The literary theorist Umberto Eco has a theory about readers. Every text calls for an ideal reader. The ideal reader of any given text is the person receptive of its content and formed to follow its patterns (see, The Role of the Reader, 1979). In other words, the person who is willing to “see” as the text sees (this is how the world is) and then live accordingly is the ideal reader.
Consider the following picture:
That guy is NOT the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda. He refuses to buy into the Nazi’s picture of the world – choosing not to “see” as they see. And he won’t live accordingly by offering his salute to Hitler and all that his regime stands for, despite the very obvious social pressure. “Nope,” you can hear him saying to himself.
Today, in a class that surveys the entire Bible in one semester (crazy, I know), I challenged my students: “Be that guy.” Refuse to become the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda, and if you find that easy enough then go ahead and refuse to become ideal readers of all the other counterfeit stories on offer today: consumerism’s story (you are what you buy), nationalism’s story (our nation is the best nation), humanism’s story (you have all that you need to become your true self), naturalism’s story (all that matters is matter). Instead, become the Bible’s ideal reader. Read this book and accept its invitation to see as it sees, and then live accordingly. Sure, its a strange world we find in the Bible (to borrow Barth’s phrase). Who can deny that? But in light of Jesus we Christians believe it tells the true story about God, us, and the world.
“Be that guy,” I challenged. With your arms resolutely crossed, say “Nope” to all the counterfeit stories, and read the Bible as an invitation to see the world truthfully and to live accordingly.
I published an essay on new monastics this month in the journal American Theological Inquiry, “New Monastic Social Imagination: Theological Retrieval for Ecclesial Renewal.” The basic idea was to explore new monastic retrieval through the lens of social hermeneutics. Charles Taylor and Etienne Wenger were my principle conversation partners on the social hermeneutics side, and among new monastics I focused primarily on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Here is an excerpt (read the entire essay here).
In order for new monastic retrieval to succeed on its own terms—to recover the monastic impulse from past monastic movements—new monastic imagination must be distinctly theological. That is, some imagination, Christian or otherwise, will invest the practices of new monastics with meaning(s); the issue is whether that imagination will be theological. This is not to say anything of the actual efficacy of such practices, in other words whether or not they achieve the “ends” or telos they are believed to serve (e.g. spiritual transformation, ecological stewardship, community formation, etc.). Rather, the issue at stake is the cultivation and maintenance of a theological imagination sufficient for the task of investing their practices with meanings broadly consistent with the Christian tradition and more narrowly with the monastic-like movements in which they see the monastic impulse and seek to retrieve it (p. 54)
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.
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.
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
A guest post by Jim Reitman
“Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do or die.” -Alfred Lord Tennyson
Perhaps the hardest interpretive “pill” to swallow in the history of interpretation of Job has been the apparent contradiction between Job’s steadfast faith and God’s blistering sarcasm when He finally appears to confront Job (Job 38-41). Even after Job seemingly bows in deference to God’s challenge (40:4-5), God never explains his suffering and only escalates the irony and sarcasm in his reply (40:6-41:34). What’s up with that?
Let’s look more closely. The KJV “Behold, I am vile” (40:4) misconstrues the Hebrew-the word translated “vile” is best rendered “insignificant,” and we finally get our needed insight into YHWH’s scathing rhetoric: God has just painstakingly informed Job of His intricate design and care in all Creation, placing man in an exalted position of dominion (Job 38-39, cf. Psalm 8). Accordingly, Job’s retort “Behold, I am insignificant” (40:4) amounts to a bold denial of God’s creative/redemptive character; Job still maintains that God has unfairly confiscated his entire estate as he has contended since Job 29-31. Job’s apparent humble submission is thereby unmasked as obstinate pride.
If we think God’s scathing sarcasm is unfair leverage on Job Continue reading
Mark Husbands & Jeffrey Greeman eds. Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future. Downers Grove: IVP, 2008. 271pp., $21.86.
The later years of the twentieth century saw evangelical theology beginning to remember the importance of the church’s tradition and, in doing so, to engage in its own form of ressourcement theology (La nouvelle théologie). As Husbands contends,
[I]t is evident that if contemporary evangelical theology aspires to help the church engage the contemporary world in a faithful and persuasive fashion, it would do well to recover the best conversation partners is can find, even if this means reaching back a thousand years or more…Standing in the shadow of Lubac, we believe that Christianity cannot meet the challenges of modernity and postmodernity without returning to the tradition of the early church (p. 12).
In light of this trend, the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference sought to demonstrate the “viability and promise of engagement with the early church”, and the present volume contains the papers from that meeting.
Rationale and Attendant Challenges
The book is divided into four parts. Part one explores the underlying rationale and attendant challenges of an evangelical ressourcement theology. The essays by Christopher Hall and D.H. Williams are particularly good. Hall’s piece, the keynote address for the conference, argues that the bible must be read with the church fathers based on the substantial difference between the doctrine of sola scriptura and, what he considers, a common “yet confused” appeal to nuda Scriptura,“a view of the Bible in which no ecclesial context is thought to bear on the meaning of the text”. Aware that evangelicals are susceptible to an overly romantic reading of the church fathers, Continue reading