With this post I end the long hermeneutical autobiography I started two months ago. Here are the "chapters":
1. Learning to Read in Context
2. The Text of the New Testament
3. The NT Use of the OT
4. Sources behind the Bible
Now the conclusion:
Where am I today in my hermeneutical pilgrimage? I once heard Keith Drury say something to the effect of "The fundamental purpose of Scripture is to form a holy people." As usual, he intuitively senses a position that can be backed up with an immensity of scholarship
1. Scripture is for us today.
It is fascinating to reflect at how deeply ingrained the sense is that what we are to do with Scripture is to uncover the hidden, to "get back." Prior to modern times, there was the impulse to find the secret meaning. "Here's what God is really saying here." There was a penchant for the allegorical, the mystical, or the spiritual meaning.
The modern era didn't change the impulse, it only channeled it. So now the pre-modern person studies Greek and Hebrew to get a secret meaning, or Rob Bell knows something about ancient Jewish tradition that you've never heard of. Or we do a word study to get some secret truth. Often these impulses are no more modern than before historical criticism. They are just new expressions of the medieval drive to find secret meanings.
For those who truly understood history, the impulse became to "get back" to the original meaning. The pre-modern meanings above became anathema. Now we are on a quest for the historical Jesus, not the Jesus of Nicaea, not even the Jesus of the gospels. The Bible became a dissected frog.
We are now in a better position to reflect on our prior selves. If the Bible is either communication to us or action on us from God, then Scripture is Scripture when it has some effect on us. That simple observation puts the focus of Scripture's function not on the past but on the present. Scripture is Scripture when it has an effect on us today. That means that, as Scripture, whatever has happened in the past is only as effective as what happens in the present.
Let's say there was a perfect play back on your own 20 yard line in football. Maybe there was a perfect pass or a perfect sneak. Maybe your team rushed up the field to the opposing team's 10 yard line with plays that will be put in textbooks and played over and over again on TV. But if you never get into the end zone, there won't be any score. Scripture as Scripture for us is only effective to the extent it communicates or has the proper effect on us.
In that light, how bizarre is the obsession and myopia involved in "getting back." So we say the Bible is inspired in the "original manuscripts" that we do not have. But can I be inspired when I read it? For me as a reader, it doesn't matter how inspired it was 2000 years ago if I don't hear or experience it rightly today. Why are we so inculturated to ask about matters of its original moment?
This lays bare how anemic past debates about historicity and authorship have been. They are drives not to hear God today or experience God through the Bible today but to put an artifact from the past on a pedestal. What becomes important is not so much what is in it but the high idea of it in itself. Indeed, we are willing to ignore its plain meaning over and over again to preserve the lighting in the museum show room. We want to bow before an icon of God's past action and marvel at its glory.
But the Bible is not to be worshiped. It is to be experienced. God is to be worshiped through the Bible. God is to heard through the Bible. God is to be experienced through the Bible. All those things happen now, not in the original manuscripts.
That brings us to bolster our sense of the role the Holy Spirit and the Church inevitably must play in our use of the Bible. Perhaps God did implant hidden meanings in the past in the Bible. But I think we would be far more on point if we recognized that God can inspire us in the moment of reading to hear and experience him. Similarly, most Christians are unaware of how much Christian tradition impacts the way they read the Bible and, presumably, this is also part of God steering Scripture to its desired effect on us. The Bible is a sacrament of divine encounter.
2. Scripture is formative.
There is a tendency to think about the Bible only in cognitive terms. I read the Bible to know things. This is also a shallow sense of Scripture. God wants to do things to us through Scripture. Human understanding is a flimsy thing. It changes so often without us even realizing it. For most of us the words of "truth" we say are a game we play to express our irrational feelings and justify our desired actions.
By contrast, it is the very nature of narrative to draw us into the story and this is a predominant genre in the Bible. So it is easy for God to expose our hidden motives as we get in the story and see ourselves. Even the instruction and prophecy of Scripture come in the stories of ancient Israel and the early church and God can find us in those stories as well if we don't rip the words out as self-standing timeless propositions of philosophical truth. I can identify with the emotions of the Psalms and find myself soothed.
The primary function of Scripture is thus to form us. First, it is to form us more than me, although forming me is part of forming us. We read Scripture in communities of faith. Second, our hearts are the primary target of formation because the heart is God's primary concern. God is primarily concerned with making us people who love him and love others through Scripture.
As God forms our attitudes he also is forming our actions, the way we live together in this world. How shallow is the "answer book" sense of the Bible in this light, whose focus is on certainty in understanding. But my understanding is only as important as it joins with a right heart and right actions. I believe in truth, but for most of us, our understandings are only epiphenomena, a front for our emotions and wills. The most important truths have always been existential.
3. Scripture is historical.
For all my attempt to get into proper focus what is really going on and should be going on in our reading of Scripture, the Bible does in fact come from the past. To set the proper focus on what Scripture does today does not negate the fact that God has spoken in the past, and the Bible is the primary place for us to see what God hath wrought upon the earth.
The Bible in its original meaning is history. Most profoundly, its books are part of the history of God walking with humanity. The pre-modern constructs history out of the biblical text. The modern sees the texts as part of history. The post-modern recognizes that the texts were part of history and yet affirms the importance of us getting inside the stories within the texts.
So there is much to learn about God from the way he spoke to ancient audiences through each of these individual texts. There is much to learn about us from the way God formed the people of God in the past. I can be formed as I observe the past formation of others, and I am the people of God just as they were.
So God inspired, spoke, and formed the people of God in the past through the individual books of the Bible and he inspires, speaks, and forms us as the people of God in the present through the Bible. God does not err in what he speaks or in how he forms. It thus goes without saying that the Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms and infallible in what it does, for it is God that affirms and acts through it.
But we should not get it out of focus. Scripture is not an end in itself. It is a means, an instrument through which God speaks and acts on us. We submit to God and Christ, and the Bible is the messenger. We must resist bibliolatry, trying to encapsulate God in a tangible object. God is not contained by the Bible, nor can the depth of his understanding be captured in human language.