Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kill the Commentators!

Some thoughts on the Bible, scholars, and Christian discipleship from Søren Kierkegaard.



Today’s mass of Bible interpreters have damaged, more than they have helped, our understanding of the Bible. In reading the scholars it has become necessary to do as one does at a play where a profusion of spectators and spotlights prevent, as it were, our enjoyment of the play itself and instead we are treated to little incidents. To see the play, one has to overlook them, if possible, or enter by a way that has not yet been blocked. The commentator has indeed become a most hazardous meddler.

If you wish to understand the Bible, then be sure to read it without a commentary. Think of two lovers. The lover writes a letter to the beloved. Is the beloved concerned about what others think of it? Will he not read it all alone? In other words, would it ever occur to him to read this letter with a commentary! If the letter from the lover were in a language he did not understand – well, then he would learn the language – but he would certainly not read the letter with the aid of commentaries. They are of no use. The love for his beloved and his readiness to comply with her desires, makes him more than able to understand her letter. It is the same with the Scriptures. With God’s help we can understand the Bible all right. Every commentary detracts, and he who sits with ten open commentaries and reads the Scriptures – well he is probably writing the eleventh. He is certainly not dealing with the Scriptures.

Suppose now that this letter from the lover has the unique attribute that every human being is the beloved – what then? Should we now sit and confer with one another? No, each of us should read this letter solely as an individual, as a single individual who has received this letter from God. In reading it, we will be concerned foremost with ourselves and with our relationship to him. We will not focus on the beloved’s letter, that this passage, for example, may be interpreted in this way, and that passage in that way – oh, no, the important thing to us will be to act as soon as possible.

Isn’t it something to be the beloved, and doesn’t this give us something that no commentator has? Think about it. Aren’t we each the best interpreter of our own words? And then next the lover, and in relation to God, the true believer? Lest we forget, the Scriptures are but highway signs: Christ, the beloved, is the way. Kill the commentators!

Of course, the commentators are not the only ones at fault. God wants to force each one of us out again into the essential, back to a childlike beginning. But being naked before God in this way, this we do not want at all. We all prefer the commentaries. So with each passing generation we grow more and more spiritless.

What we really need, then, is a reformation that sets even the Bible aside. Yes, this has just as much validity now as did Luther’s breaking with the Pope. The current emphasis on getting back to the Bible has, sadly, created religiosity out of learning and literalistic chicanery – a sheer diversion. Tragically this kind of knowledge has gradually trickled down to the masses so that no one can read the Bible simply any more. All our Bible learning has become nothing but a fortress of excuses and escapes. When it comes to existence, to obedience there is always something else we have to first take care of. We live under the illusion that we must first have the interpretation right or the belief in perfect form before we can begin to live – that is, we never get around to doing what the Word says.

The Church has long needed a prophet who in fear and trembling had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. I am tempted, therefore, to make the following proposal. Let us collect all the Bibles and bring them out to an open place or up on a mountain and then, while we all kneel, let someone talk to God in this manner: Take this book back again. We Christians, such as we are, are not fit to involve ourselves with such a thing; it only makes us proud and unhappy. We are not ready for it. In other words, I suggest that we, like those inhabitants whose herd of pigs plunged into the water and died, beg Christ "to leave the neighborhood" (Mt. 8:34). This would at least be honest talk – something very different from the nauseating, hypocritical, scholarship that is so prevalent today.

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read:"If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me." Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).

In vain does the Bible command with authority. In vain does it admonish and implore. We do not hear it – that is, we hear its voice only through the interference of Christian scholarship, the experts who have been properly trained. Just as a foreigner protests his rights in a foreign language and passionately dares to say bold words when facing state authorities – but see, the interpreter who is to translate it to the authorities does not dare do so but substitutes something else – just so the Bible sounds forth through Christian scholarship.

We declare that Christian scholarship exists specifically to help us understand the New Testament, in order that we may better hear its voice. No insane man, no prisoner of the state, was ever so confined. As far as they are concerned, no one denies that they are locked up, but the precautions regarding the New Testament are even greater. We lock it up but argue that we are doing the opposite, that we are busily engaged in helping it gain clarity and control. But then, of course, no insane person, no prisoner of the state, would ever be as dangerous to us as the New Testament would be if it were set free.

Taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard,
e-book "Copyright 2007 by Plough Publishing House. Used with permission."

3 comments:

Joe Rawls said...

I assume you do not want to kill NT Wright or others of his ilk. A post on what you see as the appropriate use of biblical criticism would be most helpful.

Bryan Owen said...

No, indeed, Joe, I do not wish to "kill" N. T. Wright or others of his ilk. Nor do I wish to "kill" the likes of Borg, Crossan, Pagels, Ehrman, etc., so much as reduce their unbalanced influence in the Episcopal Church.

The title for this posting comes straight from the translation of Kierkegaard I'm citing. I suspect that Kierkegaard doesn't mean this literally, but (perhaps like Jesus?) he's found a way to use hyperbole and satire make a point.

My sense, Joe, is that Kierkegaard is targeting the same kind of biblical "scholars" in his day that you and I find frustrating in our own day. So it's not the N. T. Wright's or the Eugene Peterson's or the Luke Timothy Johnson's who are the problem, but folks like Ehrman and Spong and Pagels, etc.

So I don't think it's scholarship per se that's at issue (Kierkegaard could himself, quite rightly, be charged with being a "scholar"). It's scholarship that reduces Christianity to an armchair, intellectual exercise (a Hegelian thought-experiment, if you will) that rightly receives Kierkegaard's wrath.

eric said...

Brilliant, thanks for sharing this.