Scripture: where elephants and lambs swim

In the sixth century St. Gregory composed a commentary on the book of Job. Upon beginning he realized the task was more difficult than imagined: “[When] I learned the extent and character of the task to which I was compelled, being overwhelmed and wearied with the mere burden of hearing it, I confess I sank under it.” Elephant Swimming

Gregory was interpreting Job according to the Four-Fold Senses which was common in his time (the Quadriga): the historical sense (plain sense), the allegorical sense (typological), the moral sense (tropological), and the anagogical sense (pertaining to the last or ultimate things).  Here was Gregory’s challenge: on one hand, he sought to avoid missing the obvious meaning that stared him in the face in the historical or literal sense; but on the other hand, he wanted to avoid missing the spiritual senses that lie a bit “deeper.”

So, to explain the way in which Holy Scripture is both shallow (easily accessible in its historical sense) and deep (requires spiritually discernment) Gregory used the metaphor of a “river.” The Bible is deep enough that the most devout and skilled among us can never reach the bottom, and shallow enough that the simplest among us can swim.

The word of God, by the mysteries which it contains, exercises the understanding of the wise, so usually by what presents itself on the outside, it nurses the simple-minded.   Continue reading

Biblical Interpretation and Jazz

Read the following remarks on jazz improvisation by Sharon Welch and tell me how much this sounds like biblical interpretation:

Think about the logic of jazz. Jazz emerges from the interplay of structure and improvisation, collectivity and individuality, tradition and innovation. What goes on when jazz is performed? Jazz is not completImageely free form. There are standards, songs that can be played again and again. The score of jazz ranges from a chord progression and melody, or a full orchestration with openings for improvisation. From that core the players innovate and improvise, modifying the chords and melodies and rhythm. The pleasure and energy of jazz comes from hearing both a familiar chord progression and melody and the new possibilities, what can be done from that structure. The ability to improvise is fuelled both by individual effort, creativity and technique and group synergy: the technical skill and creativity of each player is as foundational as is the spark that comes from playing off of each other.

So, what does it take to improvise? A key element is respect for the tradition, learning from it without merely repeating it. This respect is expressed by Miles Davis: ’I played ‘My Funny Valentine’ for a long time – and didn’t like it – and all of a sudden it meant something’ (Walser 1995, p. 165). Another essential element in jazz is respect for other players. Continue reading

‘Jesus Said Nothing about…’

I don’t have any hard facts on when this tack became plausible or on how pervasive it is (no doubt the bifurcation of Jesus and Paul is somehow a factor), but it seems lately that the claim that Jesus himself did not overtly express concern about a particular spiritual or ethical issue in the Gospels constitutes an argument to the effect that Christian believers need not concern themselves with that issue.  This can be (and has been) used in the case of homosexuality, for example: Jesus apparently did not feel the need to address the matter; therefore (so the logic runs), Christian believers are not obliged to take a hard line on whether such conduct is sinful.

Whether the issue at hand is homosexuality or something else, there are at least two significant problems with this approach to dealing with hot-button spiritual and ethical quandaries in our day.  First, it proceeds on a warping of the analogy of Scripture, or the commitment to allowing clearer passages of Scripture to help in interpreting more difficult ones.  The analogy of Scripture is useful when one text genuinely boggles the mind of even the most careful reader and other relevant texts can be invoked to establish parameters within which the difficult text should be understood.  However, in the case of things like homosexuality, the importance of well-ordered doctrinal formulation, the importance of church polity (all things about which, allegedly, Jesus was not terribly concerned), there are texts that come at these topics in a reasonably straightforward fashion (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3 ; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Jude 3; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-5).  Moreover, instead of employing particularly lucid texts in those cases to help in wrestling with difficult passages, the ‘Jesus said nothing about…’ argument actually attempts to use mere silence as the lens through which to view passages concerning homosexuality, etc.  In other words, a move with some resemblance to the use of the analogia Scripturae actually lacks both of the conditions for using the analogy: unclear texts and clearer ones that shed light on those that are unclear.

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N. T. Wright and Method and Matter

I just received the newest issue of JETS and was glad to see that they’ve published the plenary papers from the 2010 meeting (Schreiner, Thielman, and Wright on justification).  As he works through some preliminary points in his paper, “Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” Wright touches briefly on method in Protestant theology in response to some of his critics:

Now I discover that some from what I had thought were Protestant quarters are accusing me of something called “biblicism.”  I’m not sure what that is, exactly.  What I am sure of is what I learned forty years ago from Luther and Calvin that the primary task of a teacher of the church is to search Scripture ever more deeply and to critique all human traditions in the light of that, not to assemble a magisterium on a platform and tell the worried faithful what the tradition says and hence how they are to understand Scripture.  To find people in avowedly Protestant colleges taking what is basically a Catholic position would be funny if it was not so serious.  To find them then accusing me of crypto-Catholicism is worse.  To find them using against me the rhetoric that the official church in the 1520s used against Luther – “How dare you say something different from what we’ve always believed all these centuries” – again suggests that they have not only no sense of irony, but no sense of history.  I want to reply, how dare you propose a different theological method from that of Luther and Calvin, a method of using human tradition to tell you what Scripture said?  On this underlying question, I am standing firm with the great Reformers against those who, however Baptist in their official theology, are in fact neo-Catholics (p. 51).

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Choosing a Theology Textbook: Primer on Biblical Methods

Most Christian universities or colleges have introductory courses on the Bible, and this is true for a great many secular institutions as well. In giving students an “introduction” to the Bible these courses take any number of different angles or approaches. Some focus on the historical settings in which the Bible was written, its diversity of literature (genres), the history of its oral transmission, production and canonization, etc. Another approach might be to concentrate less on theories about the Bible and direct students toward the Bible itself, its central themes, story line, etc. Or various combinations of the two.

All this presents the daunting challenge of choosing the proper textbooks. I leave questions about the best angle up to you, but I will highlight a text that could efficiently introduce students to the many methods of biblical study. Even with the most eager students, nothing sucks the life from a room like the words “redaction criticism”, “form criticism”, “ideological criticism”, and “materialist readings.”  On these topics many of the textbooks I have reviewed frustratingly seem more geared toward graduate students than first year undergraduates. So I was pleased to see Corine Carvalho’s new Primer on Biblical Methods. Continue reading

Perspicuity and Postmodernity

I’m in between two parts of a review of Merold Westphal’s introduction to philosophical hermeneutics and have been reflecting on the importance of approaching Scripture according to its peculiar nature and subject matter, whatever may be gleaned from a general theory of texts and textual interpretation.  In keeping with those musings, I came across this comment from Irish Puritan James Ussher (1581-1656) in his defense of the clarity of Scripture:

Scripture is our Father’s Letter unto us, and his last Will to show us what Inheritance he leaveth us.  But Friends write Letters, and Fathers their wills, plain (A Body of Divinity [Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007], p. 18).

Ussher gestures toward something that we would do well to remember in a time when we are keen to avoid the appearance of epistemic arrogance or crudeness, namely, that the Bible is a covenantal book originated and commandeered by someone who actually wants us to understand it and, indeed, as our Creator and Lord, is eminently capable of accomodating his speech to the human intellect.  The subject matter, the divine authorship, and the redemptive, covenantal telos of Scripture compel an admission of its perspicuity, even in an era rather skeptical of human noetic prowess.  To vie for the  possibility of real textual understanding vis-a-vis the biblical texts is not to sink into “modernism” but to think theologically about Scripture and to keep in step with the emphases of classic Protestant bibliology.

Any thoughts?

“What sort of reader should I be?”: on interpretive virtues

What I am trying to generate with this question is some discussion about the role of virtue in the act of interpreting Scripture. Is there such a role? What would that role entail? What would it look like for the everyday reader of Holy Scripture?

The predominance of the historical-critical method for interpreting Scripture has made it difficult, or at least not self-evident, to speak about the place of interpretive virtue. For example, when reading Augustine’s On Christian Teaching with my students, they don’t quite know what to do with his interpretive model. Augustine first outlines the necessity of the reader’s fear of the Lord, holiness, and obedience to Scripture (even if we don’t fully understand it!) prior to the stage he describes as “knowledge” (II.11-26). Without the prior establishment of the reader’s disposition before God and their relationship to him through obedience, Augustine simply doesn’t consider him or her ready to pursue the knowledge of the Scriptures we would most readily associate with “finding its meaning.”

To give us someplace from which to begin, we might take the list of interpretive virtues provided by Richard Briggs in his recent book The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue (Baker, 2010). Briggs’ study is an extended exploration of what kind of reader one should be in order to be “best situated to receive, understand, and embody the life-transforming concerns of the Old Testament.” He lists the following five virtues, and I will give you an extended look at the later four: humility, wisdom, trust, love, and receptivity.

Wisdom – probably the strongest candidate for a virtue greatly to be sought after by the reader of Scripture [...]

Trust – the virtue of hermeneutical trust is just beginning to reemerge in recent theological reflection after a lengthy period where suspicion has been so easily the default mode of biblical interpretation [...] Continue reading

Theological Interpretation & Sola Scriptura—Is it even Possible?

Guest Post: Ben Witherington III

I was talking the other day to a person who had come from a ‘Word Only’ Christian Church.  These folks take the Bible alone as their authority—even the Holy Spirit has no independent voice in these circles, nor does the church and its traditions.  What is perhaps most striking about this extreme example of sola Scriptura is the lack of awareness by its practitioners that they themselves are violating this shibboleth all the time when it comes to theology and praxis.  For example, ‘Word only’ folks most definitely have a rather developed theology of baptism which cannot be found in detail in the New Testament.  Even more ironically, the theology they have of the New Testament being Scripture is not fully grounded in the New Testament itself.

For example, nowhere in the New Testament itself is there a canon list which delimits what is and should be included in the NT corpus and what books should be excluded.  Canon lists are external to the corpus of the NT itself.  There are of course many other examples that one could cite to make this point, but this one must suffice.   If ‘sola Scriptura’ means the Bible only as an authority for the church, then there are inherent problems that ensue.  If it merely means that the Bible is the final norm, the final authority of faith and practice, that is another matter entirely.  The latter approach does not rule out theological and ethical development of thought beyond, but consistent with, what is in the canon.

In my recent two volume work, The Indelible Image, (Inter Varsity Press)  I have argued at some length that what we have in the New Testament is theologizing and ethicizing into specific situations. In other words, what we have is the doing of theology and the doing of ethics.  We do not have any systematic theology books in the NT or any ethics compendiums in the NT.  All of the 27 documents in the NT are purpose-driven, to use a now well-worn and hackneyed phrase.  One conclusion that one has to draw from this is that responsible theological interpretation, like responsible ethical interpretation of the NT, requires development beyond what the Scriptures say, precisely because what is in the text is ‘partial and piecemeal’,  there is an incompleteness to it.

Take for instance the theology of Scripture itself, or even the theology of the Trinity or a theology of baptism.  What you find in the NT is raw data with which one can construct a viable theology of a three-personed God or a viable theology of the inspiration and authority of these NT books or a viable theology of baptism, but I use the word construct advisedly.  Continue reading

More Haste, Less Speed in Theology

The time allowed the church and its theology is a time in which the believer must find it intolerable that some men and women have no idea of the reasons for hope. It is not first and foremost a time for the blessedness of believing or for silent adoration. It is a time for speaking, with no right of holding back. Yet it is also a time in which the believer is authorized to search for the right words to say what must be said, a time in which the impatience of proclamation does not militate against patient application to the labours of thought and expression. This is of first importance [...]

Theological thought is born of wonder and occupies itself in thanksgiving. Yet these self-evident facts should not conceal the very specific interest in knowledge that drives theology forward in the time allowed it. Before it gives delight, it confronts us as a labor thrust upon us, a discourse that we take up not because we choose but because we are constrained. That it is a task, and a difficult one, is not surprising in itself; that is true of philosophy and mathematics, too. In this case, however, there is more: theological speech, before it ever came to be a specialist province, sprang from the elementary logic of theological life itself. The task of theology cannot really be understood apart from its roots in the prophetic dimension of universal Christian experience (p. 268).

Jean-Yves Lacoste, “More Haste, Less Speed in Theology”, Translated by Oliver O’Donovan. International Journal of Systematic Theology Vol. 9/No.3 (July 2007). Emphasis mine.

Apocalypse and Ecclesia – 2008 TF Torrance Lectures in Aberdeen

A couple weeks ago Joseph Mangina gave the T.F. Torrance Lectures here in Aberdeen (details here). Mangina is both an mangina_000accomplished scholar and – gratefully – an engaging presenter. The main purpose of his lectures was to pursue the following question: What would it mean to view the church in light of the Apocalypse? In keeping with the apocalyptic angle, his lectures took the form of ‘notes on scripture’ and followed the text of revelation as a form of theological interpretation of scripture (he has a revelation commentary in the Brazos series coming out in 2009).

While our remarks certainly won’t be comprehensive of Mangina’s lectures, a couple things stood out to us:

Divine Agency - Related to his reflections on the theological interpretation of Scripture and to the nature of the book of Revelation – as the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ – Mangina’s lectures consistently registered the importance of divine agency for a theological account of the church. Mangina contended that the genitive related to Jesus in Revelation 1:1 (‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’) must be read here both as subjective and objective – Jesus is the author and the content of revelation. In turn, this impacts the way the church should read the later ‘scary bits’ in the book of Revelation related to judgment and tribulation. In reading the Revelation, then, ‘It means first’ Mangina explained, ‘that we are dealing with and beholding Jesus and secondarily (only) are we dealing with the prophetic contents of the book.’ Specifically concerning the political implications that could be drawn from Revelation, when Jesus is properly seen as the object and subject of the Revelation, ‘it provokes a horizon of divine action that does not take human politics seriously.’

Concerning the former (theological interpretation of Scripture) he said,

To read scripture theologically is to read it ecclesially, which is to read it typologically. This starts with the assumption that God is the primary author of scripture and most specifically the Spirit and that all Scripture points to Jesus Christ.

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Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Daniel Treier. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Baker Academic, 2008), 221pp. [review copy courtesy of Baker Academic]

Daniel Treier’s Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice is a timely and largely helpful introduction of the growing, diverse movement to recover a distinctively theological interpretation of Scripture broadly known as ‘theological interpretation’ or ‘theological hermeneutics’.

As a mapping exercise, the book provides a useful orientation to the movement’s dominant trajectories, prominent figures, and to the issues most pressing for evangelicals (e.g. preoccupation with authorial intent).

Because Treier’s primary aims are introduction and mapping, his own constructive proposals for theological interpretation are mostly downplayed. However, in those moments when he transitions from exposition to argument, we get tantalizing glimpses of what will hopefully occupy his full attention in subsequent works. For example, with his evangelical readers in mind, Treier searches for a middle ground between ‘reader-response’ approaches and what sometimes appears to be a complete disregard for the ‘reader’ in evangelical hermeneutics. Following a close reading of Gadamer and some discussion of the appropriateness of the evangelical rejection of relativism, Treier makes a measured argument for ‘interpretive plurality’. ‘One gets the idea’ Treier remarks,

that we would have no need for interpretation in an ideal world. But in some respects diversity is a creational and pentecostal reality: Continue reading

On Reading Scripture & Wisdom

What does wisdom have to do with reading Scripture?

Here at Theology Forum, we believe the ability to read and engage theological texts in a judicial and irenic (peaceable) spirit is something to be cultivated. Far too often it seems, readings are done polemically or in ways that harm the Christian community. So, toward opening up irenic discussion and cultivating the theological craft of inquiring honesty and deliberating wisely we are starting a new series.

We will post selections from various theologians from across the spectrum, suggest some questions, and invite your interaction. The goal here is not necessarily critique, but careful reading, irenic dialogue, and the fostering of good theological habits.

‘The specifically theological character of the rereading [of scripture] lies in it being done before david-ford.jpgGod, in relationship with God, seeking in the Spirit to follow the purposes of God in the world and finding in scriptures inspired testimony to what all of that involves. If “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” then wisdom interpretation of scripture is done primarily with respect to and for God. The most important thing is to learn to read and reread for the sake of God and the Kingdom of God. This sort of reading is not just a skill to be mastered; it is inseparable from learning to love God, neighbours and enemies, and from transformations of life as well as mind (p. 68)’

- What is the relationship between the (re)reader of Scripture and God? Does this matter? Why?

- How are the activities of the (re)reader and God portrayed? Does one receive more emphasis than the other?

- What can Ford teach us about our reading the Scriptures- individually or corporately?