Friday, March 05, 2010

Integrating Scripture

This now an excerpt from part 3 of the paper. Portions of Part 1 and Part 2 can be found at these links.
Where we believe Vanhoozer’s program fails is, again, in his inability to let the new level of holistic Scriptural meaning involve significant changes or developments of meaning from the intended meanings of individual texts. He writes, “Does reading the Bible as Scripture change or develop its meaning? … On my view, to view the Bible as ‘Scripture’ best accords not with the illocutionary but rather with the perlocutionary aspect of communicative action.” In other words, the effect of these texts taken together as a whole involves new impact, but the fundamental meanings and purposes of the words do not particularly change. This is an important point for Vanhoozer, for he does not want the meaning of Scripture to depend on an interpretive community but to have a meaning of its own.

He is not even willing to lend such polyvalence to the Spirit. The Spirit bears witness to the meaning of Scripture. He does not innovate meaning. The Spirit is the one who “leads the community into the single correct interpretation: the literal sense.” “If there is a sensus plenior, then, it is on the level of God’s gathering together the various partial and progressive communicative acts and purposes of the human authors into one ‘great canonical Design’ Vanhoozer uses “literal” here in an interesting way. It is presumably the normal sense and purpose of Scripture as a whole to God.

As impressive as this construction is, it faces numerous serious and fatal challenges. For one, Vanhoozer’s sense of literal turns out to be rather figurative when it comes to any normal sense of the word. The literal sense of something, in normal usage, refers to the most straightforward sense in a particular context. To speak of Christ’s death as a sacrifice is thus a metaphor in terms of the normal sense of the word sacrifice in any of the original contexts of any of the biblical books. Vanhoozer might, on the other hand, consider us to have literal the wrong way around. The most literal sense of the word sacrifice is in relation to Christ’s death and, in that sense, the use of “sacrifice” in relation to an animal killed on a stone altar is the more metaphorical sense of the word.

This is not, of course, the way the meaning of the word sacrifice has been experienced by the mortals who offered them in ancient times. Such a meaning is not a part of any specific text of the Old Testament. Indeed, it is quite possible that only Hebrews in the New Testament has anything like what would become the fully Christian sense of sacrifice that would be the most “literal” sense in Vanhoozer’s schema—and the idea was still probably a live metaphor for its author. In Acts 21, for example, we find Paul offering a sacrifice at the Jerusalem temple in relation to a vow made by certain Jerusalem Christians. The event was apparently appropriate to the author of Acts, who interestingly was himself probably writing after the destruction of the temple.

Yet for early Christians to offer such a sacrifice seems odd and inappropriate from the standpoint of Hebrews. Vanhoozer would presumably consider Hebrews’ point of view to be the appropriate “literal” vantage point from which to integrate the rest of the biblical texts, including “the various partial and progressive communicative acts and purposes of the human authors” somewhere along the way to this understanding. But it is questionable that the author of Leviticus or Ezra would have agreed with Hebrews that the death of a single righteous individual might suffice to atone for all the sins of all time and that their own offerings did not truly take away sins. Indeed, it is not obvious from a historical-cultural perspective that the author of Acts would take this perspective.

This line of thinking points to two very important critiques of the way Vanhoozer formulates the relationship between the canonical meaning of Scripture as a whole and the historical meaning of individual texts. First, it is the nature of the situation that the integration of Scripture as a whole requires a vantage point from outside the individual texts themselves. In their original, contextual meanings, we do have some interaction between the New Testament and Old Testament that might suggest how to integrate them. Even at this level, Vanhoozer’s model of “interpretive virtue” is deconstructed by the actual way the New Testament uses the Old, regularly interpreting it in pneumatic ways that sometimes have little to do with its original meanings.

But we have little explicit interaction between New Testament texts, and the New Testament’s engagement with the Old Testament is not systematic but depends on the individual New Testament books themselves. In short the individual books of the Bible were originally individual books and so do not intrinsically provide us with a definitive fulcrum point from which to integrate the entirety. For example, there is nothing about the texts themselves that would keep us from considering Ezra the fulcrum point, with the New Testament books a horrible case study in deviation from orthodoxy. Indeed, this is something like how an orthodox Jew might integrate these texts together.

It is thus a Christian point of view outside the biblical text that would center the integrated perspective on sacrifice in Hebrews or the integrated perspective on the Old Testament Law in Romans. Vanhoozer might suggest that the integrated perspective comes from God who has an intended “literal” perspective for the whole. This is a perfectly appropriate position. It is just a perspective that does not derive from any of the individual texts in their original settings. It comes from a vantage point outside the texts that is not intrinsic to the texts themselves. It requires us to organize the texts in ways that their authors at times would have disagreed with. Imagine telling the author of Leviticus that none of the sacrifices in his book actually took away sins and that God’s real intent for the book was to point toward the death of a righteous Israelite who would live centuries later and do away with all sacrifices for good!

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