In my last post, I presented some impressions underlying my uneasiness about the role of Jesus in ELCA preaching and practice of all varieties. Even if you aren’t convinced, it might be worthwhile to read on. Worry about the role Jesus is playing in our lives is at least a wholesome worry, and reflection prompted thereby might have value even if the concern is overstated.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t believe in Jesus, or that we don’t realize that our hope depends on him. But his experienced presence in our life as a church seems less vivid, less concrete, less attention-grabbing than it might be. He seems constantly ready to dissolve into various good things of which he might be the symbol or withdraw into the past or dwindle into a factor in a doctrinal equation.
It’s not likely that there is any one cause of this. There have certainly been theological trends in modern Protestantism that might lead in this direction. But I’ve taught too long to believe that theological teaching drives the life of the church directly, though theological attitudes and assumptions can get into the water supply and affect the way people think and (most important) frame questions for generations. In this post I want to suggest that another kind of problem dogs our engagement with Jesus: our broken relationship to Holy Scripture.
Of course, what I call brokenness, others call maturity. One widespread way of receiving modern historical study of the Bible is to affirm that it does indeed break down the church’s historic relationship to Scripture, and about time, too. Such a break is a compelling rational necessity, it is held, and a great liberation from the stifling fundamentalism of the pre-modern Christian tradition.
This view is easier to hold the less you know about pre-modern biblical interpretation. Still, it’s a powerful “narrative,” as they say, and its influence hangs over every pastor and teacher educated in a mainline seminary – which is by no means to say that seminary Bible professors always desire this outcome. Let me say too that I am not taking a superior position here. I’ve spent years trying to think my way out of this “narrative,” and I still feel its pressure.
I want to focus on the difficulty we have in reading the Bible as a unified witness to Jesus Christ. Traditional biblical interpretation, from the Fathers up to and including 19th-century evangelicals (with whom the confessional Lutherans of the time significantly overlapped), could still preach from a Bible whose every part converged to give depth and resonance and mass to the presentation of Jesus Christ. Every passage in Scripture was in principle relevant to the interpretation of every other passage, and the target-point of the whole was the particular person Jesus in the uniqueness of his story.
It was of course possible to do this badly – just as there is also a lot of bad historical-critical exegesis. There was exegesis and preaching that flattened out differences and smoothed away tensions in the Scriptures to produce a dogmatically homogenized and thoroughly predictable Christ. But there was also exegesis and preaching that allowed text to strike sparks from text, let Paul, John, and the Synoptics mix and react to one another, with sometimes explosive gospel-force, and found in the Old Testament not only theological foundations but an endless treasury of metaphorical figures for Christ and his salvation which, if nothing else, had the energy to penetrate and form the mind and imagination.
By contrast, when the witness of every text or text-tradition has to stand by itself, when the only permissible connections between biblical texts are historical connections, when preachers are conditioned to fear over-interpretation far more than under-interpretation, when the Old Testament may be connected with Christ only in roundabout ways, and when the ideal of “critical” exegesis discourages imagination from playing the role it would normally play in the interpretation of a body of literature – it isn’t really surprising that the results are a wee bit thin, despite the best efforts of all concerned.
Next time: Does it really have to be this way?