While my first book, O Theophilus, dealt with matters of genre and text, due to popular demand, this book shall examine how we understand Scripture–indeed, how Scripture can be Scripture. Even, how can *all* of Scripture be Scripture for us. In this regard, I would like to approach the problem from two complimentary directions. The first is theological, the second, catechetical.
Theologically, I understand Scripture to be the Word of God. But there is another whom we also call the Word of God, Christ Jesus our Lord. I propose that our way for understanding them both ought to be related. In fact, I wish to begin by discussing Incarnation in general. Incarnation, most simply, is how our God of Spirit, truth, and power, humbles Himself, veils Himself, to take on flesh and matter and to speak to us on our terms and in our ways. It is the means of divine self-revelation. At this point, I must state a fundamental axiom: Incarnation is messy. It involves things like mud, dirt, flesh, things that are limited and that decay. Furthermore–it’s uncertain. Incarnation isn’t an easy thing to parse out. Separating the divine and the earthly is a complicated task that I’m not sure is ever finished–and that’s part of the point as I see it.
From my perspective, it seems that Jesus, the Scriptures, the Eucharist, and the Church are all best understood as following the same essential incarnational logic. Thus, we can use what we know of Christ and move from there. Let’s review that, though, lest there be confusion…
The best way that I’ve found to both understand and explain this is through the application of Divine Algebra. There are a couple of theorems at work here.
1. 1+1+1=1 or that the Father+the Son+the Spirit=God.
2. 100%+100%=100% or that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.
Now, neither of these follow the rules of normal, standard Base 10 math or Euclidean geometry. The numbers don’t balance to our way of thinking. Most (if not all) of the major Christological or Trinitarian heresies can be explained by attempting to make the math balance. Thus, in theorem 1, the Unitarians try to take the first 1 (the Father) and get rid of the others. The Marcionites tried to take the second (the Son) and lose the first. The Montanists just wanted the third.
Similarly, in regard to theorem 2 the Docetists wanted the fully divine Jesus and to gloss the human, the Adoptionists wanted the reverse, and the folks who said Jesus had a human body but a divine soul wanted to go 50%-50%…
However, emerging orthodoxy affirmed that the more mysterious numbers were, in fact, those confirmed by Scripture, Tradition, and–yes–the people’s experience of God.
So what would happen if we took this Divine Algebra and applied it to the Scriptures? What would it mean to say that the Scriptures themselves are 100% human and 100% divine? Well, for one thing it would mean that we would have to dispense with the whole wheat/chaff line of thought. There was a movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that argued that Scripture had essentially two parts, a human, particular, limited, irrational, contextual part and a divine, eternal, comprehensive, universal, rational and True part. All that had to be done was to determine which was which. The good stuff could be kept, the other stuff discarded. The Jefferson Bible is an example of this logic…
What ended up happening is that you got, essentially, a racist version of the Bible that went through the NT (and OT) and discarded anything “too Jewish” (and irrational and contextual, etc.) in favor of the “Greek” portions. Furthermore, interestingly, scholars seemed to disagree with what was eternal and timeless; it kept looking like whatever the philosophy of the month was…
This means of reading is alive and well today. People go through and pick what they like, call it the eternal truth, and suggest that the other stuff is time-bound and therefore irrelevant. Hey–I’ve done it myself. Let me suggest, though, that this is not really the best way to either encounter or honor the text. [nb: This is not to say, however, that Christians are covenant-bound to obey the Law. We’re not. Christ, Paul, and a bunch of others made that clear. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that the Law is not the word of God.]
What I am suggesting is that we be open to the entire Scripture as the Word of God. The whole Scripture ultimately points to Christ. The Spirit speaks to us pre-eminently through this text. Even those parts that we don’t like, the “texts of terror” have to potential to be opened for us by the Spirit. The Spirit may lead us to see the love of God in them even if it is through the Spirit demonstrating that the love of God is greater than these texts. Offensiveness is part of being human, material, limited, but such things do not preclude the presence, movement, or reversal of God.
Never forget that the Word of God is living and active as Hebrews tells us. The words of Scripture are static, fixed, and limited in ways that God is not. However, our reading of Scripture in the Spirit is ever new, ever alive. Following Heraclitus, you never read the same passage of Scripture. While your eyes may pass over the same letters, the circumstances of your life, the movement of the Spirit in the world, the oppressive realities of sin, the ongoing redemptive activity of God are all making the Scriptures new, allowing them and aiding them to mediate the true Word of God who is Spirit and Truth and who has promised to reveal himself to those who love him.
This is the fully divine part of Scripture. The Scriptures are the pre-eminent way that we encounter God’s ongoing self-revelation.
The fully human part is the recognition that Scripture was written by limited, fallible, prejudiced human beings. Yes, these were men (and maybe a few women) who lived in certain cultures who thought in certain languages, and whose worlds were bounded by certain realities–realities that we may neither know nor understand. There are errors in Scripture, factual errors, grammatical errors, syntactical errors, etc. Scripture itself seems to point out conceptual errors is other parts of Scripture (a prime example being the interplay between Job and Proverbs…) These are writings by men about how they have seen, considered, and understood God’s relationship with His people.
But once again, we believe that God’s Spirit was at work in them as they wrote, enabling God’s self-revelation to speak through their words, their images, their prejudices, and yes, even their errors. But in order to hear this we must listen with the ears of the Spirit.
That’s one way of understanding the Scriptures–a theological perspective. It may be a little too theoretical for the liking of some, so let me approach it from a different, and complementary, direction: the catechetical.
One of the classic questions in the study of the NT is formed like this: if we were to discover a letter tomorrow that we could absolutely establish beyond a shadow of a doubt to be from the very hand of Paul, should we accept it into the canon? Or, even more difficult, if we found a writing from Jesus Himself, should it be included in the canon? My answer to both would be–no.
Why, you ask? Because of this: The canon, the whole of the Scriptures, are the writings by which and in which Christians have formed themselves for centuries. We have formed ourselves in relation to these texts from the time of the apostles, through the Roman persecutions, through the adoption of Christianity, through the Dark Ages, through the Renaissance, through to our own day. These are the texts that we have lived in, prayed with, argued with, pondered over, disagreed with, and found comfort in. These are literally the texts that have made us who we are. Should we throw out the Pastoral Epistles since we don’t like what they say about women or hierarchy? Christians–Christian women–have been hearing, reading and disagreeing with these texts for centuries. Even this disagreement is part of the process of formation. It is with the Spirit and in light of God’s full revelation that we read of the wars of genocide and the hurban–the devotion of entire cities to slaughter–that we disagree and say that this is not God’s way. But to remove, to excise, these texts is to lose the opportunity to struggle against them and to shape ourselves in relation to them.
This view takes the authority of Scripture very seriously. It means that we must take seriously and engage Scripture even when and where we don’t like it. That those passages we don’t like should be read again, straining the ears of the heart to hear the voice of the Spirit, teaching us, leading us into the mind of Christ. Is it the same as “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”? Hell no. Because it’s never that easy–even for the people who sport those bumper stickers.
Of course, this means that engaging the Scriptures must be a discipline. Some may ask, why should I read texts that cause me pain or that offend against me or that have been used to demonize and oppress me for centuries? My reply would be twofold. First, because the are the Scriptures. They must be wrestled with, they must be dealt with. BUT–they should be encountered in God’s good time. We may need to put certain texts away for a season. For those parts and passages that have been used as sharp rocks it may be necessary to gain strength in other places before revisiting them again. Some Scriptures of comfort and consolation may be required as wine and oil for our spiritual wounds before encountering the others. However, in some season, encountered they must be.
This is one of the purposes and powers of the liturgy, especially the liturgy of the Daily Office. Proper liturgy *is* the disciplined encounter with Scripture. With all of Scripture. And it is administered in short doses If some passages seem too much to bear, they are always surrounded by other words that contain encouragement and consolation (one of the purposes of the post-Scripture canticles imo).
Having said the things I have purposed to say, it seems fitting to pause at this point and to declare an end to Book 2. There are things in here that may be difficult and that you may disagree with. These are my reflections on a life with Scripture; I welcome yours….
Thanks for the post. I think this is a very helpful way to look at Scripture that avoids bibliolatry on the right, and modern-day marcionism on the left.
A Methodist friend of mine dicussed a similar thesis (about comparing the Bible to the Chalcedonian formula for Jesus) with me a few years ago, and I have always thought it was a good way to look at the Bible.
I will get a link up from my blog to your posts shortly.
Okay, first, I love that you focused on the work of the Spirit and proclamation in Holy Writ pointing to Christ. Very helpful. Second, you’re dealing with “terror” and “clobber” texts in a way similar to my own, so I’m pleased. When we have only “light” in the Scriptures, as liberals would want, we’re bereft of the stories of sinfulness and failure that are best able to expose our own slides into dangerous zones. This is a good post, and one I’ll be reading a few more times.
Also, I do have to ask you, since you mention liturgy…many texts about women acting singularly or about such matters as the raping and cutting up of the woman in Judges are excised from the lectionary. This to me is problematic.
That’s why I’m all for a return to the 1662 Daily Office lectionary. Remember all, the Mass lectionary and the Daily Office lectionary have two different purposes. The point of the Mass lectionary is Christocentric mystagogy; the point of the Daily Office lectionary is complete coverage. IFor those who missed it, that discussion is here.
I hate the damn Bible. And I hate the Church.
The whole sorry business should sink into the deepest part of the sea.
If the Church would ever start living out the Bible it might be an improvement… Instead it consistently demonstrates that it’s really good at being just another self-perpetuating bureacracy.
It’s been a while since I was current (if I ever was) with Scripture scholarship, but this reminds me of a book by Christopher Seitz I read a few years ago. One of his points was about reading the “whole Bible” together. Are you familiar with him?
Interesting post. I’ll have to read it more than once, too.
Thanks for the link…I actually heard him give a presentation on this topic at AAR/SBL. I’m not terribly familiar with his work but what he said intrigued me. This seems like a good place to start…
Thanks for a nuanced and thoughtful approach to the authority of the scriptures. I have to be honest and say that I thought you were going to take a fairly conventional evangelical line after the last post, but this is much, much better.
A couple thoughts: you’re absolutely right that the liberal method of “pick and choose” – the infamous canon within a canon – is absolutely the wrong way to approach the topic. That surely is the height of subjectivity, just as the liberal lives of Jesus in the C19 were revealed by Schweitzer to be nothing so much as exercises in self-reflexive narcissism.
And I appreciate the notion of thinking the incarnation, the Eucharist, and scripture together, and the importance of the work of the Spirit in appropriating the truth of the Bible.
I held to a similar view of scripture (viz., in parallel w/ the incarnation) for some time, but part of the process of my fall from grace with evangelicalism was the undeniably idolatrous attachment many conservatives had to the Bible, to the exclusion of the one Word of God, Jesus the Logos. (NB I’m not accusing you of any of this, I’m just giving my backstory). The proximate motive in upholding the authority of scripture had always been to make certain and sure our knowledge of Christ and the historical reliability of the gospel accounts of him, but for fundamentalism and its evangelical descendants this became a self-reinforcing logic and the authority of scripture became an end purely in itself.
I say all that to argue that we have to be exceedingly cautious in our estimation of scripture’s authority to prevent it from occluding the presence of Christ in the church by his Spirit. Of course, scripture is a primary means of the realization of this presence; but if we begin to ascribe an ontologically equal status of scripture to Christ we need to tread cautiously.
I for one was persuaded by Barth that scripture is in fact the witness to revelation as the instrumentality of the Spirit. And it precisely as variegated narrative – with all the competing theologies and christologies inherent in the texts – forms the founding story of the church. It opens up the tradition as a contested and embodied argument over the meaning of the Christ event.
I’ll admit I’m still looking for a way of handling the texts of terror. The beginning, I feel certain, is the recognition of the deep tension of various strata and trajectories within the New Testament and Hebrew Bible; perhaps the Spirit speaks the Word of God precisely in the space opened up by contradiction.
Anyway. Sorry so long. I do very much value these thoughts and thanks for sharing them. Peace.