Tuesday, 25 September 2007

The Function of Scripture

If Jesus died and rose again in a forest, and nobody saw it, would it matter?

Even if he did it in the middle of a capital city before thousands of onlookers, how would they get beyond complete shock and begin to make sense of it?

One way would be to situate these events in a broader context. Instead of seeing these events as random occurrences in the midst of history, waiting for our cognitive registration, they could be interpreted as central elements in an unfolding plan. Jesus' work could be understood on a broader horizon encompassing the creation of the universe in the past and its ultimate renewal in the future.

Details could be added to this plan to fill out the picture. They could include the notion that human beings have a role to play in this unfolding drama. There could be the election of a special people, the institution of specific ordinances, the provision of particular media and mediators and so on. This comprehensive vision could encompass our own lives, so that we too are part of the drama.

When located at a specific point in this story, Jesus' achievements could take on a whole new dimension of meaning for those who choose to accept them. No longer are we just to believe in them, but we are to see that they compel us to a particular way of life, a particular sense of purpose and a particular vision for the construction of our lives.

This is indeed the traditional Christian 'metanarrative', expressed, for example, in Irenaeus' 'rule-of-faith'. Somewhere in this story the fact of 'Scripture' breaks in. The prophets had always spoken of the destiny of this chosen people as being guided in some sense by a "word of God". This word is creative, accomplishing what God purposes (Isaiah 55:11). It “overtakes” the generations it once addressed to speak an abiding word to later generations (Zech 1:6), “creating of itself new scope and range of meaning” (Seitz, 1998: 12). The function of this Word is not just to report what God has done, but to teach and guide. It has a pedagogical dimension which has continued into its inscripturated form. The text itself, as part of God's ways with his people, draws us in , challenges us to be who we should be, upturns our self-serving views of how the world should be. As M. Sternberg points out in relation to the ideological function of the biblical narrator:

he sets out not to destroy an enemy but to redeem and establish control over his own people and, what is more, to manipulate them into the reverential obedience that his lord exacts as his due (1987: 154).

As such, the Bible itself, as God's word become text, is part of his redemptive ways in the world. It's meaning is not a static deposit to be preserved in an archive; it is a gospel to be proclaimed and a text to be used. As Childs says concerning traditional Christian understandings of their Scripture:

The ability of the scriptures continually to evoke new and fresh understandings was commensurate with the promised Spirit of the resurrected Chirst to illuminate and guide the Church through the Word" (2005: 314).

Text and subject matter, event and interpretation cannot be separated. And given the urgency of the task of mission and discipleship it is incumbant upon us to attend to their subtle and complex interrelation.


John C. Poirier said...


Thanks again for your responses. I’d like to comment on some of your new remarks.

As for what you say regarding our plugging ourselves into the salvation narrative: there is certainly a sense in which that is true. As for whether that means that “Jesus’ achievements could take on a whole new dimension of meaning for those who choose to accept them”: that depends on what you mean. It is true that those who accept them will be more open to accepting the deeper meaning of the events, but that does not mean that the meaning of those events is a changing commodity. It helps, therefore, to be very careful in how we use the word “meaning”, as a lot of confusion has resulted from the fact that the word can be used to denote authorial intention, a formal aspect, and a readerly moment. In fact, this slippage within the
acceptable meanings of “meaning” has allowed postmodernists to perform a terminological sleight of hand in which they purport to prove that meaning is not intentionalist because it is, as a matter of observation, something that is constructed during the reading event. So I would insist that our placing ourselves into the salvation narrative does not at all change the meaning, and that, as such, it is not a necessary move as far as the Bible’s hermeneutical demands are concerned.

I also have problems with any form of a theology of the Word. Isaiah and Zechariah were not good Barthians (or Childsians, etc.). I don’t see how the verse from Isaiah supports what you say: it simply says that God’s word accomplishes what God sends it to accomplish. In fact, it doesn’t even refer to a word of communication at all--it refers to the word in the sense of God’s active commandment--*viz.* it makes the point that what God ordains will happen. And I certainly cannot understand how Seitz can get out of Zech 1:6 the idea of God’s word “creating of itself new scope and range of meaning”. There’s nothing even remotely like that in Zech 1:6. I suspect that what’s at the root of these misreadings is the Barthian paradigm. I’m not saying that you personally are being directly influenced by Barth’s gross disfiguration of biblical theology--I only think that that influence is somewhere in the mix (probably affecting Childs and Seitz in a fairly direct way). At the least, I would suggest that you take a good, hard look at the whole theology-of-the-Word paradigm, and decide for yourself whether it really does justice to Scripture.

When you write that the Bible is “part of his redemptive ways in the world”, this reminds me of the old formula “revelation and redemption” that was very widespread in (esp. British) evangelical writings in the first half of the twentieth century. (P. T. Forsyth is a prime example.) I have always had problems with this formula, and the idea behind it, as it seems to presuppose that Christianity is a revelational religion. The idea behind that formula would eventuate in Barth’s actually attempting to soteriologize revelation itself. I realize that you’re not going as far as he is, yet the fact that you approach this formula is something that I find interesting. (It wasn’t just Barth and the early British evangelicals: Bultmann also said something about revelation being part of God’s redemptive plan.) Certainly there is a sense in which humanity needs to know about God’s plan in order to take advantage of it, and in that sense one may speak of God providing that knowledge for our benefit, but I become wary whenever I hear the idea of the Bible being a part of God’s redemptive plan.

You write that the Bible’s “meaning is not a static deposit to be preserved in an archive; it is a gospel to be proclaimed and a text to be used”, but I wonder if you really mean to imply that something static is something necessarily archival (at the most), incapable of being “gospel to be proclaimed and a text to be used”. It would appear that you are making hay of the negative valence nowadays given to the term “static”, but I hope you will agree that many things need to be static for the Christian gospel to be true. In short, I don’t see how the fact that the Bible’s meaning incorporates a gospel to be proclaimed and that it is a text to be used in any way inveighs against the idea that its meaning is static. (E.g., you seem to think that Childs’s theology should be proclaimed [in a sense], and that his texts should be used, but does that suggest to you that the meaning of what Childs wrote can change according to his readers’ situations?)

As for the quotation from Childs: the idea that is floated here is one that scares me. I don’t see anything in Scripture to suggest that the Spirit is to “illuminate and guide the Church through the Word”. The only thing that comes close, perhaps, is Jesus’ promise, in John 14:26, that the Spirit would bring to the disciples’ remembrance all that he said. But the similarity is only on the surface, as that promise was clearly local: Jesus promised his disciples (specifically those who knew him while he was “yet present” with them [v. 25]) that the Comforter will bring to their remembrance everything that he taught them. This ties in with the theme of the disciples being spiritual dunderheads until some time after the resurrection, and that when they finally caught fire for Jesus through the giving of the Spirit, they suddenly understood everything that he had taught them. This is a far cry from the idea that the Sprit would be given to the Church to illuminate and interpret the Bible. (I wonder if the true roots of that idea lie in Luther’s belief in the perspicuity of Scripture.)

Stephen (aka Q) said...

The Bible itself, as God's word become text …. It's meaning is not a static deposit to be preserved in an archive; it is a gospel to be proclaimed and a text to be used.

Unlike John, I offer my "Amen" in response to that remark. I recently posted on an essay by Paul Ricoeur, in which he argued that it is the spoken word, not the written word, that is revelatory. The post is here.

I think the idea of a static text is, in fact, problematic. The tensions in scripture actually counteract that danger to some extent by creating a kind of movement, an oscillation between opposing positions.

In any event, every application of scripture to contemporary circumstances is going to suggest a somewhat different meaning than the meaning of the original authors. Thus the movement Ricoeur outlines — from oral tradition to written text, then back to oral proclamation — carries us away from a static text toward (ideally) an authentic word of God to the people of God.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi John, sorry for the late response. Once I’m back in Germany I’ll be able to be more regular.

First, to clarify: I’ve never said that the meaning of the text is changed per se. Although Childs uses this phrase, I think he means that the original meaning is expanded and deepened, usually in relation to a broader theological conception. This is a necessary part of the canonical function of the text, ie. that it should speak to later generations of God‘s ways in the world. Events meant what they meant for the original participants, but these events contain a significance which ramifies into the future. This significance is extracted, so to speak, by various literary devices, chief among them being typology (I hope to illustrate this in relation to Isaiah in due course). Typology happens when texts are placed side by side in juxtaposition, so that connections can be made and the deeper “substance” of what is going on can be perceived.

I still have a problem with your suggestions, however. You still seem to be implying that ‘meaning’ is somehow intrinsic to events, regardless of human perception. I don’t get how this works. Could you give me an example of a pure, uninterpreted meaning? I cannot conceive of something having meaning apart from human perception. What does the resurrection ‘mean’ apart from the apostolic interpretation of that event? That linguistic theories are significant to the canonical approach, was pointed out by Childs in his first defence of his Introductin in his JSOT article of 1980. He says in response to his reviewers:

“… I think much misunderstanding can be avoided if the Introduction is placed within the context of the modern discussion of the nature of language. … My dissatisfaction with the current use of the historical critical method [arises] … from the confusion caused when language is employed which is inappropriate to the particular mode of speech being examined” (52).

I could go into the complexity of the form of the witness and its relation to external reality, but based on what you say, it is irrelevant how the Bible relates to reality, as Christianity isn’t about Scripture anyway, but about raw facts. I am still waiting for a description of 1) how this is possible in the first place and 2) why such a move is theological desirable. If you want to talk of the theological implications of the kerugma, then you must explain what this kerugma is as well as how this means we can dispense with the text. What does a Christian theology look like which dispenses with the need for the Bible, other then as a possible repository for facts? I would also like to know whether you would expect a more accurate, third-party description of events, perhaps by a pagan eye-witness, as more ’authoritative’ then the Gospels that we have.

This is a separate issue to the one about meaning being ‘intentionalist’, as intention automatically involves one, particular, subjective view of an event. I hope to address the inadequacy the concept for authorial intent for biblical theology (though the idea is deeply challenged in secular circles too, cf. U. Ecco) in the context of a discussion of the Book of the Twelve. Speech act theory has much to say about the relation of propositions to discourse (cf. Vanhoozer).

You say that placing ourselves into the Biblical narrative is not necessary. As far as I can see, this act literally constitutes the meaning of the events. Could you explain how they have meaning otherwise?

You consistently reject the fact that Christianity is a revelational religion, but don’t explain why or how. Could you do so?

You say “I hope you will agree that many things need to be static for the Christian gospel to be true“. There is continuity and development. The secret is understanding the complex relation between the two, not making generalizations about the nature of biblical truth in general.

As for your parallel between Childs’ theology and the Bible, they are two different things. Childs’ theology is derivative of the Bible, it is second order discourse. The Bible has built into its very structure the ability to resonate with different sounds depending on context. This is the secret to its ability to function as a guide, and not only source of facts, for the church. Childs’ theology is one response to that. The changing meanings of the text has not so much to do with changing readers (hence Childs is not really reader-response) as with the intertextual nature of the text itself and the openness of biblical imagery (Babylon, for example). Childs’ texts are just not designed like that.

Ok, I have to rush off for my cream tea (English speciality which you can’t get in Germany, mmmmmm …).

A very quick word to Stephen,

Thanks for the link. I’ll read it as soon as poss. Things are stressful at the mo. #

As for your comments on the oscillation between opposing positions: interesting and Brueggmannian. More on that will hopefully arise in due course. Childs has a different understanding of how the biblical text functions. I hope to point that out when I compare the two … at some point!

Phil Sumpter said...

Sorry John, I forgot to mention that I don't know what you mean by a theology-of-the-Word. As for the Bible verses, I'll have a closer look at some point and will possibly post on them. But before I comment on them, could you tell what the function of Scripture actually is? If it has no significance other than to document some events, the rest being written off as 'annalistic' and thus irrelevant, I'm not sure what it would matter to you what the Bible says about itself or God's communication. For some reason, you've made the uninterpreted events your starting point and draw your conclusions about Christian theology from them (something I still can't imagine in practice).