Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Theological Exegesis -- Part !

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.


Jim said...

Two Points:

1. Your work is so well thought-out and well-written that it is tough to read in a hurry! But it also has some points that might be separated into two or more posts, spread over time. It's *your* blog, I know, but I'd like it in smaller pieces....

2. If Luther had followed your advice about letting the church have her way, we would all likely still be reverencing the guy in the white suit in Rome. Where does your polity allow for change with regard to church? [Caution: Borg fan speaking]

Dwight P. said...

Three (brief) replies:

1. This post got a little long. (I outlined and began to write it in an airport on a very long layover on my way home from the conference. Fatigue probably overcame style for this post.) Future posts will be shorter.

But, gosh: Take me on one point by one point.

2. I specifically noted that the relationship between Church and Text is a dialectical and dialogical one. Neither gets a "trump" over the other. The Church -- as most of the popes have acknowledged -- serves the Word. But for the task of "getting it right," there must be some kind of authority: If not the magisterium -- instantiated iin the pope -- then who or what?

3. Marcus Borg was my first religion teacher in college (and he comes from my father's home town); I know well his charm and talents. Unfortunately, he goes astray in several important ways that he would avoid if he were reading from within the Christian tradition: He would not, for example, be tempted to simply discard scriptural witness because it doesn't conform to the modern (or post-modern), Enlightenment worldview. He would use Scripture to interpret Scripture and not Marcus' own categories of what's believable and what is not.

In the long run, that's what N.T. Wright (his friend) says, too, I think. And I am urging the grounds for that kind of critique.

Keep coming back to hold me to the fire.

Maurice Frontz said...


I love the "oops" in the title of your post - it seems to make the point about how exciting this topic must be. I had hoped to go, but had to limit my participation to praying for the conference and all who traveled to and from the conference.

Just a comment to what Jim said: One of Luther's most famous works is The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. His main point about Scriptural interpretation was that the Church of his time was not listening to the Church. Luther's reform was a "churchly" reform, insomuch as he appealed from within the Church's tradition for the sake of the Church and that tradition against misuses of Scripture and ecclesiastical power.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff here! Thanks.

You wrote, "...theological systems may not determine in advance what the voice of Scripture sounds." You then asked, "Must, for example, all of scripture be read through the hermeneutic of Law-Gospel, for example?"

This is an important point and I agree. (I was certainly taught to read scripture - for the purpose of preaching at least - through a law/gospel filter. Doing so, I'm beginning to realize, skews the reading in ways that may not be accurate nor helpful.)

But this causes me to wonder, we need some sort of hermeneutic by and through which to read scripture - don't we? And if so what exactly and properly should that hermeneutic be? Your post suggests that the faith of the Christian church should be that hermeneutic, right? But what just what aspects of the faith? Can you help me out here? Thanks.


Lee said...

I have a lot of sympathy with the idea that the Bible must be read in the context of the church and in light of the church's rule of faith. I think the historical-critical method has a lot of weaknesses and the idea of picking out bits and pieces of (for instance) the Gospel narratives to find what can survive "critical" scrutiny has serious flaws. Luke Timothy Johson's The Real Jesus has provided me with a helpful summary of the limitations of this method (he takes on Borg, the Jesus Seminar, etc.).

That said, isn't there a big leap from the idea of the Bible as the church's book to that of authority instantiated in a magisterium, much less the papacy (at least as Rome currently understands it)? I think Protestants are rightly wary of the way the Bible has been shackled by the all-too-human church and its power plays. Wasn't Luther right in criticizing the way the medieval church's penitential system obscured the gospel of grace in service to its own agenda?

Chip Frontz said...

But Lee, again, Luther appealed to the tradition against the practices that were contemporary. Churchly exegesis will not always automatically endorse every practice of the contemporary church, but at least it will offer whatever critiques it makes from a churchly perspective.

Dwight P. said...

So with comments like these, I may never get to Part @ or Part # -- oops, I mean part 2 or part 3.

Chip makes a critically important point, I think: The Reformation was about recapturing "Church," not creating someting new. And I think that, as such an effort, the original Lutherans would not have wanted the elevation of such a theme as "Law/Gospel" to take on a life of its own -- as it seems to have in Lutheranism. And neither would they have approved -- indeed, Jim and Lee, they fought against -- a kind of authoritarian "instantiation" in any one person or institution (and I say that as a great lover of the papacy, the current pope, and Rome). :)

Coincidentally, I read, last night, Bishop (Timothy) Kallistos' (Ware)describe his movement from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy. In explaining why swam the Bosporus instead of the Tiber, he notes that from the Eastern perspective, "[t]he developed doctrine of Roman primacy [as it came from Vatican One], was not true to history. Papal centralization, especially from the eleventh century onwards, had gravely imp0aired the continuity of Tradition within the Roman communion."

"Tradition" is a living experience: It is the present of the past in the present; it is the conversation between the presesnt and the future. It cannot be frozen into institutions, and neither can any individual make sense of it on his or her own (or, for that matter, in a community, unless that community is the Church).

As to what takes the place of the various hermeneutical lenses through which we read the Scriptures, I'm not sure I have an answer. I suspect that I am suggesting a kind of lens myself, without being able to articulate it. If one's primary point of reference is to read a particular passage in terms that do not contradict the relatively uncontroversial "unities" of the Church -- the confessions of Nicea and Constantinople and the decrees of Chalcedon, e.g., -- then one is on the trek. They are, at least, a canon reasonable to the nature of the Bible.

Clearly, this is difficult to articulate in our [post-]Enlightenment world -- and that may be a big part of our current problem.

But I've gone on long enough without being able to say very much.

Chip Frontz said...

Dwight -

It would be helpful for my understanding of your argument if you'd come up with an example about how Lutherans or others might force Scripture into a law-gospel framework where it doesn't really fit.

In 200 words or less. ;)

Lee said...

I like the idea of tradition as an ongoing conversation, but this allows for more flexibility, I suspect, than many self-styled traditionalists would want.

And, regarding Luther, wasn't his appropriation of tradition somewhat selective? The favoring of Augustine's views on grace and free will, for instance, over certain other of the Fathers. The tradition rarely speaks with a unified voice, though of course there are exceptions like the deliverances of Nicea and Chalcedon.

I guess my question is this: how do we engage with tradition without endorsing a kind of "postivism" where whatever the tradition says is ipso facto right? It doesn't seem to me that any branch of the church has really figured out how to do that.

Dwight P. said...

I absolutely agree that the "conversation" which the Great Tradition constitutes requires more flexibility than either of the "poles-apart" parties can handle -- and that's the chief problem. The so-called "traditionalists" would freeze the Tradition into a product -- a positivist-sort of animal. But the other end of the spectrum similarly is threatened, because those advocates must submit their liberal, conservative, progressivist, post-modern, secularist or other pre-determining ideologies to the final authority of the Tradition.

I think Lutherans display a difficulty in their flexibility when they try to force the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount into the law-gospel dialectic. It's a kind of easy analysis, really, but I hear it all the time. A "word" is either law (which requires something of the hearer) or gospel (which is pure promise, requiring only open hands -- and maybe not the latter). But the Ten Commandments and the Sermon most emphatically link one's life in God/Christ with how one lives her life. But if behavior is prescribed (and proscribed), then that must be law right? But Christ wouldn't lay down law (forget for the moment the jot-and-tittle business), right? So the real point must be to see in those "words" the impossible ideal for human conduct that drives us to our knees in penance, from which posture it is possible to lay hold of the promised grace of God.

Well, such readings are poppycock. The words mean what they say: Don't kill, for example, means at minimum, "do not wrongly deprive another of his life." It does not mean, even if it must so mean to maintain the gospel, "Repent of the numerous ways you kill the spirit" or some such.

In short, the law-gospel dialectic is a major factor in the segregating "justification" from "sanctification" -- a division that has not basis in the mainstream tradition leading to Luther. (And I'm not saying that Luther himself treated it so: After all, he himself never once that I've seen referred to the Ten Commandments as "law" in the theological sense. But some of his followers sure lent new meaning to "contortion" when they took hold of the concept.)

Such flexibility is demonstrated, too, when the Church has had to practice "metanoia" on some matter of morality. Slavery is but one issue on which the Church eventually and out of the "conversation" realized that she had misunderstood the implications of the Gospel in sanctioning -- even in onot opposing -- slavery. The point is so well-settled, now, that no one of good will would try to resurrect the old "tradition."

Does that make sense?

Chip Frontz said...

Yes, it makes sense, but it strikes me that Luther himself did not interpret the Sermon on the Mount in the way that you say he did. He interpreted "don't kill" as outlawing all forms of private revenge or anger. Killing was to be reserved to the duly appointed authorities, who in Luther's mind functioned in God's stead to punish open evil. That's a different hermeneutic than "law/Gospel."

Certainly the misreading of the Commandments/Sermon as merely the "ideal which is to make us despair of ever being good enough" is a misreading, or at least only a partial reading according to a law/Gospel hermeneutic. But that, I think, is the ever-present Lutheran temptation and not necessarily the Lutheran fatal flaw. Scripture is law and Gospel, not law or Gospel.

Coincidentally (?) here is today's commentary from For All the Saints, from Muhlenberg's diaries:

"The kernel of the sainted Luther's teaching is unknown in many parts of the Evangelical Church, and it is multilated in practice. If Luther himself, the excellent man, reappeared, without being recognized, and began to teach in many places as he once taught in the Symbolical Books, in his Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, and in other evangelical writings, he would be denounced as a Pietist and Enthusiast and chased to his fellows in hell. It seems as if the world does not wish to have anything to do with the whole of true Christianity; it wants either godliness without change of heart and faith, or faith without preceding change of heart and consequent sanctification; and regards this or that as orthodoxy. What therefore God hath joined together, let no one separate."

Finally, what personal story do you have to tell that shows Lutherans so egregiously misinterpreting the Commandments/Sermon? I always forget to ask for the personal story behind the statement of dissatisfaction with doctrine.