Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Holding Scripture Together

My Christian college and seminary experiences revealed to me an alarming tendency in academic biblical studies to split the Bible apart. The use of the "analogy of Scripture", or the practice of interpreting Scripture with Scripture, holding a clear passage up to help shed light on an obscure one, is falling into more and more ill regard by professional biblical scholars, particularly when applied across authors. I grant that it is good interpretive practice to allow each author of Scripture, and indeed each individual book, to express its own voice and to be interpreted according to its own internal semantic activity without having outside theological notions foisted on it before it is done speaking. I learned this the hard way in my first semester as a biblical studies major in college when I cited a passage in the Gospel of John in an exegesis paper on a passage in Acts. I've never seen red ink scream so loudly. But in seminary in particular I noticed the growing popularity of resisting all attempts to synthesize or harmonize not just historical accounts (like having Jesus cleanse the temple twice because of the chronological discrepancies between the synoptic gospels and John, which I agree should be rejected) but even theological or ethical contradictions. It appears to be fashionable to speak of "New Testament theologies" and to even celebrate the apparent "pluralism" found in the New Testament communities.

For example, the tension the church has long wrestled with between Paul's emphasis on grace and James' emphasis on works, one I had long before learned to understand in terms of different rhetorical situations, Paul addressing Christian identity (Romans and Galatians) and James addressing Christian ethics, were dealt with in one of my seminary classes as an actual contradiction that neither could nor should be harmonized. When asked the obvious question, "so which one is right?", the professor just shrugged his shoulders and said something like "we need to adjust our understanding of Scripture to make room for contradictory positions."

This is wrong, and not for the reasons a fundamentalist might claim like "the Bible cannot have contradictions." Its wrong because the professor thought he had come to an appropriate end of the conversation with this comment, like his task was merely to lay bare what each biblical author thought was true and then show, with profound post-modern hipness, how they didn't agree about what was true. It is wrong because the real task of biblical interpretation, though it certainly involves appreciating tensions in the biblical text, is to go beyond them, coming to understand what each biblical author is telling us about God and then to move on to a direct understanding of that reality within God, a movement we are enabled to make through the Self-revelation of God in Christ and the regeneration of the Spirit. Since there is only one God, we cannot be satisfied with the conclusion that the biblical authors disagree - we must penetrate into the cohesion of the biblical testimony to be found within the singular objective reality of God Himself.

T. F. Torrance writes,
A great deal has been made in modern biblical scholarship of what is called the 'pluralism' manifest in the New Testament writings, and that is understandable once they are subjected to critical analysis apart from the basic framework of the New Testament in which they are set. But a very different picture emerges when we attend to the actual scope within which they have arisen and taken shape. Then for all their rich diversity they are found to have a deep underlying unity in Jesus Christ the incarnate and risen Lord, who is the dynamic center and the objective focus of their creative integration. But that calls for a way of interpretation in which the images or patterns at the linguistic and theological levels are stereoscopically coordinated in our viewing, for it is through the scope of their conjoint reference that real meaning and coherence come to light (Divine Meaning, 106).
Torrance offers exactly this kind of interpretive approach in his brilliant book, Divine Meaning. In it he speaks of coordinating the semantic function of biblical statements with their syntactic function (by which he means the intertextual organization and focus across the whole canon, pointing to the sovereign organization of the revelatory events in the whole history of Israel and Christ) so that a common exegetical framework emerges, which then becomes the controlling center of biblical interpretation - this framework he rightly takes to be the incarnation, life (teachings and deeds), death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ (113-118).

It is precisely this kind of exegetical framework (disparagingly spoken of as "creedal", which sounds like a compliment to me) which is enthusiastically rejected by so many biblical scholars, even those employed by educational institutions with an evangelical mission. It is rejected because it is perceived to be forcing the Bible into an agreement based on external theological decisions made by later church councils. It is rejected so that "the Bible can speak for itself." But the Bible can only speak for itself if it is listened to, which is exactly how those creedal frameworks emerged (particularly the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, to Torrance's mind and my own). Interpreting the Bible according to the analogy of Scripture and regula fidei (the rule of faith, i.e. the early catholic creeds) is not forcing the Bible to agree but discerning its objective internal agreement. Rejecting this will inevitably lead to focusing on peripheral and even exegetically forced disagreements. In this case the bible cannot be authoritative for Christian thinking. How could it? How can one submit his/her mind to the authority of contradictory thinking? One is then left wondering why these biblical scholars who have freed themselves from creedal thinking are given jobs in evangelical education institutions. How are they helping the church by teaching fractured interpretation techniques of a book that cannot wield any authority?


  1. I think I'm following...eh, whom I kidding? I'm not following. So what you're really saying is that people do not accurately cross-reference the Bible? Or maybe find contradictory scripture and throw their hands up in the air and "we can never understand what God meant"? (no spell check here-sorry)
    -Amy Snow

  2. Sorry, Amy. I didn't realize I was that confusing. Basically certain biblical studies profs will just throw their hands up in the air and say "these guys didn't agree in their theology" and basically consider their job done. An example is the divinity and humanity of Christ in the synoptic Gospels and John: I've heard more than one prof exaggerate the emphases between the Gospels to suggest that Matthew, Mark and Luke really don't have any conception of a eternally existent, pre-incarnate Son of God, that we get that theology from John and then illegitimately read that back into the the other three. I was accused of misreading the Bible when I interpreted a healing miracle in Luke as revealing the eternal love, power and presence of God in human history.

    So they're not saying " we can never understand what God meant" because they don't really see God in the text. They do usually see him active in composition of the texts, but the lesson they typically derive is that the Bible's contradictions show us that God values pluralism. What Torrance is saying is that it was a part of God's revelation that the early Church wrestle with the texts of the NT in light of the OT until they came to a fuller understanding of what God had in Israel culminating in Christ and articulated that in the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed so that these could then be used by the church as a guide to reading Scripture in its unity. This would allow to say that, even though Luke never mentions Christ's eternal deity (which I think is debatable), we know Jesus is the incarnation of God so we can read Luke that way, holding both his divinity and humanity together in our reading. Any clearer?

  3. Adam,

    I agree with you. But something I learned in my "Evangelical Seminary" was that the tensions (not just in the translations, but in the text-types and their usages behind our "critical texts") are in fact part of God's design; and thus are some of the most exegetically rich places in the Bible. When there is an apparent discrepancy (or real), if we have a view of inspiration that believes that God did in fact spirate the scriptures; then we will stop and ask "okay, what's going on here?" and work at understanding the INTENDED disparity. I spent a whole semester (in my class NT use of the OT) working out issues just like this (one of the best classes I've ever taken).

    I don't accept teutonic higher criticism --- and I realize TFT offers another way (even from Barth) --- in other words I still have some "Fundy" in me ;-).

    I totally agree with TFT's points on 'inner logic'; but sometimes I think it could border upon Philonic interpretation if we're not careful --- although I've never seen TFT go Philonic (just sayin').

  4. Bobby,

    Yeah, its very nuanced. I tried to make it clear that I recognize that there are tensions in Scripture. I just hate when profs get all giddy in exposing them. There is a certain amount of theo/philosophical bullying that some teachers just seem to get off on. I love TFT's focus on the unity of Christ being the unity of Scripture, that which bends the human text, which admittedly bare the marks of fallen humanity in its tensions and contradictions, into a univocal service to the One God. I think this is what you're talking about in asking what is going on in these disparities that reveals something about God or ourselves. This has been a refreshing alternative to the tug of war I was in prior to discovering him between my fundy church background that demanded that there could be no tensions in the Bible and the liberal Bible profs who demanded that there was little unity.

    As far as Philo goes, Torrance spends some time tracing the damaging effects of his approach in Divine Meaning and does, I think, a good job articulating the difference between Philonic allegorizing, in which the text is seen through to pure abstractions, and his brand of "depth exegesis" in which the text is seen through to the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ as revelatory of the eternally triune God.

  5. Yeah, I'm excited to read "Divine Meaning" as well (unbelievably, my theo-lib has it) . . . soon as I get a chance.

    That was one thing about Fuller I was not looking forward to. I think the unity of scripture most certainly hangs on Jesus; and this is what I've found refreshing about TFT as well. I remember in bib theology classes the prof asking for what we thought was the meta-theme of scripture; I don't think most of us simply said "Jesus" (that was undergrad though ;-).

    I'm glad you discovered TFT, Adam . . . he's been an answer to prayer for me as well!!

    Btw, you were clear on your points on scripture and tension (I understood what you were getting at); I just was highlighting one way those tensions could actually be seen as fruitful instead of undercutting (contra your liberal profs). I realize you already understand this, how could you not, you read TFT :-).

    Keep up the good work, Adam . . . I appreciate all your posts on TFT (and whatever else you might want to post on). Hope your studies are going well, and hope you're getting acclimated to the Highlands (pretty wet, huh).

    Oh, I realize Philo isn't TFT's approach; but I can see inklings of it in "depth exegesis" --- albeit reified in very specific and Chrisitan ways.

  6. Points all well taken. Thanks for the feedback and encouragement. On word of warning about Divine Meaning - it starts to get very repetitive after the first three chapters or so. He ends up running just the exact same concepts through every patristic theologian he can get his hands on and there ends up being very little that is new from chapter to chapter. That is the negative aspect of books that collect essays on a common theme from throughout his career like that. I've been going through Theological and Natural Science on and off for the past year and it has the same tiresomeness.

  7. Thanks Adam!

    The same can be said of his book Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell; but it is so rich, the repitition is well worth it!

    I've yet to read Theological and Natural Science; do you know how it relates to his Theological Science? Which I have read.

  8. Nope. Theological Science will be one the next 5 books I read though. Theological and Natural Science is a collection of essays on the relationship between the two fields. Stuff on Einstein, Clerk Maxwell, and Polanyi for the most part.

  9. much clearer. Thank you. I doubt it was you who was confusing, but it's because theology is confusing for me.