Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reading Paul's letters as Scripture 2

This is my continued attempt to express what it might mean to read New Testament letters as Christian Scripture.
If what you read for the previous discussion has any validity, the difference between reading New Testament letters as Scripture and reading them for what they meant originally might involve a number of differences.  For example, there may be some content in them that we find more central than others.  We may emphasize and prioritize certain parts of the letters over other texts on similar themes in the books of the Bible.  Martin Luther framed this question as some texts being “clearer” than others, but history teaches us that one person or group’s “clear” text is another person or group’s “unclear” one.  The biblical texts themselves come to us without an introduction telling us which passages are more central than the others.  We inevitably have to provide this bit of glue as we look at these texts that were originally written at different times and places to different audiences.

Not only common Christian tradition but even more so the specific Christian traditions to which we belong strongly influence what we find as clear or unclear in the Bible.  It is important to recognize that these traditional influences are at work in our understanding, in our “world in front of the text,” even if we are a part of a supposedly “non-denominational” church.  Most non-denominational churches in America at any point in history will tend to look much alike.  They tend to be Baptist in structure and flavor, usually with a strong “restorationist” sense that they are modeling themselves after the early church.  Many also add a charismatic element to their identity.

But just because you are not aware of the historical influences on your understanding does not mean there are no traditional influences on you.  All of the elements I mentioned in the last two sentences come from distinctive streams within the history of American Christianity.  In terms of ideas and practices, therefore, American non-denominational churches partake of Christian tradition just like a Methodist or a Lutheran.

Some passages appear unclear to us because we immediately sense the historical distance between us and the biblical texts.  For example, although we do find Christians around the world and even in North America who strictly try to follow New Testament comments on hair coverings or jewelry, most Christians sense the historical and cultural distance between us and texts like 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 or 1 Peter 3:3.  At the same time, we know that our particular cultures and subcultures have a massive effect on what seems clear or unclear.  Is it clear that Christians should not go to war?  It is to Quakers.  Is it clear that infant baptism is wrong?  It is to Baptists.  Is it clear that women can be ministers?  It is to Wesleyans.  Is it clear that a Christian can be in a monogamous homosexual relationship?  It is to the Metropolitan Community Church.  When you get to analyzing the golf swing, what looks so effortless becomes much more complicated.

A second feature of reading texts like the New Testament letters as Christian Scripture, rather than as ancient texts, is that we sometimes shift their meaning subtly.  This can be a reinterpretation of words or phrases.  It can be a broadening of scope beyond the original scope the words had.  Again, Fee and Stuart would reject the validity of changing the meaning of the words and try to lay down clear rules for broadening the scope of the words.  You may want to argue for their position over what Dr. Schenck is presenting.

But we might think of some of the passages over which the Christians of the first five centuries argued.  For example, when Colossians 1:15 says that Christ is the “firstborn of all creation,” was it implying that, even though Christ is pre-eminent over all creation, he was part “of” the creation?  Common Christianity rejects this position.  When Christians read Colossians as Scripture, they do not appropriate this verse so that Christ is a part of the creation, the first thing God created.  Since AD325, the Christian understanding is that Christ is “begotten, not made; of one substance of the Father.”

But what did Colossians 1:15 originally mean?  From one perspective, it does not really matter, because God has clarified throughout the centuries what Christians are to believe on this subject.  From a traditionally evangelical or Protestant perspective, however, it is quite important.  From Fee and Stuart’s perspective, a text cannot come to mean something different from what it meant originally.

For this reason, the New International Version (NIV), for so long the evangelical translation of the Bible, made it a point to translate the biblical text so as to remove any possibility of interpreting them in an unchristian way.  For example, it translates Colossians 1:15 to say that Christ is the firstborn “over” all creation.  The original meaning must turn out to be the same as the Christian meaning.  At numerous places, it adds words or refashions the text so that this issue disappears.  Here are just a few examples:

  • The NIV renders the Greek phrase “being in the form of God” as “being in very nature God” (Phil. 2:6) in conformity with Christian orthodoxy.
  • The NIV adds the word “now” to 1 Peter 4:6 so the verse cannot be read to say that the dead ever had any chance of changing their eternal destiny.
  • The NIV adds the word “just” to Jeremiah 7:22 so that it does not support the views of some scholars who argue that the sacrificial laws do not trace back historically to Moses.
  • It translates the word “entirely” as “surely” in 1 Corinthians 9:10 so that Paul does not sound like he is dismissing the original meaning of Deuteronomy 25:4.

Some of these interpretations may of course be correct.  The point is just that the NIV translators were strongly driven to make the original meaning of a biblical text conform with their evangelical theology.  What we are suggesting is that to some extent, we do not have to worry about passages with disputable original meanings because God’s Spirit has made the Christian way of reading such passages clear, regardless of what they meant originally.

We arguably rightly do some of this “reinterpretation” without even realizing it.  For example, when Paul says he was taken up into the “third sky” (2 Cor. 12:2), is it not likely that he literally pictured the universe as consisting of three layers of sky as you go straight up from a flat earth, like other Jewish writings of the day did?  Did he not likely picture the dead being located directly below, in the underworld beneath a flat earth (e.g., Phil. 2:10)?  Without even realizing it, we take these expressions as metaphorical expressions rather than as literal pictures of the world.

But is this way we think about such things another example of reinterpreting the text so that it speaks more directly to us today?  When we talk about the sun rising and setting, we know we are speaking “phenomenologically.”  We are speaking in terms of how things appear, not necessarily about how things literally are.  But is it not much more likely that the biblical authors understood such things literally?  So once again, we find that we have been able by the Spirit’s power to hit the golf ball to the green without necessarily knowing all the physics of our golf swing.

By the way, this discussion lays bare potentially grave problems with a “fundamentalist” approach to the Bible, such as the insistence that Genesis 1 must refer to “literal” 24 hour days.  If God revealed the truths of the Bible in the categories of its original audiences, then we would expect a text like Genesis 1 to sound much more like a dialog within the categories of the Ancient Near East than a dialog with the issues of modern science.  And indeed, if we really read Genesis 1 literally, we find that on Day 4 God places the sun, moon, and stars into the space between waters God created on Day 2.  In other words, after creation we would have expected to go straight up through the stars to find the primordial waters above them.

A third way in which reading texts like the New Testament letters as Scripture differs from reading them as historical texts is in our personal involvement with them.  It is conventional to speak of the “authority” of the biblical texts.  But like the golf swing that is more complicated than it looks, the potential ambiguity of what the biblical texts actually mean significantly complicates the question of authority.  Which meaning of the biblical text is authoritative?

Further complicating matters is the question of genre.  One of the reasons so much of Christian faith and ethics comes from our dialog with the New Testament letters, especially for Protestants, is the fact that these letters function—more than any other part of the Bible—on a propositional level.  The letters make statements about beliefs and give instructions about how to live.  They are thus in a form that lends itself most easily to formulating beliefs and practices.  It thus makes sense for us to speak of these New Testament letters as having authority over us as Christians, meaning that we are to do what they instruct and believe what they teach.

However, as we will explore in subsequent weeks, it is less clear what it means for a story or a psalm to be authoritative.  Psalms tend to be expressive of the feelings of the psalmist.  A story may describe something that happened without necessarily prescribing that we model ourselves after it.  We will discuss in what way these other genres and types of “speech acts” might be Scripture for us later in the course.

Yet we would argue that no one even applies all of the commands of the New Testament letters directly to today.  Fee and Stuart set down a rule, “Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first century hearers, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them” (75).  In other words, standard evangelical method looks for the points of continuity and discontinuity with the original context of the New Testament letters.

They recognize the potential this dynamic brings to “explain away” the authoritative commands of the New Testament.  But they rightly see no way around it.  Does God want us to set up a system today where widows under sixty are urged to remarry and where the church provides all the material needs of widows over sixty (1 Timothy 5)?  We could, but most of us recognize that the situation of widows today may be quite different than it was two thousand years ago and, just to complicate matters, 1 Corinthians 7:39-40 give a different preference for widows to remain single.

Again, the fundamentalist approach to the Bible tends to flatten out these sorts of texts, forcing them all to say the same thing without taking into consideration much of the original context in which they were written.  Here we should recognize that it is not only ethics that can relate to specific times and places but ideas as well.  Assuming that God wanted to be understood, we should assume that even the beliefs of the New Testament letters were “incarnated” in the categories of the first century, that they “took on the flesh” of those to whom God was speaking.

Again, determining the original meaning of a biblical text is arguably a science that an atheist could do.  You read the words in their literary and historical context to determine what they mostly likely meant.  But discerning God’s will for us today in those texts—which parts relate mostly to “that time” rather than “our time”—is a spiritual dance.  It requires Spiritual discernment that cannot really be taught in a book.  Except in those occasional moments when God sends a prophet, we surely would expect God’s will to be clearer the more Christians we have who share a common vision and a common understanding.  And thus we can see an expanded meaning to what Paul meant when he urged the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

I prefer to speak of the “sacramental” dimension of the Bible as Christian Scripture rather than in what prove to be ambiguous categories like authority or inerrancy.  A sacrament is a divinely appointed meeting place where something that seems ordinary becomes a channel of God’s grace.  What appear to be ordinary bread and wine become for you the body and blood of Jesus, shed for you.  What appears to be ordinary water becomes a catalyst for spiritual cleansing.  In the case of the Bible, what seem to be historically, contextually determined words become a channel for God’s voice to you.  The Bible does not speak in this way to atheists.  It is a dimension of the Bible as Christian Scripture.

Yet it is clear that the precise content of God’s speaking becomes somewhat vague and ambiguous as well in this sacramental view. We would again argue that this ambiguity is no different from determining which of the countless interpretations of the Bible in play are the correct ones! In practice, countless groups with the same high view of the Bible still manage to have contradictory beliefs and practices. At the root of this situation is the “polyvalence” of language, the fact that the very same words can mean different things to different people. We are thus forced to work together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to determine God’s will for us and to rely on common Christian readings of the Bible beyond the phantom “text alone.”


John C. Gardner said...

What books do you use for the course that you refer to in these two posts? I believe that the original meaning of Scripture sets an outward boundary for the meaning of Scripture. However, I also believe that the Holy Spirit illuminates are reading of Scripture and uses Christian tradition to assist us in understanding its meaning. Wasn't there a term called sensus plensor which meant that Scripture had a fuller meaning in addition to the original meaning?
Blessings in Christ

Anonymous said...

Brief Thoughts on..."What is Clear"

Taking consideration of the Holy Spirit into this concept, could we say that passages of Scripture might be laid bare for certain individuals or Church movements to inform them uniquely for their Kingdom purpose? Certain movements have informed or reminded the greater Church of needed Biblical truth.
I have several collections of Biblical commentators and have noted they are not universally strong with all the books of the Bible. So, in that sense, they are both clear and unclear. The tempation of a commentator is to speak with authority the 'unclear.'

Pastor Al said...

I confess the above comment.

With regard to commentators...they are using the same intrepretive process throughout their observations of Scripture.

FrGregACCA said...

"We are thus forced to work together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to determine God’s will for us and to rely on common Christian readings of the Bible beyond the phantom 'text alone.”

Indeed, and that includes working together with those who have come before, and especially, here in the West, working together with the Fathers of the East who still remain largely unknown here, even if this situation has improved in recent years (ironically for Wesleyans, Fr. John Wesley was himself was profoundly informed by many of the luminaries).

I do tend to resonate with a "sacramental" understanding of Scripture. This is closely related to an "ikonic" perspective which led the Second Council of Nicea, meeting in 787 CE to vindicate the veneration of ikons, that "ikons do with colors and paint what Scripture does with words and ink". It also harks back to the fact that Christ Himsel is the "sacrament" par excellance.