Monday, March 23, 2009

Beyond Criticism: Learning to Read the Bible Again

Biblical scholars Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays offer reflections and nine theses on the art of biblical interpretation in an article that first appeared in April 20, 2004 issue of The Christian Century. It's well worth reading. Here are some teasers (note that I am not including the authors' exposition for each thesis here):

A cartoon in the New Yorker shows a man making inquiry at the information counter of a large bookstore. The clerk, tapping on his keyboard and peering intently into the computer screen, and peering intently into the computer screen, replies, "The Bible? . . . That would be under self-help."

As the cartoon suggests, in postmodern culture the Bible has no definite place, and citizens in a pluralistic, secular culture have trouble knowing what to make of it. If they pay any attention to it at all, they treat it as a consumer product, one more therapeutic option for rootless selves engaged in an endless quest of self-invention and self-improvement. Not surprisingly, this approach does not yield a very satisfactory reading of the Bible, for the Bible is not, in fact, about "self-help"; it is about God’s action to rescue a lost and broken world.

If we discount the story of God’s gracious action, what remains of the Bible is decidedly nontherapeutic. We are left with a curious pastiche of ancient cultural constructions that might or might not be edifying for us, in the same way that the religious myths of any other ancient culture might or might not prove interesting or useful. Indeed, some postmodern readers have come to perceive the cultural alienness of the Bible and find it dangerous and oppressive.

The difficulty of interpreting the Bible is felt not only in secular culture but also in the church at the beginning of the 21st century. Is the Bible authoritative for the faith and practice of the church? If so, in what way? What practices of reading offer the most appropriate approach to understanding the Bible? How does historical criticism illumine or obscure scripture’s message? How are premodern Christian readings to be brought into engagement with historical methodologies, as well as feminist, liberationist and postmodernist readings? The church’s lack of clarity about these issues has hindered its witness and mission, so that it fails to speak with wisdom, imagination and courage to the challenges of our time. Even where the Bible’s authority is acknowledged in principle, many churches seem to have lost the art of reading it attentively and imaginatively. ...

Nine theses on interpreting scripture

1. Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging and saving the world.

God is the primary agent revealed in the biblical narrative. The triune God whom Christians worship is the God of Israel who called a people out of bondage, gave them the Torah, and raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. This same God is still at work in the world today. God is not a projection or construct of human religious aspiration. Readers who interpret the biblical story reductively as a symbolic figuration of the human psyche, or merely as a vehicle for codifying social and political power, miss its central message. Scripture discloses the word of God, a word that calls into existence things that do not exist, judges our presuppositions and projects, and pours out grace beyond our imagining.

2. Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.

Though the Bible contains the voices of many different witnesses, the canon of scripture finds its unity in the overarching story of the work of the triune God. While the Bible contains many tensions, digressions and subplots, the biblical texts cohere because the one God acts in them and speaks through them: God is the author of scripture’s unity for the sake of the church’s faithful proclamation and action.

3. Faithful interpretation of scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.

The Bible must be read "back to front" -- that is, understanding the plot of the whole drama in light of its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This suggests that figural reading is to be preferred over messianic proof-texting as a way of showing how the Old Testament opens toward the New. Yet the Bible must also be read "front to back" -- that is, understanding the climax of the drama, God’s revelation in Christ, in light of the long history of God’s self-revelation to Israel. Against the increasingly common contention that Christians should interpret "the Hebrew Bible" only in categories that were historically available to Israel at the time of the composition of the biblical writings, we affirm that a respectful rereading of the Old Testament in light of the New discloses figurations of the truth about the one God who acts and speaks in both, figurations whose full dimensions can be grasped only in light of the cross and resurrection. At the same time, against the assumption that Jesus can be understood exclusively in light of Christian theology’s later confessional traditions, we affirm that our interpretation of Jesus must return repeatedly to the Old Testament to situate him in direct continuity with Israel’s hopes and Israel’s understanding of God.

4. Texts of scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.

5. The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.

The Gospels, read within the matrix of scripture from Genesis to Revelation, convey the truth about the identity of Jesus more faithfully than speculative reconstructions produced by modernist historical methods. The canonical narratives are normative for the church’s proclamation and practice.

6. Faithful interpretation of scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action -- the church.

Scriptural interpretation is properly an ecclesial activity whose goal is to participate in the reality of which the text speaks by bending the knee to worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ. ...

7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform scripture.

8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.

9. We live in the tension between the "already" and the "not yet" of the kingdom of God; consequently, scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh re-readings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

Read it all.


plsdeacon said...

I can agree with all of these except #8 - we need to read Scripture with people who do not accept Christian truth. That seems to be like reading books written in English in community with people who don't understand English.

Holy Scripture was written by God's faithful people, inspired by His Holy Spirit. It cannot be understood outside of the community of faith.

As Anselm said: "I do not believe because I understand. I believe in order that I might understand and, further, I believe that unless I believe I will not understand."

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Phil. Thanks for your comments.

I didn't include all of the explanations for each of the theses, and I don't know if you've had the chance to read all of the piece as posted at Religion-Online, but here's what it says with Thesis 8:

8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.

There is a special need for Christians to read scripture in respectful conversation with Jews who also serve the one God and read the same texts that we call the Old Testament within a different hermeneutical framework. There are also diverse others to whom we need to listen and from whom we need to learn. This includes critics who charge us with ideological captivity rather than fidelity to God.

I find myself agreeing both with your point that we cannot fully understand Holy Scripture outside the community of faith, and with Davis and Hays' point that we need to listen to and learn from others outside of the Church. I find the point about respectful conversation with Jews particularly important. But I also think that engaging the thought of "diverse others" (some of whom don't even come close to sharing the presuppositions of our faith) can be a means of protecting ourselves from becoming too insular and isolated. Sometimes surprising insights can come from the most unlikely people and places. It seems to me that our Anglican heritage affirms this.

plsdeacon said...

Hi Bryan,

I would heartily agree that we should include Jewish scholarship and commentary on the Old Testament, but then I would include them in the "community of faith" as it applies to the Scriptures of the Old Testament. I remember I had to write a paper on Isaiah's 4th servant song and I interviewed a Rabbi to get a Jewish understanding of the song.

For an academic understanding of Holy Scripture, our academicians should interface with non-christian academicians when it comes to method or process, but not understanding. But I doubt that 95% of the people who read and study Holy Scripture would be helped by a purely secular worldview's interpertation.

I think that the biggest source of problem in TECUSA is that our people (particularly our clergy) have been badly formed as Christians and don't understand Holy Scripture's truth and meaning. (But that's a different post.)

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I agree with you, Phil. And as I've written about on this blog many times, I share the concern that too many of our folks are badly formed as Christians. That shows up in many ways, not the least of which is ignorance of the scriptures.

But I would also hasten to add that non-Christian and "secular" sources can, indeed, provide a means for understanding our faith. Aquinas' embrace of "The Philosopher" (Aristotle) is just one example of how that can faithfully be done.

Vince Macikas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, Vince, and for sharing the link. Sounds interesting.