I have just returned from a conference at Duke Divinity School that was co-sponsored by my own Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology (our website is here). I am renewed, exhausted, and frustrated -- as is always the case with our conferences. This conference was distinct in having nearly uniformly excellent presentations. I have now learned in person from scholars who have taught me previously only in print -- e.g., Ellen Davis and Richard Hays. I have re-met guides whom I admire -- e.g. Rusty Reno and "my own" Robert Jenson (who demonstrated again that he can merge preaching and teaching into a work of art unrivaled by any). I met a new-to-me and absolutely exciting young scholar, J. Kameron Carter, for whom we all ought to keep out an eye. And that doesn't list all the presenters!
There was also a personal aspect to the Conference, as well: I also re-united with good friends -- notably, Jim (about whom I have written here), Steve, Erma, and fellow members of the Board of the Center (alas, my friend Gabe Fackre has seen fit to resign from the Board, and I was not able to see him). I made the acquaintance of new friends (I hope) who are eloquent, committed, earnest witnesses to the Gospel. I finally met "virtual friends" -- fellow disciples who speak regularly on an Internet listserv: What a treat and a challenge (and in some cases, what a surprise) to put faces and bodies to vocabularies and attitudes. And I ate new kinds of foot (why do grits taste better south of the Mason-Dixon line?) and drank only a little too much. (I'm told the liver transplant list is difficult to get on, so I try to moderate -- a difficult task for one with an addictive personality.)
Over the next couple of weeks, I'll try to articulate some inadequate summaries of what I learned, why it excited me, where I feel fed and challenged, and where I feel led and urged to push. In response to this, I eagerly invite questions and contradictions. And to that end, I've e-mailed some of those new friends whom I met at the Conference and invited them to either submit their own impressions or to expand on some of the stuff I post here. If they don't have their own blogs, I hope they will supplement my meager gruel here.
Center conferences are always exciting events. Presenters are selected for tscholarshipnt scho0larship, the dedication of their work to the well-being of the Church, and their ability to get their ideas across in ways that even we non-scholars can grasp. We usually avoid the brilliant-on-paper-but-snooze-inducing-in-person scholars. Follow-up questions and discussion enhance those presentations. I, of course, enjoy meeting scholars whom I've read but never had a body or person to relate to. And I especially enjoy the opportunity for "fellowship" with other thinking Christians committed to constant discernment of how to walk and talk the life of faith.
Shameless plug: Y'all -- all y'all -- ought to come to our conference next year. "Freedom and Authority in the Christian Life" will be held at St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN, 10-12 June 2007. You will find nourishing meat to feed on. You heard it here first.
Shameless plug 2: If you are interested in the particular issues that I reference in this conference, you will have available to you the printed papers of the conference published as a book in about 18 months. The Center has an arrangement with William Eerdmans Publishing to publish all of our conferences' papers, and they make them available in a timely (and relatively inexpensive) way.
So on to business: This year's conference "Preaching, Teaching, and Living the Bible," focused on what we might (and did) call "theological exegesis" of the Bible. (I decided that I prefer the phrase "churchly exegesis of the Bible for reasons that I hope to make clear over time on this blog.) "Exegesis," in case you ask, is the work of teasing meaning out of a text -- for our purposes, the text of the Bible. It involves, inter alia, study of the sources and styles of the Biblical text, consideration of the linguistic content and possibilities, reflection on sociological and cultural circumstances of the text's production and use and of how those factors might affect the intention and interpretation of the text (alas, not one presenter used one of my favorite phrases from seminary: "Sitz im Leben" -- the text's "place" in the life of the community that "used" it -- or perhaps even composed it), and accounting for the relation of a particular passage to the whole Bible. So far, that is pretty standard stuff for Bible reading by anyone with any contact with historical-critical study of the Bible.
What distinguishes "theological (churchly) exegesis" from what, say, Marcus Borg practices is its foundation upon this principle: "Readings" (or interpretations) of Scripture must or should not be discordant with what the Church teaches and lives. The Church's dogma, liturgy, theological traditions, and the like have a pride of place among the other "tools" or considerations in deciding what a given Biblical text means.
The implications of this approach are, I suspect, legion. But a couple of them excite me.
First, when a reading of the Bible contradicts what the Church teaches, then there is still a lot of work to do: It is not simply a matter of saying, "Bible trumps doctrine." The reader must examine further -- double- and triple-check the methods that yielded the interpretation, re-read the theological tradition to determine whether we accurately perceive a conflict between our reading and the Church's teaching. It is a matter of constantly maintaining conversation between the life of the Church and Scripture study. The point is that our reading of the Bible can never be meaningfully undertaken outside the context of the Church and here traditional teachings and practices.
Now, this doesn't mean, conversely, that Scripture must bend to the "magisterium" of the Church (which, of course, would immediately drive WordAlone into apoplexy). The "old time religion" is not beyond reproach and reformation. Indeed, if a good-faith reading of scripture calls into doubt a doctrine or practice of the Church, then the "more work" I prescribed above may require a change or re-interpretation of the tradition. But this approach does privilege "the Great Tradition" -- i.e., that living and "unified" legacy of the Church's witness in doctrinal articulation, in acknowledging "holy" or "saintly" lives and writing, in liturgy -- over and against any other interpretive lens.
At work here is a delicious (and at times, confusing) dialectic.
On the one hand, the Bible belongs to the Church: "Mater Ecclesia" made the Bible -- determined what is in it, weeding out writings that were deemed unreliable (such as the "Judas Gospel") and including writings that on their face have no necessarily religious content or point (e.g., Sond of Songs or Proverbs). In reading the Bible, Christians are obliged to read it as Christian Scripture. The Bible simply makes no sense as a body of literature outside its relationship with the on-going life of the Church. It cannot be properly interpreted as a "cultural artifact" (which, I think is precisely what the Enlightenment has tried to make of it) -- i.e., another work of fiction akin to a Shakespeare play or The Makioki Sisters -- any more than a Volkswagen repair manual makes sense in a hospital operating room.
On the other hand, the Church has in a sense subordinated her life to Scripture. Having set forth the "corpus" of the Bible, Mother Church humbly and realistically set the Bible as "canon" -- i.e., as "measuring stick" or guide and judge" or "authoritative boundary" for her own life, faith, and thought. Just so, the Reformation declared that the guide of faith is "sola Scriptura" -- i.e., "Scripture (or Word) alone." Thus, by this development, the canon of Scripture becomes the norm of norms in the Church's life. By "sola scriptura,"the Church bends her deliberations to the witness of Scripture.
I think it is wrong to assert that the "sola scriptura" means that only the Bible is authoritative for the Church's life and teaching: That "scripture" focusedme sort of guide or canon in its interpretation, if only to keep the interpretation focussed on what it is supposed to focus on. And thus the dialectical relationship between Church and scripture is born. The Reformers also declared "sola fide" -- by faith alone -- to be a canon of Church life and proclamation. And with that "fide" the Reformers loaded dogmatic content into the blend. For "faith" ("fide") has content and that content is not necessarily derivable from independent study. The principle of "sola fide" -- together with sola gratia and sola scriptura -- becomes part of the Tradition, the interpretive lens, which provides a check on our reading of the Bible.
Here is an example of how I see that this might work: The doctrine of the Trinity can easily be missed by even a relatively careful and faithful reading of the Bible outside the context of the Church. (Is this, perhaps, why the Jesus Seminar seems to take the Trinity into account not a whit?) But for most of the Church's history, "faith" has had as one of its components (even to the point of making it non-negotiable by declaring it dogma) some understanding of God's being as three "persons" of one "substance." Thus, a non-trinitarian reading of any Bible passage must be deemed defective at the outset because it does not accurately reflect the God who is active in or subject of all the passages of the Bible. So when my seminary classmates read Genesis and saw and heard "Let us make man [sic] in our image," they were (contrary to our Old Testament prof) not wrong to see there a reflection of conversation within the holy Trinity. (That the text, consistent with readings drawn by historical-critical methods, might also reflect influence from other ancient religious cultures that perceived a "heavenly court" with God and his counselors in no way disqualifies or trumps the churchly reading. As a reader, I have long believed, with no formal academic training in literary criticism beyond the baccalaureate level, that the context, culture, or community within which a text is read matters in a major way to the meaning that the text gives up. I think that applies to Bible, too. Taking those data into account may enhance the meanings one draws from reading Genesis, but they do not determine what one must preach -- as has often been insisted and practiced by historical-critical readers.)
The Bible is the Church's book. It was put together only for the Church's use in her worship, mediation, and community reflection. Thus, there is a legitimate criticism that the Reformation's urging of individual access to the Bible removed the necessary connection between Bible and Church. Of course even if that is a legitimate concern, no one suggests that individual believers restrict their contact with the Bible to what they hear in liturgy. But it does raise the important warning that pastors and church structures owe their people serious pastoral guidance in their readings of Scripture.
On a different tack, I have significant concerns when "academy" -- usually, but not exclusively, meaning secular university professors -- take up reading and interpreting the Bible. Without a firm and committed orientation to serving and applying interpretations to the Church, I wonder whether any scholar has any business touching the Bible. It is, so to say, no surprise that in recent decades the havoc wreaked upon the Church by the so-called "historical critical" method has been the result of readings outside the fellowship of the Church. (Granted: Bultmann maintained a connection -- even a preaching connection -- with the [Lutheran] Church. But his connection assumed an attitude of almost superciliousness -- certainly supercessionism -- to the Great Traditions. And it has been easy for those in his "train" -- among whom the Jesus Seminar seem pre-eminent -- to step even farther away from the circle of Faith.)
It will do the Church nothing but good for her people, pastors, and teachers to commit to the study of the Word within the Community of the Word Made Flesh -- not just the contemporary community, but the "great cloud of witnesses" who join us and encourage us in our journey of faith. The Church is not merely one of the "consumers" of scriptural work; she provides the only context within that work might appropriately and meaningfully be conducted.
A couple of concerns arise in this connection, and I am not naive enough to dismiss them.
I am concerned that the Church and the academic establishment are more often than is seemly reflections and pimps of the "worldly culture" that is at odds with the world of the Bible. The result is body of scholarship that appears solid, but is fraught with mischief by simply reinforcing the values and interests of the "world" which is at odds with God's world. The Bible has constantly been made to serve some ideology other than that of the Gospel. And there is nothing salvific in promoting a reading of Scripture which is advertising for one form of privilege (e.g., race, gender, economic status, religious qualification) or for one set of experiences. The dialectic between Church and Bible should serve to criticize such misuse of Scripture, but it has not always been very successful. See the roiling in recent decades raised by "black," "feminist," or "liberation" theologians (to cite merely a few).
Similarly, when the life of the Church assumes a kind of arrogance over against the witness of scriptural reading, there is a misalignment playing itself out. I earlier mentioned that the "magisterium" of the Church is not immune to the correction and criticism from Scripture. These next lines are a little hard for me to write because they cut kind of close to my quick, but theological systems may not determine in advance what the voice of Scripture sounds. The "Fundamentals" are a notorious example of theology's claiming authority over Holy Scripture, but I think it won't surprise many that I can also point to various (especially Scholastic) Lutheran attempts to do the same thing -- though, of course, on different terms and components. (Must, for example, all of scripture be read through the hermeneutic of Law-Gospel, for example?)
Bible and Church have a symbiotic relationship. Without Church, the Bible is not Bible; without the Bible, the Church operates outside the revelation of God. It remains a significant challenge to the Church to live this insight.
This is long enough. But there are some other issues that I'm thinking through. So stay tuned and bring your rapier insight and wit to bear in correcting me.