The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 3


In my last post, I suggested that our difficulty in reading Scripture as a unified whole might be one factor undermining the depth and vitality of our witness to Jesus Christ. The difficulty arises from modern historical study of the Bible. Historical research tends to break down the unities in our minds by focusing on the real-life particulars of which they’re composed, and how they got that way. If you study “the ancient Greek city” historically, you’ll soon become aware of how different various Greek cities were, and your generalizations about “the” Greek city will be challenged.

I have no intention of rejecting historical study of the Bible or losing the knowledge it has yielded. Are we then stuck? I don’t think so. One question that’s seldom been asked until recently is “Why did pre-modern Christians read the Bible as they did?” Too often the answer has been assumed: “Of course they read the Bible in weird ways – they were ignorant and primitive.” Ironically, though, this generalization survives historical scrutiny just as little as generalizations about ancient Greek cities.

Put the question another way: did pre-modern Christians read the Bible differently than we do because they didn’t know things that we know? Quite a lot of research over the past half century suggests that the answer is No. The church fathers certainly didn’t have the historical methods or knowledge that we have. But it seems unlikely that any amount of information about the history of the biblical texts would have fazed them. Their confidence in the unity of Scripture rested not on a lack of information but on confidence in the providence of God, who rules over all the contingent messiness of history to achieve his ends.

The issues here are surprisingly parallel to those in current debates about God and evolution. Darwinian village atheists like Richard Dawkins and some proponents of Intelligent Design seem to agree that a state of affairs in the world must either be the outcome of describable processes in space and time or the outcome of God’s designing activity, but can’t be both.

This is a false alternative, because God is not one more cause on the same plane as others. God is the Creator, the reason the whole cosmic and historical process and everything in it exists at all. If something happens by accident, he’s the reason the accident is real rather than not real. If something happens by human will and design, he’s the reason that human thinking and willing are real and have real outcomes. Such a God doesn’t need to interrupt the cosmic or the historical process to achieve his goals (though he can if he chooses). He rules over all processes because he decides what is real and what is not.

My guess is that most ELCA readers of this blog accept the scientific consensus on evolution and believe that God nonetheless guided it. There seems no reason why we couldn’t take the same attitude to the Bible. The biblical texts developed in complex and diverse ways over centuries through a messy and tangled history in which all sorts of influences, interests, attitudes, and events played a role. And the Lord God of Israel sat enthroned over those roiling waters (cf. Ps. 29:10), and worked in ways our minds cannot trace to design a canon of testimony to his Son.

The Word Incarnate is a particular human being, with a known name and a known story, in whom nevertheless the whole fullness of the divine mystery dwells bodily (Col 2:9). The word of testimony is like him: it is a body of texts with a clear center and outline that opens up ever-new depths of meaning as we attend to its words, its manifold dimensions, its web of interconnections, and not least its internal tensions. Everything we have learned about the texts from historical research is potential grist for the mill. But when we reckon with the biblical canon as a gift of God’s providence we define exegesis as something more than a historical task. We admit the possibility that the Bible has other ways of signifying, other dimensions of Christ-attesting meaning, that can’t be caught in the nets of historical research.

In my next post, I will conclude these “Scriptural Christ” posts on a more practical note.

P.S. Mentioning evolution on the internet can be like leaving a carcass lying on the prairie. Before you know it, an immense crowd of creatures will gather to quarrel over it and pick its bones. Let me therefore say in advance that comments which would push the discussion away from Jesus, Scripture, and renewal in the church towards an argument about evolution will be refused by the Management.

3 Responses to “The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 3”

  1. Phillip Says:

    Your comments about how the early Church read these texts are helpful and remind me of Wilkin’s enlightening book “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought.” When Wilkin explains that the Church Fathers never read the creation stories as a literal, 6-day creation it was like a huge lightbulb went on over my head. Such a relief!

    • David S. Yeago Says:

      Ah, but what’s really exciting is discovering how they did read it. But thanks for mentioning Robert Wilken’s “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought.” That is a truly great book, a renewing book, and I recommend it to everyone.

  2. John Says:

    My initial reaction to your post is to say that early Christians read the Bible as Christians. The modern historical method assumes a critical distance from the Scriptures, always a dangerous stance for a Christian to take. Whenever I read the early interpreters, I am always struck by how serious they were in relating the Bible to the daily life of the Christian community. Modern approaches at best take us to the theological views of some ancient people. At worst, they lead us away from God to purely mundane explanations. We resist letting God’s Word shape our lives. The early interpreters, for all their seemingly bizarre allegorical interpretations, sought to be formed by God’s Word.

    Studying the Bible is not a spectator sport. The Bible judges us. We do not judge the Bible. Unfortunately, our sinful nature leads us to use modern critical methods to avoid God’s judgment as found in the Scripture. We dare not approach the Bible with the view of mastering it through our intelligence and knowledge.

    In 1518, Luther wrote to Spalatin: “To begin with, it is absolutely certain that one cannot enter into the [meaning of] Scripture by study or innate intelligence. Therefore your first task is to begin with prayer. You must ask that the Lord in his great mercy grant you a true understanding of his words, should it please him to accomplish anything through you for his glory and not for your glory or that of any other man. For there is no one who can teach the divine words except he who is their author, as he says, ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ You must therefore completely despair of your own diligence and intelligence and rely solely on the infusion of the Spirit. Believe me, for I have had experience in this matter.” Luther’s Works 48:53-4

    There is nothing here that rejects the use of modern critical methods. But, like all the powers of human reason, modern methods must be placed within their proper limits. For Lutherans, the limits are set out in the community’s normative interpretations, creed and confession, and not in the individual conscience of the reader. Only if we “despair of our own diligence and intelligence,” can we be open to the “other ways of signifying” and “other dimensions of Christ attesting meaning” in the Bible.

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