Address to the 2000 Covenant Conference
November 3, 2000
Professor of Old Testament
Columbia Theological Seminary
The issue of the authority of the Bible is a perennial and urgent one for those of us who claim and intend to stake our lives on its attestation. But for all of the perennial and urgent quality of the question, the issue of biblical authority is bound, in any case, to remain endlessly unsettled and therefore, I believe, perpetually disputatious. It cannot be otherwise and so we need not hope for a “settlement” of the issue. The unsettling and disputatious quality of the question is, I believe, given in the text itself, because the Bible is ever so endlessly “strange and new.”1 It always, inescapably outdistances our categories of understanding and explanation, of interpretation and control. Because the Bible is, as we confess, “the live word of the living God,” it will not submit in any compliant way to the accounts we prefer to give of it. There is something intrinsically unfamiliar about the book; and when we seek to override that unfamiliarity, we are on the hazardous ground of idolatry.
Because I am not well schooled in the long, formal discussions and consideration concerning “the authority of scripture,” (perhaps better left to the theologians), I have decided to offer a quite personal reflection on the authority of scripture, to consider how it is that I work with, relate to, and submit to the Bible. I do not suggest that my way is in any sense commendable or normative. Nor do I know if my ruminations will particularly serve the crisis your network takes up in the church, nor do I intend my statement to be particularly attentive to the “culture wars” in which we are engaged.
Thus I offer a more-or-less innocent personal account, though of course none of our personal accounts is very innocent. Your invitation has provided an opportunity for me to think clearly about my own practice; in the process, moreover, I have become convinced that we will be well served if we can be in some way honest about the intimate foundations of our personal stance on these questions. Indeed, I submit that rather than loud settled slogans about the Bible, we might do better to consider the odd and intimate ways in which we have each, alike and differently, been led to where we are about the Bible. In setting out such a statement, I say at the outset that you do me a great privilege by inviting me here, a non-Presbyterian, though I hope when I have finished you will judge me to be reliably, if not with excessive intensity, Reformed. And in any case, some of my very best friends are Presbyterians.
I begin by telling you about what I take to be the defining moment in my attachment to the Bible. In my German Evangelical up-bringing, confirmation was a very big deal. In that act of confirmation, the pastor (in my case my father) selected a “confirmation verse” for each comfirmand, a verse to mark one’s life, read while hands were laid on in confirmation, read at one’s funeral and many times in between. My father, on that occasion of confirmation, read over me Psalm 119:105:
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
He did, in that act, more than he knew. Providentially, I have no doubt, he marked my life by this book that would be lamp and light, to illumine a way to obedience, to mark a way to fullness, joy, and well-being. The more I reflect on that moment, the more I am sure that I have been bound more than I knew to this book.
Before that moment of confirmation in baptismal vows, in my nurture in the church, my church prepared me to attend to the Bible in a certain way. I am a child of the Prussian Union, a church body created in 1817, on the 300th anniversary of Luther’s theses. The Prussian king was weary of Calvinists and Lutherans arguing about the eucharist and so decreed an ecumenical church that was in its very founding to be ecumenical and not confessional, open to diversity and not aimed at any agreement beyond a broad consensus of evangelical faith that intended to protect liberty of conscience. This is the church body that brought to the US a deep German church slogan now taken over and claimed by many others:
In essentials unity;
in non-essentials liberty;
in all things charity.2
In actuality, moreover, the last line, “in all things charity,” became the working interpretive principle that produced a fundamentally irenic church.
The pastoral ambiance of that climate for Bible reading may be indicated in two ways. First, the quarrels over historical-critical reading of the Bible, to be faced by every church soon or late, were firmly settled as long ago as 1870, when one seminary teacher was forced out of teaching, but quickly restored to a pastoral position of esteem, so that issue did not again cause trouble. Second, in its only seminary, Eden Seminary, there was no systematic theologian on the faculty until 1946, and things were managed well enough in a mood of trustful piety that did not produce hard-nosed certitude, but rather an irenic charity of liberated generosity. All of that was before my moment of confirmation in which I became an heir to that tradition, with its trustful engagement with the book as “lamp” and “light.”
After my confirmation came a series of teachers who shaped me in faith, after my father my first and best teacher, who taught me the artistry as well as the authority of scripture.
- In college my first Bible teacher was a beloved man still at work in the church, still my friend. He mostly confused me about JEDP, perhaps because he did not understand very well himself, being a theologian and not an exegete.
- In seminary I had an astonishing gift of Bible teachers, none of whom published, as perhaps the best teachers do not. Allen Wehrli had studied under Hermann Gunkel in Halle and taught us the vast density of artistry of the Bible with attention to the form of the text. His pedagogy for which he was renowned in our circle, was imaginative story-telling, understanding that the Bible is narrative, long before G. Ernest Wright or Fred Craddock. Lionel Whiston introduced us in 1959 to the first traces of Gerhard von Rad that reached English readers. Von Rad showed that the practice of Biblical faith is first of all recital, and I have devoured von Rad ever since.3 I have learned from Wehrli and Whiston that the Bible is essentially an open, artistic, imaginative narrative of God’s staggering care for the world, a narrative that will feed and nurture into obedience that builds community precisely by respect for the liberty of the Christian man or woman.4
- After seminary, purely by accident, I stumbled on to James Muilenburg at Union Seminary in New York (arguably the most compelling Old Testament teacher of his generation) who taught us that the Bible will have its authoritative, non-coercive way if we but attend with educated alertness to the cadences and sounds of the text as given in all its detail.
- Since graduate school, I have been blessed by a continuing host of insistent teachers…seminarians who would not settle easily, church people who asked new and probing questions, and I have even read other Bible teachers, to mixed advantage. But mostly my continuing education has been from the writing and witness of people whose faith is powered by the text to live lives of courage, suffering, and sacrifice. In non-coercive ways and seemingly without effort at forcing anyone else, they have found this book a wind and source and energy for the fullness of their true life lived unafraid.
When I think about that moment or confirmation in 1947, seeing it better now than I did then, I have come to see that gathered all that day was my church tradition of simple, irenic piety from the past, and gathered all that day was this succession of teachers still to come who would let me see how broad and deep and demanding and generous is this text, how utterly beyond me in its richness and yet held concretely in my hands, offering to me and to those around me unprecedented generativity. “A lamp to my feet and a light to my path”…how remarkable a gift that my father knew all that and willed all of that and gathered all of that for me on that incidental day in 1947 at St. Paul’s Church in Saline County.
Now I take so much time with my particular history, not because you are concerned with it, or because the story has any great merit, but perhaps nothing more than the pondering of an aging Bible man. I recite this to you in order to attest that how we read the Bible, each of us, is partly a plot of family, neighbors, and friends (a socialization process) and partly the God-given accident of long-term development in faith. From that two learnings:
1. The real issues of Biblical authority and interpretation are not likely to be settled by erudite cognitive formulation or appeal to classic settlements, but live beneath such contention in often unrecognized and uncriticized ways that are deeply powerful, especially if rooted (as they may be for most of us) midst hurt, anger, or anxiety.
2. Real decisions about Biblical meanings are mostly not decided on the spot, but are long-term growths of habit and conviction that emerge, function, and shape, often long before recognized. And if that is so, then the disputes require not frontal arguments that are mostly exercises in self-entertainment, but long term pastoral attentiveness to each other in good faith.
If that is true, a church in dispute will require great self-knowing candor and a generous openness to allow the legitimacy of long-term nurture that gifts others. Such attentiveness may be so generous as to entertain the thought that the story of someone else’s long term nurture could be a gift not only for that person but could be, once removed, a transformative gift to me when I read the text through their nurture that is marked, as are we all, by joy, doubt, fear, and hurt. With that perhaps too long personal reflection, I will now identify six facets of Biblical interpretation about which I know something that I believe is likely to be operative among us all.
The Bible is inherently the live word of God that addresses us concerning the character and will of the gospel-giving God, empowering us to an alternative life in the world. I say “inherently” because we can affirm that it is in itself intrinsically so. While I give great credence to “reader response” (how can one not?) and while I believe in the indeterminacy of the text to some large extent, finally the Bible is forceful and consistent in its main theological claim. That claim concerns the conviction that the God who creates the world in love redeems the world in suffering and will consummate the world in joyous well-being. That flow of conviction about the self-disclosure of God in the Bible is surely the main claim of Apostolic faith upon which the church is fundamentally agreed. That fundamental agreement about main claims of course is the beginning of the conversation and not its conclusion; but that is a deep and important beginning point for which I use the term “inherent.” From that certain things follow, in my judgment:
1. Because this is the foundation of Apostolic faith to which we all give attestation, it means that all of us in the Church are bound together, as my tradition affirms, “in essentials unity.” It also means, moreover, that in disputes about biblical authority nobody has high ground morally or hermeneutically. We share a common commitment about the truth of the book that makes us equal before the book as it does around the table.
2. The inherency of evangelical truth in the book is focused on its main claims. From that it follows that there is much in the text that is “lesser,” not a main claim but probes and attempts over the generations to carry the main claims to specificity, characteristically informed by particular circumstance and characteristically in the text open to variation, nuance, and even contradiction. It is a primal Reformation principle, given main claims and lesser voices in the text, that our faith is evangelical, linked to the news and not biblicism, thus recognizing the potential tension or distinction between good news and lesser claims. That particular tension and distinction is of course the arena of much dispute in the church just now; it is important at the outset to make the distinction, so that we can see the true subject of the dispute.
3. The inherent word of God in the biblical text is of course refracted through many authors who were not disembodied voices of revealed truth. They were, rather, circumstance-situated men and women of faith (as are we all) who said what their circumstance permitted and required them to speak, as they were able, of that which is truly inherent. It is this human refraction, of course, that makes inescapable the hard work of critical study, so that every text is invited to a suspicious scrutiny whereby we may consider the ways in which bodied humanness has succeeded or not succeeded in being truthful and faithful witness. Each of us, moreover, would concede that some bodied human witnesses in the text succeeded more effectively than some others.
4. Given inherency and given circumstance-situated human refraction, the Bible is endlessly a surprise beyond us that Karl Barth famously and rightly termed “strange and new.” The Bible is not a fixed, frozen, readily exhausted read; it is rather a “script,” always reread, through which the Spirit makes new. When the church adjudicates the inherent and the circumstance-situated, the church of whatever ilk is sore tempted to settle and close and idolize. And therefore inherency of an evangelical kind demands a constant resistance to familiarity. Nobody makes the final read; nobody’s read is final or inerrant, precisely because the Key Character in the book who creates, redeems and consummates is always beyond us in holy Hiddenness
5. When we push boldly through the hiddenness wanting to know more clearly, what we thought was holy ground turns out to be a playground for idolatry. Our reading of inherency, then, is inescapably provisional reading. It is rightly done with the modesty that belongs to those who are yet to be surprised always again by what is “strange and new.”
The claim of biblical authority is not difficult as it pertains to the main affirmations of Apostolic faith. But from that base line, the hard, disputatious work is interpretation that needs to be recognized precisely for what it is, nothing other than interpretation. The Bible, our mothers and fathers have always known, is not self-evident and self-interpreting, and the Reformers did not mean that at all when they escaped the church’s magisterium6. Rather the Bible requires and insists upon human interpretation that is inescapably subjective, necessarily provisional, and as you are living witnesses, inevitably disputatious. I propose as an interpretive rule that all of our subjective, provisional, disputatious interpretation needs to be taken, at the most, with quite tentative authority, in order that we in two maneuvers may 1) make our best most insistent claims, but then with some regularity, 2) we may relinquish our pet interpretations and together with our partners in dispute fall back in joy into the inherent Apostolic claims that outdistance all our too-familiar and too partisan interpretations. We may learn from the rabbis the marvelous rhythm of deep interpretive dispute and profound common yielding in joy and affectionate well-being.7 The sometimes characteristic and demonic mode of Reformed interpretation is not tentativeness and relinquishment but tentativeness that is readily hardened into absoluteness, whether of the right or the left, of exclusive or of inclusive, a slight-of-hand act of substituting our interpretive preference for the inherency of Apostolic claims.
The process of interpretation which precludes final settlement on almost all questions is self-evident in the Bible itself. As Gerhard Rad spent his life making clear, Deuteronomy is the model and engine of an on-going interpretive dynamic in the Old Testament; Moses becomes the cipher for all those hermeneutists yet to come who dispute with the text of Moses, so that what we have in the text is Moses contra Moses.8 One can see in the text itself this dynamic, for even Deuteronomy acknowledges that its own tradition is not from Sinai, but it is a derivative form and an extrapolation as a “second,” (deuteros) reading for a new time and place (Deut. 17:18). Thus Moses enunciates the required interpretive principle:
Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today (Deut. 5:3).
After the reiterated decalogue of Chapter 5, the tradition of Deuteronomy proceeds to extrapolate from Sinai for many chapters at the Jordan for a new circumstance.
A stunning case in point is the Mosaic teaching in Deut. 23:1-8 that bans from the community all those with distorted sexuality and all those who are foreigners. In Isaiah 56:3-8 this Mosaic teaching is frontally overturned in the Bible itself, offering what Herbert Donner terms an intentional “abrogation” of Mosaic law in new teaching.9 The old, no doubt circumstance-driven exclusion in the mouth of Moses in Deut. 23 is answered by a circumstance-driven inclusiveness in Is. 56.
In Deut. 24:1, moreover, Moses teaches that marriages broken in infidelity cannot be restored, even if both parties want to get back together. But in Jeremiah 3, in a shocking reversal given in a pathos-filled poem, God’s own voice indicates a readiness to violate that Torah teaching for the sake of restored marriage to Israel.10 The old teaching is seen to be problematic even for God. The latter text shows God prepared to move beyond the old prohibition in order that the inherent evangelical claims of God’s graciousness may be fully available even to recalcitrant Israel. In at least embarrassment and perhaps in humiliation, the God of the poem in Jeremiah willfully overrides the old text in new circumstance of pathos. It becomes clear that the interpretive project that constitutes the final form of the text is itself profoundly polyvalent, yielding no single exegetical outcome, but allowing layers and layers of fresh reading in which God’s own life and character are deeply engaged and put at risk.
As we observe the open dynamic of interpretation in the text itself, moreover, we ourselves are able to see that same dynamic operative in our own time and place. It is self-evident that new circumstances of reading permit us to see afresh what we have not seen in the text heretofore. A clear case in point is that the ecological crisis now evokes awareness on our part that the Bible does indeed address the issues of a distorted, polluted creation, though in past “faithful” reading we missed all of that because we read in a specific time and place.11 Interpretive humility invites us to recognize that reading in a particular time, place, and circumstance can never be absolute, but is more than likely to be displaced by yet another reading in another time and place, a reading that may depart from or even judge the older reading, or even the older text as in the two cases of Deuteronomy that I have cited. The Spirit meets us always afresh in our faithful reading, in each new time, place, and circumstance. Anyone who imagines that reading is settled and eternal simply does not pay attention to the process in which we are all engaged, liberals and conservatives. Following George Steiner, I suspect that interpretation–albeit subjective, provisional, and disputatious–is a God-given resistance to monologue.12 There is not one voice scripture, and to give any one voice in scripture or in tradition authority to silence other voices surely distorts the text and misconstrues the liveliness that the text itself engenders in the interpretive community.
Responsible interpretation requires and inevitably engages in imagination. I understand that for serious Calvinists, imagination makes us nervous, because it smacks of subjective freedom to carry the text in undeveloped directions and to engage in fantasy. Apart from such a fear, I would insist that a) imagination is in any case inevitable in the interpretive process if it is ever anything more than simple reiteration, and b) that faithful imagination is characteristically not autonomous fantasy but it is good-faith extrapolation. I understand imagination, no doubt a complex epistemological process, to be the capacity to entertain images of meaning and reality that are out beyond the evident givens of observable experience.13 That is, imagination is the hosting of “otherwise” and I submit that every serious teacher or preacher invites to “otherwise” beyond the evident givens, or we have nothing to say.14 When we do such hosting of “otherwise,” however, we must of course take risks and act daringly to push beyond what is known to that which is hoped and trusted but not yet in hand.
Interpretation is not the reiteration of the text; it is rather the movement of the text beyond itself in fresh ways, often ways never offered until this moment of utterance. A primal example of course is constituted by Jesus’ parables that open the listening community to possible futures.15 Beyond parabolic teaching, however, there was in ancient Israel and in early church observed wonder.16 As eye witnesses created texts out of observed and remembered miracles, there is no doubt that texted miracles in turn become materials for imagination that pushed well beyond what is given or intended even in the text. This is an inescapable process for those of us who insist that this old text is a contemporary word to us. We transport ourselves out of the twenty-first century back to that ancient world or, conversely, we transpose ancient voices into contemporary voices of authority. We do it all the time:
– Those of us who think critically do not believe that the Old Testament was talking about Jesus, and yet we make the linkages;
– Surely Paul was not thinking of the crisis of sixteenth century indulgences when he wrote about “faith alone”;
– Surely Isaiah was not thinking, in writing Isaiah 65, of Martin Luther King having a dream of a new earth.
We make such leaps all the time:
– What a huge leap to imagine that the primal commission to “till and keep the earth” (Gen. 2:15) is really about environmental issues and the chemicals used by Iowa farmers; but we do it.
– What a huge leap to imagine that the ancient provision for Jubilee in Leviticus 25 in fact concerns cancellation of Third World debts, with an implied critique of global capitalism. But we do it.
– What a huge leap to imagine that an ancient Purity Code in Leviticus 18 bears upon consenting gays and lesbians in the twenty-first century and is concerned with ordination. But we do it.
We do it, and we are commonly, all of us, committed to the high practice of subjective extrapolations, because we commonly have figured out that a cold, reiterative objectivity has no missional energy or moral force. We do it, and will not stop doing it. But it is surely healing and humbling for us, all of us, to be self-knowing enough to concede that what we are doing in imaginative interpretation is not “inherent,” but is subjective extrapolation that will not carry the freight of absoluteness.
No doubt Karl Barth, that great father of us all, understood this, when he imagined for an instant that Romans 13 pertained to Christian obedience in Communist Hungary. Indeed, of imagination Barth himself could write:
We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a “non-historical” depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression. This habit has really no claim to the dignity and validity which it pretends….But human possibility of knowing is not exhausted by the ability to perceive and comprehend. Imagination, too, belongs no less legitimately in its way to the human possibility of knowing. A man without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg. But fortunately each of us is gifted somewhere and somehow with imagination, however starved this gift may be in some or misused by others.17
If we grant that interpretation is our bounden duty, then it follows, inescapably, I believe, that imagination is the vehicle for interpretation. This is what Moses was doing at the Jordan in Deuteronomy; this is what Jesus was doing in his rabbinic way, “You have heard it said of old”…And this is what the church always does when it risks moving the text to its own time and place. Imagination can indeed be a gift of the Spirit; but it is a gift used with immense subjective freedom which we would do better to concede, even if that concession makes unmistakably clear that our imaginative interpretations cannot claim the shrillness of certainty but only the tentativeness of our best extrapolations. After our imaginative interpretations are made with vigor in dispute with others in the church, I submit we must regularly, gracefully, and with modesty fall back from our best extrapolations to the sure apostolic claims that lie behind our extremities of imagination, liberal or conservative.
A consideration of ideology is difficult among us, precisely because US church people are largely innocent about our own interpretive work, not often aware of and not often honest about the ways in which our own work is shot through with distorting vested interest.18 But it is so, even if we are innocent about it. There is no interpretation of scripture (nor interpretation of anything else for that matter) that is unaffected by the passions, convictions, and perceptions of the interpreter. Ideology is the self-deceiving practice of taking a part for the whole, of taking “my truth” for the truth, of running truth through a prism of the particular and palming off the particular as a universal.19 It is so already in the text of scripture itself, as current scholarship makes clear, because the spirit-given text is given us by and through human authors.20 It is so because spirit-filled interpretation is given us by and through bodied authors who must make their way in the world, and in making our way, we do not see so clearly or love so dearly or follow so nearly as we might imagine.
There are endless examples of ideology at work in interpretation:
-the practice of historical criticism is no innocent practice, for it intends to fend off church authority and protect freedom for the autonomous interpreter.
-The practice of so-called canonical criticism is no innocent practice, for it intends to maintain old coherences of truth against the perceived threat of more recent fragmentation.
-The practice of high moralism is no innocent practice, even if its sounds disciplined and noble, for much of that high-grounded moralism comes from fear, and is a strategy to fend off anxiety.
-The practice of communitarian inclusiveness is an interpretive posture that is no innocent practice, because it reflects a reaction against exclusivism and so is readily given to a kind of reactive carelessness.
There is enough of truth in every such interpretive posture and strategy–historical criticism, canonism, moralism, communitarianism, and a hundred others we might name–to make the posture credible and to gather a mass of constituency in order to maintain a sustained voice. But it is not, for reasons of ideology, innocent, and if not innocent, then having no absolute claim.
In a disputatious church, a healthy practice might be to reflect upon the ideological passion, not of others, but of self and cohorts who agree. I believe that such reflection would invariably indicate:21
-That every passionate interpretive voice is shot through with vested interest, sometimes barely hidden, so shot through that it is completely predictable that interpreters who are restrictive about gays and lesbians will characteristically advocate high capitalism and a strong national defense; and conversely, those who are “open and affirming” will characteristically maintain a critique of consumer capitalism and a whole cluster of issues along with it. One can argue in each case, of course, that such a package is only a theological-ethical coherence; perhaps, but in no case, I should argue, is the package innocent, precisely because given the package, we incline to make the next decision without any critical reflection, but only in order to sustain the package.
-That every vested interest has working in it, if it is passionate, a high measure of anxiety about deep threats, perhaps perceived, perhaps imagined, and anxiety has a forceful passion to it that permits us to deal in wholesale categories without the nuance of the particular.22 A judgment grounded in anxiety, anywhere on the theological spectrum, wants not to be disturbed or informed by the detail of facts on the ground.
-That every vested interest shaped by anxiety has near its source old fears that are deep and hidden, but for all of that authoritative.
-That every vested interest informed by anxiety and infused with fear has at its very bottom hurt, old hurt, new hurt, hurt for ourselves, for those remembered, for those we love; the pain, lingering, unhealed pain, becomes a hermeneutical principle out of which we will not be talked.
One can see such ideology in the text itself that surely reflects vested interest, anxiety, fear, and hurt:
-In Deuteronomy, as Carolyn Pressler has shown, the marriage laws are deeply patriarchal, perhaps echoed in some corrected form by Paul;23
-One can see such ideology in Hananiah who picked up the buoyant Zionism of Isaiah and, a century later, against Jeremiah turned it into an absolute principle that blinded him to lived reality.24
– -One can see such ideology in Ezra who not only fathered Judaism, but fended off other Judaisms in an exercise of complete domination and hegemony.
Every such ideological passion, liberal or conservative, may be encased in scripture itself or enshrined in long-standing interpretation until it is absolute and trusted as decisive authority. And where ideology becomes loud and destructive in the interpretive community, we may be sure that the doses of anxiety, fear, and hurt within it are huge and finally irrepressible.
I do not suggest, not for an instant, that no distinctions can be made, nor that it is so dark that all cats are gray. And certainly, given our ideological passions, we must go on and interpret in any case. But I do say that in our best judgments concerning scripture, we might be aware enough of our propensity to distort in the service of vested interest, anxiety, fear, and hurt, that we might recognize that our best interpretation might be not only vehicle but also block and distortion of the crucified truth of the Gospel. If interpretation is unavoidable, as I think it is, whereby old text is made new, and if imagination is an inescapable practice as it surely is, it is clear that interpretation and imagination are immensely open to traffic in our pen-ultimate passions that seem to us so ultimate. I have come belatedly to see, in my own case, that my hermeneutical passion is largely propelled by the fact that my father was a pastor economically abused by the church he served, economically abused as a means of control. I cannot measure the ways in which that felt awareness determines how I work, how I interpret, who I read, whom I trust as a reliable voice. The wound is deep enough to pervade everything; I suspect, moreover, that I am not the only one. It could be that we turn our anxieties, fears, and hurts to good advantage as vehicles for obedience. But even in so doing, we are put on notice. We cannot escape, I believe, from such passions; but we can submit them to brothers and sisters whose own history of distortion is very different from our own and as powerful in its defining force.
It is traditional to speak of scripture as “inspired.” There is a long history of unhelpful formulations of what that notion might mean. Without appealing to classical attempts at formulation that characteristically have more to do with “testing” the spirit (I John 4:1) than with “not quenching” the spirit (I Thess. 5:19), we may affirm that the force of God’s purpose and will and capacity for liberation, reconciliation, and new life is everywhere around this text. In such an affirmation, of course, we say more than we can understand, for the claim is precisely an acknowledgement that in and through this text, God’s wind blows through and blows past all our critical and confessional categories of reading and understanding. That blowing force that powers and enlivens, moreover, pertains not simply to the origin of the text but to its transmission and interpretation among us. The spirit will not be regimented, and therefore none of our reading is guaranteed to be inspired. But it does happen…on occasion. It does happen that we are blown in and through the text beyond ourselves. It does happen…on occasion..that the spirit teaches and guides and heals, through the text, so that the text yields something other than an echo of ourselves:
-It does happen in prayer and study, believers are led to what is “strange and new”;
-It does happen that preachers in sermon preparation and in utterance are led to utter beyond what they set out to do;
-It does happen that churches in council, sessions and other courts, are led beyond themselves, powered beyond prejudice, liberated beyond convention, overwhelmed by the capacity for new risks. It does happen; it happens among faithful charismatics who frighten us Calvinists but who are led to newness. It has happened even in Rome, that place so “Pope-infested” as Calvin might have said, to push toward “separated brothers and sisters,” even Jews in ways we have not. I have seen it happen in a Bible study led by an Aboriginal woman in the Australian outback who in ways primitive to me saw clearly about the gospel.
And even among Calvinists, so well defended against the spirit, it happens in leaps over old barriers and tall buildings, in acts of generosity that defy capitalist parsimony, in reconciliation across lines of repugnance and abhorrence, in acts of forgiveness of unfathomable hate and resentment. Such newness might have happened without the text of course, because the wind blows where it will. But it does happen in and through the text…new resolve, new vision, new assurance, new summons. And we say, “I don’t know what came over us.” It is the wind in the words that comes over us, not one more grudging echo of us, but a word from out beyond, and the world begins again, “very good” indeed. We find, on such strange occasions, that not all of our historical criticism nor all of our canonical reductionism, not all our moral pretense nor all of our careless receptivity, not all of that or any of that can withstand the force. Because we are not speaking here of reasoned categories, but of the holy Wind that blows and destroys and makes new. The script of the book is a host and launching pad for the wind among us that the world cannot evoke and the church cannot resist.
Biblical interpretation, done with imagination willing to risk ideological distortion, open to the inspiring spirit, is important. I would say “urgent,” except that I am seeking to maintain the symmetry of the “I” terms. The importance of biblical interpretation, however, is not primarily in order to seize control of the church. It is rather that the world may have access to the good truth of the God who creates, redeems, and consummates. Of course that missional intention is important (urgent) in every circumstance and season, and so the church at its most faithful has always understood that reading scripture is for the sake of the missional testimony of the church to the news for the world.
But we may say more particularly and more precisely that the reading of the Bible, in all its truthfulness, is now urgent because our society is now sore tempted to reduce the human project to commodity, to the making of money, to the reduction of persons to objects, to the thinning of human communications to electronic icons. The threat is technique, whether “ten ways to wealth” or “six ways to sex” or whatever. Technique in all its military modes and derivatively in every other mode, is aimed at control, the fencing out of death, the fencing out of gift, and eventually, the fencing out of humanness.
Nonetheless we dare affirm, all of us in the church together, that this lively word is the primal antidote to technique, the primal news that fends off trivialization. Entertain the notion of thinning to control and trivialization to evade ambiguity as the major goals of our culture. Then consider that the church in its disputatious anxiety is sore tempted to join the choice for technique, to thin the Bible and make it one dimensional, deeply tempted to trivialization by acting as though the Bible is important because it may solve some disruptive social inconvenience. The dispute tends to reduce what is rich and dangerous in the book to knowable technique and what is urgent and immense to what is exhaustible trivia.
Well, it’s too important for that because the dangers of the world are too great and the expectations of God are too large. What if liberals and conservatives in the church, for all their disagreement, would agree and put their energies to the main truth against the main threat? This is not to sneak in a victory about gays and lesbians for anybody, but to say that the issues before God’s creation (of which we are stewards) are immense; those issues shame us in the church when our energy is deployed only to settle our anxieties. Shame, shame! Take a look at the real issues…we all know the list. What this script does is to insist that the world is not without God, not without the holy gift of life rooted in love. And yet we, in the meantime, twitter!
My verse goes like this:
A lamp unto my feet…
a light unto my path.
It is a lamp and light to fend off the darkness. It is for feet and path, on the way in venture. The darkness is real; and the light is for walking boldly, faithfully in the dark we do not and cannot control.
In this crisis, the church will usefully consider what it is that is entrusted peculiarly to us with the book. If we renege on this trust, we may find that,
– instead of apostolic inherency, we settle for what is familiar;
– instead of interpretation, we may reduce to monologue;
– instead of imagination, we may have private fantasy;
– instead of facing ideology, we may absolutize our anxiety;
– instead of inspiration, we may win control;
– instead of importance, we may end with trivialization.
There are important decisions to be made that are not partisan or sectarian, not liberal or conservative, but profoundly evangelical, and so to be made in freedom and joy.
Consider this voice from German piety outside Presbyterianism:
In essentials, unity.
It is not in doubt among us concerning the God who creates, redeems, and consummates — good news indeed!
In non-essentials, liberty
Non-essentials, matters never settled by the apostles, or by councils.
In all things — in things essential and things non-essential — charity.
Love is patient and kind, love is not envious or boastful, or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three, and the greatest of these is love.
In all things charity
Recently, an Israeli journalist in Jerusalem commented on the fracturing dispute in Israel over who constitutes a real Jew, orthodox, conservative, or reformed. And said he about the dispute, “If any Jew wins, all Jews lose.” Think about it: “If any Presbyterian wins, all Presbyterians lose.”
In all things charity.
1. The phrase is of course an allusion to the famous essay of Karl Barth, “The Strange, New World within the Bible,” The Word of God and the Word of Man (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957) 28-50.
2. While many folk in many traditions lay claim to this aphorism, I have it on the authority of my colleague, Lowell Zuck, that its origin is deep in German pietism.
3. My first reading out of the generativity of von Rad was in a little noticed book by B. Davie Napier, From Faith to Faith: Essays on Old Testament Literature (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955). It was this book that decided for me a life of study in the Old Testament.
4. I deliberately make allusion to Martin Luther, “A Treatise on Christian Liberty,” Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1943) 251-90.
5. The hiddenness of course pertains no less to the disclosure of God in Jesus of Nazareth, a truth not given to “flesh and blood” (Matt. 16:17).
6. Nor did Luther intend such self-interpretation, for all of the popular misunderstanding of his emancipation of the text from the hold of the church’s magisterium.
7. See for example, Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988) 131-568.
8. See Gerhard von Rad, “Endeavors to Restore the Past,” Old Testament Theology I (San Francisco: Harper and Brothers, 1962) 69-77 219-31, and Martin Noth, “The ‘Re-Presentation’ of the Old Testament in Proclamation,” Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics ed. by Claus Westermann (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1963) 76-88. On Moses as the engine of interpretation, see Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997) 578-90.
9. Herbert Donner, “Jesaja lvi 1-7: ein Abrogationsfall innerhalb des Kanons–Implikationen und Konsequenzen,” Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 36 (1985) 81-95.
10. See Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) 284.
11. The literature on the subject is immense and growing. See among the better representative examples, Sean McDonagh, To Care for the Earth: A Call to a New Theology (Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian Publications, 1986) and All Creation is Groaning: An Interdisciplinary Vision for Life in a Sacred Universe ed. by Carol J. Dempsey and Russell A. Butkus (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999).
12. George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) 225. The polyvalence of Jewish interpretation has been forcefully exposited by James L. Kugel, The Bible As It Was (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).
13. See my summary of the force of imagination in interpretation, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).
14. On the theme, see Walter Brueggemann, “The Faithfulness of Otherwise” (forthcoming). My phrase intends to allude to the phrasing of Emmanuel Levinas.
15. On the parables as a mode of generativity for the future, see Paul Ricoeur, “Biblical Hermeneutics,” Semeia 4 (1975) 114-145. idem. “The Bible and Imagination,” Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, asnd Imagination (ed. by Mark I. Wallace; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) 144-66.
16. On the category of “wonder,” see Martin Buber, Moses (Atlantic Highlands: NJ: Humanities Press International, 1946) especially 75-76, and my discussion of Buber’s insight, Brueggemann, Abiding Astonishment: Psalms, Modernity, and the Making of History (Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) 30-33 and passim.
17. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III 1 The Doctrine of Creation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958) 81, 91. See the discussion of the cruciality of imagination “after Wittgenstein, and especially on Barth by Fergus Kerr, Theology after Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997).
18. For an example of “ideology critique,” see David Penchansky, The Betrayal of God: Ideological Conflict in Job (Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990).
19. Distinctions can be made in the use of “ideology” in a Marxian sense (as here) and after the manner of Clifford Geertz. A helpful guide onthe concept is Paul Ricoeur, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
20. The passionate intentionality of the authors of texts has been forced upon the awareness of biblical scholarship by Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1979). After Gottwald, a host of scholars have joined issue on the matter.
21. On what follows, see Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation 61-64.
22. On “felt threats” as propulsions for interpretation, see Walter Brueggemann, “Contemporary Old Testament Theology: A Contextual Prospectus,” Dialog 38 (Spring, 1999) 108-16.
23. See Carolyn Pressler, The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws (BZAW 216; Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1993).
24. See Henri Mottu, “Jeremiah vs. Hananiah: Ideology and Truth in Old Testament Prophecy,” The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics ed. by Norman K. Gottwald (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1983) 235-51.