebted to that tradition inasmuch as we have received the revealed truth, the Gospel, through its being transmitted from one generation to another. Thus we can say that we exist as Christians by the Tradition of the Gospel (the paradosis of thekerygma) testified in Scripture, transmitted in and by the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Section II, para. 45.)
The traditions in Christian history are distinct from, and yet connected with, the Tradition. They are the expressions and manifestations in diverse historical terms of the one truth and reality which is Christ. This evaluation of the traditions poses serious problems…How can we distinguish between traditions embodying the true Tradition and merely human traditions? (Section II, para’s 47 and 48.)
16. Montreal thereby helped the churches to begin to realize that the one Tradition is witnessed to in Scripture and transmitted by the Holy Spirit through the Church. This means the canon of Scripture came into being within the Tradition, which finds expression within the various traditions of the Church. In this way Montreal helped to overcome the old contrast between “sola Scriptura” and “Scripture and tradition” and to show that the different hermeneutical criteria in the different traditions belong together. The ongoing interaction between Tradition and traditions enables faithful transmission, even though from time to time there have been distortions of the apostolic faith.
17. But Montreal did not fully explain what it means that the one Tradition is embodied in concrete traditions and cultures. Concerning the quest for a hermeneutical principle the conference listed the different ways in which the various churches deal with this problem but did not itself deal with criteriological questions, such as how to discern the authenticity of faith in a situation of conflicting cultural perspectives, frameworks or hermeneutical principles.7 Finally, Montreal could go no further than the WCC‘s Toronto Statement (1950), which deliberately provided no criteria beyond the “Basis” of the WCC8 to assess the authenticity or fidelity of the traditions of its member churches, to say nothing of other human traditions. It could only point to the three main factors in the transmission process: the events and testimonies preceding and leading to Scripture, Scripture itself, and subsequent ecclesial preaching and teaching.
18. It must be recognized that Montreal left open the vital question of how churches can discern the one Tradition. Therefore there is a danger that churches identify the one Tradition exclusively with their own tradition. Even the discussion of this question in languages other than English is difficult, because the Montreal “solution” relied on English language conventions about the use of capital letters and these conventions can produce ambiguity, e.g. at the beginning of a sentence where it is not clear whether the capital letter distinguishes the one Tradition or simply marks the start of the sentence. These acknowledged limitations do not alter the fact that Montreal provided a valid set of distinctions, between Tradition as that which God intends to have handed on in the life of the Church, tradition as the process by which this handing on takes place and traditions as particular expressions of Christian life and thought. These exist in some tension with one another but can also be the vehicles for developing a deeper grasp of the one Tradition, by which is meant the one Gospel, the living Word of God.
19. After Montreal, Faith and Order undertook important studies on the hermeneutical significance of the Council of the Early Church9 Several reports on the Authority of the Bible were assembled as a contribution to the hermeneutical discussions of that period.10 The The Odessa consultation (1977) on “How does the Church teach authoritatively today?” addressed aspects of the hermeneutical problem, especially the question of continuity and change in the doctrinal tradition of the Church. Also, after Accra (1974), Faith and Order began to collect newer expressions of faith and hope from around the world. These were published in a series, and also summarized at Bangalore (1978) in “A Common Account of Hope”. This work, which found continuation in the Faith and Order study on the Apostolic Faith, produced an awareness of the contextual aspects of confessions of faith, both in the sense of the original contexts in which they were made and of the effect on their use produced by the changing contexts of Christian discipleship.
20. The helpful results of these study processes did not prevent continuing conflicts, whether these were between traditions themselves, between the inherited traditions and newer contexts, or between various contextual approaches within each church or within the relationships of churches to one another. This was why Santiago felt the need to return once again to hermeneutical issues (cf. para. 11 above).
2. “According to the Scriptures”
21. The primary authority of Scripture within hermeneutical work is not weakened by our understanding of the way in which the text has been handed down within the Church through the process of transmission. The texts of Scripture thus received offer their revelatory character after a handing on through oral transmission. The written texts subsequently have been interpreted by means of diverse exegetical and scholarly methods. Wrestling with the principles and practice of interpretation, Faith and Order affirmed (Bristol, 1967/68) that the tools of modern exegetical scholarship are important if the biblical message is to speak with power and meaning today. These tools have contributed in vital ways to the present ecumenical convergence and growth in koinonia. The exegetical exploration of the process of tradition within the Bible itself, together with the recognition of multiple interpretations of God’s saving actions in history within the unity of the early apostolic church, points to ways the Word of God is expressed in human language and by human witness. This is to say, the Word of God is expressed in language and by witnesses shaped amid diverse situations of human life, which are historically, culturally and socially conceived. This is also to say: “The very nature of biblical texts means that interpreting them will require continued use of the historical-critical method,…[since] the Bible does not present itself as a direct revelation of timeless truths, but as the written testimony to a series of interventions in which God reveals himself in human history.”11 Though some churches and individual Christians reject historical-critical interpretation, common study of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments now has a long history of achieved agreement. Ecumenical hermeneutics can use the historical-critical method to establish, e.g., the background of the texts, the intentions of the authors, the inter-relationship of the different books.
22. Interpretation should not, however, depend only on this method, now shared by those of different traditions and theologies. Many other approaches to the text, both of long standing and of modern development, help in the recognition of the meaning of Scripture for the churches today and for the many different situations of the world Church. In particular the historical-critical method needs to be combined with a reading in critical interaction with experience, the experience both of individuals and of communities. Other methods are those inherent in traditional biblical interpretation including patristic, liturgical, homiletic, dogmatic and allegorical approaches to the text. Contemporary methods include those that focus on the original social setting of the texts (e.g. sociological methods); those that focus on the literary form of texts and the internal relationships within a text and between texts (e.g. semiotic and canonical methods); and those that focus on the potential of the text for readings generated by the encounter of the text with human reality (e.g. reader-response method). All these methods can also be used to deal with extra-biblical sources. Some methods help to open up neglected dimensions of the past from the perspective of marginalized groups. Examples of the latter are feminist or liberationist analyses of systems of power and patronage.
23. Nevertheless ecumenical hermeneutics cannot be reduced to the use of exegetical tools and methods isolated from the fullness of the experience of the interpreting community. A variety of factors are woven into that fullness, and these compose the hermeneutical locus within which Scripture is interpreted. These factors include oral tradition, narratives, memories and liturgies, as well as the life, teachings, and ethical decisions of the believing community. Thus, many dimensions of the life of the community are part of the context for interpreting the scriptural texts. Scripture emerges from episodes of life, a calendar of feasts, a scheme of history, and the witnessing account of the living people of God. In addition, Scripture becomes alive once again as it engages the life, feasts, history, and witness of faith communities today. From this perspective, the praxis of the Christian communities and people in different particular cultural and social contexts is itself a reading and an interpretation of the scriptural texts and not simply a position from which to approach the texts.
24. Because the biblical texts originated in concrete historical situations, they witness to the salvific presence of the Triune God in those particular circumstances. However, the texts also transcend this particularity and become part of the world of the readers in each generation, of the witnessing community through the ages into the present. Although embedded in the life and times in which it was given written form, Scripture, as inspired testimony, provides a measure for the truth and meaning of human stories today. In this sense, hermeneutical priority belongs to the Word of God, which has critical authority over all traditions.
25. The relation and sometimes also tension between past and present which exists when biblical texts are applied to our stories today reflects the eschatological dimension of Scripture itself. Just as Scripture constantly looks forward in hope to God’s future, the interpreting activity of the Church is also an anticipatory projection of the reality of the reign of God, which is both already present and yet to come. Reading “the signs of the times,” both in the history of the past and in the events of the present, is to be done in the context of the announcement of “the new things to come”; this orientation to the future is part of the reality of the Church as a hermeneutical community.12 Therefore the struggle for peace, justice, and the integrity of creation, the renewed sense of mission in witness and service, the liturgy in which the Church proclaims and celebrates the promise of God’s reign and its coming in the praxis of the faith, are all integral parts of the constant interpretative task of the Church.
26. Ecumenical hermeneutics welcomes the diversity of insights that arise from biblical reflection of this broadly-based kind. A scriptural text may be considered as authoritative for a particular matter of faith or practice, even if this text is interpreted differently by the dialogue partners. Thus agreement may be reached concerning a responsibility laid upon the church even though different hermeneutical methods were employed in deriving this sense of responsibility from Scripture. On the other hand, the applicability of a text is not to be ruled out even if a specific interpretation is deemed by one of the dialogue partners to be irrelevant to a particular matter of faith or practice.
27. Common study of Scripture has achieved ecumenical advance. However, it has not by itself led to the visible unity of the Church. Interpreters from different churches and traditions have not been able to reach sufficient agreement for that. All Christians agree that Scripture holds a unique place in the shaping of Christian faith and practice. Most agree that the expression of apostolic faith is not confined to the formulation of that faith expressed in Scripture but that norms of faith have also been expressed in the life of the churches throughout the ages. The Church receives the texts of Scripture as part of the paradosis of the Gospel. The texts are to be respected as coming from outside to the interpreter to be engaged dialogically. In the process of interpretation, which involves the particular experiences of the reader, Scripture is the primary norm and criterion. Particular traditions need to be referred continuously to this norm by which they find their authenticity and validity. This response to Scripture takes shape communally and ecclesially in worship, in the sacramental life where hearing, touch and sight come together, in the anamnesis of the lives of biblical witnesses and in the lives of those who live the biblical message, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Scripture itself refers to the one Tradition, lived under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The one Tradition, therefore, is the setting for the interpretation of Scripture.
3. Interpreting the interpreters
28. Within the one Tradition, as Christians engage with Scripture and their own traditions to understand God’s will for the world and for the people called to be witnesses of God’s love, they always need to interpret text and traditions anew. Amid this hermeneutical task, Christians are to be conscious that interpretations come out of special historical circumstances and that new issues may come out of various contexts. In considering these circumstances and issues, Christians involved in the hermeneutical task do well
- to investigate the location from which the text is being interpreted;
- the choice of a specific text for interpretation;
- the involvement of power structures in the interpretation process;
- prejudices and presuppositions brought to bear on the interpretation process.
It is in the light of this understanding that ecumenical hermeneutics needs to operate as a hermeneutics of coherence, showing the positive complementarity of traditions. It needs also to include a hermeneutics of suspicion. This does not mean the adoption of an attitude of mistrust but the application to oneself and one’s dialogue partners of an approach which perceives how self-interest, power, national or ethnic or class or gender perspectives can affect the reading of texts and the understanding of symbols and practices. Positively, the recent work done by Protestants and Roman Catholics together on the Reformation debates about justification and sanctification has enabled fuller mutual understanding. Negatively, the way in which the Bible was used to justify apartheid is an example of a selective reading which was challenged by being confronted by these and other hermeneutical challenges. Safeguards against selective and prejudicial readings are also imperative in the realm of academic and scholarly interpretation, with particular attention to the wider testimony of Scripture and the experience of the many oppressed.
29. Within the struggle for peace, justice, and the integrity of creation the hermeneutical dimension of the quest for reconciliation and unity can be painful, especially when reconciliation involves those whose common past has been marked by injustice or violence. Interpreting a history of this kind requires an hermeneutical awareness which enables one to renounce the stereotypes such histories can generate on both sides of a dispute. This hermeneutical process may call for repentance and forgiveness, since the reconciliation of injustice and violence requires a healing of memories, which is not the same as forgetfulness of the past. Much further work is clearly needed in this area of assessing the past. One must pray for the miracle of resurrection to new life, even if the marks of the crucifixion remain.
30. Hermeneutics in the service of unity must also proceed on the presumption that those who interpret the Christian tradition differently each have “right intention of faith”. It is not only a condition of dialogue, but a fruitful product of dialogue, that the partners come to appreciate and trust one another`s sincerity and good intention. This means each is sincerely seeking to transmit that which God wishes to pass on through the Church. It is important in conveying results of dialogue to the churches to transmit also the sense of mutual confidence. This is especially so where a painful shared history of conflict calls for the healing of memories. Since diversity can be an expression of the rich gifts of the Holy Spirit, the churches are called to become aware of the possibility of an abiding complementarity, i.e., of the values inherent in the “otherness” of one another and even of the right to be different from each other, when such differences are part of the exploration of the divine mystery and the divinely-willed unity. Viewed in this way, differences can be an invitation and a starting point for the common search for the truth, in a spirit of koinonia that entails a disposition to metanoia, under the guidance of the Spirit of God.
31. When differences of interpretation and possible complementarity are being assessed, the question of authoritative interpretation arises. Part of the ecumenical method is to ensure that the partners in dialogue are made aware where authority resides in each church and how it is being understood and received by each participant. The process of ecumenical hermeneutics involves not only faithful understanding and interpretation of texts, symbols and practices but also analysis of the relative weight given to those texts, symbols and practices by the various churches in respect of the authoritative nature of sources themselves and the interpretations derived from them. Clarity about authority is a crucial element in that dimension of hermeneutics which concentrates on the faithful communication and reception of the meaning of texts, symbols and practices. Consequently, the relationship between Scripture, Tradition and traditions and Christian experience arising from liturgical and other practices needs to be dealt with again and again within the hermeneutical process.
4. One Tradition and many traditions
32. The “one Tradition” signifies the redeeming presence of the resurrected Christ from generation to generation abiding in the community of faith, while the “many traditions” are particular modes and manifestations of that presence. God’s self-disclosure transcends all expressions of it. How can Christians and churches share in the gift of the one Tradition as they confess and live according to Scripture? How are they to read their own traditions in the light of the one Tradition? As has been noted above, the Fourth World Conference addressed the issue of hermeneutics in an ecumenical perspective, opening up the many traditions to the recognition of the one Tradition as a gift from God. Recognition of and continuity with the one Tradition, however, should not be confused with a mere repetition of the past without any recognition of the present. The Holy Spirit inspires and leads the churches each to rethink and reinterpret their tradition in conversation with each other, always aiming to embody the one Tradition in the unity of God’s Church. The churches of God as living communities, constituted by faith in Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, must always re-receive the Gospel in ways that relate to their present experience of life. It is in this process of re-reception that the minds of Christian communities are enlightened by the Holy Spirit to discern truth from falsehood and to acknowledge both the richness and the limitedness of the diverse geographical, historical, religious and social circumstances in which the Gospel is made manifest. Ecumenical hermeneutics is not an unaided human enterprise. It is an ecclesial act led by the Spirit and therefore it should be carried out in a setting of prayer.
33. The churches involved in the ecumenical movement recognize that by being in conversation with each other they learn to appreciate mutually each other’s gifts, as well as to challenge limited or false understandings of what God expects churches to be and to do in the world. Thus they begin to move from identifying themselves in opposition to one another to identifying themselves in relation to one another. This opening to new understandings of the traditions of other churches – their history, their liturgies, their martyrs and saints, their sacraments and ministries – has changed the ecumenical climate since Montreal. The exchange of biblical exegesis, of systematic theological approaches, of historiographical studies, and practical-theological projects, has been a very enriching development. Exegetical research is undertaken on the basis of receptive as well as critical interconfessional discussion, fostered by ecumenical dialogue. Bible translations and commentaries have been published ecumenically, common liturgical calendars, lectionaries, hymn and prayer books have become the means of sharing spiritual resources with one another.
34. This ecumenical sharing has indeed created a new ecumenical situation, characterized by growth in mutual understanding across confessional boundaries predicated on a new appreciation of particular confessional traditions and witness. The challenge to move on from mutual understanding to mutual recognition is now before the churches in the search for visible unity. For example, ecumenical hermeneutics must also enable dialogue partners to declare their particular understanding of the relationship between “continuity” and “discontinuity” in the historic expression of the faith of the people of God. As one instance, the Reformation introduced changes in ministerial order which the Reformers perceived as a return to continuity with the early church whereas others felt the changes were an example of discontinuity.
35. Traditions are transmitted orally as well as through written texts. Ecumenical hermeneutics – as every hermeneutical task – is therefore a dynamic process concerned not only with written sources but also with oral tradition. In addition to textual and oral tradition, meaning is conveyed through non-verbal symbols: Christian art and music, liturgical gestures or colours, icons, the creation and use of sacred space and time, Christian symbols or signs are important aspects of the way in which the various dialogue partners understand and communicate their faith. Ecumenical hermeneutics needs to be intentional about incorporating this rich, but also neglected, source material for interpretation, communication and reception. As with symbols, Christian practices need to be taken into consideration by those engaged in ecumenical hermeneutics. Even when there is a basis for theological convergence on the meaning of, e.g. baptism or eucharist, attention needs to be given to the practices surrounding these rites in particular ecclesial communities. Here as elsewhere, hermeneutical reflection can serve as an aid in the process of recognizing the same faith underlying different practices.
36. As well as recognizing the new ecumenical situation, churches are also becoming more and more aware of shifts in perception and reception among their members which arise from changes in the media of communication. Spoken words and visual images are especially significant in the increasingly powerful multimedia culture of today’s world. A renewed appreciation of narrative forms of transmission sheds new light on processes of interpretation and communication. It is also important to draw critically upon the perceptions of secular artists and film producers as they take up themes and symbols from Christian history.
37. Yet ultimately, amid the many ecclesial traditions, the one Tradition is revealed in the living presence of Christ in the world, but is not something to be captured and controlled by human discourse. It is a living, eschatological reality, eluding all attempts at a final linguistic definition and conceptual disclosure. One way of describing the one Tradition is by speaking about the ecclesial capacity of receiving revelation. This capacity is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit, received by the apostles at Pentecost and given to every Christian community and to every member of the community in the process of Christian initiation. This capacity is the gift of the Holy Spirit who “will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13), who is the Spirit of truth; that truth is Jesus Christ himself (Jn 14: 6), the perfect image of the Father from whom the Spirit proceeds. The capacity to receive the fullness of revelation is actualized in the Church’s celebration of the eucharist, which involves both a hearing and an embodying of the Word of God, a participation in the eschaton, the feast of the kingdom.