Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Spirit and inspiration in theological exegesis

In my post on the Divine and human authorship of Scripture, I raised the following question: "how was it possible that fallible human words could have been received as words from God?"

Brevard Childs' answer is that

“they were regarded so not only because of their divine source, but also by their assigned role as medium of God’s continuing communication.” ("Speech-Act theory," 379).
In particular:

“The crucial action of rendering the human words of the past as the continuing divine message – the rendering of human speech into divine speech – was achieved by the promise of the Holy Spirit” (Ibid. 380; cf. John 14:26; Acts 1:8, 16; 1 Cor. 2:10, 13).
In this process it is important to note that

“the human words were not appropriated, changed or semantically filtered, but illuminated in their original temporal form as a divine vehicle.” (Ibid.)
This spiritual element of divine guidance introduces into the equation an element of subjectivity which cannot be totally controlled or circumscribed. Childs talks of the dynamic nature of the Biblical God who both makes himself known and also hides himself (cf. Amos 8:11-12). The ability of the Scriptures to continually evoke new and fresh understandings was commensurate with the promised Spirit of the resurrected Christ to illuminate and guide the church through the Word. Scripture thus has a voice that exerts coercion on its readers. Faithful interpretation involves a response to this theocentric force. In this way, a significant element of the challenge of “wrestling with Scripture” lies in the struggle to acquire the capacity to receive its message (Struggle, 315).

In my next post I will illustrates this dynamic by taking a glance at the modern history of the church.


Anonymous said...


In your earlier post, which you use to set up this one, you wrote, "The church has always confessed that it is God’s voice in Scripture addressing people in divine speech."

I realize that, to folks who think like you, this is a self-evident position. Centuries of Reformed dogmatics has never doubted this position. In fact, I wouldn't so much argue against the idea that "the church" has held this for the bulk of church history, but that doesn't impress me at all as an argument that we *should* regard Scripture as involving any sort of idea of God's voice.

Can you come up with a better argument than simply "the church always thought so"?

The plain fact is that Scripture itself does not think of itself in those terms at all. It seems to me that this view probably began with people misunderstanding NT references to "the word of the Lord" as references to Scripture rather than as references to the kerygma.

Someday I'll straighten you out, Phil. One day you'll see that the Bible is too important to keep ignoring what it says about itself in favor of the very alien set of ideas that Childs has placed upon it.

Phil Sumpter said...

Welcom back John!

The Bible is a collection of documents written by people in specific situations dealing with specific needs. I seriously doubt it would have been possible for them to see beyond their immediate horizon and guess that their work would one day be part of a collection of texts that would continue to guide the community of faith. It's not surprising that you don't find any doctrine of Scritpture within the text itself.

The statement that the Bible is a "vehicle or revelation" is a form critical statement, relating the function the the Bible had within the history of the church. The church dialectically interpreted the identity of its Lord in terms of the Old Testament scripture, and the OT in light of the Lord. Read, e.g. N.T. Wright. Or better, respond to my post on the use of Scripture by Paul summarized here.

The function the Scripture played (and plays) in the life of the church is similar in kind to the function Israel's traditions played within the life of that community. There is not necessarily a direct statement (see my first statement above), but there is ample, overwhelming, evidence that Israel related to its God in terms of a diaologue with its tradition, a dialectic, which is reflected in the intense intertextuality found throughout scripture. Intertextuality is such a hot topic now, found all over the academic spectrum, that it simply isn't possible to deny that ancient Israel perceived the nature and significance of the historical events that constituted it within the framework of a larger theological tradition, and that this tradition continued to guide it in various ways along its journey of faith.

In short, you can't separate the meaning of a text from its function within a community. The texts are proclamatory, and were recieved as such. And they were edited and developed in terms of the subject matter of that proclamation (their substance) so that the hermeneutically shaped whole would better testify to the eschatological work of a God who enters into yet transcends our history.

But please do keep trying to straighten me out!