"The Rule of Faith and Biblical Interpretation" by Robert C. Fennell

Fennell, Robert C. The Rule of Faith & Biblical Interpretation: Reform, Resistance, and Renewal.
Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018. [Forthcoming]
Paperback. 186 pages. ISBN: 9781498299619.
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As modernity draws to a close and postmodernity gains a foothold in our collective mentality, biblical interpretation is once again being brought under review. How do Christians approach this text that, in the past two-hundred years, has undergone intense demythologization and anti-doctrinal critique and criticism? Robert C. Fennell, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the Atlantic School of Theology (Halifax) and an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada, prescribes a time-tested hermeneutic for the Church: regula fidei – the Rule of Faith.

Fennell’s book offers a historical-theological overview of how the Rule has been used over the course of Christian history, starting in the patristic era through the Reformation and even into modernity, before elucidating how we might reclaim the use of the Rule in this emerging postmodern age. Indeed, operative in Fennell’s book is the conviction that “a ‘rule’ of some kind is always operative whenever Christians think through their faith and practice, including and especially biblical interpretation.”[1] He therefore calls for a recognition of the presuppositions, biases, and theological commitments that we as individuals and as the Church bring to the task of biblical interpretation.

Fennell shows how biblical interpretation by the Rule has shaped hermeneutics since the earliest days. Starting with Irenaeus, Tertullian, the ecumenical councils – even the authors of Scripture itself – he observes how they operated within the communally-established matrix of faith in their interpretations of Scripture. On the canonization of the Scriptures, Fennell writes that “the kerygma of the early church was still the principal location of the equivalent of the Rule of Faith prior to its being committed to writing and indeed prior to the composition of the second Testament.”[2] To this end, he establishes that for the contexts out of which they emerged, the creedal statements of the Church were both reflective of and normative for the widely-acknowledged doctrinal norms that the Rule of Faith upholds; giving early and lasting examples of the Rule in practice.

Establishing the early adoption of the Rule in biblical interpretation, Fennell turns to three great Reformers to explain their use of the Rule. In turn, he considers the Rule’s use by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. For each of these Reformers, Fennell provides a helpful biographical overview consistent with his argument that no one is devoid of socially-formed presuppositions and commitments when turning to the hermeneutical task. Over the course of three chapters, Fennell shows how each of the Reformers’ respective theological systems and approaches to Scripture adopt and promote the use of the Rule as a reliable guide to the Bible. Whether it be Luther’s doctrinal presuppositions in his approach to Scripture, Calvin’s reciprocal relationship between Scripture and its critical and authoritative hold on the believing community’s Rule, or Wesley’s promotion of the quadrilateral (in which, Fennell notes, Scripture holds the authoritative position above tradition and reason, which can only be confirmed and never negated by experience), Fennell offers an accessible and pertinent overview of these Reformers before turning to the dark days of the regula fidei: modernity.

Fennell adroitly shows the extent to which Cartesian epistemology has undermined the use of theological readings of Scripture in the period deemed modern. In establishing their reliance on the fruits of the Scientific Revolution and the tools of modernist reason, Fennell shows how interpreters from Erasmus to Reimarus to Schleiermacher to Bultmann set themselves to modernizing the “premodern text” in search of a faith consonant with the norms of secular reasoning. Implicit in Fennell’s argument is that these interpreters operated with their own Rule of Faith; instead of their Rule’s conformity stemming from the faith of the Church, however, it emanated from the academic mores consistent with the emerging secular rationalism of their contexts. Despite the hold that modern assumptions have exerted and continue to exert on the discipline of biblical studies, Fennell lifts up two modern interpreters as those who unabashedly and skilfully employed the Rule of Faith: C.S. Lewis and Sandra Schneiders. These figures show how the Rule can be fruitfully employed in ways consistent with the faith of the “communion of saints” while reflective of the developments in biblical studies; indeed, Fennell shows that the hermeneutical tools of the modern period need not be rejected, but used for the purposes of the faith of the Church under the discipline of the Rule.

The book then turns to look to the present and the future; specifically how the Rule may be reinvigorated so to reinvigorate the life of the Church in a postmodern age. On the prospect of using the Rule in a diverse Church and an even more diverse world, Fennell writes:

“The continuing emergence of diverse, wise, and pluriform voices from the global south, Indigenous sources, women, queer readers, and others who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academy has made the encounter with Scripture all the more exciting and uncontainable. But none of this means that Scripture ought not to be read in communities under the light of the Rule of Faith. Indeed, it is even more urgent that we do so.”[3]

Among this promise is the opportunity for the Church to narrate its own reading of Scripture by its ecclesial culture rather than the narratives provided us by the consumer-capitalist world in which we live. Moreover, Fennell argues that reading Scripture as a Christian implies an existing relationship between the individual and the Church – a relationship which entails social norms, theological commitments, and practices. In such ways, the community’s Rule offers not a restrictive but a guiding interpretative lens for the biblical reader; and these readings need not be in conflict with those of other ecclesial communities. Fennell then offers the reader an overview of the core content of which the transgeographic Christian community brings to the study of Scripture, and counsel for how communities may engage their own ruled reading. He concludes that “the application of the Rule of Faith is not a fixed, empirical phenomenon, but a living dynamic that evolves and emerges in a community of faith, over time, through much discussion, testing, worship, prayer, discernment, and shared service.”[4]

            This accessible yet scholarly book is recommended for those in the academy as well as the pulpit. It serves as a bridge resource between “professional theology” and the Church it intends to serve. In his thorough exposition of how the Rule has figured in Christian theology, Fennell gives concretely and exciting suggestions for how the Church in the twenty-first century can reappropriate this interpretive lens to the greater service of Christ's Church. In sum, Robert C. Fennell offers the reader the chance to grasp Scripture as the community’s lens to encounter the Living Word in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit – making this a book that is valuable for any Christian’s library.

 

 

[1] Fennell, Robert C. The Rule of Faith & Biblical Interpretation: Reform, Resistance, and Renewal. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.) 3.

[2] Fennell, 14.

[3] Fennell, 150.

[4] Fennell, 160.