Thursday, August 12, 2004

Becoming Attuned to the Text 

Over the past year or so I have become increasingly aware of a tendency in myself and in others to read Scripture in a manner that mutes many of the important things that the text is trying to say. A couple of years ago I would be prone to approach the text with a set of questions, questions which I was sure the text was designed primarily to address. I believed that the narrative parts of the Old Testament were primarily given to us in order to show God’s power in preserving the ancestors of Christ until He was born. They also were designed to give us helpful character examples. In addition, one could read these verses and find many inspiring truths for your personal walk with God. When it came to the characters of the OT and the place of Israel as a whole, I believed that their primary purpose was that of giving us patterns to follow and to avoid in one’s individual relationship with Jesus. Now I will readily admit that none of these beliefs about Scripture are entirely mistaken: we can learn many principles for our personal Christian lives by reading the OT. Nevertheless, as time went on, I began to wonder why so much of the OT seemed alien and appeared to lack significance for my current situation. The OT felt like a field that had already long been harvested; I wondered why I bothered to live on the scattered gleanings that remained when I could find all the rich devotional fuel I required in the NT. Moving from the OT into the NT was like leaving the wilderness for the Promised Land. Straining to hear devotional nuggets in the text of the OT was akin to trying to understand the faint and thready signal from a foreign radio station. The meaning of the text seemed elusive and distant, fading in and out; all that I could hear amidst the crackling, whistling and background chatter was fragmentary and disjointed. As time went on, however, I began to discern more and more of the treasures of the OT. Far from feeling exiled from the text, I began to feel thoroughly at home in it. No longer did I feel like an eavesdropper on a conversation wholly designed for another: the text sparkled with relevance for the situation in which I found myself. Passages that had appeared barren and fruitless in the past became scintillating and exciting. It slowly dawned on me that the problem I had faced earlier was not really due to any weakness in the ‘signal’ of the OT message; the problem was with me — I had never been properly attuned to it. By bringing the wrong questions to the text I had been trying to capture a ghostly signal and missing the true one. As time has progressed the importance of the questions that we bring to the text has impressed itself more and more upon me. In the past I had always presumed that my questions were self-evidently the right ones. This attitude began to evaporate when I stopped interrogating the text with my own questions and started to attune my ear in order to discover what questions I should be asking. The degree to which I had missed the point of much of the OT gradually dawned on me. I say all of this in order to make a point that I have made on many other occasions before, namely, that we should be prepared to submit ourselves to the text (OT and NT) and not act as if we do not need to be attuned to the text in order to understand it. Along these lines, I must confess to getting frustrated with people who talk about the perspicuity of Scripture as if it denied this point. In my understanding, the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture teaches, as it were, that the signal of the Word of God is not of itself faint or indistinct. However, it does not teach that every individual Christian is properly attuned to this signal. As Christians we should continually be aware of our need to be re-attuned to God’s truth. No one of us receives God’s signal perfectly. Those who adamantly insist upon asking their own questions and refuse to submit to the questions that the text would have us ask should not be surprised if they miss much of the richness of the text as a result and only hear a tinny and stuttering signal. God’s process of re-attuning us involves a number of different elements. It involves the sacraments, considered liturgy, the life of discipleship, the ministry of those who have been gifted within the Church and the reading and hearing of the Word itself. In consequence, those who, for instance, presume that they can attune themselves to God’s truth apart from those whom the Spirit has gifted within the Church are presumptuous and fall into a form of self-righteousness. It is only as we acknowledge the fact that we are naturally un-attuned to the voice of our Creator that we can be re-attuned by grace and avoid the pit of self-righteousness. These lessons seem so basic, but I believe that few if any of us are beyond the need for relearning them. I know from personal experience that this process of conforming our questions to the questions that Scripture would have us ask is a difficult and a painful one. I sometimes find within myself a reluctance to accept that what I used to think was primary might actually be, at best, a mere overtone in the text. Romans and Galatians, for example, are not mere polemics against the bare sin of self-righteousness, much as I might initially have desired them to be. Despite the difficulty and pain, the process is also extremely rewarding. As I have learnt to accept that the meanings of such books as Romans and Galatians are not what I have originally supposed them to be, and submitted myself to hearing their words anew, I have been surprised to discover that their voice seems richer and deeper than they ever did before. Their voice resonates in parts of my consciousness in which the text of these books has never resonated before. Even those truths that I had originally presumed the books to be primarily concerned with have gradually become, much to my amazement, more sharply defined. The unhelpful side effect of all of this can come in the form of a temptation to impatience with brothers and sisters in Christ who still filter the text through the framework of their questions and fail to allow their framework to be challenged by the text. When I feel this temptation I try my best to remind myself of where God has taken me from and, more importantly, how much further I need to go. Such an impatience with others could well be nothing less than a symptom of the sin’s re-emergence. Nonetheless, this said, I still think that it is extremely important to continually reiterate the necessity of submitting ourselves to the text. There is always a danger of viewing the text as if it were an ox to be yoked with our own agendas, rather than taking the yoke of the text itself upon us. We should be prepared to accept delayed gratification with regard to our questions and not allow them to screen out what the Bible itself is saying to us. We need to pay careful attention to what Wright has called the ‘foundational note’ of the scriptural narrative. Once we have grasped the fundamental note, the overtones will follow. However, if we focus on the overtones to the neglect of the fundamental note we will end up missing much of the point. I honestly believe that evangelicals are guilty of just such a neglect in most parts of the Scripture. We too easily short-circuit the reasoning of Scripture in order to use it to tick our boxes. We burn off the dross of the Jew/Gentile debates in Paul in order to extract the gold of the doctrine of justification; we peel off the political dimensions of the gospel message in order to focus on a largely internal personal religion; we abstract Jesus from the narrative of the old and new testaments in order to see Him in a manner that bypasses all of the specificity of the historical setting of His ministry. Brethren, these things ought not so to be. Only as we reject such an approach will we come to realize the full power of the story of Scripture, something that totally eclipses and far exceeds any one of our petty agendas.

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