Saturday, May 22, 2004

Thoughts on Scripture II 

This is a continuation of my previous comments on Scripture. Within this post I will hopefully be expanding on some of my previous comments and exploring some of the implications for how we are to engage with the Scriptures. There will probably be at least one more post after this, which will deal more closely with the place of tradition. Please forgive the rough and disorganized nature of these notes. So far I have particularly attacked the idea of Scripture’s authority residing in the truth of its witness to primary events. I have suggested that there is a difference between reading and hearing the Bible, something I will open up a bit more in this post. I have pointed to Wright’s illustration of Scripture as an authoritative story and have questioned an approach to inerrancy that operates with a preconceived notion of what truth actually looks like.
For many evangelicals, the meaning of the Bible is only understood insofar as we understand what the text meant when it was first given. This leads to an over-reliance on a ‘scientific’ model of understanding the truth of Scripture. The grammatical-historical method seeks to uncover the original meaning of the text by paying close attention to the original context in which its words were written. The meaning of the text is established as we establish what the text meant when it was first written. As valuable as the grammatical-historical approach to exegesis can be, it falls far short of the sort of engagement that I believe that we ought to be having with Scripture. There are a number of problems with those who interpret the Bible using this method alone. An idolatrous quest for objectivity. Many evangelicals today believe that we should all strive to become objective, detached exegetes. Our treatment of Scripture should be scientific and we should refuse to allow anything as subjective as intuition to play a role. Once we have objectively established the true meaning of Scripture we can apply it to our current situations. The Bible, however, is the covenant document. Its purpose is not primarily that of conveying cold, hard facts. The objective exegete is as ill-suited for grasping the full meaning of Scripture as he would be for establishing the full meaning of a love letter. Were the purpose of the Bible merely that of conveying a list of detached facts, the objective exegete might be the man for the task. However, the Bible is all about God’s relationship with His people. The purpose of the language of Scripture is frequently not that of conveying bare information, but is that of deepening relationship. An immanentistic notion of truth. Many, believing that the authority of the text lies purely in its true account of historical or soteriological facts, fail to appreciate the significance of the transcendent and ‘continually arriving’ source of Scripture. The Bible, as the Word of God, should not be subjected to a ‘fetishization’ of the ‘lost original’. Such a view betrays a denial of the temporal nature of God’s revelation and of our situation: God does not reveal His truth in time in order to then abstract that truth from time in a spatialization of truth in some detached system. God reveals His truth in time so that, through the living Word and our continued engagement with it, we may be transformed into His image. The Word was not made flesh in order to be spatialized in some sterile and undying text. Rather, the Bible is to function as the living voice of Christ in His Church. The Bible is God’s self-revelation. It is not so much the revelation of truths about God as it is the unveiling of God Himself; God is really present in His revelation. What we come to know in Scripture are not mere facts about God; what we come to know in Scripture is the Triune God Himself in His personal presence. We must appreciate the open nature of God’s revelation. God’s self-revelation is not some closed event in the past, but is a living reality in the present. As we engage with the Scripture Christ reveals Himself within it.
Peter Enns, in his thought-provoking article ‘Apostolic Hermeneutics and an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture’, observes that biblical interpretation is more like ‘a path to walk than a fortress to be defended.’ I couldn’t agree more. The Bible isn’t a mere reservoir of facts — whether historical or soteriological — but is the voice of the Bridegroom to His Bride. By this voice the Bridegroom leads His Bride out of the world, purifying her, perfecting her, granting her to exercise authority and protecting her. Scripture is the living and powerful creative Word that forms the Church. Scripture is the vocation of the Church. As the Church listens to and engages in conversation with Scripture, she is led in her pilgrimage.
The Bible isn’t merely a record of what God said in the past. Rather, the Bible is God’s living Word to us today. The Bible is the voice of God in the continuing conversation between heaven and earth. This conversation takes place primarily in the corporate worship of the people of God. If we are not participants in the dialogue of worship, we are ill-equipped to be interpreters of the Word. The more embedded we are in the continuing conversation between Christ and His Church, the more we will be able to interpret Scripture. The Bible isn’t merely some attempt to recapture the ‘original (immanent) source’. The Bible, rather, is that by which we are continually held open to the ‘continually arriving’ transcendent source, hearing God Himself continually speaking directly to us. We have no right to circumscribe the origin of the Word and rule it out as a continued conversation partner. As the origin of the Word is transcendent, it is impossible to circumscribe.
By using the language of hearing Scripture, rather than that of reading Scripture, we can to some degree guard ourselves against the danger of ‘fetishizing’ origins. Many, obsessed with the ‘lost original’, believe that Scripture is the undying ‘spatialization’ of this ‘lost original’ and fail to appreciate the fact that Scripture is a new and different performance in itself. Scripture is a dynamic conversation partner and, when we speak of ‘hearing’ Scripture rather than ‘reading’ Scripture I believe that we have a better sense of this. One of the practices that bugs me — not least because, to my shame, it is a habit that I myself have to get out of — is that of reading along in my Bible when the Word of God is being read aloud by the pastor. This practice puts us in a questionable relationship to the Word in a number of respects. Peter Leithart writes:—
Both seeing and hearing are associated with authority, though in different ways. Scripturally, the eye is the organ of judgment; to look and see is to stand in authority over something. (It’s no accident that modern man gives priority to sight, “seeing is believing” is the credo of scientific man.) There are occasions when human beings are called to “see” and “judge,” even to “see” that the Lord is good. When the Lord speaks though, we should be in a posture of those under judgment. Scripturally, the ear is the organ of submission; when we “listen,” “give ear,” or “hear,” we are yielding authority to the speaker. Reading along with the eye while the Scripture is being read puts us in the wrong stance in relation to the Word. It is over us; we are not over it.
We must also recognize that reading (not reading aloud) is a very private practice. However, the Bible is addressing us as the Body of Christ and not merely as a collection of isolated individuals. Furthermore, sound and speech, as many people have observed, is something peculiar to living beings. You may be able to see, touch, taste and smell a dead animal. However, generally it is only a living animal that makes any sound. By focusing upon looking at the Word on the page, rather than hearing it proclaimed, we become more inclined to be judges over the Word. The corpus of Scripture is not to be dissected by the detached exegete, for Scripture is the living voice of God that dissects us, ‘piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow,’ being ‘a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’ One dissects a corpse, one must respond in an utterly different manner to the living voice of the God who created you. The preached Word renders us naked and open in God’s sight, rather than presenting the Word naked and open in our sight. The Word always retains its power, vitality and mystery and can never be comprehended and spatialized as a detached collection of objects of knowledge by us. Herein lies part of my concern about images of Christ: images of Christ can all too easily eclipse the dynamism of the speaking voice. The Christ of many icons is ‘passive’, lying in His mother’s arms as an infant or dead body, or hanging upon the cross. The image or icon of Christ always has a strong tendency to idolatry (whether this tendency is followed or not). The idol is a ‘spatialization’ of God that enables us to exert control over Him. Rather than appreciating the transcendence of God, the image can be an attempt to render Him a manipulable object within our world, just as the ‘fetishization’ of the ‘lost original’ fails to recognize the continuous arriving of the transcendent source. I believe that this is related to the manner in which many evangelicals have made an idol out of the printed Scripture. The voice of the preached Word, however, is never lifeless. It is this voice which serves to animate us, by the breath of the Spirit. It is the Word of Christ that ‘dwells in us richly’. The living voice is far harder to depersonalize. The living voice always compels, confronts and quickens us. It is the living voice that cuts us up and presents us as lifeless in God’s presence. It is the living voice that brings bone together with bone, clothes us with sinews, flesh and skin and raises us to new life by the inbreathing of the Spirit. A further danger of ‘reading along’ with the pastor is that it gives the false impression that we are all engaged in the same act. However, the pastor stands as the symbol of Christ in His Church. Christ is the Man of the Spirit whose voice brings life. When we hear the pastor proclaiming Scripture we are to listen to His voice as that of Christ Himself. The pastor is the real symbol of Christ’s authority over His Church. If we confuse the pastor’s proclamation of the Word with our act of reading along we will gradually fall into an egalitarian form of ecclesiology, which fails to recognize the differentiated ministries within the Church. This, of course, leads to the feminization of the pulpit and many of the other errors that now afflict the evangelical churches.
Any group that proclaims the individual ‘quiet time’ as a sufficient substitute for coming under the preaching of the Word by the ordained representative of Christ in the Church is in grave error. We should never confuse the significance of the Word preached with the significance of the written Word privately read off the page. I am convinced that the written Word privately read off the page has a place in the Church. However, it can never be the primary place. Where it does have the primary place, one soon discovers that the self-styled ‘Bereans’ are not standing under the authority of Scripture at all, but are exalting their own private judgment as the final authority. Even from what we have observed so far, this should come as no surprise. The rotten fruit of this view of Scripture is clear to see throughout evangelicalism. Our chief contact with the Word of God should always take the form of the preaching of the ordained representative and symbol of Jesus Christ (the representative must be a masculine man — only such a person can be a ‘symbol’ of Christ) in the assembly of the people of God.
Every other form of contact that we have with the Word of God is secondary to that which we have in the context of the worship of the Church. This is where the speaking Christ reveals Himself most clearly. We must always remember that the conversation with Scripture only ordinarily takes place within the borders of the Church. To be brought into the Church is to be brought into the conversation that has been ongoing since Mount Sinai. We should not interpret the Bible as autonomous, objective exegetes, but as members of a conversation that has been going on between God and His people for millennia. If we want to discover the meaning of the voice of Scripture we will discover it as we immerse ourselves more and more into this conversation. The Church is the conversation partner and the place where the conversation talks place (i.e. in worship). Anyone who believes that he can understand the Scriptures whilst ignoring the Church is sorely mistaken. The Church gave us the canon as the Scriptures are a personal message addressed to the Church and the Church hears and recognizes the voice of her Master and Beloved. The word of the Church is not the final word; it is the voice of Scripture that started the conversation and it must always have the final Word.
The Church is the interpretation of Scripture and so must always be open to be challenged by the living voice of Scripture. The truth of Scripture must never be relegated merely to the cerebral quarters of man’s anatomy; rather, the Word is recreating us as a new people in Christ. In worship the Word addresses us in a differentiated manner — as audible, visible, edible, drinkable, tangible — drawing the whole of our beings into the encounter. We are washed with the Word in the ritual of Baptism. We eat and drink the Word in the ritual of the Supper. We hear the Word in preaching. We sing the Word in the Psalms. We confess the Word in creeds. We are not under the authority of the Word until we are within the Church, for it is only within the Church that we are brought under the authority of the Word in every aspect of our being. [We must also remember that man as a person is inescapably a ‘being in communion’. The Church is a restoration of man as a being in communion, both with God and with his neighbour and is consequently essential to salvation.] In worship we are called to subordinate every part of ourselves to the Word. We are made members of one another by our engagement with the eschatological Word encountered in the Supper. Our various languages are reorientated by the Pentecostal language of worship. Our various histories are reintegrated into God’s history by the call to worship and subsequent absolution. As Peter Leithart observes, our physical bodies are subordinated to the Word through the choreography of liturgy — kneeling to confess, standing to hear, sitting to eat and drink, etc. The Church is also a memorializing community. For the Church memory is far more than the ‘repeated glance’ at a ‘spatialized’ truth of Christ’s death. In the Supper memory is inseparable from anticipation and does not negate time, but fulfills it as it transcends it. The Church memorializes Christ Himself, not just Christ’s death. As a number of liturgies reveal, this memorializing includes His future coming. Each successive memorial of Christ — the One who is the same yesterday, today and forever — is a new and different performance in itself, an enacted prayer, carrying a different force in different settings. Christ’s death in the past is fruitfully ‘present’ every time that we celebrate the Supper. The events that we memorialize are not dead and ‘closed’ events in the past but are open and living realities that we are brought into (e.g. we are baptized into Christ’s death). Nevertheless, eschatological tensions are never dissolved into an atemporal ‘spatialization’. When we confess the history of God’s dealings in salvation we do not refer to past events that are ‘spatialized’ and abstract, but to events that are continually fruitful and pregnant with promise (God’s deeds in the past are ‘reality-filled promises’ for the future). Furthermore, each of our personal stories is retold by the story of the Word. The events that we memorialize are events that are powerfully present. As the story of God is told within the Church, it becomes our story.1 This is not our achievement, but is the achievement of the Word Himself.
Ecclesiology can never be laid to one side when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures. The form of our Church communities will determine how we will engage with Scripture; much of modern fundamentalist evangelicalism is singularly unequipped to do so. Stories have been replaced by slogans, the sacraments are devalued and the centrality of the preached Word is increasingly denied. The authority of the Word is replaced by the authority of the individual interpreter. By placing our authority to interpret the Word over that of the Word to ‘reinterpret’ us, we have become Pelagian in many ways. If the Word is not powerfully present in preaching and the sacraments to ‘renarrate’ our lives by grace — forgiving our sins, calling us dearly beloved children, addressing us those who have been chosen in love and for whom Christ has died and inviting us to eat at the Table — we will have to try to ‘renarrate’ our lives ourselves. The importance of the Word extra nos should never be denied.
The Bible is no more a mere commentary on the truths of Christianity than a love letter is a mere commentary on the truths of the relationship between the lover and the beloved. The Bible’s design is the deepening of relationship, not the mere conveying of objective facts. The Bible isn’t primarily a means by which God tells us the truths about salvation; it is primarily a means by which God accomplishes His salvation. The Bible isn’t a lifeless and closed record of past revelation; rather it is God’s means of continually revealing Himself to His people. The biblical text 'returns our gaze'. Biblical interpretation is not primarily an effort in trying to discover, return to, and limit ourselves to, the ‘original meaning’ of the text. Rather, the voice of Scripture is the voice of God calling to His people. Biblical interpretation is the response to this call and takes the form of discipleship. We are made part of the act of biblical interpretation by Baptism and we are maintained in it by feeding on the flesh and blood of the Word. The Church is the interpretative act. By the Spirit the Church is the exegesis of the Word. The Church is the living organ of the Scriptures. The Bible is not merely a record of a past dialogue but as members of the Church we engage with it as a living voice in the conversation of worship. The active presence of the story of the Word in the Church is graciously ‘translating’ and ‘interpreting’ us into the story of Christ. Endnotes

1 Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader (London: Duke University Press, 2001) pp.138ff. (return)

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