The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 4

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My students know that my orbit around a point is often more like that of a comet than a planet, and that has probably been evident in these last few posts. What I’ve hoped to do is sketch some background against which the challenge of re-encountering the scriptural Christ might stand out more clearly.

Our relationship to Jesus Christ is inseparable from our relationship to the Bible. If we want to take hold of Christ by faith, then we must take hold of the garment of Scripture in which he has been clothed for us.  A renewed encounter with Jesus necessarily involves a new encounter with the Bible.

If traditionalists (or anyone, for that matter) are to take the present crisis in the ELCA as an occasion for repentance and renewal, therefore, we need to become actively dissatisfied with our present relationship to the Bible (as part of our penitence) and actively set about to discover anew what the Bible is and could be to us. This is a project for all of us. There is an element that scholars like me can contribute, but the rubber hits the road where teachers (not just the “rostered” ones) and preachers stand up to set forth the Scriptures to the people of God.

There is no salvation for us in schemes of “distinctively Lutheran hermeneutics” [“hermeneutics” = “theory and rules of interpretation,” for those who haven’t learned this jargon]. The very idea is sectarian: if Lutheranism is a movement of reform within the universal church, then it ought to be possible to make the case for Lutheran teaching on the basis of an ecumenical hermeneutics. Moreover, the temptation is overwhelming to take “Lutheran hermeneutics” practically to mean a way of guaranteeing that biblical interpretation will never disturb our ideas of Lutheranism.

What we need is not a unified hermeneutic (for which we will wait forever) but a thousand flowers blooming.  Pre-modern exegesis was wise in seeing the unity of scriptural interpretation not in a unitary method but in a shared focus on Jesus Christ and a common acknowledgment of the “rule of the faith” as summarized in creed and catechism. We need to take practical advantage of recent work that has made the exegesis of the ancient church far more accessible and intelligible than it has been for centuries. We need to explore the theological and homiletic possibilities of approaches that treat biblical interpretation as primarily literary analysis rather than historical research.  We need to ask anew about the role of imagination in scriptural interpretation, not only “What does it mean to read the Bible imaginatively?” but also “How do we involve the congregation imaginatively with the Bible?”

Diversity, experiment, risk-taking, and an element of godly play, will all be to the good if three rules are observed.

First, we can trust the church’s tradition enough to assume that we are on the wrong track if we find ourselves contradicting the creeds or the catechism. The risen Christ and the Holy Spirit surely did not wait around for you or me (or even Martin Luther) to come along to get the basics across to Christ’s bride, the church. This is the ancient principle of reading Scripture according to the “rule of the faith.”

Second, the direction of reading has to be into the biblical texts not away from them. If we are excited by the words, and drawn into the intricate interplay of the words in particular texts and across the canon, then we are moving in the right direction. If we can draw others into a passion for following and grappling with the words, then we are doing a good work.

The last thing the contemporary church needs is more big ideas and vague uplift. The last thing our imaginations need is to be launched (yet again) into the blue skies of religious fancy and wish-fulfillment. What we need is to get down on the ground and wrestle with the God-provided words of the scriptures like Jacob wrestled with the angel, all night long until the break of day. That’s much harder than playing with ideas. The words fight back; they resist us; they have sharp edges and they hurt. We may walk away limping – but we will be Israel.

The third rule is simply enough that the center of our interest in the Bible must be Jesus Christ. Not ideas about Jesus, not something we suppose that Jesus means or stands for, but Jesus Christ himself, the particular person in whose singular flesh God has put the whole creation to rights once and for all. The real test of every interpretive venture is the Jesus-test: do we come back around to him, do we find ourselves more attached to him, do we see something more of the whole fullness that dwells in him, as a result of this exegesis, this reading of this or that text?

Before long I’ll be posting some guidance on resources for facing these challenges, but the most important thing is actually to read the Bible more intensively and extensively, with the rules of engagement just mentioned actively in mind.

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4 Responses to “The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 4”

  1. Erich Heim Says:

    Isn’t the notion that “Lutheranism = continual reforming” also its own distinct hermeneutic?

  2. David S. Yeago Says:

    Erich – Of course, the “notion that ‘Lutheranism = continual reforming'” contains a “distinct hermeneutic” in the sense that everything we believe affects what we make of what we read, in the Bible or in the newspaper. But that’s somewhat different from the circular proposition that Lutheranism is biblical, but you can only see that if you read the Bible in a Lutheran way, or that in order to get Lutherans to agree about the Bible, we need a to agree on a special Lutheran way of reading the Bible (which, when you think about it, is like saying that in order to get Lutherans to agree about the Bible, it is necessary for Lutherans to agree about the Bible).

    Let me be clear though that my unoriginal description of Lutheranism as being or involving a movement of reform within the universal church is not the equivalent of “Lutheranism =continual reforming.” I would in fact say that the two ideas are quite different.

    The idea of Lutheranism as a reform movement within the church universal assumes a given, the church catholic with its historic form of teaching and life, which is not to be abandoned but brought back to its center. A reform movement “within” the church catholic is not the same as choosing a reform movement “instead of” the church catholic, replacing historic Christianity with a project of perpetual innovation.

    The phrase you use is an English rendering of the Latin tag “semper reformanda,” which is part of a fuller slogan, “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda,” “the reformed church is always to be reformed.” This phrase is constantly attributed to the Reformers, sometimes specifically to Luther, but I don’t believe it, though I’m open to correction by anyone who can supply a checkable reference to a Reformation source.

    It’s also historically much more a Reformed than a Lutheran slogan. That doesn’t make it bad, but it certainly raises questions about the equation “Lutheranism = continual reforming.” I would say that the Lutheran spirit would be better expressed by something like: “The church catholic is always to be refocused on Christ the Savior as he is presented to us in the Scriptures.”

    By the way, according to a number of Presbyterian bloggers, the full Latin tag is “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei,” “the reformed church is always to be reformed according to the word of God.” That last clause makes a difference, doesn’t it? In fact, it might turn out to mean something very like “the church is always to be refocused on Christ the Savior as he is presented to us in the Scriptures.”

    • Michael Root Says:

      FWIW., the phrase “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda” seems to come from Jodocus von Lodenstein (or van Lodensteyn), a mid 17th century Dutch Reformed writer, sometimes described as a pietist.
      Michael Root

  3. Pastor Keith A. Hunsinger Says:

    “the reformed church is always to be reformed according to the word of God”

    That is the point missing for me in the case for “bound conscience”. I do not find an argument that all consciences are to be bound, or at least grounded, in scripture.

    This whole debate to me is less about gays and much more about the authority of scripture and how we can confidently know the Jesus found in scripture.

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