Webster and Augustine on Scripture and Revelation

‘The acts of authorship which lie behind Scripture are functions of God’s communication of Himself. So the author is patient – that is, one who has been granted divine revelation and one who has been given grace to contemplate that revelation, to be instructed by divine wisdom, and to be commissioned to testify to and therefore extend divine revelation. Again, Augustine:

‘That God made the world we can believe from no one more safely than from God Himself. But where have we heard Him? No where more distinctly than Holy Scriptures, where His prophets said, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’. Was the prophet present when God made the heavens and the earth? No, but the wisdom of God by whom all things were made was there, and wisdom insinuates itself into holy souls and makes them into friends of God and His prophets, and noiselessly informs them of all His works.’ (Augustine, ‘City of God’,  quoted by John Webster)

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.

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.

On Scripture Speaking

What does it mean when someone says that Scripture ‘speaks’ to them? That verse really spoke to me. That kind of thing. In the normal sense, it means that Scripture X disclosed a meaning to the hearer or reader. The text has a meaning which was made known to the hearer. Now this assumes that there is a kind of fixed meaning for Scripture – it has a meaning independent of whatever we happen to think/believe about the text. This verse means that, not that.

Does Scripture in fact have a fixed meaning? Lots of people have said lots of different things about what Scripture means. There are lots of interpretations of Scripture out there – minimalist, maximalist, reductionist, existential, analytic, and a million others. Broadly speaking, though, I think one can confidently say that Scripture is, in fact, about certain things. There is, in some sense, a kind of fixed meaning. Redemption, forgiveness, salvation, holiness, etc, are all things that Scripture is about – there may be various interpretations of this but one would be hard-pressed to argue that Scripture isn’t about these things in a fixed sense.

An essential aspect of Christian belief is that the spiritual truths of Scripture are revealed, not plain and available for all to see as if Scripture were any other kind of textbook. It is only through illumination by the Holy Spirit that the true Word within the words is revealed – prayerful abiding in the Holy Spirit is the key to grasping the true Word, which is Jesus Christ.

This is the second way the Scripture speaks to us – or, to be a bit more technically correct, the Holy Spirit revealing the Word in Scripture. The Holy Spirit can illuminate a certain text and reveal a meaning which may be specific and applicable to a certain time and place for a certain individual – perhaps one is reading a familiar text and suddenly sees it in a whole new light, and is able to draw a fresh application from a familiar text.

This, then, is the more dynamic way of Scripture speaking – in prayer, abiding in the Spirit. Now, one can study the text of Scripture in a non-spiritual way and still come away better for it. Even if one isn’t explicitly doing spiritual study, the Spirit is still working the hearts of all men. Perhaps someone engaged in a non-spiritual study of the text of Scripture will have an encounter with the Spirit and come away changed or transformed in some way.

Roughly then, truth about the Scriptural text can still be found through purely academic study. Historical, cultural, sociological truths can all be grasped on the basis of the Biblical data. But to truly grasp the Word, the Truth of Scripture, which is Jesus, one must abide in the spirit – as it says in the Psalms, our eyes must be opened so we can behold the wonderful things in the Law.

On Scripture, the Spirit, and God Speaking

Yesterday a friend posted this link on his Facebook:

http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2013/03/05/review-of-jesus-calling/

I don’t care too much about the book under criticism or the specific source of the criticism -I’ve never been to the White Horse Inn before I clicked that link yesterday, so this is purely a theological post.

This was my reply I posted as a comment (click the link and read the review to see exactly what I was responding to:

1 – the criticism: Seems pretty ballsy to declare with no qualifications that apart from the written scriptures, neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit speaks today, since:
      (a) not once in Scripture is this claim made – not once does it say that apart from the written scriptures neither God nor Jesus nor the Holy Spirit speaks.
      (b) it assumes a ‘closing of the canon’ which is again, not once mentioned in *any* way in Scripture.
      (c) there is in no way *any* problem with God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit speaking to anyone in a personal way apart from the written scripture – in no way does that contradict or undermine the finality of Scripture.

2 – the observation: the reliance on Warfield says exactly one thing: rationalism. Warfield hated mysticism, for whatever reason. For him, the spirit operated by means of rational proof and evidence- not mysticism. This is a gutting of Christianity, period. Christianity is mystical – the entire point is communion with the divine, and there isn’t a definition of mystical that doesn’t fit. Warfield was desperate for matheatical certainty – just look at his apologetic for the canon.

3 – the question: why is it necessary in a devotional work like this to include a comprehensive view of the atonement? Not every work of christian writing has to include ever aspect of Christian theology. If a writer wishes to write about simply being in the presence of Jesus, they don’t have to produce a work on that outlines the atonement and the historical aspect of the faith. It is in fact okay to simply bask in the presence of Jesus, without doing anything else.

I was going to add to what I wrote above, but keep getting stuck with writers block, so I’ll leave it alone for the time being and instead direct your attention to the best study done on the subject of the Holy Spirit I’ve been able to find. I hope for some good discussion on this subject matter.

https://bible.org/series/whos-afraid-holy-spirit-investigation-ministry-spirit-god-today

A Couple of Preliminary Ramblings on Biblical Inerrancy

If you head over to the Gospel Coalition, you’ll find a couple recent blog posts on inerrancy and Scripture written by Kevin deYoung:

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2013/08/20/the-christians-view-of-scripture/

Being the kind-of-Barthian that I am, I found plenty to complain about in the above exposition of inerrancy, and I am intending to complain quite a bit. First off, the idea of inerrancy as a whole.

Here’s my idea: inerrancy is a reaction to a skepticism about the Bible that pretty much started in the Enlightenment and has continued to today. I’m no expert, but if you take a gander through church history, you don’t really find the modern day understanding of inerrancy emerging until the 19th century, or thereabouts. Once the Enlightenment kicked off, the bible was seen as an old book and pretty much not a whole lot else. Christians felt a need to reply to skepticism about the bible, Christianity, etc, and from that the modern understanding of inerrancy was born.

I see its development as particularly unhealthy, and here’s why. Inerrancy becomes something that *has* to be true, or else (insert consequences here). It *has* to be true. It’s a theology of defense-or-else. If it’s not true, then how can you trust any part of the bible? Why believe verse X is true but not verse Y? Where do you draw the line? Why believe anything in the bible if you can be mathematically certain that the entire thing is inerrant as understood by most modern evangelicals?

I found this neat little quote by Torrance to be thought-provoking:

[T]he extraordinary fact about the Bible is that in the hands of God it is the instrument he uses to convey to us his revelation and reconciliation and yet it belongs to the very sphere where redemption is necessary. The Bible stands above us speaking to us the Word of God and yet the Bible belongs to history which comes under the judgment of God and requires the cleansing and atoning activity of the Cross. When we hear the Word of God in the Bible, therefore, we hear it in such a way that the human word of Holy Scripture bows under the divine judgment, for that is part of its function in the communication of divine revelation and reconciliation. Considered merely it in itself it is imperfect and inadequate and its text may be faulty and errant, but it is precisely in its imperfection and inadequacy and faultiness and errancy that God’s inerrant Holy Word has laid hold of it that it may serve his reconciling revelation and the inerrant communication of his Truth. Therefore the Bible has to be heard as Word of God within the ambiguity of its poverty and riches, its weakness and power, and heard in such a way that we acknowledge that in itself in its human expression, the Bible comprises the word of man with all the limitations and imperfection of human flesh, in order to allow the human expression to fulfill its divinely appointed and holy function for us, in pointing beyond itself, to what it is not in itself, but to what God has marvellously made it to be in the adoption of his Grace. The Bible itself will pass away with this world, but the Word of God which it has been inspired to convey to us does not pass away but endures for ever. [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics, 9-10] (stolen from http://growrag.wordpress.com/)

Hopefully this will generate some good discussion. Like I said, I’m a Barthian, more or less, when it comes to Scripture, so I don’t really have to deal with this problem too much since this view pretty much sidesteps most of the things that cause this issue to come up. I welcome criticisms and challenges though.

God, Speech, and Revelation.

 

In the great monotheistic traditions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, scriptures have a special place of importance. This is because their scriptures are all believed to be, in one form or another, the written word of God, God’s communication and revelation to mankind in which His will is disclosed. I will be focusing on the notion of revelation, speech and communication in the Christian tradition.

Perhaps a broad question is the best way to begin: why is Scripture so important in the Christian tradition? From here, there’s a few other questions that can be asked: what does it mean to say that God has spoken? That God has disclosed His will in Scripture? How do we understand Scripture? How can we understand Scripture?  On a more theological level: how do we interpret Scripture? What role does Scripture play in the Christian life? How does Jesus impact how we read Scripture? How do we come to terms with the idea of God communicating through words, given how tricky language can be?

There are all these questions and many, many more that need to be asked. In the coming few posts I’ll attempt to round out a few tentative answers to these questions and any more that pop up.