And so we reach the final chapter of Joel Green's book, Seized by Truth. This chapter deals with the question of the authority of Scripture.
He introduces the chapter expressing legitimate questions about Wesley's Quadrilateral--whether in fact it is an accurate description of Wesley's hermeneutic. In this chapter Green means to articulate an appropriate expression of the authority of Scripture at the beginning of the third millennium.
First he unfolds three crises in the use of Scripture in the church. The first is a crisis of function. Although gobs of people affirm the authority of Scripture, that affirmation seems to have little impact on life. Among his observations, he notes that "Affirmations of the trustworthiness of the Bible (a) entail no guarantees regarding the faithful interpretation of Scripture, (b) extract no commitments from persons regarding fidelity to the witness of the Bible..." (147).
A third aspect of the drive to affirm statements (like inerrant) is a tendency to "reduce the witness of Scripture to its propositional content" (148), which is a serious impoverishment of the more dominant narrative and poetic dimensions to Scripture. In this section Green dialogs briefly with the hermeneuticians Gadamer, Hirsch, Ricoeur, and Vanhoozer. From these four Green distills that "the stable factor in the alchemy of interpretation is the text, but, rather than grasping the text 'as it really is,' we construe texts always in relationship to the person engaged in the process of reading" (153).
A second crisis is a crisis of relevance. The biblical guild seems to inevitably get enmeshed in description of the original meaning when what God's people want is a prescription (154). Here Green refers to Barth's phrase of the "strange new world of the Bible." But Barth of course did not mean the historical foreignness of the text. He meant its theological authority over us.
The final crisis is a crisis of authority, the tendency of our culture to resist any authority over ourselves as autonomous individuals. We are in control of our destiny and the idea that Scripture stands in authority over us is difficult for us.
As a remedy for these crises, Green suggests three further things.
1. The first is a recognition of the intrinsic authority of Scripture.
Green notes that the Bible rarely makes the kinds of claims to "truthfulness" and such that seem the centerpieces of our conceptions of biblical authority. The authority that Scripture intrinsically claims for itself is the authority to show us the "way to heaven," to use a phrase of Wesley's. Further, the normal operating mode of the Bible is generally to persuade rather than command us categorically.
2. The second is a recognition of the authority of the biblical narrative.
Here Green reiterates that far more of the biblical witness is in narrative rather than prose. Even the non-narrative portions of Scripture participate "in a more extensive, overarching narrative (or meta-narrative)" (165).
Of course Green is right here, and I have pointed this out on other occasions. What Green has not said is that this overarching narrative is not strictly a matter of the text but of us as individuals and communities of readers. The effect is to shift the determinative aspects of the Bible's authority to factors outside the Bible, something Green does not state.
Two final points are that biblical authority is invitation and grace. We are invited to become a part of the grand narrative of salvation as a gracious gift from God.
At the end of these five chapters, I find us much where we were when we started. The waters in which Green is swimming are the same as the ones I am. If I were to summarize Green's hermeneutic, I would describe it as.
1. The text of the Bible is the most stable factor in the equation of the world behind the text, the world in the text, and the world in front of the text.
2. This text, as a text, is characterized by polysemy, by a surplus of potential meaning.
3. We can practice all the existing tools of biblical studies, but to read the text of the Bible as Christian Scripture requires a conversion of our imaginations. We see the people of God in the Bible as the same people of God that we are. The Old Testament is our Scripture. The brothers and sisters of the NT are our brothers and sisters.
4. We read the Bible not so much for truth propositions but to hear God's gracious invitation to us. That is an invitation to see ourselves as a part of the same grand story of salvation of which the biblical individuals were also a part.
My critique of Green may not disagree too much with him, although perhaps by saying these things I work against the conversion of the imagination that he seeks.
1. I am more optimistic at our ability to approach the original meaning of biblical texts. I don't think that such a "converted mind" should ignore places where the original meaning differs from appropriate Christian ways of reading the text. These two should not be collapsed together.
2. The recognition that there is a metanarrative into which the biblical narratives and prose fits is to acknowledge that, ultimately, the text is not the locus of biblical authority after all. From a historical standpoint, we have a fragmented original meaning authority that an interpretive mind has to integrate before some sort of uniform authoritative voice can be heard. From a spiritual standpoint, it is the Spirit breathing through the text that speaks authoritatively. From the standpoint of the community of faith, it is the community of authoritative readers who steer the authority of the text. In each case, the locus of authority is some entity outside the text in dialog with the text rather than in the text itself.
In conclusion, this book is both 1) a great dialog with key hermeneutical trajectories at present and 2) it is indeed at the front of the wave. This book is more where hermeneutics is headed than most! It stops short, however, of where I believe things are headed, namely, to the rapprochement of Protestant and Catholic hermeneutics.