Rorschach redemption

87241fc01b5a5f0a8aef2974cc9bb8feMy good friend Dwayne shared some of his spiritual journey with me. In describing how he used to view God in conversation with the Bible to how he now views God, he compared his reading of Scripture to Rorschach’s inkblot test. The metaphor struck me so deeply, I wanted to share it.

Rorschach was a Swiss psychologist who developed the inkblot test used to study a person’s psychological health and emotional functionality. It’s not an objective test (like a multiple test question). It’s a projective test. It asks a subject to respond to ambiguous stimuli (those weird inkblot images). The mind fills in the gaps and resolves the ambiguity on its own and thus reveals itself in its responses. What you see reflects as much your own state of mind as it does what’s on the card. I don’t know how much they use the test nowadays. I took it years ago. Got the job, so I guess I passed.

As Dwayne describes it:

When I first started doing theology as a profession in 1998, I was pretty much a double predestination Calvinist. I believed that God as Creator had the complete right to eternally predestine some to eternal heaven or eternal hell. I thought of it as simple property rights. If God made us for himself and he wants to play with us like toy soldiers, so be it. Who are we to tell the Creator of all what to do? If he wants some of us to be the winning side and others to be the losing side, so be it. It made total sense to me from the Scriptures.

But as I look back, more than anything I see that I looked at the Scriptures like a Rorschach Blot. I saw my own theological and emotional despair more than what the Scriptures actually say. Back then, I pretty much hated myself, and hated everyone else, why paradoxically being codependent as hell. What I’ve learned in my personal journey is that many times we see the Bible as we are, not as it is.

I like the analogy – a lot. I wouldn’t say the Bible is pure ambiguity (like one of Rorschach’s inkblots). It is sufficiently specific of course (specific people, era, culture, message). Nonetheless, it is a mirror that reveals the reader. We are the text being read. It’s a thought shared by at least some biblical authors themselves. James 1.23-25:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

I believe it was Barth who said something along the lines of ‘The Bible is not where we come to ask God our questions and have him provide the answers, but where God asks the questions and we must answer’. Scripture is where we come to be read by God, parsed by the Spirit, exegeted by the Logos. This is why though theology may be more than autobiography, it’s never less than autobiography. It’s also why, though “I” must read for myself, I must never read “alone.” We read the Scriptures together to call each other into being. This challenges me to examine my own reading. How does my reading of Scripture reveal my own sense of self, my fears, my angst and despair, my desires, etc.? Similarly, what do the readings of others say about them?

Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper do we sink.
I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike persons are far more sparse.

What is the Bible?—Part 5

rah_25263025681

Listening to debates over inerrancy and the nature of the Bible this week got me thinking through our What is the Bible? series. (Start the series here.) I thought I’d add a thought.

When the Spirit inspired Jeremiah (31.33) to say the day would come God would “write the law upon our hearts,” I take him to mean that the day would come when we would no longer relate to God through texts of Scripture (with all due respect to the scriptural traditions in our possession), when morality wouldn’t be based on an appeal to texts, when we would no longer relate to God as an act of obedience to a text, when the animation of spiritual appetite, the inclination of the heart and mind to what is good and holy, and the conformity of our characters to Christ would be an inward operation of the Spirit written in our hearts. Essentially we become the law. You might not be accustomed to thinking of Jeremiah’s promise in this way, so let me try to describe what I mean.

Where your treasure is, there you heart will be (MT 6). You are your heart. And Jeremiah’s promise is that texts are to cease being an external regulating force for faith and be relocated within the human heart. God’s voice to us will be his voice in us. So what about texts? Are we just to throw them out? I don’t see the need for that, but nevertheless there is a fundamental reorienting of how we relate to texts. That much is clear in Jeremiah’s vision of the reconstituted people of God. Every community (good and bad ones, whether cultural, political, or religious) survives from generation to generation in and as the narrative it perpetuates, and that narrative tells the story of the events that create the community, establish its identity, and define the vision that inspires and animates it. Communities, and the Christian community is no exception, perpetuate themselves narratively.

Jeremiah isn’t suggesting this essential, narrative function of social identity and cohesiveness is done away with. To the extent the Scriptures store or house the narratives that describe the foundational events which establish Christian community (as creation, fall, incarnation, mission and glorification), they remain a defining reference point. The Church exists as this never-ceasing rehearsal of the gospel narrative, always appropriating its ethic, vision and hope in each generation and for each new day. What Jeremiah promises is that this appropriation will succeed in a lived integration of that narrative wrought in us supernaturally by the Spirit of God. And it follows naturally that once one ‘becomes’ the appropriation of divine intention through the Spirit writing those intentions upon one’s very heart, it becomes as true to say ‘People’ as it does to say ‘Scripture’, for we will have become our Scripture. (2Cor 3.2 comes to mind: “You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by everyone.”) And nobody for whom this is her lived reality will be much concerned with debates over inerrancy. You only need a certain kind of inerrant text if all you’ve got is text and the Spirit is not inscribing God’s intentions upon your heart.

However, Jeremiah isn’t saying God will erase the law and let you make up your own. He’s promising a way of relating to God (a new ‘covenant’) that flows from an inner operation of the Spirit in the heart. What’s Paul say? Regarding instructions to Titus on how to instruct those who gave credence to myths and mere human commands, he makes the interesting statement that “to the pure all things are pure.” What sort of perspective, born of what sort of inner reality, would make that true for the pure in heart? To hearts shaped by an inner presence of the Spirit, those hearts naturally will the good without having to be corralled by textual authority. The text is referenced to celebrate those events that created the Church and its faith to begin with, yes, but beyond that all texts are per se schoolmasters “until” (Gal 3.24) Christ is known by faith.

Jeremiah is making an essentially aesthetic statement. He’s prophesying a work of art. Think of the relationship between a musical score, say, a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, and its actual performance. Its text (the music printed on the page) is law/torah (word, instruction, direction, prescription). But the text can be ingested, inscribed upon the heart, and once this is accomplished one becomes the text one plays and there’s no longer a distinction between the two. The text moves from the page back into the heart from whence it first sprang, and the distinction between the two disappears. That’s Jeremiah’s vision.

(For a musical demonstration of the change Jeremiah foresaw, watch Valentina Lasitsa play Rachmoninoff’s III Piano Concerto; no score, no conductor, not even the accompanying orchestration, just her and the music. Or is it her as the music?

What is the Bible?—Part 4

storytelling

Two summers ago I offered a three-part series outlining some of our thoughts on the nature and authority of the Bible. This week Dwayne shared some interesting comments that I’d like to work into a Part 4 in answer to the series’ question: What is the Bible? First, let me clip a couple of lines from our earlier points 1 through 6, which we remain committed to, and end by trying to describe our sense of a new point No. 7.

From our earlier Parts 1-3:

(1) Israel and its history as a suitable context for Incarnation.
“Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of our understanding of God’s unitive purposes for creation and view Scripture as subservient to these ends. If God is to incarnate and as an individual develop a unique sense of identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficient to inform and shape that development. No one develops an understanding of who they are and what their destiny is apart from these contexts. So the question of a context sufficient to shape the Incarnate Word’s embodied worldview and self-understanding is paramount, and in our view that is what Scripture is primarily about. The Word could not have been born randomly into a culture which was not an adequate means of identity formation…The construction of a suitable context for this formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.”

(2) Scripture as inspired.
“We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.”

“What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way.”

(3) Functional inerrancy.
First, “we suggest that Scripture ought to be a sufficiently truthful source for Christ’s first-century self-understanding as executor of God’s promises to Israel and the redemption of the world” and then also “its truth should be sufficient to inform and facilitate human transformation into Christlikeness. In a word, it must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this.”

“Scripture is ‘functionally inerrant’ where its function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness.”

“In the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed [with a view to Christlikeness], it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with. To want something more or other than that tends to idolatry.”

(4) Canonization of history.
“In choosing a particular man and his descendants to be the sufficiently truthful context into which God would incarnate, God chooses to identify himself as a covenant partner with Israel, and that means with her successes and failures, with the truth they perceive and the falsehoods they embrace, with the violence they pursue and the good they manage to achieve. It all gets chosen by God as the space in which God’s incarnational and redeeming work is embodied. This space is fallen but not so hopeless as to be void of all truth. God remains committed and engaged. In choosing Israel God is choosing the whole world. He simply chooses to work within this nation with respect to securing a context adequate for the Incarnate One who will mediate God’s purposes universally.”

“We are thus arguing for the canonization of Israel (as opposed to her texts alone) as the sacred space within which God creates the conditions sufficient for incarnation. Are the OT ‘texts’ inspired? In the sense that these writings are the written record of that created covenantal space God has sanctified for pursuing his incarnational purposes, yes. And it’s a mixed history: a history of misconstrual, of despairing nationalism, of religious hubris, but also of honest praise and humble dependence upon God. It’s a history that succeeded at preserving the socio-religious conditions sufficient for incarnational vocation. Israel is that space in the world where God does not give up on carving out a worldview sufficient for incarnation. They got it right enough for what ultimately mattered.”

(5) Christ-centered reading.
“For Paul, there simply is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ. This usefulness is for teaching, rebuking and correcting relevant to development of Christlike character and the doing of good works. Thus, the OT can be trusted when read Christologically to shape godly character and to empower the doing of good. That’s its purpose. Uses outside of this narrow purpose, whatever they are, are not explicitly embraced by Paul’s belief in the purpose of Scripture.”

“But traditional ‘inerrantists’ implicate the truth of any biblical claim in the truth of every other claim, so that if any link in the chain proves false, the purpose of Scripture fails utterly. We view the relationship not as links in a chain, one after the other and so on, but as bodies orbiting a center, and that center is the risen Christ. Christ exercises a gravitational pull, so to speak, over all of Israel’s traditions and texts which revolve in their orbit around Christ, sometimes approaching theological truth better than at other times. So where inerrantists typically see the truth of any one text…as implicated in the truth of every other text…we suggest viewing the truth of all texts as relative to Christ, so that Christ becomes the determiner of the relevancy of Scripture as a whole, the same way the Sun is the central force that determines the course and trajectories of those bodies that rotate around it. To what extent is the course trajectory of a planetary body ‘accurate’? To the extent that it maintains its course relative to the Sun, not relative to the orbits of other planetary bodies.”

(6) Sensus Communis.
A “communal reading” of Scripture — at least on the essentials. To be sure, there’s certainly a sense one could give to the notion of sola scriptura which is compatible with what we’ve already said in points 1-5. The Scriptures relay that sufficiently truthful historical-social-religious context necessary for the Incarnate One’s self-understanding and vocation. [The] incarnation, we argued, was the primary point of creation and election of Israel. Naturally, it is to the Scriptures (and not to the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Avesta of Zoroastrianism or the Quran) that Christians look to understand those events which ground their self-understanding, their religious inspiration and worship, their ethical core, and their missional/vocational calling.”

“What’s typically meant [by sola scriptura] is not only that the Scriptures are the authoritative source of doctrine and theology for the Church (there’s agreement there) but that the individual believer is the final arbiter in determining doctrine and belief for him/herself, a kind of creedal sola fidelis (the ‘believer alone’).”

“I…want to suggest that something is amiss with the sola fidelis reading. The Church after all is Christ’s “body,” a “community,” a “communion” of faith and identity formation. Only that community as a community can decide who they are, what they believe, and what they exist for.”

mind the gap

With that review in mind, I’d like to add a seventh principle:

(7) Scripture as communal meaning-making.
I’m not sure where I ran into the term “meaning-making” first or if it generated on its own in my head before meeting up with it elsewhere. One runs into the phrase everywhere nowadays. In psychology it describes the process by which we make sense of (either by giving meaning to or deriving meaning from) the events and relationships of our lives. Viktor Frankl (d. 1997) developed his logotherapy around the conviction that our drive to establish meaning and significance for our lives is fundamental to human being and that meaning can be established in the most horrific of circumstances. Development psychologists employ the term “meaning-making” to describe roughly the same process. Robert Kegan focuses on meaning-making in his book The Evolving Self (1982) and ends up equating ‘human being’ with this it unique meaning-making capacity. Theologians integrate this capacity into theological anthropology as well (James Loder and Marilyn McCord Adams come to mind). I love the phrase meaning-making. It’s entirely descriptive of human experience, isn’t pejorative, and doesn’t presume any specific philosophy or theology. It simply offers up empirically what we know to be fundamental and undeniable about human experience.

What’s involved in ‘meaning-making’ has been the subject of cross-disciplinary studies for decades. We’ve touched here and there in our blog upon what we think is essential to it:

  • Identity formation
  • Value assessment-integration of experiences and relationships
  • Irreducibly teleological disposition for aesthetic value
  • The Void as a necessary context for human becoming
  • The Face that cannot die (basically Loder and SK)

At issue is how our primordial meaning-making drive is understood as a dispositional aptitude or capacity for the experience of aesthetic satisfaction grounded in our God-given identity revealed in the gospel.

How this applies to our understanding what the Bible is and how its authority functions is what we’d like to explore here. It comes down to the narrative structure of meaning-making. We know enough about the brain to know that we process meaning by narrating stories to ourselves (and to others socially). So many have seized upon the narrative nature of personal and social existence, it’s time to apply what we’ve learned to our understanding of the Bible and its function within faith. We’d like to suggest that in order to better understand Scripture, we remind ourselves that social identity and vocation emerge and are maintained through shared stories that reflect and maintain a tradition of meaning-making. This may seem an innocuous thesis, but it undermines certain cherished approaches to the Bible.

So what has the narrative structure of meaning-making to do with the Bible? It makes Scripture completely understandable and appropriate as we have it (i.e., in the diversity of its perspectives, its textual history and traditions of interpreting and editing itself, etc.). Where many want immediately to go is to the truth question(s) because they’re sure the trustworthiness of any part of the Bible (e.g., John 3:16) depends upon the truth of every other textual claim. So it starts:

  • Is this text true? Did it happen this way?
  • Did Luke get the date of this census right?
  • Did Paul falsely conflate OT texts in 1Cor. 10?
  • Did the gospel writers confuse some of the events of the Passion Week?
  • Was there really an innumerable host of Hebrews who walked across the Red Sea to wander 40 years in the Sinai?
  • Are these Hebrews the source of a widespread military conquest and settlement of the Israel?
  • Will it hold up in debate against someone picking apart the textual history?
  • What will Bart Ehrman say?

Well, does the Bible behave in our hands and history like it was intended to be an inerrant book of recipes for decision making, church leadership, staffing church ministries, adjudicating moral dilemmas, political activism, raising children, and perfectly lining up historical events? Do Christians who all appeal to the Bible as final authority in fact share the same biblically derived conclusions on all these questions? No. Does anyone see a problem here? If this is how we’re to understand the Bible, then I think the Bible loses the debate as a book judged in recipe terms.

But if the Bible is a record of Israel’s (and by example, all humanity’s) struggle for meaning-making that finds its end in Christ’s power to transform individuals, then that changes the terms of the conversation. What we’re suggesting here, together with our previous points, is that the entire Bible is the very human story of an emerging community’s search for meaning. It’s meaning-making all the way. Some might immediately agree and wonder what’s new here. But others have placed their faith in a book  because they believe its exceptional constitution provides them perfect recipes for decisions, dilemmas, and doctrines. Where human social movements are all characterized by an ongoing struggle to make meaning, and this struggle can be reflected in their history (editing, correcting, reinterpreting, all in light of a certain mixture of ignorance and insight), many believe the Bible to be an exception to this. How so? Because inspiration, it is thought, exempts the biblical authors from all the error.

What we’re suggesting is that the Bible not be exempted from the messy, human business of hit-and-miss meaning-making, that rather than being an inerrant exception to humanity’s struggle to find meaning, the Bible be viewed as the example par excellence, a kind of template, of that struggle and its final redemption. Is there anything inerrant? Yes, Christ the Incarnate One. He is where Israel’s varied and messy meaning-making journey ends. Is there nothing unique about Israel’s Scripture? Certainly there is, namely, that it ends as explicitly as it does in Christ, the Incarnate One. It’s not different from other meaning-making journeys that have been documented in that it’s exempted by the magic of inspiration from all human error such that truths, and only truths, about God and the world can be picked up off the surface of any text like finely polished sea shells. On the contrary, it’s different from other meaning-making journeys in that God adopts this history, this people, this journey of meaning-making, as the sacred space in which he prepares an adequate context for incarnation. So there’s a covenant with this journey, but it’s not a book per se. It’s a history of God’s commitment to Israel’s entire journey, a commitment to engage Israel for a unique purpose that involves God and Israel in a unique way. But it doesn’t exempt Israel’s narrating her own journey from all manner of error in understanding God or in interpreting her experience. Whatever Israel is—and she’s a mixed bag—so her Scriptures are. Israel is her Scriptures.

Perhaps viewing the Bible as Israel’s history of meaning-making is entailed in other core commitments we’ve mentioned in this series. Still, it’s worth pointing out. Scripture isn’t just a Polaroid snap-shot of a mixed journey of meaning-making. In that case the ‘picture’ is something fundamentally other than what’s photographed. No, we’re saying Scripture is that journey. We’re also saying that it couldn’t really be otherwise, not if Israel is redeemed, kept by God’s grace through faith and doubt, of Israel’s search for meaning, through getting it right and getting it wrong, and being kept by grace to welcome the Incarnation. How do we know God’s grace kept Israel if her records aren’t absolutely inerrant? We know because the Son was incarnate. He came. (There’s a William Walker over at Missio Alliance, who is ringing the same bell we are.) Apart from Christ, the Old Testament isn’t Scripture, since Christ is the end of the law for all who believe. Christ was what Israel was called to and where God was always guiding Israel along. Could Christ perhaps also redeem the Bible as well? That is, could Christ be ‘the meaning’ that makes/interprets Israel’s varied history of meaning-making (as opposed to simply ratifying and confirming all that went before)? That’s what we’re suggesting; not that Christ is the ‘end’ (telos) that does away with the need for the Bible, but that he is the truth and meaning in light of which we read it.

              Prayer
Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper shall we sink.

I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike persons are far more sparse.

The norms of theological judgment

donovanpaintingI recently mentioned having not read a Protestant theologian for several years now. James Loder comes to mind as the only brief exception. I finally decided to pick up Protestants again and chose Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson as my re-entry point. Wow.

I’m ashamed to confess having put off Jenson this long. He’s been on my shelf for, God forgive me, years. I’ve read works by others about Jenson. But when it comes to getting into Jenson himself, well, I just kept deferring to other things—Maximus, Bulgakov, Hart, Desmond, (and Fr. Aidan!). So here I am in Vol. 1 of Jenson’s SysTheo (The Triune God). I’ll get around to a response when I recover, if I recover. However, I sense a “response” to Jenson would reduce me to just taking inventory of what’s left of my own beliefs after Jenson got through with me and whatever reasons I have for holding on to what I hold on to.

Jenson is Senior Scholar for Research at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, has taught for decades (various schools), is author of more than twenty books, and has edited that many more at least. I believe it was Jenson who wrote of David Bentley Hart that “Hart will never use one phrase when twenty will do.” Those who know Hart will agree. Jenson, on the other hand, is frustratingly terse and efficient. Frustrating because you want more of him, not because you need more of him to grasp his point. There’s no need to ramble on. Just insight after insight. I disagree (I think) with some of his key thoughts, but he argues them so well I find myself sometimes wishing they were true.

In the second chapter (“The Norms of Theological Judgment”) of his SysTheo’s first volume, he gets into the question of the canon and its authority, as well as dogma, tradition, and the question of magisterium. I’m an Evangelical, but I’ve suspected sola scriptura of being woefully inadequate for years, and describe my own evolving position here (sensus communis, about which, I don’t mind saying, I felt much better after reading Jenson’s thoughts). I liked much of what Jenson says in this second chapter and would like to reproduce a few it its paragraphs for your consideration:

It is the mission of the church to speak the gospel, to the world in the proclamation and to God in appeal and adoration. Theology is the hermeneutic of this work. Theology must therefore have norms by which to make the judgment, “This is/is not the gospel.”

…[the church] would have to make arrangements for carrying the self-identity so constituted into a future of her own, for perpetuating the apostolic tradition; that is, she would have to deliberate institutions that would be constitutive of her life…Catholic theology is tempted to take these developments as unproblematic, Protestant theology to take them as illegitimate. Both temptations must be resisted, since the “early catholic” developments are plainly very problematic over against the life of the apostolic period, and yet are just as plainly necessary to there now being any church at all.

…We will first and most lengthily consider the canon of Scripture. That we so proceed does not reflect the foundational order of the church’s norms; without antecedent ministry and creed, there would not have been this book, and without the continuous liturgy of the church, there would have been no occasion for creed or ministry. Rather, our order reflects ecumenical consensus that once a canon of Scripture is in place, it has authority also over against any particular dogmatic proposal, magisterial responsum, or apparently mandatory liturgical order, if our perplexity becomes so extreme as to need such authority. That is, canonical Scripture is—in the language of the Reformation—the norma normans non normata, the norm with no norm over it, although other norms establish it in this position and, as we will see, are necessary to its function in it.

…It was the historical and already conflicted church that gathered and winnowed documentary relics of apostolic proclamation. The canon of Scripture, that is, a list of writings together with the instruction, “Take all these writings and non other as standard documents of the apostolic witness,” is thus a dogmatic decision of the church. If we will allow no final authority to churchly dogma, or to the organs by which the church can enunciate dogma, there can be no canon of Scripture. The slogan sola scriptura, if by that is meant “apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy,” is an oxymoron.

…Scripture as canon is the norma non normata of gospel-speaking and not directly of faith in the gospel or of theology about the gospel. The object and so criterion of faith is not Scripture as a collection of writings but God in his living word of the gospel. And theology uses Scripture as a norm of the proclamation and prayer theology serves, that is, as a norm of something other than itself; thus Scripture becomes theology’s own norm only mediately.

man_pentecost

Scripture indeed becomes faith’s normative object in its liturgical use or when the reading or study of Scripture otherwise becomes living proclamation or adoration. When Scripture appears in such power, its authority is that of proclamation and sacrament and prayer generally: it is the authority of God’s own presence in his word, to create and nurture faith

…But when Scripture appears in this immediate authority, it is removed from the sorts of mundane analysis theology must execute to use Scripture in making its judgments. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between Scripture’s authority as living word of God and its authority as a norm in the church’s theological effort to speak that living word.

…There is no mandate to reproduce all apostolic theologoumena. Indeed, they are not guaranteed to be especially felicitous; we turn to the apostolic church not for the certainly best thought-out instances of gospel-speaking but for unchallengeable instances. Theology is thinking what to say to be saying the gospel. Like every intellectual enterprise, this demands its own appropriate practices of thought. Since the gospel is whatever the apostles said to say “Jesus is risen,” apostolic reflective activity also—however profoundly or superficially done—must have been the right sort of thing to be doing.

Thus it is not that Paul thought through the gospel better than, say, Irenaeus; the matter is in fact debatable. And having named Paul, we have named one of the few New Testament writers who, so far as the documents show, could compete in precision and profundity with many saints and thinkers who have come after. The New Testament witnesses are not necessarily the deepest or most critical or creative speakers of the gospel; they are the ones we must suppose did not simply do something else. That some of the New Testament writers were also genial thinkers is a bonus.

…If now we ask who is to defend a biblical text against its churchly interpreters—perhaps by pointing out facts about it—the final answer is that the Spirit must do so. But at the lower level maintained in these prolegomena, the needed insight is that there is no one to defend the text against the association of its interpreters except the community of those same interpreters, that is, the church as church over against the church as a certain number of conjoined persons. All texts finally need an interpreter that is no particular interpreter or even all particular interpreters added or averaged together, that is to say, all texts need a true community as interpreter; in the church, Scripture has just such a defender.

But if the church as community is to defend the text against the interpreting of the church’s associated members, the church must have a voice with which to speak for herself to her own members. Biblical authority—and mutais mutandis ritual and dogmatic authority—are therefore not possible apart from a voice for the church as community speaking to the church as association, that is, in the church’s own language, apart from a teaching office, a magisterium. To affirm this, we need not yet commit ourselves about a mandated or appropriate location of teaching authority.

The single entity of the church-community, to which appeal is here made, is both synchronic and diachronic in its unicity, but it is the latter than is now our concern. Through the teaching office, the church speaks as one diachronically communal reality and is guarded in this unity precisely by so speaking; therefore the teaching office must itself be essentially characterized by diachronic unity. In the church’s traditional language, this is called “succession”: those are to teach who make one community with former teachers.

There is an obvious problem here. It is the teaching office that speaks dogma, that speaks theologically for the church to its own members. Every proposal of dogma, like every proposal of theology generally, must be tested against Scripture and existing dogma. But we now see that it is, again, the teaching office by which Scripture and dogmatic texts can assert themselves. Here is a circle that obviously could set the teaching office adrift to define the gospel as whatever pleases its momentary holders. Sensitivity to this threat has notoriously made Protestantism uneasy with the posit of an authoritative magisterium. Yet now we see that a teaching office is necessary if Scripture or dogma are themselves to exercise authority.

We have again arrived at a limit of prolegomenal description. The magisterium can be the necessary enunciator of the gospel’s diachronic identity rather than a threat to it, can be the defense of Scripture and existing dogma rather than a danger to them, only if the circularity of the magisterium’s role marks the freedom of a charism, if the teaching office is an instrument of God the Spirit.

What is the Bible?—Part 3

Jesucristo-la-vid-y-los-sarmientosI’d like to add one more point relevant to our understanding of Scripture (from here and here). This point bears less directly on the nature of the Bible’s composition and truthfulness and more on its interpretation and authority. I’m very much in process on this point and hope readers will appreciate the tentative nature of my comments. I’m test-driving this in an attempt to aim in the direction of where I think more settled conclusions are likely to be found.

(6) SENSUS COMMUNIS, or a “communal reading” of Scripture — at least on the essentials. To be sure, there’s certainly a sense one could give to the notion of sola scriptura which is compatible with what we’ve already said in points 1-5. The Scriptures relay that sufficiently truthful historical-social-religious context necessary for the Incarnate One’s self-understanding and vocation. That (i.e., incarnation), we argued, was the primary point of creation and election of Israel. Naturally, it is to the Scriptures (and not to the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Avesta of Zoroastrianism or the Quran however profitable they may be) that Christians look to understand those events which ground their self-understanding, their religious inspiration and worship, their ethical core, and their missional/vocational calling. So there’s certainly a ‘sola’ to affirm in this sense with regard to Scripture as the authoritative source of Christian identity and vocation. If that’s all one means by sola scriptura, I don’t know any Christian who would disagree.

But this is not the popular understanding given to sola scriptura by the Evangelicals I grew up with. What’s typically meant is not only that the Scriptures are the authoritative source of doctrine and theology for the Church (there’s agreement there) but that the individual believer is the final arbiter in determining doctrine and belief for him/herself, a kind of creedal sola fidelis (the ‘believer alone’, i.e., ‘my’ reading of the text is the authoritative one for me).

As such sola scriptura entails a certain mistrust of community and with that, of course, of tradition. No surprise on the minimal regard for tradition among Evangelicals. But it may surprise our Evangelical friends who value their identity as ‘relational theologians’ to hear someone suggest that they are in effect isolationist when it comes to finally deciding what the Bible authoritatively teaches; so let me try to describe where I’m coming from.

‘Community’ is promoted as an essential value at the heart of life and belief by relational theologians (like open theists). God and creation are about ‘community’ — communal identity, communally defined and driven mission, crossing traditional boundaries in cooperative efforts to forge a wider and deeper sense of community (because that makes us more like the trinity of divine persons who have their being and identity in community), etc. You get the point—‘being is communion’.

But so far as I can tell this doesn’t translate into how we (Evangelicals of the ‘relational’ sort) finally interpret Scripture, more specifically how the authority of Scripture to determine belief and doctrine is negotiated by the individual. For when it comes to this authority, it seems the individual considers him/herself to be the final arbiter in saying just what that authoritative teaching is. Scripture’s authority effectively reduces to the individual’s authority (to interpret and decide for him/herself). On this point little of the concern for ‘the relational’ survives into how those of us who otherwise value relational being end up determining our faith and identity as Christians. What happens in Evangelicalism is the individual takes sola scriptura to mean Scripture’s authoritative meaning is ultimately fixed for the individual by the individual alone — sola fidelis (the believer alone). After all, individual believers are indwelt and empowered by the Spirit. Shouldn’t this mean final arbitration on matters of interpretation and doctrine, indeed, in saying just what “Christianity” essentially is, rests with each individual believer? Shouldn’t the Spirit’s indwelling and enlightening the individual believer mean the individual is where the Scripture’s authoritative meaning is determined? Only “I” can say what the Christian faith finally is, what its essential beliefs are, etc. True, I’d be wise to listen to other voices, ancient and modern, but in the end, only “I” can finally say what “the faith” is, what “the Church” is, etc. Here the authority of Scripture to settle faith and practice is taken not to describe the boundaries within which the Church is to ‘say together’ what the Church is and believes; rather, that authority is reduced to the individual standing before God. I’m just wondering if this is really the best way to go.

Joyful_MysteryWithout wanting to suggest that individuals not read and interpret Scripture but just let other church authorities read it for them and tell them what it means and what they’re to believe (an equal but opposite abuse), I do want to suggest that something is amiss with the sola fidelis reading. The Church after all is Christ’s “body,” a “community,” a “communion” of faith and identity formation. Only that community as a community can decide who they are, what they believe, and what they exist for. To argue that every individual believer is authorized by God to define the Church for him/herself and its faith, as indispensable as the individual is, looks like a failure to maintain a ‘relational ontology’. An irreducibly relational ontology would, arguably, mean a relational or communal reading and understanding of Scripture (sensus communis).

I am, for better or worse, a Protestant, but not because I believe Protestantism has achieved a measure of community or interpretive accuracy that rivals Catholics or Orthodox. Arguably we Protestants have sunk to lower measures on these matters. Who but Protestants can reinvent the Church every generation or divide themselves into what must by now be hundreds of splintered factions each claiming to have reclaimed the faith and practice of the earliest believers? Whatever value sola scriptura might have for Christian unity, Evangelicals have failed more than any other tradition to achieve or demonstrate it. Now that every individual believer is deputized by the Spirit to determine the meaning of Scripture and identify what the Church and her essential faith commitments are, every believer just is his/her own Church, own faith, own mission.

I don’t have any safe, trouble-free path from the ‘text’ (which we all agree speaks with authority) to individual believers, but it seems to me that the Church as a community ought to share in the mediation of this authority if we’re going to be ‘relational theologians’ through and through. This is why I suggest sensus communis, a relational-communal reading of Scripture.

One way to approach this which might help suspicious Evangelicals warm to the idea is to consider that fact that Evangelicals are already implicitly committed to the communal mediation of Scripture’s authority and to a certain extent its key doctrines as well, in their acceptance of the traditional canon. The very texts Evangelicals hold to be authoritative Scripture and whose key doctrines they reserve the right to determine for themselves (as individuals) were in fact settled on by councils on the basis of, among other things, their teaching. These writings and not others were adopted as canon in conciliar agreement on the basis of a shared reading of their content and teachings.

But we cut off the branch we’re sitting on if we agree that these books are our authoritative canon fixed by conciliar agreement but then reject that same authority when it comes to definitive questions of faith and interpretation. It was the authority of conciliar agreement that settled on which texts in fact embody Scriptural authority. So if we accept the standard canon without conducting our own investigation of all the relevant literature to establish the canon for ourselves as independently as we want to interpret it (!), we are implicitly accepting the authority of the Church’s conciliar agreement to determine for us which books shall speak to us with final authority. But it makes little sense to accept as authoritative the conciliar-communal agreement which fixed those texts we take to be authoritative Scripture and then dismiss the authority of that same community on matters of interpretation. How do I dismiss the authority of a Church on the basis of authoritative texts whose identity as Scripture I accept on authority of that same Church? Unless I’m going to fix the canon as independently as I want to interpret it, I’m implicitly presupposing the authority of the councils/agreements that gave me the Scripture. The authority of Scripture, then, is mediated communally to me already. I just thought this is a point lost on most Evangelicals and worth considering.

Just thinking on it.

(Picture here.)

What is the Bible?—Part 2

30Continuing our thoughts on Scripture from Part 1.

(3) FUNCTIONAL INERRANCY. In what sense must the Scriptures be sufficiently truthful, then? That’s difficult to say. But to venture an answer at this point, we’d say first that its being difficult to say shouldn’t be a reason to conclude that Scripture is absolutely error-free. Secondly, and more specifically, we’d suggest that Scripture ought to be a sufficiently truthful source for Christ’s first-century self-understanding as fulfiller and executor of God’s promises to Israel and the redemption of the world. Third, its truth should be sufficient to inform and facilitate human transformation into Christlikeness. In a word, it must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this.

Thus we’re essentially arguing that Scripture is ‘functionally inerrant’ where its function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness.

No particular text need be required to do all the lifting. No one text need embody all the relevant truthfulness sufficient for these ends. Indeed, errors may exist within Israel’s understanding of God and themselves as his people, and these errors may be expressed within Scripture. That’s rather to be expected. In our view there’s no need to suppose that Christ or any of the apostles were inerrant in every belief they held. What’s required is adequacy of function relative to Incarnation and character formation.

The Old Testament is thus for Christ before it is for us, and it is only for us insofar as it is understood through him. Israel’s religious traditions and history of relationship with God need not be inerrant in every recorded detail of every text on every level. Rather, the cumulative tradition on the whole has to be capable of functioning as an adequate context for Christ’s self-understanding and mission. And the resurrection assures us we have that.

What are those sufficiently truthful aspects of the biblical narrative without which we could not make sense of the empowering role it played in forming Christ’s self-understanding? Among them are surely the truth that there is One God, that God created the world, that God chose Israel as the context in which to pursue his wider purposes of redemption, that this pursuit included the divine promise of a descendant who would be the means of universal blessing, etc. These can doubtless be expanded upon. But if Christ was fundamentally mistaken on these in his message, it’s difficult to see what God is in fact validating by raising him from the grave. But since Christ did self-identify in such terms and since this self-understanding is fundamentally vindicated by God’s raising him from the dead, Christ can be said to embody, as any telos does, its true anticipations, the only truth of the Old Testament worth being ultimately concerned about. Whatever else may be false in the text, it matters not to the truth that matters at all. And it is simply false in light of the resurrection that if there be a single error in any textual claim then all is lost. The Bible functions without error in its demonstration of the truth/falsity of all things relevant to the identity and mission of the risen Christ and his execution of the promises of God for our redemption and transformation.

How then do we know whether any biblical claim is true or false? How do we know which is which? In many detailed cases we simply cannot know. But the broad strokes can be confidently perceived. Still, in the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed and lived in through Christ, it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with. To want something more or other than that tends to idolatry.

We have no fail-safe methodology for always distinguishing true from false claims. We do agree that texts are to be assumed truthful until shown otherwise. This is universally how we manage communication. And the primary thing to keep in mind regarding biblical texts is their relevance to those beliefs Jesus held which were also essential to his possessing the self-understanding necessary to his being the means by which God redeems the world and brings it to fulfillment. All we have is a risen Christ who truthfully identified his own life, mission and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s choice of and covenant relationship with Israel and who invites us to live the life he lived.

(4) CANONIZATION OF HISTORY. In choosing a particular man and his descendants to be the sufficiently truthful context into which God would incarnate, God chooses to identify himself as a covenant partner with Israel, and that means with her successes and failures, with the truth they perceive and the falsehoods they embrace, with the violence they pursue and the good they manage to achieve. It all gets chosen by God as the space in which God’s incarnational and redeeming work is embodied. This space is fallen but not so hopeless as to be void of all truth. God remains committed and engaged. In choosing Israel God is choosing the whole world. He simply chooses to work within this nation with respect to securing a context adequate for the Incarnate One who will mediate God’s purposes universally.

We are thus arguing for the canonization of Israel (as opposed to her texts per se) as the sacred space within which God creates the conditions sufficient for incarnation. Are the OT ‘texts’ inspired? In the sense that these writings are the written record of that created covenantal space God has sanctified for pursuing his incarnational purposes, yes. And it’s a mixed history; a history of misconstrual, of despairing nationalism, of religious hubris, but also of honest praise and humble dependence upon God. It’s a history that sufficiently succeeded at preserving the socio-religious conditions necessary for incarnational vocation. Israel is that space in the world where God does not give up on carving out a worldview sufficient for incarnation. They got it right enough for what ultimately mattered.

What is truthful then is the manner in which Israel (her worldview and actions as inscribed as Scripture not just in Scripture) and we alike are confirmed or judged (whichever the case may be) based on Christ our telos. We really do read the Old Testament in light of Christ apart from whom the Old Testament is simply a narrative with no conclusion. And here the conclusion interprets the previous chapters—where those chapters were going, where they get it wrong or right, what they mean, how they matter or not, and how and where they demonstrate the transforming judgment of Christ which all of us likewise are called to embrace.

(5) CHRIST-CENTERED READING. How do the OT texts function “usefully…” as Paul suggests they do (2Tm 3.16), “…for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”? Only as read and understood through Christ. For Paul, there simply is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ. Furthermore, this usefulness is for teaching, rebuking and correcting relevant to development of Christlike character and the doing of good works. Thus, the OT can be trusted when read Christologically to shape godly character and to empower the doing of good. That’s its purpose. Uses outside of this narrow purpose, whatever they are, are not explicitly embraced by Paul’s belief in the purpose of Scripture.

But traditional ‘inerrantists’ implicate the truth of any biblical claim in the truth of every other claim, so that if any link in the chain proves false, the purpose of Scripture fails utterly. We view the relationship not as links in a chain, one after the other and so on, but as bodies orbiting a center, and that center is the risen Christ. Christ exercises a gravitational pull, so to speak, over all of Israel’s traditions and texts which revolve in their orbit around Christ, sometimes approaching theological truth better than at other times. So where inerrantists typically see the truth of any one text (say, the text claiming Christ rose from the dead) as implicated in the truth of every other text (say, an understanding of Jonah as literally swallowed by a great fish), we suggest viewing the truth of all texts as relative to Christ, so that Christ becomes the determiner of the relevancy of Scripture as a whole, the same way the Sun is the central force that determines the course and trajectories of those bodies that rotate around it. To what extent is the course trajectory of a planetary body ‘accurate’? To the extent that it maintains its course relative to the Sun, not relative to the orbits of other planetary bodies.

However, Paul claims “all Scripture” is God-breathed (2Tm 3.16). Isn’t that equivalent to claiming all Scripture is equally truthful and thus inerrant? Not necessarily. For example, humankind is also “breathed into” by God and becomes a living soul and yet retains this “God-breathed” status even as fallen and prone to error. He inevitably remains the consecrated space in which God works to secure his incarnational purposes. Similarly, all Scripture is God-breathed in the sense that God is choosing all of THIS history — good and bad, true and false—as the sanctified space in which God works to prepare an adequate social-religious context for Incarnation and redemption.

What is the Bible?—Part 1

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With the publication of Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (2013), Evangelicals continue their on-again off-again conversation about the nature of Scripture (its inspiration, authority & truthfulness). Peter’s Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation (2005) brought what was a back-burner issue and moved it front and center. And it looks now as if another WTS Old Testament prof is in trouble. Similar to Enns is Kenton Sparks’ (2012) Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (centered more on the question of divine violence).

A slightly different perspective on the debate can be found in Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (2007) which we’ve introduced already. Allert approaches the subject of what the Bible is and what it’s for within the context of the development and determination of the canon. Very worth the read. I liked it just for the different approach it offers.

In response to challenges to traditional evangelical views, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (2012; eds. Bock, Hoffmeier, Magary) offers a conservative evangelical view. And with the increasing adoption by evangelical scholars of an evolutionary understanding of human origins (and others that view Genesis 1-3 as indifferent to the question of origins), the question of ‘inerrancy’ is fully front and center once again, as is evidenced by the Evangelical Theological Society’s 2013 Annual meeting in Baltimore dedicated to discussing the question—yet again.

Dwayne and I thought we’d like to share some of our thoughts on this important matter. These are not final conclusions by any means. We have questions on aspects of this issue like others do and would like to offer a few suggestions as a way to process how we’re coming to understand Scripture as uniquely inspired.

(1) ISRAEL AND ITS HISTORY AS A SUITABLE CONTEXT FOR INCARNATION. Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of one’s understanding of God’s unitive purposes for creation and view Scripture as subservient to these ends. If God is to incarnate and as an individual develop his sense of a unique identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficiently truthful to inform that development. No one develops an understanding of who they are and what their destiny is apart from these contexts. So the question of a context sufficient to shape the Incarnate Word’s embodied worldview and self-understanding is paramount, and in our view that is what Scripture is primarily about. The Word could not have been born randomly into a culture which was not an adequate means of identity formation. Creation is the context for incarnation to begin with, yes, but beyond that the construction of a suitable context for identity formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.

Thus the history of Israel — her identity as a nation, her calling, her religious traditions and her Scriptures — is the context that will inform the development of the Word’s identity and mission. This context must be sufficiently truthful for that purpose. And the place this history is primarily embodied is, of course, Israel’s Scriptures. The worldview housed in that tradition will become the context in which Christ develops his own sense of identity and mission in the world, communicates that identity and mission to his disciples, and is finally empowered to fulfill that mission on the Cross. Hence that context needs to be sufficiently truthful for this purpose.

This is demonstrated when we see Jesus in fact identifying himself and his mission in terms of being the fulfillment of Israel’s religious traditions, hopes and her unique calling. And the truth of that identification is not incidental to the fulfillment of his mission through death by crucifixion. It empowers Jesus to endure the Cross and is further validated by the resurrection. We should conclude therefore that Jesus’ first-century, contextually defined self-understanding is sufficiently truthful to govern his sense of unique calling and to empower him in the pursuit and fulfillment of it. This is what the NT means when it speaks of God validating Christ’s identity and mission by raising him from the dead.

(2) SCRIPTURE AS INSPIRED. We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.

What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way.

Where it concerns “texts,” inspiration is not God conscripting merely the faculties of human subjects and supervening upon their exercise to compose statements which might have been foreign to their human authors prior to the composition of the text. Rather, inspiration has as its object primarily the enlightenment of the human author, perhaps over the course of years through many experiences, and only secondarily the complexities involved in seeing that texts are composed a certain way.

For example, a text like Galatians simply is Paul — in all the complex relations and beliefs that defined him at that point in time, including God’s presence at work in him, perhaps over decades, sufficiently shaping his worldview. Once that is done, simply put a pen in Paul’s hand and leave him to say what he believes. Hence, the letter is no more or less than who Paul the believer had become at that point. God is no more present in the letter than he is in the man who writes. So inspiration doesn’t, it seems to us, write texts per se, as much as it shapes persons who are freed to speak and write what God has done in them.

Might some errors belonging to these persons find their way into the text? Yes. No human author possesses an inerrant set of beliefs. No one person’s transformation and world-construction is complete or error-free. But overtime, enough of the truth needing to be said gets said in enough ways that a worldview is formed adequate for the Incarnate One and the Church as his Body. This means we view inspiration as relative in the first sense to preparing a context adequate for incarnation and not primarily about providing us a philosophical or scientific textbook with inerrant answers to whatever questions we might put to it.

…continued.