Friday, November 27, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapters 3 and 4

For those of you who were overwhelmed by the length of my last post on The Art of Reading Scripture, this post is a bit shorter. The third essay, written by Richard Bauckham is titled, 'Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story.' Bauckham begins by explaining what it means for Scripture to be a unified narrative. It doesn't mean that all of scripture is narrative, or that it has the coherence of a single author work. Rather, its coherence can be seen in the way that different books of the Bible, by different authors, interact with one another. They summarize each other, intentionally build off of one another, quote each other, allude to each other, etc. There is an attempt by later writers to show how they are continuing the story of earlier texts (this is not true only of the NT, we see the same phenomenon in the OT as well). While the whole Bible, at the human level, was clearly composed by many very different people with distinct perspectives and purposes, we can still see how the Bible is knit together as a whole.

In the second section, Bacukham's main point was to rebut post-modern criticism of the biblical meta-narrative. As most of you probably know, post-modernism claims that all claims to absolute truth are, at their essence, simply a claim to power (as is this central claim of post-modernity). What Bauckham points out is that post-modernism is just as guilty. Post-modernism critiqued the modern meta-narrative of human progress because of its oppressiveness. However, post-modernism is completely unable to resist the same pitfalls. It reinforces a dangerous consumerist individualism and ends up legitimizing an anything goes attitude that ends up leading to the oppression of the weak.

In the third section Bauckham lays out why Scripture forms is a meta-narrative, what it looks like, and why it doesn't fall to a post-modern critique. He makes a couple of strong points here. One is that the biblical story is not like modern stories, it's not about a human protagonist succeeding by their wisdom and strength, the story it tells is about God and his purposes, humans are secondary and either cooperate with or oppose God. God's will is always carried out.
The hand of God is not always seen immediately in every situation, but it is always there. He fulfills his promises in surprising ways. The story is primarily about God. Thus, the Bible never hints that humans can save the day and right all of the wrongs in the world (the myth of progress). Instead the Bible orients us around the hope that God knows what he's doing and will some day right all of the wrongs.

Bauckham also, helpfully notes, that Israel's story is rarely portrayed as a dominant meta-narrative. The story of Scripture is about God working on behalf of the weak and powerless. And there's also the incarnation and death of Jesus, a self-emptying and submission to humiliating death for the sake of others. Thus, if properly understood, the Christian story can never be used to justify oppression.

The fourth essay, written by David Steinmetz is titled, 'Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction and the Construction of Historical Method.' The main problem he addresses is that while traditional exegesis is willing to read the earlier parts of Scripture in light of the latter, historical criticism thinks that doing such is anachronistic. Steinmetz deals with this issue beautifully through an analogy.

He argues that in some ways, the Bible is like a detective novel. When one reads a detective novel from the front cover to the back cover, much is missed and misunderstood until you get to the end. In the finale, the detective helps tie together all of the seemingly disparate clues (and things you didn't even realize were clues) into a complete narrative that tells the story of the crime. The earlier parts are only correctly read in light of the conclusion. Thus reading 'backwards' not only isn't anachronistic, it's the only correct method. Obviously there can be anachronistic ways of reading earlier texts in light of later texts, but doing such isn't necessarily anachronistic. In fact, as Steinmetz sagely points out, all historical reconstructions do this. His final paragraph summarizes most of the essay well, so I will quote it at length.

I am inclined to think that biblical scholars who are also Christian theologians should worry less about anachronism and more about the quality of the second narratives they have constructed. I can well understand why biblical scholars are wary of a traditional exegesis that ascribes to characters in the Bible, especially characters in the Old Testament, an explicit knowledge of finer points of Christian theology. Such knowledge would have been impossible for them at the time. But I do not have to believe that Second Isaiah had an explicit knowledge of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth to believe that he was a part of a larger narrative that finds its final, though not sole, meaning in Christ. Like many of the characters in a mystery novel, Isaiah had something else on his mind. But the meaning of his work cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of his explicit intention. Viewed from the perspective of the way things turned out, his oracles were revealed to have added dimensions of significance that no one would have guessed at the time. It is not anachronistic to believe such added dimensions of meaning exist. It is only good exegesis (p. 65).

In summary of both essays, we can read Scripture as a unified narrative. In fact we must, and the later revelation, Jesus Christ, is the key to the entire narrative. We must remember, though, that the story is first and foremost about God, though we do play a roll as well. The nature of the story and of the one whom the story reveals should safeguard us against using it as a means of oppressing the weak or those who dissent.

Up next will be the first two chapters of the second part (A Living Tradition). Lord willing I will post on these on Tuesday.

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