Friday, May 21, 2004

Thoughts on Scripture I 

This post is, among other things, an experiment in using footnotes (I am using them somewhat gratuitously for this reason). I would appreciate your comments on whether they work or not. I would also appreciate your comments on these thoughts. They are tentative and provisional as usual and they are quite probably in error on more than a couple of points. I have many, many more notes on this subject, particularly concerned with the exploration of the theological task, integrating my observations into ecclesiology and theology proper and the establishing of new models for reading Scripture. If I have time I might post some of them. For the time being, however, this is all that I have time to post. Unfortunately, it is quite incomplete as it stands, many of the points requiring closer study, much of which I have given elsewhere.
Should Christians really be ‘reading’ the Bible? The word ‘reading’ strikes me as quite insufficient — if not utterly inadequate — to describe the complex relationship that we should have with Scripture as the people of God. As Christians we ought to sing Scripture, tell Scripture, perform Scripture, converse with Scripture, listen to Scripture, wrestle with Scripture and be renarrated and remoulded by Scripture.1
There is always a danger that we see Scripture as merely a record of past events or ‘true commentary on Christianity.’2 As N.T. Wright observes, this leads to a displacement of authority — no longer is authority rooted in Scripture, but becomes rooted in primary events or something else.3
We should always be aware of the difference between the printed Word and the preached Word. The manner in which the Word engages with us and we engage with the Word is very important as it is quite possible to engage with the Word in the wrong way. An encounter with the printed Word is a very individual experience; an encounter with the preached Word is far more of a corporate experience. In the case of the preached Word, the Word clearly comes to us from outside. The printed Word has a tendency to lead us away from the idea of encountering the Word in the context of the corporate gathering of the people of God and lead us to believe that our primary engagement with the Word is in the context of the private study of Scripture. Coming into contact with the truth of God is gradually privatized. This can be seen in many churches where the ‘personal quiet time’ is prized more highly than the corporate worship of the people of God.
Catherine Pickstock, in her book After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy discusses the dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates and critiques Derrida. 4 Within this discussion she seeks to expose a certain way of viewing the written word that ‘fetishizes’ static presence or pure origin. Often an emphasis upon the printed word can be the result of an obsession with origins. This approach to the written word seeks to
circumvent temporality and contingency and to spatialize time by gathering up the present moment with a view to offering it to an anonymous posterity, not for the sake of interpersonal benefit through time, but as a means to ensure lasting reputation, a reflexive “gift” which does not freely inhabit time, but seeks to reclaim identically the anterior moment of donation, thus transposing time into a spatial domain.5
The printed or written word is conceived of as inert and spatial and can often be employed as a means by which to permanently possess the lost ‘original event’ that it records. When the event is recorded on the page the original event is rescued from time and placed within an ‘undying space’. However, the written or printed word needs to confess that it is ‘a new and different performance in itself’ and not an ‘identical reproduction’ that ‘stems the flow of time’. Associated to this view of the printed word and the fetishization of origins is a desire for ‘discrete, unchanging, and circumscribable facts’. This desire leads to the practice of demythologization in order to uncover the truth that underlies all of our narratives. Most modern readers are inclined to assume ‘that an historical account is true only to the extent that it describes “what actually happened”.’6 We must determine exactly how each story is rooted in fact before we put any weight on it. Such a view of truth is all too often immanentistic, preoccupied with circumscribable empirical facts, and fails to recognize the presence of mystery and the incomprehensible. That which is known is not permitted to remain open, transcendent and mysterious. Such a form of knowing treats everything as given and not as gift. No longer is that which is known ‘regarded as derived from a transcendent and constantly arriving source’;7 it is now treated as closed and sterile. Such truth is discrete truth that can be ‘contained’ as an object within a spatialized system of knowledge. On the printed page we have access to the ‘original event’ and that is paramount. Rather than recognizing the fecundity of the event in each of the repeated performances of the written text (that represents the initial offspring of the event), writing becomes an exercise in taxidermy.
‘Memory’ in these two schemes is very different. In the ‘fetishizing’ manner of treating the written word, memory is transformed into the retrieval of the sterile objects of knowledge by the ‘repeated glance’. The “given” resource of information is static, barren, will know no development and is abstracted from time. On the other hand, if we regard that through which we know as “gift”, memory takes on a far richer character. Memory is not a mere repeated glance at a sterile object of knowledge, but is rooted in a tradition of remembering that recognizes the presence of a continually arriving transcendent source. Consequently, we do not think merely in terms of a closed original ‘immanent’ source for the text but tell the story of the continual arrival of the transcendent source through the repeated performances of the text. The ‘meaning’ of the text is bound up with the story of its interpretative community.
What does all of this mean for our treatment of Scripture? Authority. We should recognize that all too often we fall into the trap of thinking that the authority of Scripture is one wholly derived from the facticity of the ‘primary events’ that it records. Wright challenges this view by asking whether, if we found Pilate’s court records and they gave a fair record of Jesus’ trial, they would be authoritative in any of the senses in which we consider Scripture to be authoritative.8 The Bible is an authoritative document in its own right, in a sense that exceeds a mere faithful historical account. The Bible is an authoritative story. Wright writes—

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted 'authority' for the task in hand. That is, anyone could Bible, be properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This 'authority' of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.9

This, I believe, provides us with a helpful model for reading Scripture as an authoritative book. Were the Bible a mere true record of past events it would be hard to imagine the Bible acting as an authoritative book. In this model, however, the Church itself is the interpretative task. Inerrancy. I believe that it should caution us in the manner in which we relate the account of Scripture to ‘what actually happened’. Inerrancy is a doctrine that should be ‘fluid’ enough to permit the Scripture to challenge our preconceived notions of what truth looks like. Peter Enns writes:—
The purpose of speaking of an inerrant Scripture is not to generate an abstract comment about the church’s sacred book, but to reflect on our doctrine of God, that is, that God does not err. But such a confession does not determine the manner in which the notion of an inerrant Scripture is articulated. It may very well be that the very in which God “does not err” is by participating in the cultural conventions of the time, in this case, first-century Palestine. The Bible is not inerrant because it conforms to some notion of how we think something worthy of the name “Scripture” should behave.
The ‘truth’ of an account can exceed its historicity in a number of ways. Perhaps certain accounts in Scripture are not the historical accounts that we first took them to be (e.g. Job or Jonah).10 Does this mean that we should take up a radically skeptical attitude with regard to Scripture? Certainly not! The Bible is true, whether we understand exactly what it means for it to be ‘true’ or not. The reaction of the person who rejects the truth of Scripture just because he has doubts about the historical veracity of the first few chapters of Genesis or some other portion may be an indication of the fact that Scripture was never his authority in the first place, but the facts that underlie it. I have found that preoccupation with the historical events to which a scriptural narrative refers is often one of the best ways to become distracted from the true meaning of the narrative.11 If, in our interpretation, we concentrate primarily on looking behind the text of Scripture to discover what really happened, or in trying to harmonize what really happened with what the Scripture says happened, we can easily miss the point of the Scripture itself. This is not to say that the relationship between the Scripture and the history that it records is immaterial; quite the opposite, it is of great importance, particularly for those of us who affirm the absolute reliability and truthfulness of Scripture. Nevertheless, it is essential that we pay greatest attention to the text itself and not get waylaid by the question of what may or may not lie behind it. The text itself is authoritative and so it should be primarily its portrayal of the world that concerns us and not so much what lies behind this portrayal. We need to learn to be open to the world that the Bible portrays and not get lost trying to find another. Those who are most concerned with establishing the historicity of the every event mentioned by Scripture are generally not involved in the task that Scripture sets us as the Church. The text doesn’t confront us in order for us to try to discover the pre-text. Many (most?) of the questions asked by those who follow such an approach are not the questions that Scripture presents us with, nor are they questions that the Scripture answers; rather the text, by its very nature, conceals the answers.12 As John Goldingay observes, the object of study for these people is not the text but the pre-text. As a result we miss the burden of the text itself and misfocus the interpretative task; establishing the events underlying the story does not establish the meaning of the story itself. Furthermore, as historical results are tentative, they are ultimately incapable of vindicating the text.
Perhaps the biggest problem with an absorption with the historicity of a text is that it all too often represents the ‘fetishizing’ tendency that Pickstock warns us of. Rather than seeing God’s continual self-revelation in the text, the text is merely the barren account of a revelation in the past. An absorption with the historicity of the text can also be an attempt to deny the fact that we are creatures of time. If we view the Scripture as a ‘spatialization’ of time — capturing the original event and preserving it against the flow of time by representing in a timeless text — we will become suspicious of any development in the meaning of the text, always wanting to return to ‘what it meant at the time.’ Some very concrete examples: I do not believe that we are right to think that the ‘original meaning’ of the Song of Solomon was a reference to Christ and the Church. Nor was Hosea 11:1 originally a reference to Christ being brought out of Egypt. I do not believe that the development of biblical revelation should be understood merely as the addition of new propositions over the course of redemptive history. Were we to view the Bible as a spatialization of truth, this is the sort of understanding that we would be most inclined to adopt. Biblical revelation, however, is like a growing plant, organically unfolding that which is latent in its seed form.13 Against the backdrop of God’s revelation in Christ, Song of Solomon means much more than it did when it was first written, as does every other book in Scripture. Endnotes

1 http://www.chiefrabbi.org/articles/credo/june2002.html (return)

2 Wright points out, with reference to Warfield’s doctrine of Scripture, that it always risked turning Scripture into a mere true commentary on Christianity. (return)

3 Ibid. (return)

4 Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Balckwell Publishers, 1998) pp.3ff. (return)

5 Ibid. p.9 (return)

6 Peter Enns, ‘Apostolic Hermeneutics and an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture: Moving Beyond a Modernist Impasse’ (return)

7 After Writing, p.53 (return)

8 N.T. Wright, ‘How Can the Bible be Authoritative?’ (return)

9 Ibid. (return)

10 Although I would be cautious about denying the historicity of the events recorded in these books, I am certainly open to questioning whether they are intended to be read in the manner in which they are generally read. I do not believe that this needs to be seen as an assault on the truth of Scripture; it is just a recognition that what I deem to be ‘truth’ might not be what the Scripture regards as truth. I am still open to be challenged on this issue. (return)

11 However, I would readily acknowledge that there are many gifted biblical scholars who have done careful study on the factuality of certain scriptural accounts without losing sight of the importance of the narrative. See, for example, James Jordan’s Creation in Six Days: A Defense of the Traditional Reading of Genesis One (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999). (return)

12 John Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995) pp.20-21. (return)

13 This analogy comes from Geerhardus Vos’ fantastic essay ‘The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline’ in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980). (return)

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