Saturday, July 28, 2012

5. Postlude: The Effect of Scripture

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.


Dick Norton said...


I have always wanted to ask this of a post-modernist, and now is my opportunity. Is there any such thing as objective truth (truth as God sees it) in the Bible? For instance, when God said to Abraham, "Those who bless you I will bless, and him that curses you, I will curse," he was talking not only of Abraham, personally, but of the nation that would come from his loins. That promise seems to have held true for the Hebrew nation throughout the O.T., but does it apply to our day? If America, for example, proves friendly to the nation of Israel, or, for that matter, to individual Jews, do we bring the blessing of God upon ourselves? Or does it just apply to individual believers who happen to be inspired by that passage?

Or when God says to Ezekiel, "the soul that sins will die," does that apply to everybody, or just to people who happen to read the passage and get convicted by it? Is there an objective standard of truth in scripture by which people will be judged at Christ's judgment seat (the Bible says there is such a place), whether they read it and were convicted by it or not? (or, in your terminology, whether God affirms it to them or not).

Ken Schenck said...

Yes ;-)

But God did not always bless Israel, even when it was serving him (Josiah dies in a losing battle). Modern Israel is not the Israel of promise because it does not believe (Romans 11). The soul that did the sinning often did not die in this world for its sin (Mannaseh), which is what Ezekiel meant.

God will judge us for the things we have done in the flesh (2 Cor. 5) and for our faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 10). The standard is to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Isn't what the evangelical Church wants to promote is "spirituality" within community, while the liberals, Biblical scholars, Catholics and social scientists stand by and watch the experiment?! Isn't the point of the "reader response" existential experience of postmodernism, which has infilterated the evangelical Church to do what Islam also wants to do by force? Convert the world, but so does the Catholic Church.....

But, using the text as a "proof text" upon all of life is also misguided, as when one believes, they assume/presume upon all of life, which is a little presumptuous, wouldn't you say? Why can't people admit what Scripture really is, an ancient text that has been interpreted through a "tradtion"?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Doesn't the evangelical Church....

John Mark said...

Ken, I have a question, but first I need to apologize to you, and (deep breath) Angie. Your recent post on math concluded with a sentence that struck me as funny and I gave in to an a rather unsanctified I am sorry.

Now, I know you have written several brief books on 'how to understand the Bible.' I own one of them, but was wondering how much overlap there is in the books. Have you ever considered a longer, say 250-300 page work on interpretation written, if not to a popular audience (though that would be great) for pastors? Perhaps there is material enough from your short works to compile and expand on.
I don't know what it takes to become widely known as an author, but the work you do with hermeneutics, while not necessarily orginal (it may be, I just don't know enough about the subject to be sure one way or the other) is worthy of a wider audience.
I'm sure you would have your critics, all scholars do, but I believe that many might find such a work helpful, especially if you included some material such as you have in this series, such as the history of the developments in interpretation.
My thoughts, anyway for what they are worth.....

Ken Schenck said...

Did I never response JM? I didn't take any comment badly under math. The atheism and politics comment there was for Angie ;-)

I am in dialog with a publisher to write a textbook for Bible study method. Dick, it would be mainstream and have much less of me in it, one where it has to be for everyone.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

John Mark, I didn't even notice anything to take offense over, so there is not need for "deep breathes" unless there is something you feel I did, that was wrong..... but that is okay as I'm very unsophisticated....

Ken, Do some brains tend to interpret life more in scientific ways than others who use metaphor? Are such tendencies innately one's "disposition" or one's genes? How does a child's handicap(s) due to childhood traumas enter into their ability to think in metaphorical ways? (since I assume that "God" is a projection of a "Father image"? ) Are mentors always mistrusted when children have such "problems" to overcome?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Children think in literal ways, they cannot disassociate themselves from how they understand or "see" things. For them, every difference is an attack upon them personally. This describes childlike "faith"....there doesn't need to be analysis or assessment, only "trust" in the "Biggest" and "Most Powerful" (which is Daddy when you are young, and Government if you are old!), a "grown up" is one that can decide for themselves and seek to "make it happen". Hermeneutics then, is about what and how one chooses to let their life "speak"!

John C. Gardner said...

The idea of Scripture as you expound it Ken is very challenging. For example black American Christians during the Civil Rights movement were rooted in praxis and the church. Whites who were their allies unfortunately did not find many allies in the southern church. We all need to be part of a community and to experience Christ with our hearts, souls, minds and all our strength. Scripture is revelation but it is revelation which must go to the essence of our existential selves. We need to be guided by the Holy Spirit, experience real transformation and spread Scriptural holiness across the land. All of us are created with a defaced image of God(due to the Fall) but God himself died for us and rose from the dead. All of us must love others as Christ loves us.

Angie Van De Merwe said...'s_stages_of_ego_development

Ego development doesn't happen within the confines of Church, unless there are those in Church that understand that man was meant to develop to autonomy. That is man's innate nature, not to be tied to what someone else thinks or says, even scripture. This is where the "progressive" academic understands human nature a lot better than scripture and most Christians.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

There IS a problem in the Church though that supposes that creating the "right environment" will help further the development...such assumptions presume that all human beings experience their reality in the same way. They do not. And who is to say what is "created" to further some "cause" (religious, scientific, or moral) will not put someone over the edge, when it seems just an insignificant experiment?

Martin LaBar said...

Again, thanks for this series, and especially this post.

John Mark said...

Ken, someone asked me yesterday: have we come to a place where as in Luther's day we think the Bible can only be read by experts, and laymen can't really be trusted to read scripture--not without some help from priest or preacher? The obvious answer is no,of course, but I hope your textbook will deal with the way that redaction, form, historical, textual and any other types of criticism change how the common man approaches reading scripture.
Of course the man in the pew isn't generally even aware of words such as biblicism, or of demythologizing the Bible. Younger people do seem to be aware of what they see as a misguided insistence to take Leviticus as determinative today. This is odd to me, for in all my years no one ever taught this to me.
I am wrestling with how to answer the question, as you can see, and struggling with lots of issues; Genesis as 'myth'--how to discover the central theme of the OT, and as I am largely an autodidact with ADD it is slow going for me. I look forward to your textbook which I will most likely purchase even if expensive.