Stephen Fowl teaches theology at Loyola College, Baltimore and is a member of the Cathedral of the Incarnation. He is also a member of the House of Bishops' Theology Committee. I am grateful to count him among my friends.
In his book, Engaging Scripture, Fowl writes about the habits of a charitable interpreter which are essential for any true engagement with scripture and other interpreters. Though he addresses charitable interpretation in that particular context, the practice of charitable interpretation is a virtue to cultivate more generally – with family and friends, at work, with other church members, in our larger political discourse, engaging one another on the internet – in any situation where we are likely to disagree with the way another person interprets things. Interpreting others with charity is a basic gospel discipline.
What follows is taken from Engaging Scripture:
When Christians’ convictions and practices regarding sin, forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation are in good working order, the recognition of oneself as a sinner works to keep one’s eye single. Further, this recognition draws one into a collection of practices designed to restore, reconcile, and subsequently deepen one’s communion with God and others. p. 86
Short of the eschatological completion of the promises in Jeremiah 31 and 1 Corinthians 13 . . . Christians will need to engage scripture in the recognition that they will disagree with each other. Christians ought to expect that their scriptural interpretation will be marked by sustained disagreements about how best to interpret and embody scripture in any particular context. In fact the absence of such arguments would be a sign of a community’s ill health. p. 87
A charitable interpreter will both recognize interpretive differences and refuse temptations to reduce or rationalize those differences and disputes away. p. 88
Initially, it may be extremely difficult to make sense of the claims of others, particularly those most different from us. This, however, is a contingent problem which can be addressed through hard work and patience. Rather than assert that such differences render conversation and debate impossible, the charitable interpreter will begin the slow, often tedious process of learning the presumptions, conventions, and idioms needed to make others’ views intelligible. Charitable interpreters will resist the move to close off this activity prematurely; they will always recognize the provisionality of their work. That is, interpretive charity entails both a willingness to listen to differences and a willingness to hear those differences in their fullness. p. 89
[T]he real question facing the charitable interpreter concern how to address differences in interpretation. The first step is to note that all differences, all disagreements. Are only intelligible against a background of similarity and agreement. . . . Agreement may not be easy to display. For example, such things as the use of common vocabulary might actually obscure real differences and agreements. Charitable interpreters, then, may need to begin to address an interpretive dispute by exposing the nature and types of agreement lying beneath its surface. By doing this one sharpens and thereby clarifies the nature and type of disagreement. p. 90
A related habit of the charitable interpreter is the practice of maximizing the reasonableness of those with whom one differs. p. 90
[T]he charitable interpreter presumes that those who differ hold their differing views for good reasons and tries to display what those reasons are or were. p. 91
This entails that a charitable interpreter should deal with the strongest versions of opposing arguments. This may even require the charitable interpreter to recast opposing views to make them as strong as they can be. p. 91 (footnote 65)
[I]n any interpretive conflict, one’s ability to give a charitable account of a differing position is crucial to developing a superior position. As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, in any interpretive conflict which is rationally resolved, the position which prevails will be the one that can show how it accounts for the strengths in alternative positions while avoiding the weaknesses in those alternatives. p. 91
[T]he presence of interpretive charity will not necessarily reduce interpretive disputes. Christians must recognize that disputes are constitutive of being part of a living tradition of people reading scripture in order to live holy lives and to worship God truthfully. Rather, interpretive charity is one element that shapes the ecclesial contexts in which we might then expect interpretive disputes to result in faithful living and truthful worship. p. 96
Bearing with One Another When We Disagree
1. Broken Love