Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reading Paul's letters as Scripture 1

Feedback welcome on this background to an assignment.
Although we do it all the time, the way in which Christians dance between the biblical texts and our lives today is fascinating and complex.  For example, if you watch a pro golfer, you will see what looks to be an effortless motion and swing, with the ball gliding nicely to the green.  But if you ever take a golf lesson, you will no doubt get a confusing array of instructions: hold your elbow a certain way, hold the grip a certain way, swing through but primarily use only one of your arms to guide the club.  It seems impossible to think about every element in a good swing at the same time, but a practiced golfer does it all at once.

The proper use of the Bible as Christian Scripture is a little like a good golf swing.  To talk about what goes into it sounds a lot more complex than it is, even though we as Christians do it all the time.  Why is it, for example, that we tend to emphasize certain parts of Scripture and pay less attention to others?  How do we who are Protestants know that we should emphasize “a person is justified by faith and not by works of Law” (Rom. 3:28) over “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24).  Since Christians have not always prioritized Scripture in this way (e.g., prior to the Reformation), not a little Christian tradition must be a part of our subconscious, even though we may not stop to think about it in that way.  After all, the Bible itself does not tell us to emphasize the one and explain the other away.

A great deal of what we who are Protestants emphasize as our doctrine, as our system of Christian belief, maps to the letters of the New Testament.  Martin Luther took his doctrine of “justification by faith” from Romans, the idea that the only way to get right with God is to trust in what Christ did for us.  Before him, Augustine took the idea that we come into the world totally sinful from Romans as well, and he took cues from Paul on how to read the Adam and Eve story of Genesis.  John Calvin in the 1500s followed Augustine’s lead.  Even if you do not know these names, it is nevertheless very likely that you have some of their interpretations in your Christian bones if you are a Protestant.

Yet, as Fee and Stuart point out fairly well, the letters of the New Testament were originally “situational.”  That is, they were written by and large to address specific situations.  Even Romans, Paul’s most systematic letter, addressed a situation where Paul was introducing himself to the Romans while defending himself against misinformation people were spreading about him and hoping that the church might support him on a missionary initiative in Spain.  Romans was not, therefore, what one of Luther’s main heirs said—a “compendium of Christian theology” (Melanchthon).  Romans is full of rhetoric meant to convince.  It presupposes a conflict of ideas with people who disagree with Paul, such that Paul might have said certain things differently in the middle of a different conflict or if there was no conflict.

Here is where the golf swing comes in.  Melanchthon knew how to swing Christian theology out of Romans.  He knew how to read Romans and Paul’s letters as Christian Scripture.  He did so without even realizing that his readings of Romans were not exactly the same as what Paul meant originally—he saw more of a timeless and absolute systematic order to Romans than it may have originally had.  In fact, Melanchthon had a very naïve understanding of how meaning works.  He thought that Christian theology was simply a matter of analyzing the grammar of the Bible.  In reality, words only take on meanings in a context, to where the very same words can mean different things depending on the context in which they are said.

In my opinion, Christians have found legitimate Christian theology by hearing related but somewhat “loosened” meanings in the biblical texts throughout Christian history.  By “loosened” I mean that we have taken context specific teaching and made it more universal and timeless.  When the Spirit was behind it, who are we to say it was not legitimate, God speaking through the words of the Bible as a living word?  In my opinion, this phenomenon of the living word has been more likely the more Christians have commonly agreed on what they heard.

Just as an example, there are many points where the standard Protestant reading of Paul may differ in this way from Paul.  For example, did Paul really teach that we are totally depraved, that there is no good left in us whatsoever?  Certainly Paul believed we are thoroughly sinful as a result of Adam’s sin, but it is not clear that he ever absolutized human sinfulness.  Similarly, many experts on Paul today would suggest that faith in Christ was not as much an emphasis for him as Luther thought.  Many would suggest that the key phrase meant the faithfulness of Christ himself and that faith in God the Father was Paul’s main focus.  We could go on to critique Luther’s interpretation of the phrase “the righteousness of God” and the phrase “works of Law.”

But does the fact that Luther’s reading of Paul changed the meaning somewhat mean that God wasn’t in his Christian golf swing?  After all, Luther’s interpretations resonated with a vast number of Christians, so much so that even the Roman Catholic Church has come to acknowledge that faith is the central element in justification, in a right standing before God.  Fee and Stuart, representing the evangelical tradition well, disagree with the sort of “loosening” of the text’s meaning that we not only think God has used to speak to believers throughout Christian history—including in the Protestant Reformation—but that the New Testament authors demonstrate repeatedly in their interpretation of the Old Testament.

For Fee and Stuart, however, “a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers” (74).  Like so many evangelical scholars, they spend a good deal of energy trying to analyze the evangelical golf swing, trying to set down rules for how to swing.  And this is understandable.  If we allow the Spirit to swing meaning from Scripture freely, then it becomes hard to nail down exactly what it means.  So evangelical hermeneuticians have developed a highly sophisticated method of extracting meaning from the biblical text.

First we must read a particular book of the Bible in context.  Then we must look for points of continuity between our time and their time.  Fee and Stuart painstakingly look for how to justify when to see biblical teaching as locked up in ancient culture and when it extends to today.  They argue that the teaching of 1 Timothy on women is culture bound and does not transfer to today while New Testament teaching on homosexual practice continues to apply.

But in practice, Christians just swing the club and they swing together.  Do they swing well?  Does the ball make it to the green?  Fee, Stuart, and others like them set out these sorts of rules and methods to try to preserve the authority of Scripture while recognizing that its books were written for another time and place.  I wonder, however, if we can pin God’s use of the Bible as Christian Scripture quite so neatly.  “The wind blows where it wants.  You hear the sound of it but you do not know where it came from or where it is going” (John 3:8).

In the end, neither the original meaning nor the rigid evangelical interpretive method of the twentieth century has given us a unified sense of the Bible’s meaning down to specifics.  Indeed, what the Protestant focus on Scripture alone has given us is a fragmentation of Christian belief and practice into over twenty thousand different Christian denominations, what one theologian called the "Protestant Principle" of inevitable fragmentation (Paul Tillich).  It seems to me that a whole lot more of tradition and individual experience inevitably is a part of our Christian golf swing than many of us like to acknowledge to ourselves.

We would argue that these three elements should always be involved in reading the Bible as Christian Scripture.  First, a sense of the original meaning, the first moment of God’s speaking.  Having a sense of the original meaning of a biblical text does often show us our idiosyncrasies and places where our tradition has gone off course.  I would argue that the Protestant Reformation largely played out along these lines.  Luther pointed out how far Roman Catholic tradition had wandered from the original meanings of the Bible.

At the same time, the books of the Bible themselves are diverse and had distinct meanings.  The first five centuries of Christianity involved a process of integrating the books of the Bible into a common understanding.  Doctrines like the Trinity or the full divinity of Jesus were not clear to the Christians of the first few centuries.  They debated Scripture with each other until these common understandings emerged.  Indeed, they even had to discern which books constituted the New Testament itself, since the New Testament books themselves do not tell us which books should be in the New Testament!  We would seem to be on most certain ground when we read the Bible through these common Christian eyes, even moreso than when we read it in terms of its original meanings.

Finally, we must finally surrender to the Spirit.  Maybe there is a problem with us feeling like we need to be able to say when the Spirit is breathing through Scripture and when He is not.  After all, the Spirit himself knows.  We want to set boundaries.  We want to tell our denominations what they can and cannot believe, what they can and cannot do.  We want to nail things down.  We want control.  God is in control.  He controls the dance.  He directs the swing when it is on target.

Thankfully, when it comes to doctrine, what Christians believe, we have inherited the bulk of our faith from Christians reading the Bible throughout the centuries.  We have the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creeds, which distill the understandings about God and Christ that emerged as the Christians of the first five centuries read the Bible as Scripture.  Those interpretations emphasize certain biblical texts over others.  Those interpretations “loosen” some texts from their original scope and meaning to address new questions.  This is the dance between reading the books of the Bible as historical documents and reading them as Christian Scripture.

We Protestants also have a certain set of emphases when we read the Bible, things like the importance of individual faith and an openness to reformation in dialog with the Bible.  The smaller the subset of Christianity we are a part of, the more we can probably question our unique readings of the Bible.  Then again, who is to say that God does not call specific groups to be like different parts of the body of Christ, with their own unique callings and tasks?

This is the first of several discussions we will have throughout this course on what it means to read the Bible as Christian Scripture.  Our claim, which you are very welcome to dispute, is that reading the books of the Bible for what they meant originally is not exactly the same as reading them as Christian Scripture.  An atheist can be an excellent interpreter of the original meaning of a book of the Bible.  In fact, an atheist might prove to be more honest and objective about the evidence, since he or she may have nothing invested in how the meaning turns out. 

But we would argue that to read the Bible as Scripture requires a Christian perspective of the whole, a certain way of prioritizing, organizing, and perhaps even reinterpreting the meaning of various texts into a whole.  It is something like what John Calvin called “illumination,” although he would not have described or understood it in the terms we are using.  An atheist might understand a Christian reading of Scripture, but he or she would have no reason to adopt it.

For example, a non-Christian Jewish scholar might have an excellent knowledge of the Jewish Bible for what it originally meant.  But for such an individual, it would not be the Old Testament.  In that sense, even though the Jewish Bible and the Old Testament are exactly the same text, they have quite a different significance and, probably, a quite different meaning at points.  To read the books of the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture is to read them in the light of faith in Jesus as Christ and as God.  It is to read them in the light of the New Testament. 

So Christians do not worry about offering animal sacrifices as Leviticus instructs (of course modern Jews have spiritualized these as well).  Most Christians also do not see the food laws or circumcision or Sabbath observance on Saturday as ongoing timeless ways of life.  This is because we read the books of the Old Testament in a certain way that goes beyond what they actually say about themselves.  I would argue that this same dynamic also applies to the way we as Christians read the New Testament, although it is more difficult for us to see it.  In the second discussion this week, we will explore this question a little further.


FrGregACCA said...

Here is the problem: y'all have pretty much abandoned the proper context for fully and completely understanding Scripture as a whole as well as any portion of Scripture, and that context, of course, is the Apostolic Tradition as a whole. (Not to mention the fact that you have simply thrown away a portion of the Old Testament as received by the early Church.)

"Jesus founded a Community (Church), He did not write a book."

Ken Schenck said...

I'm having trouble mapping what you are saying to what was in my head when I wrote this piece. For example, this piece is about the mechanics of how Christians "use" Scripture, which does not in itself elevate a book over the community. It is just that the book is what is being discussed.

Secondly, I am not meaning to throw away the OT, especially as a witness to God's pilgrimage with His people. I am simply describing how the NT uses the OT and the contrast between how Christians "use" the OT in contrast to non-Christian Jews.

Lastly, I'm not entirely sure what you mean by the apostolic tradition as a whole or where I am to find it other than mediated through the New Testament texts. Even within the NT we see developments (e.g., from imminent parousia to far off parousia), so we certainly cannot count on the Christians even of the early second century to provide us with the historical key to understanding the apostles. In the developing consensus of Christians going forward I find a relatively stable witness on how to integrate Scripture as believers, but I would not call this apostolic tradition.

Have I misunderstood you at some point?

FrGregACCA said...

Sorry if coming across in attack mode, Ken. The raise some fair questions and comments regarding what I have written.

First, regarding the OT, I was referring to the Deutero-canonical books which, in spite of some quesions raised by Jerome and others, were indeed received as Scripture by the early Church as a whole. I was not suggesting that you, nor Protestantism in general, were rejecting the entire Old Testament.

However, I'm not sure your example concerning the Parousia is relevant to the discussion. It was, after all, the Church of the Second and subsequent centuries which discerned, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what would, and what would not, be included in the Bible. Therefore, the witness of the fathers is indispensable to understanding the Scipture as, to put it bluntly, God would have us understand them.

A specific example has to with the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Jesus says "This is my body", "This is my blood". Paul, and John 6, affirm that this is to be understood in a literal, if mystical, way. The early fathers agree as well, but, with the Reformation (reacting perhaps rightly to the RC explanation of this in terms of transubstantiation), we move from Luther to Calvin to Zwingli, the latter of which seems to represent today's mainstream Protestant position, a position that is demonstrably at odds with that of both Scripture and the witness of the early Fathers.

Robert Hagedorn said...

Saint Augustine came SO close to solving the Adam and Eve mystery. So very close. Please do a search: The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing so much of your class notes and media. It really heightens the impact of the BiblioBlog experience.