Clayton Chrusch: Hermeneutics of Charity

blake adam and eve

Responding to Russell Perkin:

You write, “All of the above may seem rather an anecdotal collage, but my point is that these examples are signs of the times, and that they are at least superficially at odds with the concerns and practices of Northrop Frye, especially his writings about the Bible and religion. If my account is granted at least some degree of plausibility, the question becomes in what way Frye’s writings fit into the context I have described?”

Frye rejects orthodoxy, and I don’t think putting a “neo-” or a “radical” in front of the word changes anything. It seems like the one, or at least the strongest, either/or position in Frye’s thought. Frye’s views are incompatible both with the traditional content of orthodoxy (particularly damnation) and the necessary form of orthodoxy (intellectual assent before love). Orthodoxy for Frye is just a smilier form of fundamentalism, an idolotry of one’s current understanding of God.

Somewhere, I am not sure where, Frye speaks about the hermeneutic of charity. In my own words, the idea is this: since it is impossible to love a God we see as evil, and since the first commandment of Jesus is to love God, we must not accept any doctrine or passage of scripture until we positively see that it is an expression of God’s goodness. The clearest articulation of this principle that I know of is in George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons.

We can see immediately how the hermeneutic of charity is opposed to orthodoxy. Orthodoxy gets things exactly backwards by requiring people to start with truth and end in love. You cannot start with truth, only with settled opinions, and if you start with settled opinions you will end up not with love but bigotry and cruelty. Love is what we are capable of now. It is God’s immediate command. It alone is what brings us to truth by opening our eyes and ears.

Frye doesn’t generally speak about love, but about desire, concern, and imagination, but I think it amounts to the same thing.

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8 thoughts on “Clayton Chrusch: Hermeneutics of Charity

  1. Joseph Adamson

    This is very well put, Clayton. And though I don’t have the references handy, Frye does at very key moments speak of love. Perhaps Bob or Michael Happy or someone else may have the references handy and send them our way.

  2. Peter StirFrye Yan

    Frye’s Rule of Charity is from Milton

    From the Spiritus Mundi, Preface, p. xi

    “If the conception of the mythological universe is necessary, as I think it is, to any resolution of the problem of freedom, the critic is involved once again in what Milton calls “the rule of charity” in interpreting the Bible. Whatever interpretation rationalized human slavery and bondage is wrong, however unwarranted the statement that it is wrong may logically sound.”

    1. Joseph Adamson

      Excellent, Peter: just checked it out on the web: from Milton’s Divorce Tract, and Milton speaks of literalist or orthodox readings that ignore the rule, as Clayton suggests, as idolatrous:

      “Where can be the peace and love which must invite God to such a house, may it not be fear’d that the not divorcing of such a helplesse disagreement, will be the divorcing of God finally from such a place? But it is a triall of our patience they say: I grant it: but which of Jobs afflictions were sent him with that law, that he might not use means to remove any of them if he could? And what if it subvert our patience and our faith too? Who shall answer for the perishing of all those souls perishing by stubborn expositions of particular and inferior precepts against the generall and supreme rule of charity? They dare not affirm that mariage is either a Sacrament, or a mystery, though all those sacred things give place to man, and yet they invest it with such an awfull sanctity, and give such adamantine chains to bind with, as if it were to be worshipt like some Indian deity, when it can conferre no blessing upon us, but works more and more to our misery. To such teachers the saying of S. Peter at the Councell of Jerusalem will doe well to be apply’d: Why tempt ye God to put a yoke upon the necks of Christian men, which neither the Jews, Gods ancient people, nor we are able to bear: and nothing but unwary expounding hath brought upon us.”

  3. Russell Perkin

    Clayton, the one place where I disagree with you is the assumption that the hermeneutic of charity is unorthodox. In fact, it is the essence of Augustine’s hermeneutics as set out in _On Christian Doctrine_: “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbour does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.”

    Also, I think orthodoxy begins with faith, which is not intellectual assent. This is expressed in Anselm’s maxim “credo ut intelligam,” “I believe so that I may understand.” Not a quotation Frye was fond of, as I recall. But it does express the point you are also making, that one should not make “an idolatry of one’s current understanding of God.” The Nicene creed is a statement of faith in the first person plural, at least in its modern translation: “We believe in one God,” etc. is a statement of collective faith. How that faith is understood is a matter for each individual, and develops through that individual’s life. In that sense the language of the creed is more the language of myth than the language of positive knowledge.

    Perhaps my use of the term “orthodoxy” has caused some misunderstanding; by it the theologians I was discussing mean an affirmation of the traditional creeds of Christianity. I would distinguish this -radically!-from fundamentalism, which approaches the doctrine of the church not as myth but as positive knowledge, like the student who every few years tells me in the Bible and literature course about the remnants of the ark on Mount Ararat. The type of liberal theologian who was prevalent when I was growing up delighted in shocking people by arguing, in an equally positivistic way that this or that story “did not happen.” I recall Frye saying that to say you do not, or do, believe in the virgin birth is to be theologically illiterate.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      Here is Frye’s take on Anselm’s credo, from “Literature as a Critique of Pure Reason,” the Wiegand lecture Frye gave to an overflowing crowd and which I remember attending as a doctoral student at the large medical school auditorium at the University of Toronto:

      “In speaking of reason, we have come to characterize it as primarily something that maintains an inner freedom, rather than something that tries to arrive at an objective truth, which is the more conventional view of it. For most of us today, the word “truth” has a rather empty and rhetorical sound: what is true today will be either disproved tomorrow or carried on to another stage, and in any case may be only a choice among many truths, as we imply when we use phrases like “the real truth.” To revert to Paradise Lost: when the yet unfallen Adam asks the angel Raphael whether or not other planets are inhabited besides the earth, Raphael discourages the question as a distraction. The primary knowledge for Adam is the knowledge Raphael gives him, the story of the fall of Satan which will help him to preserve and maintain his freedom in paradise. Knowledge of nature for itself, to satisfy the mere desire of knowing, has to take second place. For St. Augustine, much earlier, intellectual curiosity verged on a sin of presumption.

      This attitude, so hard for us to sympathize with now, arose partly because Christianity had come to think of all natural knowledge as a set of deductions in a vast synthesis of reasoning, with the primary revelations of faith acting as the major premises. The essential truths, those that tell us what we must do to be saved, have already been given us. Such a conception of knowledge, we may observe, is one that annihilates the distinction between reasoning and rationalizing, or carrying a reasoning operation to a predetermined goal. Rationalizing, apart from private and subjective contexts, has, as its primary aim, the bolstering of some ideology held in one’s society, and is still with us in both sacred and secular contexts. The general attitude is: if you want to philosophize, don’t just stand there. Do something socially functional, that is, work out proofs that your society is right in believing what it wants to believe. The principle formulated by St. Anselm, credo ut intelligam, I believe in order to know [Proslogium, chap. 1], is the axiom of this kind of rationalizing.”

      And from Notebook 15:

      “If we take behavior as the basis of belief, we shall not solve any of the traditional problems of belief, notably the gap between what we do and what we “believe” we ought to do. But behavior is the basis for a study of the phenomenology of belief, as distinct from the recording of presupposed belief. Because what we believe we ought to do is still related to action: it’s quid agas, the third level, not the second (quid credas) as in Dante. The latter is founded on the credo ut intelligam fallacy.”

  4. Clayton Chrusch

    Russell, you say that fundamentalism, not orthodoxy approaches the doctrine of the church as positive knowledge, not myth. What you say of doctrine, can you also say of scripture? The founder of the radical orthodoxy movement insists that Biblically sexual difference and openness to procreation is essential to marriage, and therefore gays should not be allowed to marry. How is this distinguishable from the approach of a fundamentalist?

    If you say that Milbank inwardly tested these ideas and found them to be in accord with his love for God and his love for his neighbour, I can only throw up my hands in disgust. Black is white. It’s okay to destroy people as long as you carefully maintain a fortified ignorance of what you are doing.

  5. Russell Perkin

    In the context of Christianity, I think “fundamentalism” includes a belief in the inerrancy of scripture, ie its truth concerning all matters, including those of history and science. Though of course the word is used with a variety of less precise meanings as well.

    All use of scripture involves interpretation, but perhaps fundamentalists are those who try to pretend that this is not the case.

  6. Clayton Chrusch

    Thank you Russell, that is a real answer to my question. Implicit in your answer, I think, is that the rule of charity is just one tool in the orthodox toolbox . I don’t want to restrict the number of interpretive tools, but I would make obedience to the rule of charity an absolute requirement in the interpretation of scripture and doctrine.

    Flannery O’Connor speaks of truth not changing based on our ability to stomach it, but that is a half-truth that has been turned into the whole truth by too many Christians, especially Anglo-Catholics like Newman and Chesterton (both of whom I read for pleasure, by the way). It is not a virtue to believe things that make God disgusting to us or force us into a systematic ignorance of the consequences of our beliefs. Christianity needs an idea of “beginner’s mind” to counter its theological complexity. George MacDonald has that too.


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