Friday, August 06, 2010

Bible versus Scripture: What does it mean?

Extraordinarily busy this week and realizing I am not young any more.

I've been teaching "The Bible as Christian Scripture" this week (and will again next week) as the core Bible course in our seminary's MDIV program. You can see a picture of the class.
One of the questions we've been tossing around all week is what the difference is between simply reading the Bible and reading the Bible as Scripture, Christian Scripture no less.
I think for the earlier evangelicals, the answer was fairly straightforward. Perhaps most important, one difference is in the authority you assign to the Bible. When you read the Bible as Scripture, it has authority over you in a way it does not when you are just reading it like you would read Shakespeare. This distinction still works, although speech-act theory and the postmodern critique have sharpened this dimension.
For example, the nature of biblical literature is such that only a small minority of it is in the mode of the imperative. Narrative is the single largest genre. Even the New Testament letters are far more in the form of statements than commands. Rhetoric of the Scripture's authority thus only relates neatly to a small portion of Scripture.
Further, evangelicals fully recognize the distinction between "that time" and "our time," meaning that we do not assume even that the imperatives of Scripture will always apply directly to us today. Older evangelicals usually spoke of principles behind the original imperatives that we then apply in our contexts. In short, authority does not seem the primary category of reading the Bible as Christian Scripture, at least at first glance.
Arguably somewhat of a diversion in twentieth century fundamentalism was to see a particularly narrow understanding of "truthfulness" as the key category of reading the Bible as Christian Scripture--inerrancy debates and such. If narratives dominate the biblical material, then to read it as Scripture meant to take the narratives as minutely historical. The problems here are the vast anachronism of the criteria and the just bad scholarship that often ensued. I am immensely thankful to Asbury Seminary for teaching me the skills of inductive Bible study that create a discipline of listening to the text rather than foisting pre-conceived ideological boundaries on it--a discipline I am now trying to pass on at Wesley Seminary @IWU. Nowhere is the artificiality of much fundamentalist and some evangelical eisegesis more apparent than when applying the skills of inductive Bible study to the biblical text!
At the same time, the postmodern critique has drawn our attention to the fact that the "God-breathed" instruction of Scripture may not always be the "literal sense" of the Bible (I use Paul's use of the ox-muzzling passage in Deuteronomy as an example). We are pushed to the really pressing question, the one twentieth century evangelicalism largely could not see. What meaning of the biblical text is the Scriptural one, the one that is truthful and I must believe, the one that gives me the imperative I must follow, the promise I must anticipate?
Evangelicalism simply adopted the historical method of those who do not read the Bible as Scripture and assumed this was the meaning. Scripture itself does not model this approach when the NT considers the OT to be Scripture. Writers like Richard Longenecker and Fee/Stuart consider the interpretive methods of the NT writers part of the cultural milieu of their day that we cannot adopt. I think this is a major blind spot of twentieth century evangelicalism, one that holiness and Pentecostal traditions have ironically intuited correctly.
The criterion of truthfulness is thus valid, but not primarily in the way twentieth century evangelicalism assumed. And now we also recognize that there are other functions to Scripture other than just to communicate propositions. When we read the Bible as Christian Scripture, for example, the narratives become our identity-forming stories. Truth-communicating speech-acts are not the dominant speech-acts of the text.
I didn't intend to go this long. Here are thus three very important ways in which the text of the Bible becomes Christian Scripture, in my opinion:
1. It becomes our text, not just the text of ancient peoples and audiences. I become part of the same people of God that they were and so their stories become the stories of my progenitors. Their struggles become the struggles of my people. Their issues, my family's issues.
2. I prioritize and organize the biblical texts in a certain way that is not intrinsic to them. Thus we see the limits of inductive Bible study. Inductive Bible study will not tell me that the virgin birth is an essential doctrine. It gets virtually no attention in the biblical texts themselves. No, this is a Christian priority when reading the text and one that does not come from the Bible alone. It is a Christian emphasis and organization of the text's materials that comes from the Spirit in the church catholic throughout the ages. It does not come from the text alone.
The same is of course true of the New Testament as a lens through which I read the Old. And of course many a denominational reading comes into play here as different groups sift through and prioritize the biblical texts. It has to be done. The texts themselves do not do it clearly on their own terms. Luther's "Scripture interprets itself" was vastly unreflective of the organizing principles he brought to the text from inherited Christian traditions, and the fragmentation of Protestantism demonstrates the myriad possible ways the text can be used to interpret the text.
3. Words can take on new meanings. The postmodern critique has shown how this happens and the New Testament use of the Old legitimizes it. Inductive Bible study of Isaiah will not lead me to see Isaiah 7:14 in reference to the virgin birth. But this is a valid Christian reading of the verse that gives it a new meaning.
These are just a few of my thoughts on the difference between simply reading the biblical text and reading it as Christian Scripture.


John C.Gardner said...

Greetings. Can you please recommend some books related to this post that you are reading or having the class read?
Thank you.
John C. Gardner

Ken Schenck said...

The 9 theses of the Scripture Project, found in the first chapter of Hays and Davis' The Art of Reading Scripture is a good place to start. We also read Joel Green's book Seized by Truth, although I find him better at expressing general sentiments than in showing us what his ideas look like when it gets down to the nitty gritty.

My book Making Sense of God's Word provided concrete inductive Bible study method and my overall hermeneutical reflections in condensed form.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart's Reading the Bible for All Its Worth served as a good modernist evangelical presentation of hermeneutics and genre. At many points I critiqued it as locked in a cultural period that is passing.

I. Howard Marshall's Beyond the Bible is still modernist evangelical, but he is British and thus without intending to do so exposes some of the more cultural features of American evangelicalism. He sees that the Bible includes development of doctrine and that it sets trajectories beyond Scripture.

Finally, we used James Efird's now dated How to Interpret the Bible to know what mainline modernist scholarship is saying about critical issues in the Bible.

Anonymous said...


I just stumbled onto your blog. This post is fantastic. Thanks for sharing your views. The way Christians choose to view the Bible is the largest root of many of our cultural battles today.


Marc said...

Although it isn't often put like that, most Evangelicals I've read, heard or met place a premium on your view of the Bible so that to doubt it is to doubt God (so Grudem).

However, if we are honest, the Bible does not equate itself with being "God's Word" nor could it do so not having been compiled at the time of writing. Jesus never mentions the "important books to come" and Paul, with one exception, writes his letters to specific communities never hinting at worldwide publication.

When we choose to trust the Canon we are choosing to trust early church fathers and this needs highlighting. Trusting Canon is trusting men, not God and one can doubt Scripture and still be 100% faithful to the one whom Scripture testifies. Indeed, sadly, the opposite is true.