Formed by Scripture

Continuing from the previous post in this kind-of series:

The reading of Scripture is somewhat different than the reading of other stories, because Scripture, while open to a range of interpretations on the part of the reader, is something that shapes, forms or interprets us. We don’t read Scripture only to interpret it and to draw meanings from it (thought that is, obviously enough, an incredibly important part of Scripture reading) but to be conformed to its Truth. The Truth of the Scriptures is Jesus, in whose image we are conformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, without whom the real Truth of the Scriptures would remain hidden. This is the real goal of Scripture reading – to be conformed to the image of Christ.

While the work of the Spirit isn’t limited in any way, Christian experience suggests that certain practices lend themselves better to an open and receptive frame of mind and heart than others. The frame of mind and heart one has while reading the Scriptures really do matter – again, while the Spirit works without limit, a reading of Scripture which takes time to prayerfully and patiently meditate on the text will be of far more benefit than a quick glance in a hurried frame of mind.

This suggests something that most people are uncomfortable with, myself included: submission to something outside of ourselves in order to be shaped into something better than ourselves. We must seek to be shaped by something which claims us and calls us to account. To be conformed by the Spirit to the Truth of the Scriptures means, on our part, a forsaking of sin (or at least the concentrated effort to forsake sin).

This means that reading Scripture, if one’s reading is to have any kind of spiritual significance, requires a true submission to the Work of the Spirit in conforming us to the Truth of the Scriptures.

Controlling Narratives and Meaning

To continue from my last post, the controlling narrative has a function of determining and limiting the meanings of the smaller narratives it contains. It provides a framework through which and in which those smaller stories can be interpreted. It is something that, in interpreting those smaller stories, we are subject to.

Now, of course, in regards to Scripture, its status as a narrative isn’t as clear cut as, say, Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. Scripture isn’t one seamless story – to continue the comparison, it resembles ‘The Return of the King’s’ appendix more than the actual story itself. Books of the Bible often take place years, even centuries apart. People in the Bible bear no resemblance to characters in normal narratives. Whole books of the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs) are very much not narrative but gain their power and meaning from their place within the controlling narrative.

The extent and degree to which the meanings of the smaller stories are determined by the controlling narrative, I’m not so sure of. Obviously, Scripture has, in a sense, an infinite amount of meaning – there are portions of Scripture that mean something to someone that don’t mean the same thing at all to me. Depending on how one has lived, Scripture will mean different things – one who has grown up in the lap of luxury will probably read Scripture quite differently than one who has grown up in crippling poverty. God may speak to one particular person through a certain verse in a certain way and to another person through the same verse in a very different way.

And yet, even given all this, there are still limits on the meanings that can be imposed on Scripture while remaining true to the controlling narrative. Flights-of-fancy interpretation should be questioned. Health-and-wealth prosperity preaching should be questioned. Various interpretations of Scripture have led to some pretty bad things – slavery, religious war, etc. This all serves to highlight what happens when, instead of subjecting ourselves to Scripture and the controlling narrative it is/has, we allow Scripture to become a wax nose which we can shape in any way we like.

So far, I’ve been looking at how we interpret Scripture, and the limits imposed on us by the controlling narrative, which is the framework in and through which the smaller stories can be interpreted and given meaning. I think I’ve given a fair account of the role of the controlling narrative as well as a good defense for why such a thing is something we’re subject to – I’ve left out a good deal (the role of tradition, the role of community, theological concerns, etc) for now, hopefully to be touched on later. The next post will deal with how Scripture interprets us, or how we are formed by Scripture.

Allegory, Controlling Narratives and the Bible

This is the first post in a kind-of series on the Bible, narratives, reading the Bible and being formed by the Scriptures. The next two posts are here and here, and some related posts can be found here and here.

Allegory has been a long-accepted method for reading Scripture – seeing the meaning of various stories, events and characters not in themselves so much as in a more general principle, idea or doctrine which they represent. Origen is arguably the guy who started this as a systematic theological enterprise, though it seems obvious that, at the very least, a lot of Jesus’ teachings were allegorical in one way or another.

This invites a question: when do we allegorize? Texts don’t come with handy little tags that say ‘WARNING: ALLEGORY AHEAD’. Jesus doesn’t really say, ‘This parable is an allegory for X’.

Generally speaking, allegory doesn’t happen if the text isn’t a narrative of some kind – Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ stories invite allegory in  a way that ‘An Introduction to Organic Chemistry’ does not. So far as I can tell, allegory happens when one is confronted with a story or narrative, and forms the belief that the ‘real’ meaning of the text lies deeper than than the the text at face-value. The process for forming this belief usually goes one of to ways: it seems obvious that the real meaning must lie deeper, or the reader thinks that the real meaning must lie deeper. The latter seems to be round about how a lot of the early Fathers interpreted Scripture, especially the Old Testament.

There are other factors, though. In isolation, a text may be demanded to be read allegorically – think of the story of Jephthah. If you were handed a piece of paper with just this story written on it, you’d probably try to come up with some kind of meaning for it, simply because that’s a pretty wild story, and there has to be some kind of deeper meaning. This is a totally natural and correct thing to do. However, the story as we have in Scripture isn’t a random tale, but part of an over-arching narrative – the book of Judges (probably the darkest part of the Scriptures). I’m not going to go into a sustained exegesis of the Jephthah story, but when it’s read as part of a larger story, a larger controlling story, then it seems that allegorization isn’t as much of an option.

The controlling narrative restricts the degree to which we can interpret a story within that narrative. N.T. Wright points out in ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, that a habit of early church interpretation was to find moral or spiritual significance to especially brutal Old Testament stories – something that didn’t need to be done because the stories were, in fact, part of a larger controlling narrative. Their meaning isn’t had on their own in isolation (like, say Aesop’s Fables or any number of folk tales, which do a fine job of imparting moral wisdom in bite-sized parables free from any real controlling narrative) but in the framework of a larger story within which they make sense without allegorization.

This is obviously not to suggest that a given story in the Bible has one and only one meaning. Christians throughout history have had certain stories speak to them in certain ways that are no doubt far from the authors original intent. God is free to speak to us however He wishes from whatever story He wishes. In responsible biblical interpretation, however, the factor of the controlling narrative must be accounted for. We are not free to give any meaning to any story in Scripture – the controlling narrative is more than a literary device because in a very deep sense, the controlling narrative also lays claim to us. We are subject to Scripture – not the other way around. When the sense of controlling narrative is lost (both in its literary form and its theological/authoritative form) Scripture becomes a screen upon which we can project any and everything with equal validity.

Baby Jesus and Bible-Reading

The term ‘Christ centered’ gets thrown around a lot in reference to the Bible – a Christ-centered hermeneutic, a Christ-centered exegesis, Christ-centered interpretation, etc. But this seems to be one of those things that, upon close inspection, isn’t’t as clear cut in meaning as is supposed. What does ‘Christ-centered’ actually mean? Does it mean that every word of Scripture is actually about Jesus? Every story, every narrative, every page of Scripture, has Jesus as its subject and object? What does Christ-centered actually mean?

Well, taken at face value, it could mean a reading of Scripture which aims to ‘see’ Christ in all of the Bible. There are multitudes of books, devotionals, exegetical manuals, etc, which broadly have this goal – see Christ on every page. But this has some complications, because, obviously enough, Jesus isn’t the immediate objector subject of a lot of biblical stories. The story about Achan is (duh) about Achan. The story of Esther is about Esther, etc etc. So, (again) obviously enough, if Christ is supposed to be seen on every page, then there has to be more to the method than simply saying ‘that story is about Jesus.’

A common technique is typology, or foreshadowing, or whatever you like to call it. Something is a type of Christ if it foreshadows an aspect of His person, life and work. A good example of this would be Mechelzidek, or the Levitical sacrificial system (one can reference the book of Hebrews for this). These things are types of Christ in that they point to what is accomplished by Christ.

Now, here’s a few things I notice about that: the significance of that which is the type is intelligible only by virtue of what it points to (comparisons can be made with a realist interpretation of language). Types are pointers to a greater reality. I also notice that it devalues the type, or the sign – the real significance isn’t the sign but that to which it points. This makes it very easy to simply assign the role of type to something and by doing so assign it value only as a type or sign rather than it having significance in itself. To put it another way: it becomes very easy to look a X and say, ‘Oh, X is a type of Christ. Next!’

Continuing along that route: typology can become quite ridiculous – think of the medieval obsession with paralleling every part of the Ark narrative to some aspect of Christ’s person, work and life. Now that’s not a cheap sideshot, just an observation.

So the point so far is that in saying that one has to see Jesus on every page, one is basically committing to moving beyond the immediate subject/object of the text and engaging in typology, or metaphor, or what have you. So the text isn’t ‘about’ Jesus in the strict sense – it points beyond itself, by way of typology or metaphor, to Jesus.

Now that isn’t really too controversial as it stands, but I’m not so sure that Jesus is literally the subject of every aspect of Scripture. I don’t personally think every story s meant to foreshadow or be a type of Christ, and I think sustained attempts to make that so border of flights of fancy because Jesus isn’t, strictly speaking, the center of every aspect of the Biblical text but rather the goal of the text as a whole.

Put another way: not every word of the Bible has to have Jesus as its immediate object and subject, though the Truth of the Scriptures is, obviously, Jesus.  Scripture as a whole has Jesus as its telos – but not every word of Scripture is necessarily about Jesus in the sense that if we look hard enough at every page, or engage in typology/metaphor, Jesus will emerge. Typology is obviously great, and biblical – one can find types of Christ all over (again, Leviticus/Hebrews is a good place to start). But I remain unconvinced that every story, or every page, of Scripture has Jesus as its object and subject, though Scripture’s telos and goal is, in fact, Christ, the Word of God, the Truth of the Scriptures, to which the Scriptures bear witness.

Postscript: the telos of Scripture has to be understood in the context of Israel, exile, restoration, etc, because that’s the overarching narrative of the Scriptures. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go into too much depth there.