Note: I have dealt with this issue before. See “Should Christians be a People of the Book?”: a response to Father Freeman.
When the Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Al Kimel said the following on his blog the other day, I had to agree with him:
“The evangelical believer is at a terrible hermeneutical disadvantage. Catholic Christians read the Scripture through the lens of the Holy Eucharist. Our faith is shaped by the trinitarian structure and spiritual dynamism of the Divine Liturgy. In the words of St Irenaeus: “Our teaching is in accord with the Eucharist and the Eucharist, in its turn, confirms our teaching” (Adv. haer. 4.18.5).” (from here ; he has other thoughtful posts on this topic, particularly here)
That said, when he posted the above audio clip from Hauerwas, I have to disagree. Here is what I wrote:
No doubt Hauerwas is a very bright light, penetrating thinker, and analyzer of the Zeitgeist, but I think he goes too far [in this clip]. I think that Hauerwas, while being humorous, is also tending to an dangerous extreme : does there not need to be a middle ground here?
I would argue that while the Scriptures are clear enough so that a genuinely curious atheist could discern their main message (on a careful reading – one would need to latch on to the key passages found in John 5:39 and 20:31, and Luke 24: 24,47), he could not, for example, produce by himself the theological content of the Nicene Creed (or the Book of Concord [I’m Lutheran]) – in other words, determining what is essential and non-essential doctrine cannot be done satisfactorily without the true Rule of faith, that is, without the Church.
As I recently said in a review of Lutheran theologian Peter Nafzger’s fine book (in which he quotes Hauerwas talking about this as well), “do we want to assert – or give the impression – that when it comes to understanding the key message conveyed in the Scriptures unbelievers who carefully examine them are necessarily less able to grasp what is being said – and to be spiritually convicted – than the believing Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 10, who after all did lack the entire content found in the New Testament – the “good news” about Jesus?”
By the way, Nafzger’s book is being used in at least one of the classes of the conservative ELCA theologian and First Things writer David Yeago. Its worth a look.
(end note to Kimel, added bold)
Hauerwas also says in the clip: “The idea that the Scripture is self-interpreting of course is just stupid”.
I would say, “no, it’s just effective shorthand* for something much deeper that is going on”, which is this:
In the midst of the regular human act of listening (or reading), proper interpretation of the Christian Scriptures in man’s imagination in these last days is a gift of God given by the Holy Spirit, has Christ as its focus, and no longer interprets particular books of the Scriptures in, to some degree, the light of the contemporary circumstances of the church within the world, but now interprets contemporary circumstances in the church within the world primarily in light of the whole of the Scriptures, as the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to interpret Scripture, in line with the legitimate oral tradition bound by the rule of faith, and attested to by legitimate miracles, i.e. those performed among men by the Triune God.**
Further, it seems to me that there are general human questions to address here. I don’t think that we can supernaturalize this too much right off the bat. We can reasonably say that writing is a tool and technology – it extends the reach that we have with purely oral speech, which is the first thing that we should think about when we think of words (in one sense, I understand what people might be thinking when they refer to words as “creations”, but in another sense, is speaking words really “creating” – or is it only possible to think about words this way after the invention of writing?)
Writing is also an act of trust. It is not an act of trust like verbal communication with one’s fellows is an act of trust, for here one may correct others if misunderstood – that is, if one can be present. Writing, in one sense, would seem to secure the ongoing presence of the author. This however, is not the whole story. The act of writing presumes the presence of another who can be trusted to use the tool in a way that is responsible – that is making every effort to understand that the intentions of the author are understood as he would have intended and then applied in ways that are appropriate. Writing as an act of trust does not presume that all those who read can be trusted, but that there will be some who will make every effort to make sure that proper interpretation happens. Of course, authors can also take precautions themselves, writing in language that is clear and that takes into consideration not only other cultural contexts to the extent that they know about these, but also a particular breed of intellectually-inclined persons whose highest desire seems to be denial that there are some things in life that cannot be changed by our human interpretation, and our power to manipulate in general – through the other various tools they use to secure their version of reality.
Of course there is something very “supernatural” going on here as well, but I do not think that it can come at the expense of what I said above.
Further, all of this is not to imply that there is not some sense in which we really can say “Sola Scriptura” (see my debates with RC apologist David Armstrong for more on this). That said, the level and way of thinking that Martin Chemnitz showed, for example, was something that was lost among the 17th century Lutheran dogmaticians, as battle lines hardened and positions became less nuanced:
“The concept of a contemporaneous existence of the Word of God in a corrupted verbal form, and a pure written form, spawned Chemnitz’s explanation of traditiones in the second locus, De traditionibus. Here he lists the first of eight different types of traditiones as Scripture itself, i.e. the things that Christ and the Apostles preached orally and were later written down. Then follows: 2) the faithful transmission of the Scriptures; 3) the oral tradition of the Apostles (which by its very nature must agree with the contents of the New Testament canon); 4) the proper interpretation of the Scriptures received from the Apostles and “Apostolic men”; 5) dogmas that are not set forth in so many words in Scripture but are clearly apparent from a sampling of texts; 6) the consensus of true and pure antiquity; 7) rites and customs that are edifying and believed to be Apostolic, but cannot be proved from Scripture. Chemnitz rejects only the eighth kind of tradition:  traditions pertaining to faith and morals that cannot be proved with any testimony of Scripture; but which the Council of Trent commanded to be accepted and venerated with the same reverence and devotion as the Scripture. The important element of this last of the traitiones appears not to be the fact that such traditions of faith and morals not provable from Scripture actually existed, but that their status of equality with Scripture was foisted upon the church by the Council of Trent.” P. Strawn, Cyril of Alexandria as a Source for Martin Chemnitz, in Die Patristik in der Bibelexegese des 16. Jahrhunderts, Wolfenbu”ttleler Forschungen, Bd. 85, Hrsg. v. David C. Steinmetz, Wiesbaden 1999, p. 213-14.
*also good shorthand: all Scripture points to Christ, theology is the words God Himself speaks to us in Scripture and we say “Amen” to, the Holy Spirit creates and nurtures faith through the Scriptures.
**As I said before: “When we are brought to faith and sustained in that same faith, He is the One to whom we look. Him and no other! It is by His Holy Spirit that He calls us, enlightens us, and sanctifies us through His word and sacraments – His “means of grace”. When we hear His word preached we recognize its truth – and the power that it has to transform not only us – but the world. It is even, as some say, “self-authenticating” (and it doesn’t matter if Mormons, for example, say the same about their false message). In addition, those mature in the faith readily recognize this message vis a vis imposter messages – even if an “angel of light” performs the greatest of miracles to support the errors they bring, these faithful stalwarts will not be moved! (see Deuteronomy 13! –they are only interested in the “many infallible proofs” [Acts 1:3, see also Acts 2:22,32-36, 13:34 ; I John 1 ; and I Cor. 15] Jesus did that fulfilled OT prophecies about Him and further bolstered the OT-confirming message He brought)”