Monday, November 23, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapters 1 and 2

I am grouping my review of the first two essays together, because they both impinge upon the question of how Scripture is to be used inside the church. The second chapter, 'Scripture's Authority in the Church' by Robert Jenson is the more basic of the two essays, so I will begin the discussion there, and then move to Ellen Davis' essay.

The easiest way to describe Jenson's essay is that in many ways it is an outworking or application of Barth's understanding of Scripture . Jenson makes five main points in his essay:

  1. The only meaningful way for a Christian to read Scripture is in a Christian way (pp. 27-29).
  2. Each passage of Scripture is to be read for its contribution to the grander narrative that Scripture tells (pp. 29-30).
  3. We can only read Scripture as characters within the narrative of Scripture (pp. 30-34).
  4. Our reading of the Old Testament must assume the presupposition that it is Christian Scripture (pp. 34-36).
  5. The authority of Scripture is something to experience through soaking in it, all of it, including the parts that are difficult. This is to be done in community (pp. 36-37).
There were a couple of very helpful points that Jenson weaves through his essay. First, while he attempts to downplay his criticism at times, his proposal is in direct opposition to the historical critical method. This is most clearly drawn out in point 3 and in a different manner in point 4 (and this also props up the validity of point 1). Jenson, rightly, sees a very strong connection between us as the church now and the early church. The point he makes next is interesting. As a result of our participation in the same corporate body, we too are inside the narrative of Scripture. He compares us to characters in the final act of a play. We have a will and consciousness, but only as members within the grand narrative that the author of the play, God, has written. Thus, since we do not stand outside Scripture, but within its story, this, in Jenson's opinion places limits on the way we read the Bible. Thus, he believes that coming to Scripture to answer questions that are not the main concern of the Bible (e.g., to learn about the history of Israel), is absolutely wrong-headed.

While I think that it's helpful to think of ourselves as participants in the story that unfolds in God's word - especially since it makes Scripture immediately relevant - I do not think that his conclusion follows. Even though we are inside the text, and even though we cannot place ourselves in the position of detached observer of the Bible and its story, we can still do the descriptive task, even though its not the main point of Scripture. Being uninvolved is not a requirement for accurate explanation of events (perhaps I am missing his point here, though?).

The other direction he develops his seeming dislike of the historical-critical method (or at least certain misuses of it) is very fruitful. The way we read the OT must be Christian in nature; specifically, if the second member of the Trinity is the Word of God, then it is right to read the OT in a Christotelic manner (to borrow the term from Peter Enns). In fact, reading all of the Bible as being about Jesus is the only correct way to read Scripture. I think that this is very helpful in explaining why it is not problematic that God would inspire the New Testament writers to violate the seeming 'literal sense' of OT passages that they allude to or quote. While some of their readings may make us uncomfortable, they are not seeing something that isn't there when they see a portion of the OT as pointing to Jesus, because Jesus is the end or goal of the OT, and the OT points to Jesus because Jesus is the incarnate word of God.

Ellen Davis' essay, 'Teaching the Bible Confessionally in the Church' was a very fruitful read. Her main thesis was that, 'teaching Christians to read the Bible confessionally means equipping them to do three things: to read with a primarily theological interest; to read with an openness to repentance; and to read with an understanding of the Old Testament witness to Christ' (p. 10).

In the first main section, on reading with a theological interest, Davis rightly decries that the Bible is often read too historically, and thus too narrowly. The task of teaching, both for pastors and for seminaries is, 'to impart the information and the conceptual framework, but even more, the imaginative skills for wondering fruitfully about the ultimate facts of life' (p. 11). Here I agree fully. We need to regain our wonder for the Bible and for the God who has given it to us, for he is wonder-ful beyond compare. Regaining that wonder will help us to push aside the idols that distract us from true worship.

In order to regain that wonder we not only need imagination, but we need to expend more effort on understanding Scripture. Davis again wisely points out that we need to understand the Bible and its symbolic world much better, and to do this we need to spend more time in it, reading slowly. She suggests that the best way to slow down is to read the Bible in its original languages. Not only is this harder, but it also forces you to wrestle with many ambiguities that are flattened out by English translations. Becoming unsettled by the unfamiliar will then open us up to hear God speaking to us afresh through his word. This is critical, we too often come to Scripture looking for proof texts, to reassure ourselves of what we already believe to be true, which, as Davis points out, is sinful. We need to approach God's word in humility, being willing to learn from the diversity of the Bible, being willing to be moved by God into a greater and more holistic repentance.

Next Davis moves to discussing the need for Christians to spend more time in the Old Testament. This was argued in a surprising but very helpful way. It's easy, especially if one only reads certain portions of the NT, to get the mistaken idea that the Bible is about us. Reading the OT helps us correct that mistaken perspective; the entire Bible is about God not about how we get saved. This becomes very clear when one reads the Old Testament. 'From a biblical perspective, salvation is a subcategory of revelation - or better, salvation is a consequence of revelation fully received' (p. 21).

In her final section, Davis discusses reading Scripture in conversation with Jews. Here, quite understandably and rightly, Davis stresses the need for repentance for how Christians through the centuries have interpreted the Bible at the expense of the Jewish people. She suggests that we engage in interpreting Scripture with Jewish partners. At the same time, she warns, we must not downplay the major differences that we have in how we interpret Scripture.

This part of the essay seems to stand in tension with Jenson's. Can we learn theologically from Jewish interpretation? Perhaps we can, perhaps we can be stimulated to readings of individual texts that we may not have otherwise seen, and perhaps it will help save us from further anti-semitism. However, in terms of understanding the grand narrative of Scripture I think I stand firmly in Jenson's camp; only a distinctively Christian reading of Scripture is of ultimate value to the Christian.

All in all, these two chapters help provide a conceptual framework that we can move forward with. We must read the Bible slowly and carefully, canvassing the whole Bible, the Old and the New, letting it speak in its diversity, seeing ourselves in the story, but first and foremost seeking to understand what it teaches us about the Triune God and his ways in this world, and thus responding to it in repentance and love for God.

Look for the next installment on chapters 3 and 4 on Friday.

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