Thursday, January 08, 2004

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the Bible and how we read it. The current mess in the Anglican Communion is, in part, due to disputes over how to read the Bible. We are starting a sermon series at one of the churches I serve on the Bible, and I have to preach the first sermon (on the authority of the Bible). So there's some self interest in all of this.

Over Christmas I read a large book by RPC Hanson on The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Essentially this is about the Arian controversy of the fourth century. There's a lot in this about reading Scripture, and indeed the Arians can be seen as the conservatives defending the traditional reading of Scripture. Arius saw Christ, the Son of God, as a creature (albeit a particularly important one) and rejected attempts to describe him as God. (This is an exceedingly sketchy account. If you want more on Arius read the book!) But the reading of Scripture was very interesting. Both sides engaged in allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures. Very often this stemmed from a conviction that the Bible was correct, and so if there were apparent problems with what it said, it was simply a question of finding what it really meant. (Again I'm sketching in very broad strokes.) It took the best part of a century before the vocabulary existed for the disagreements between the two sides could even be clearly stated.

One of the key Arian arguments was over the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8. Both sides agreed that this was really Christ. The Arians then triumphantly pointed to verse 22: 'The Lord created me at the beginning of his work'. If Christ was created, then he must be a creature. It seemed a knock-down argument, and the anti-Arians (who we now call the Orthodox) attempts to examine this verse and claim it does not suggest that Christ was created vary from the contrived to the fantastical. In the end, the interpretation of this passage had to be seen in the light of other decisions about the nature of God and Christ.

Many, especially contemporary liberal Christians, have simply given up on Scripture in the recent controversies. Aside from leaving the Bible to the conservatives (whose recognition of the role of interpretation is not always what it might be), this is to deprive us of a source of life and light. The Bible is a gift of God to the believing community, and this communal dimension is important. We will not do this on our own - the depths of Scripture's riches will only be revealed as we wrestle with it together. Insights from those with whom we agree and disagree, from different parts of the world and different periods in history, and also I believe from outside the church will all have their part to play. To suggest that we possess the final meaning of Scripture is not only presumptuous, it fails to understand the basic direction of the possession. We are to be possessed by Scripture, not it by us. This is deeply challenging to the capitalistic approach to meaning that is embedded in our culture.

So we live in the process. The interpretation of Scripture continues, and will continue after we have died. I want to suggest two implications of living in the meantime (as it were) of Scriptural interpretation. The first comes from a more liberal approach. It is the need for a humility of knowledge. If you want a posh term, then you could call it an 'epistemology of charity'. The referent here is I Corinthians 13: 'Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect ... For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.' The virtues of this epistemology are faith, hope and love, not self-righteousness, certainty and arrogance.

The second implication is something that liberals have been rather bad at, and which the conservatives have done rather better. Walter Brueggemann speaks of two traditions of appropriation of Scripture, the scribal and the prophetic. The Prophetic is the one that we long for, the re-speaking of the Word of God in our world so that the world is transformed. Think of Martin Luther King's use of the Bible in his speeches. But Brueggemann argues that this is dependent upon the scribal preservation of the text so that it is there to be re-spoken. The prophets and the scribes may not agree, but the scribe makes the prophetic office possible.

This is taken from the first chapter of Brueggemann's Words that Linger, Texts that Explode:
"It is the work of canonical practice in ecclesial communities and the work of criticism in the scholarly community to keep the text available. It is by the ongoing enterprise of religious and scholarly communities that the text lingers over time in available ways. Out of that lingering, however, from time to time, words of the text characteristically erupt into new usage. They are seized upon by someone in the community with daring. Or perhaps better, the words of the text seize someone in the community who is a candidate for daring. In that moment of re-utterance, the present is freshly illuminated, reality is irreversibly transformed. The community comes to know or see or receive or decide afresh. What has been tradition, hovering in dormancy, becomes available experience" (p. 1).

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