The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 2

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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?

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5 Responses to “The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 2”

  1. Bill DeHass Says:

    Thanks, David. I always appreciate things like the historical-critical method, but they became idols too often. We became beholden to methods and not the texts. I used to read the old Hermenia commentaries and realize that when I got done I learned a lot and had nothing to say from the pulpit. It is amazing that the Church thrived for nearly 2000 years without higher criticism of the Bible.

    If you want to see the results of worshiping at the altar of the criticisms, just go to Germany. You probably have. I had a German pastor tell me that they don’t deal with the Great Commission because, after all, that was Matthew and not Jesus. I heard a sermon in Germany that didn’t have a “sermon title” but if it did I would call it, “So whatever happened to the Jebusites?” Really faith feeding stuff! I see the German state church with 25 people in worship on a Sunday and know that that could be us in the days ahead.

  2. Chris Says:

    Nice post. One book that helped me in this regard is Luke Timothy Johnson’s “The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels” (HarperCollins, 1996).

  3. Kevin Says:

    Chris,

    We need another C.S. Lewis. Whenever I recall his beautiful metaphor of Aslan, the Lion and the reminders that “Aslan is on the move” and “Aslan is an untamed lion, but he is good,” the hair on my neck stands up. Talk about a solid, evocative Christ symbol!

    My bishop and I were also recalling Stephen King’s “The Green Mile,” John Coffee’s character.

    I had Dick Jensen as my homiletics professor. He taught a lot about engaging the culture in sermons. It is not meant to be done all the time, of course, but when there are obvious connections to be made (and there often are) people learn to see movies, read books, or listen to music with theologically trained eyes and ears.

  4. Bob Says:

    Dr. Y. I’ve often wondered how the church has changed since we went from a lectionary of mostly matthew (1 year) with fill-ins from others to round it out to a lectionary that spends a year in each gospel with some fill in from John?

    • David S. Yeago Says:

      Bob – I wonder about the impact of the three-year lectionary too, though I don’t know much. The up side is that more of Scripture is read and there is less boredom with the “same old lessons.” On the down side, with the old lectionary there was a core of Biblical texts that people got to know very very well, and I suspect that with a three year cycle that effect has dissipated significantly. I tend to think that real formation requires that we be willing to tolerate significant amounts of boredom, so the trade-off doesn’t seem obviously to the good.

      Another loss for preachers is that umpteen series of sermons on the liturgical year, going back to the Middle Ages, including many great classics, no longer track with our worship and preaching and thus have become less easily available as sources of instruction and inspiration. Now that more and more translations of these series are appearing, that seem to me a pity.

      One of the drawbacks of the traditional lectionary is that it had no Old Testament lesson. I’m too ignorant to know where the OT lessons in the Service Book and Hymnal lectionary came from. One of the big unresolved questions is the relationship between the Gospel and the OT lessons, which in our current lectionary does not seem to be based on any consistent principle. This is a very significant question, because any way of relating the lessons teaches people to read the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, in some particular way.

      I suspect that one of the factors leading 20th century Protestants to feel the need of a more varied lectionary was the reduction of preaching to a once-a-week event. There was a day when most pastors preached two different 45-minutes-to-an-hour-long sermons every Sunday, only one of which was bound to the lectionary. And there was often a midweek sermon as well.

      These are just random thoughts. I don’t have an agenda about the lectionary, I just wonder about it sometimes. Since it governs the congregation’s primary communal encounter with the Scriptures, it seems to me a good thing to wonder about.

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