Scripture I

Here’s the first installment of the promised Scripture post…

I’ll start my discussion with the theological question as I believe our answer to this must ground a full-on discussion of Scripture in the public forum in order to avoid misunderstandings and certain unintentional misinterpretations. What is the Bible, theologically speaking? In response to this question, I reply that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, God’s own self-revelation to humanity for the sake of our salvation through faith in Christ Jesus [nb: not contains but is. The difference? “Contains” can be a dodge to say “only the stuff in there I like is God’s Word”; with the use of “is” I’m closing that loophole for myself]. In Scripture, we have the words of human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit that depict and communicate God’s dealings with humanity, especially Israel and the Church, for our edification, reproof, correction and training in righteousness [nb: the majority of that last sentence modifies “words”–not “human authors”. I don’t deny the inspiration of the human authors, mind you, but the words are canonical, not the authors. And yes, you’ll note that I quite consciously used 2 Tim 3:16, favored proof-text of conservatives and the horror of liberals.] As a text–like all other texts (or forms of communication for that matter)–it requires interpretation. Make no mistake here. Any act of comprehension is an act of interpretation. [When we take anything into our mind it passes through our own filters that are conditioned by our own personality and culture. The filters affect some kinds of information more than others but they are always in place. I’ll give you an example: 5+5=10. This is pretty objective, right? Not as much as you’d think…the use of Base 10 is a cultural assumption.]

Should the Bible be read literally? Well, that’s a premature question and it starts at the wrong place. Acts of interpretation are bound up with expectations and assumptions. Our cultures mediate to us certain implicit understandings about various forms of communication and how to interpret them. We pick up on clues both subtle and not so subtle that let us know how we are suppose to understand things. Examples? But of course! 1) Once upon a time 2) A man walks into a bar 3) You could already be a winner.

1. Once upon a time Our cultural milieu embeds an automatic knowledge of this phrase into us by the age of five through the use of the bedtime story–this signals a fairy tale. But how–through the meaning of the words? No. The words themselves do not denote that what follows is a work of creative fiction. They reveal a certain ambiguity of time and place but that’s as far as they go. Ponder this: what would a non-native English speaker make of these words? Or–as I like to ask my students–do you know how to say “Once upon a time” in Hebrew? It’s not a linguistic question–it’s an interpretive one.

2. A man walks into a bar Again, our cultural milieu lets us know that what follows is a joke. In certain company it also signals a cue to cover the ears of any young children seated nearby since many jokes that start this way tend to be…vulgar.

3. You could already be a winner When imprinted upon a piece of mail this is a signifier meaning “recycle me.” On an internet pop-up window, it means “close me–the faster the better…” On a piece of email, “delete me–and don’t even think of opening that attachment.” We know this is a scam even though the literal sense of the words proclaims the exact opposite.

My point is this: interpretation is a complex act. It doesn’t start with individual words, but by making a judgment on the genre of the text and making a decision about how the words are supposed to be interpreted. That’s why the “literal” question is a premature one. You can’t make that decision until you know what kind of text you’re dealing with and even when you’ve decided that a literal interpretation of two different genres is not necessarily the same thing. Content is only half of the process; context also has a profound effect on meaning.

Let me clarify that. This sentence: “In 1127, Robert of Notre Dame made a heroic escape from a closely-guarded prison in Burgundy aided only by one of his loyal knights and a common house-cat.” is a relatively straight-forward sentence. There might be some room for allegory and metaphor in there but precious little. [The reference to the knight and the cat seems to be a synecdoche for a larger plan of escape–but that’s the only literary device I can find.] On the surface, the sentence contains certain points which lead us towards an interpretation of its meaning: dates, names, places. Furthermore, it displays an internal consistency. The names, places, dates, and objects mentioned all seem historically plausible. Now–is this sentence from a history book or from a novel? That’s the key question.

What’s important to notice is that we would still read the sentence the same way–literally, as it were–if it were from a history book or a novel; the difference would be the meaning that we take from it. If the sentence appears in a history book, it would convey a certain historical fact. If it was from an historical novel, its facticity could be up for debate. Is it a piece of history inserted into the novel or is it a literary creation of the author? In one case, we might treat it as if it came from a history book–though reserving a certain skepticism given the source–in the other we would expect it to fit into the author’s overall message depending on how this sentence figures in the plot. Is it a little bit of character development or is the whole story about the escape? [For those wondering, I made the sentence up.]

Please note my use of the word “facticity” above. The word I didn’t use was “truth.” Facts are a category of things contained within the set of things that are true, not the total set of things that are true. There are true things and statements that are not scientifically quantifyable “facts.” Furthermore, I’m prepared to argue that history books contain truth and that novels can also contain truth. These are different kinds of truth, packaged in different ways and intended for different purposes, but that does not make one true and the other untrue.

Okay, enough digressions–my point here is that both content and context must be considered in order to arrive at meaning. Let’s take the discussion back to the Bible. I do want to stay on the genre thing for a moment, though, and loop back to my initial comments about assumptions and expectations.

We have expectations of certain texts. These expectations include culturally assumed limits on a text’s contents, authority, and relative truth claims. This is entirely natural and appropriate. Furthermore, these are based on genre identification. When I pick up a book entitled Quick Dinnertime Meals I expect it to contain recipes that I can follow to whip up a quick and tasty meal for my family. I don’t want it to be a poet’s interpretive feeling of what ingredients could go together in a euphonious fashion. My expectation of a book entitled A True History of the Templars will be different if I’m pulling it out of the stacks of a research library than if I’m taking it from a rack next to the supermarket checkout. One of the modern issues with Scripture, I’m convinced, is genre identification that is intimately bound up with the issue of expectations.

When an Israelite picked up Deuteronomy, or Jonah, or the Psalms, he would unconsciously identify the various genres of the books as his culture had conditioned him (he knew what “Once upon a time” is in 8th century Hebrew…). When we pick them up, we see them as all part of the same genre–Holy Scripture. This makes a huge difference in our expectations of what these books contain and thus in how we understand them from the expectations of how contemporary readers–and their authors, even–understood them.

One of the reasons why there is great resistance among laity and first-year seminarians to the discipline of biblical studies is because one of the first tasks of the instructor is to reorient the assumptions and expectations about the biblical text. This can either be done poorly or be done well. Let me just say that I’ve rarely seen it done well… Often, especially in undergraduate institutions, religion profs take a certain glee in stripping the naively religious students of their assumptions through the use of shock tactics.
—–
In Antiquity works were divided into books and volumes. This was a practical concern based initially on the length of a roll of papyrus. When you reached the end of one, you had book 1 and it was time to start book 2. My handheld’s battery is about to die [yes, I’m writing this on the train]; if it does, I’ll lose this–so here endeth book 1!

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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15 Responses to Scripture I

  1. David B. says:

    I really enjoyed this essay. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Derek the Ænglican says:

    No problem. It’s obviously “to be continued” but one of the things that SBL reminded me is that we as biblical scholars generally do a crappy job of communicating with people who really are interested in what we know/do. This is an initial attempt to communicate what we’re about…

  3. Gaunilo says:

    Derek, very good post. Obviously I’d have a different stance on such matters but I nonetheless appreciate a well-argued discussion of scripture’s place. Indeed, it certainly is the case that most non-evangelicals don’t handle the scripture question well, something I hope to address someday. I could raise some questions, but Jason at Gower Street recently wrote a very good response to evangelical doctrines of scripture that probably makes my points better than I could. You might find it an interesting counterpoint.

    The point on genre is a well-advised one. Out of curiosity, I wonder if you’re a reader of K. Vanhoozer, an old mentor of mine?

  4. *Christopher says:

    derek,

    Your point about undergraduate profs is well-taken. I had several of these. Their scholarship was decent, but their tone toward believing students was awful. Needless to say, I learned a lot, but ironically, my faith was rather strengthened.

    I also appreciate the point of genre, something that too often goes unnoticed when dealing with Scripture or Patristics.

    I hope to hear how you handle “texts of terror” given your use of 2 Timothy. I know how I handle them without throwing them out, but I’m curious as to one more trained in this area than I. What hermeneutical principle(s) do your operate from given such texts? I think liberals do a grave disservice when they throw out texts or don’t find a way to understand them that is upbuilding.

    Also, given that Holy Writ is often treated as the Logos Incarnate amongst Evangelicals, how do your distinguish or make clear that Holy Writ points to Jesus Christ and is not THE WORD or VERY GOD? This is an area I’ve often found myself in debates with Evangelicals on-line.

    BTW: I’m confused about your comment on Christ the King, so if you’ve time, I’ve offered some thoughts in my comments.

  5. bls says:

    Why does the Bible have to be the “Word of God” for us to take meaning from it?

    And why do we need to take everything as “inspired”? I can think of loads of uninspired stuff in there – including at least half of the content of the New Testament Epistles. Why can’t we work to separate the wheat from the chaff, and also remain honest?

    And why do we need the Bible as the source (which is what you’re implying here, I think, if I’m reading correctly) to tell us what’s right morally? Why all this “interpreting” and “reading the cultural conditioning”? Isn’t that sort of the long way around? What about philosophy? What about simple logic? What about reason? There’s a whole lot of stuff out there, including much from the pre-Christian Greek world. (Obviously they blew it a lot, too.)

    Finally, s there anything at all, anywhere, that human beings do that’s without error? Why would this be the exception?

    BTW, maybe you can help me with Psalm 110, which I just read this morning, and which celebrates “heaping high the corpses, and smashing heads over the wide earth.” I’m having a Marcion moment around this, I’m afraid….

  6. bls says:

    (P.S.: Most of the stuff about women in the Bible is idiotic. As was most of the stuff everywhere else.)

  7. bls says:

    (P.P.S.: I admit I do take many of these things as examples for my life and for living, though.

    Bad examples, that is.)

  8. bls says:

    (Sorry. That was way, way too snarky.

    I actually think it’s a really hard question: how to keep Christianity and its sources vital and alive, while making room for needed change and movement. I think we have to think about people who aren’t in the Church right now, too, and I’m not sure how we do it. I’m really not sure that the argument that the Bible is the “Word of God” – when it contains such obvious errors, foolishnesses, and cultural baggage – is the best way to talk to the unchurched. I just don’t think they believe it, and frankly, neither do I.

    I do love Biblical scholarship, though, and I love to hear expositions on all kinds of topics. I’m just saying.)

  9. Derek the Ænglican says:

    Alright, so there’s a few thoughts to kick things off and give shape to the next section. 🙂

    I had already planned to address a number of these points…This seems to have sparked something. I always like a good discussion on hermeneutics. 😀

  10. bls says:

    Well, I’m glad you didn’t take it personally, after having such a great time at the conference and all.

    😉

    (Seriously. What a wet blanket I am.)

    Anyway, you know me: I think of “the good parts” as supreme poetic mystical metaphor – and that stuff is supposed to reach directly into the mind and heart and soul. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. I think of the “bad parts” as a bunch of stupid guys trying to impose their will on the rest of us without even asking. (Kind of like what’s going on right now in the A.C., in fact!)

    And I’m reading “The Interior Castle” right now, after having read “Dark Night of the Soul.” I just can’t be bothered with Leviticus.

    😉

    Happy Thanksgiving, anyway!

  11. Gaunilo says:

    I want to chime in again w/r/t *Christopher and bls’ points. The point at which I began to seriously rethink scripture’s status (apart from reading Barth, but that’s a different story which the point about scripture as Logos Incarnate vs. Christ isolates very well) was in beginning to think ‘texts of terror,’ and, particularly, the metanarrative of terror that is the inscription of the place of the woman in scripture (and other ancient or not-so-ancient texts, but we don’t claim special ontological status for those). How, for example, do some Christians accuse Muslims of having a text inculcated with a primal violence from the days of Mohammed when we have Joshua, usually unacknowledged, lurking in our canon? This to me is the most haunting question about scripture’s status in the church.

  12. Annie says:

    Interesting essay. I’m eager to read the rest of it when your batteries are recharged.

    I am often amazed at the power of scripture and thrilled at how the meaning of one word lends so much to our understanding, just as your use of is above. I guess that I am not in the know about what liberals reject.

    Two things that I would like to see your opinion on:

    Repetition of erroneous information or preferred views of particular passages that do not reflect what is truly written. An example is the story of the prostitute in Luke, where the passage is historically used as a condemnation of Mary Magdalene and where the true and beautiful purpose of it proving that great love cancels out innumerable sins (if I can borrow from another passage) is overlooked, obliterated. People continue to use scripture to condemn others and it was never written for that purpose. Since I even see priests do that, I have scant appreciation for preistly knowledge of scripture. Certainly, the Holy Spirit never uses scripture that way.

    The use of single sentences (verses) to convey an interpretation that is contrary to the paragraph and even thesis of the passage. We all know sentences convey only one thought and especially St. Paul, who, in his work, he builds up to his point beautifully, orchestrating it and embuing it with emotional power, but his intent is lost and maligned anytime a single sentence is quoted out of context. Just this past week I went into contortions over Akinola claiming that homosexuals cannot inherit the kingdom of God, when the very next sentence in the paragraph points the work of Christ on the cross and faith in him. Again, a use of scripture to condemn others and deny them the love of Christ and his work on the cross.

    You know I feel this way because I was writing to Christopher on this subject when you and I first met.

    Interpretation comes through prayerful study and contemplation–not through fallable human reason, not through preferential reading and most especially not through traditional teaching. Otherwise, I hold rigidly and lovingly to 2 Timothy 3:16. Again, that was not written for the purpose of judging the value of the faith of others, to shake the Bible and proclaim ourselves superior to others who follow Christ, as it is used by conservatives, but for ourselves–other scripture, whole chapters, teach us very clearly how we are to treat/love one another, something conservatives ought not to ignore. Isn’t that ironic that a passage telling us the importance of all of scripture is jerked out and used in a way contrary to other scripture? Context and balance is always required. We all fall short of the glory of God.

  13. Derek the Ænglican says:

    Lots of good thoughts. Here’s one to ponder as I work towards parts II (and following?)… What is the context of a particular verse of Scripture? Is it the paragraph, or the chapter, or the book, or the canon? Does it depend on the verse in particular? Furthermore what about that pesky bugaboo, authorial intent? How do we properly construct the notion of author?

    More later… 😉

  14. bls says:

    I’d say that “it depends.” But this is the problem, I think: it always depends, doesn’t it?

    So if Scripture is the “Word of God,” why is that God needs us to interpret – which is always going to happen, given the above? Does God really expect us to take every jot and tittle as Holy Writ, all inspired – yet we can’t know its ultimate meaning? And when we react against sections that contain obviously bad morality, are we really supposed to ignore our own (God-given) reason?

    I love the Bible, I really do. It’s beautiful and mysterious and maddening and ridiculous and a source of wisdom. It’s the story of the human approach towards God. But it’s also loaded with human frailty and error – like everything else that humans do.

    And “authorial intent” is always speculation, isn’t it? I love listening to Bible scholars speculate and expound, I have to say; I love it when interesting parallels can be made, and resonances found. But still: speculation.

    To me, the Bible is a “flyer into the realm of spirit: a way to get us in touch with God. But there’s lots of turbulence, too.

    Happy New Year, BTW.

  15. Annie says:

    Good things to consider, Derek. I look forward to it all!

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