Saturday, November 21, 2009

on reading scripture


I've learned so much in the last year or two about reading scripture--about how the Church has done it for two thousand years, about how we do it today. I could say so many things about this, but there's one aspect of it all that has been on my mind a lot lately. I have concluded that one of the most important tasks for the Church when approaching the Bible is to be stubbornly realistic about what this book is and what it's saying.

Scot McKnight's book Blue Parakeet has been
a great conversation partner as I've been thinking about these issues. McKnight wants you to 'rethink how you read the Bible', and he excels at pointing out the cracks in popular methods of reading and interpreting scripture.
As I was reading this afternoon, he began to highlight some of the dangerous 'shortcuts' that he feels are often taken with the Bible. The shortcut that really caught my attention he calls "puzzling together the pieces to map God's mind". People taking this shortcut view the scripture as a puzzle: we're given all the pieces, and we have to put it together to match the picture on the puzzle box. The problem is "we don't really know what the picture looks like. We have to imagine what the original picture was" (p. 50). Basically, we decide before we come to the text what the message of the Bible is, and we force the scripture, as we read it, to fit that message.

One of the greatest pitfalls of this method--though there are many--is that "this approach nearly always ignores the parts of the puzzle that don't fit" (51).

Let's say that again: this method ignores the pieces that don't fit your idea of 'the Bible'.

In the 5th Century, Saint Augustine was involved in a debate with a monk named Pelagius. If you had to generalize, you could say that Augustine was arguing for a very strict idea of 'salvation by grace alone through faith alone', while Pelagius thought some sort of meaningful effort on our part was necessary.
C. S. Lewis commented on this controversy in his Letters to Malcolm, and I think his observation is profound:
You will notice that Scripture just sails over the problem. "Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling"--pure Pelagianism. But why? "For it is God who worketh in you"--pure Augustinianism.

Certainly Augustine and Pelagius had serious, doctrinal disagreements. But, on one level you could also say that both of them are simply appealing to different pieces of the puzzle--and ignoring different pieces.
Lewis concluded that "it is presumably only our presuppositions that make this appear nonsensical." There are a lot of frictions in scripture--this argument just highlights a popular one--and our tendency when faced with these frictions is to try and iron them out. We can't leave these apparently 'nonsensical' creases in the Bible! Scripture, however, doesn't iron these things out--it 'just sails over the problem'. For some reason, we do it anyways, and we have to decide for ourselves which verses and chapters (and whole books?) 'can't possibly mean' what they seem to say.
The 5-point Calvinist has to find away around the fact that "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). The Baptist looking to support their view of baptism has to creatively reinterpret 1 Peter, where 'baptism now saves you' (see 3:18-22). I have to find something to do with Romans 9.

We simply can't read the Bible through our prefabricated theological frameworks and read it faithfully. We have to be stubbornly realistic about what the Bible is and what it's saying.

Some Protestants tend to think that they're above this. By jettisoning the Tradition, we have somehow freed the text from any external influences. That's laughable. The only time the words "faith alone" appear in scripture, they are explicitly rejected--James 2:24. What do we do with that? What's the use in claiming 'sola scriptura' if you won't let the scripture speak for itself?

No, this is a dangerous shortcut that no one's above taking.
However uncomfortable this may be at times, we have to allow the Bible to be what it is.
As McKnight, again, points out:
After all, had he wanted to, God could have revealed a systematic theology chapter by chapter. But God didn't choose this way of revealing his truth. Maybe--this "maybe" is a little facetious--that way of telling the truth can't tell it the way God wants his truth told.

Most of the Bible is narrative--it's a story. To our minds, a story is not the most efficient way to outline a theological system. Maybe that's true; in that case, God obviously wasn't trying to outline a theological system, and maybe we shouldn't worry so much about it either.
Of course there are things that are true and things that are false; I'm not saying we can't pull that from scripture. I'm saying that it seems most of our efforts to systematize what we believe, to describe God without simply telling what God has done are problematic. The Bible is simply not systematic enough to allow for that.

We've been given a story about God, and we've been invited to participate in God's story through Christ. Instead of contorting this story into the shape of some kind of abstract philosophy, we ought to rejoice in it for what it is, and we ought to tell it.

1 comment:

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hear Hear!
It seems to me very true from the Protestant circles I've travelled that we tend to start with a theology taken from a few of our favorite verses, and then try to fit the rest of the Bible into that intellectual matrix we have created, even when it very often does not fit (the example of Baptism that you mention, along with what Paul says of the Eucharist in 1 Cor. 10 were "game-changers" in my theological orientation that we simply didn't talk about in churches that didn't believe them).

I think one of the positive influences of Postmodernism on theology is the renewed emphasis on stories that form us and that we live in, and Scripture as mega-story.

I would say though, that at the end of the day we have some very practical decisions to make in our discipleship: which church to join; whether I should keep praying for the gift of tongues (as some say) or if it may be true that God does not intend that gift for ALL Christians; whether a minister of the Church can lawfully contemplate marriage, etc.

If we want guidance on very specific questions from the Bible, it seems that we'll need to look at specific sayings of Scripture (in their larger context, of course).

I've been trying to articulate a hermeneutic of consensus for a while now: what is the consensus within the different parts of ths Scriptural story (and this recognizes that it is a story that progresses through different "chapters" that reveal new insight that 're-contextualizes' the old as you go forward) and what is the consensus of the Church across the ages in reading that story. Here, I think I am in basic agreement with John Henry Cardinal Newman - the consensus of the faithful is the authority in the Church (which gave him some hesitations about papal infallibility in the run-up to Vatican 1).

Fascinatingly, the Bible never claims "sola Scriptura" - but it DOES say that "The Church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of the Truth" (1 Tim. 3:15 - compare with 2 Tim. 3:15-16 our clearest statment of Scriptural authority - the alignment of the numbering there is pretty cool).