21 July 2006

scripture, authority, and interpretation

A turn of phrase in recent conversation reminded me of an extended exchange I had with a friend some 11 or 12 years ago.

The friend to whom I was writing was in the midst of questioning his faith, having earlier adopted a peculiar version of an evangelical doctrine of inerrancy, with a presuppositionalist twist, that tended to identify one particular way of construing biblical doctrine (a matter of human interpretation) with the Word of God itself understood as fully perspicuous. Faced with some life circumstances, his sociological studies, his growing sense of historical contingency, his reading of figures such as James Barr, and several personal issues, his once carefully-crafted, though precarious doctrinal certainty came crashing down like a house of cards.

The topic of our exchange, therefore, centered on the authority and interpretation of Scripture, particularly (as I wrote at the time) "how we can do justice to Scripture as both the authoritative Word of God and also as a human product, written, collected, and redacted within time, place, language, and culture." For my friend, the notion of Scripture's authority and inerrancy seemed to imply that Scripture must somehow be above time and history and particularity. These were, at least, the presenting issues in our exchange, though I perceived that they were symptomatic of other matters and motivations that could be less easily handled through a written exchange.

I've been cleaning out some files lately (thus the post below on pastoral counseling), and so today I hunted around for this more than decade-old written correspondence. I found it and realized that it came to some 20 single-spaced pages at my end of the conversation. It's always interesting to encounter a tangible witness to oneself from the past, to whom one was at that time and what one was thinking in years gone by.

I'm certainly not going to reproduce the whole conversation (especially since I don't have it in electronic format). But I thought I might post some excerpts as a little window into my own trajectories of thought over the years. Remember, however, that these are words I wrote over a decade ago, in my mid-20s. Thus they can't be taken to necessarily represent what I believe now. And even where I would still agree with myself, I might word things rather differently today.

I'll post my side of the exchange in two halves. Below is the first half in which I tried to tackle some general issues of God, creation, humanity, and in that context, the authority of Scripture. I'll post the second half, dealing with questions of interpretation and tradition, at some later point.

...Much of the mainstream scholarly work that has been done in relation to Scripture, concerning the historically situated character of knowledge and thought, has been done in a largely critical manner, carried out often enough from a standpoint of unbelief, anti-supernaturalistic assumptions, and Enlightenment rationalism.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, have sometimes tended to ignore or downplay the fully human aspect of Scripture, bringing in at times their own unbiblical, rationalistic, and pietistic assumptions (an over literalistic hermeneutics, a radically democratic notion of Scripture's perspecuity, evidentialism and epistemological foundationalism, a disregard for creeds, confessions, and theological traditions, and so forth). For these reasons and others, I too am uncomfortable in seeing myself as an "evangelical" as that is typically understood in our cultural context, though I do very much hold to Scripture's inerrancy and many other standard evangelical distinctives (e.g., the Reformational "solas"). But I prefer to think of myself in terms of confessional Reformed orthodoxy or, if stressing my high regard for the project of the early Reformers (Bucer, Calvin, Vermigli, etc.), as a reformed, protesting catholic.

At this juncture in our contemporary situation, then, I see some of the issues facing us as Christians to center on the nature of truth and revelation, the character of human life in all its concrete conditions, and how we are to articulate the life-giving Gospel of Jesus in such as age as ours. It is of utmost importance to the church's mission, then, to get clear on who God is, the person of Christ, and what they have spoken to us, particularly as that revelation reveals us as human persons to ourselves, both individually and in communities and cultures...

...Far too often western theology has emphasized the unity of God at the expense of the plurality and diversity within the Godhead - Father, Son, and Spirit - and the manifestation of that in the Person and work of Christ by whom God is made known. This neglect of the Trinity has been detrimental to the contours of western thought and has led, in various ways, to the conditions of modernity (see Michael Buckley's At the Origins of Modern Atheism for details)...

...As the relationship between Christ and his Father is expressed in the Johannine literature we find that the Father gives his glory over to the Son and the Son to the Father (e.g., Jn 12:27-33; 13:31-32; 17:1-5; 1Jn 3:16; 4:7-21). While these divine relationships are manifest in human history and salvation history, they are God's revelation of himself in Christ. The church has recognized that what is derivatively true of God as seen in creation and redemption ("economically"), must also be eminently and analogically true of God as he is in himself ("immanently"). Otherwise, it isn't "revelation" and, even if there is always infinitely more that we cannot say about God, we have to maintain the truth of what can be said through God's self-disclosure in the economy of creation and redemption.

Therefore, while I don't really know the best way to put this, I think we have to say that this trinitarian giving over of self, the complete openness to the Other within the Godhead is central to the life of God and is why God is not just characterized by lovingness, but is love. Greek orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras writes,
Each Person exists not for himself, but he exists offering himself in a community of love with the other Persons. The life of the Persons is a "co-inherence" of life, which means: the life of one becomes the life of the other; their Existence is drawn from the actualization of life as communoon, from life which is identified with self-ofering, love. (Elements of Faith, 36)
In part, this is the implication of the ecumenical creeds: the Father, Son, and Spirit are "homoousion" and yet the "hupostasis" of the Son is eternally begotten and that of the Spirit is eternally proceeding from the Father who eternally begets and sends.

Therefore, who each person is, is received from the other and finds its source in the primacy of the Father as the "fount of divinity." And it is to the Father that all returns - the Spirit gives himself over to the Son and together the Spirit and Son give themselves to the Father. Within what Maximos the Confessor calls an "eternal movement love," no one person ever loses his individual character or attributes in giving all to the others. Rather, the distinct nature of each person is constituted by his active relationships to the others. And so unity and diversity in God are co-eternal and both important and, in fact, make God who he is.

This has profound implications for our doctrines of creation, of revelation, of the nature of humanity, and of redemption. It is in God's nature to give himself, to give over his own love, glory, knowledge, and so forth, to another. Since God is a community of love in himself, it was not necessary for him to create anything nor does God gain anything or change by creating. Unlike the eternal relations within the Godhead, God's relation to the creation is not eternal or necessary since creation is distinct from God, brought into being by him in addition to his own existence.

But given the fact of creation and the revelation in Christ of God as Trinity, we can discern part of God's purposes in creation as an overflow of his love. Part of point of creation was God to communicate himself - his own love and glory - to something outside of himself. Such a creation would, of course, bring glory to God (as the Son both is given and gives back the Father's glory), but that self-glorification is not one that circumvents the glorification of creation itself. As friends find their own joy in the joy of their friend, so our already all-glorious God finds glory in transforming the created world from glory to glory.

This also has implications for the integrity of creation as created. Even as the Son receives his personal being from that Father and yet exists in his own unique person, character, and integrity, so also in an analogical way, the creation has real existence, real laws, real powers, real structures, real patterns and processes truly given by God. Nevertheless, even as the Son does not act or will apart from or contrary to the Father, but in and through him, so also in an anaological way, the creation behaves only within and in dependence upon the loving providence of God.

Every event and aspect of creation (including human beings and human language and culture, see below) is both a work and part of the creation itself and also a work of God and part of his providence. Thought it is an inadequate analogy, we can again think of the relationship between two people in which the joy, good, and pleasure of one are the joy, good, and pleasure of the other, so that in giving oneself over to the joy, good, and pleasure of the other, one finds one's own joy, good, and pleasure. While this is reflected in God's relationship with the creation, that relationship must also, of course, be seen in the context of the creation's metaphysical dependence upon God's loving lordship exercised within in the creation's own wholly gifted powers...

...Human beings, individually and corporately, are created in the image of our Triune God where Christ - or rather, the eternal Son, Ikon, and Logos of the Father, within the Spirit - is the archetype of humanity's own imaging of God. In part this means that it is God's desire to transform us by grace into what he is by nature, as attested to by Peter (2Pt 1:3-4) as well as the Pauline theology of adoption. We don't become God, of course, but we become as much like God as is possible for finite creatures in his image. While this is definitively and initially accomplished for us by our union with Christ (as the truly human image of God) in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, it will not become fully ours until the consummation of all things. Even then it will, I think, still be something into which we will continually grow given the infinite difference between ourselves and God...

...So, what's all this have to do with revelation, Scripture, interpretation, culture, and so on? In part, it means that we image God in Christ not only as individuals, but also as communities, cultures, and as a species. The real diversity that exists in human life and being - diversity of individuals, languages, relationships, communities, cultures, and so forth - this is a diversity we would anticipate once we understand God's revelation of himself as Triune.

God, after all, had expected and desired people to "multiply and fill the earth," moving outward, diversifying, developing different cultures and languages. The people at Babel were refusing to take up this human vocation in their hubris to construct a human unity on their own efforts. In this light consider that Pentecost was not really a reversal of Babel, but rather its fulfillment, being freed from the effects of human sinfulness, within the sphere of redemption. Distinct languages and cultures are not obliterated by Christ's work, it seems, but truly opened to one another in a community of love and fellowship around the Apostle's teaching, the holy eucharist, sharing together in the communication of good things, and prayer.

This is all part of what it means to be made in the image of the God revealed in Christ and, in Christ as the true image of God, to be restored. Lesslie Newbigin writes:
God, as he is revealed to us in the gospel, is not a monad. Interpersonal relatedness belongs to the very being of God. Therefore there can be no salvation of human beings except in relatedness. No one can be made whole except by being restored to the wholeness of that being-in-relatedness for which God made us and the world and which is the image of the being-in-relatedness which is the being of God himself. (The Open Secret 70)
And part of that "being-in-relatedness" involves the myriad of relationships and practices that constitute human culture and situatedness. God's salvation must therefore come through others, through our neighbors who have been called by God to bear his blessing to others, and with distinct cultural forms that are themselves the redemption of culture...

...All cultures are affected by sin, but Christ redeems cultures, yet in a way that retains their diverse integrity even within the unity that Christ brings to a broken humanity. This is part of the role of a church composed of every tribe, tongue, and nation - to act as the "cult" at the center of divinely transformed cultures. In the church human cultures are transformed by a new language, a new narrative, and new values (all rooted in the story of Scripture as the truly human story); they adopt new rituals and new ceremonies that mark out a new humanity (baptism, eucharist, unction, the laying on of hands, etc.); and they develop new communal practices and a new discipline (the New Testament "one anothering" passages, mutual confession and encouragement, love, prayer, excommunication, etc.). Moreover, reflecting God's own Triune life, this diversity of culture is united in love because, not only does each member serve the others in the Body, but also each community and cultural expression is to be for the service of others in their growth in Christ, in knowledge and grace, into the fullness of redeemed humanness.

Another perspective upon this, continuing this line of thought, is to consider God as he is revealed by the Son as "Logos." As Logos - the Name and Word - God eternally speaks. This is manifest in God's creation of the universe, as Genesis has it, by speaking it into existence and upholding it by the Word of his power (that is, Christ, in whom and through whom and for whom are all things). Human beings, in God's image, also speak and in doing we, derivatively under God, create "worlds" for ourselves. This isn't to say that the material, concrete world isn't real nor is it to espouse some form of idealism. Rather it implies that our experience in the world is mediated through discourse and always remains historically situated and limited, even perhaps to the extent that at least some objects of discourse are actually partly constituted by discourse itself and the practices it requires (e.g., "feminimity" or "insanity").

This doesn't mean that "anything goes" in the way we talk about and construct our social and cultural worlds or mediations of the world. But truth must be indexed to the way truth-speaking discourse handles reality and the form of life from which it emerges - whether or not that occurs out of Christian love and openness to God, to his good creation, and to each other and whether or not it genuinely and creatively extends the biblical narrative, appropriately improvising the Gospel-story into specific circumstances and cultural contexts. If so, then human speaking is receptively re-creative of God's own purposes.

Evangelicals are, I suspect, sometimes fearful of these sorts of ways of thinking because they worry that it entails some sort of relativism, but that simply is not the case. The variety of ways of acting out of love of God and neighbor isn't a free-for-all, but must remain loyal to the definite boundaries and trajectories of the biblical script. Moreover, we must not over-exaggerate the actual diversity of how human beings interact with the world at the expense of real human unity. As inculturated people ourselves, all sharing in the divine image, we can begin to understand other people, other communities, and other cultures, despite vast differences over time and place.

And though that understanding may often be partial, incomplete truth is still truth. How much more is understanding possible when cultures in their integral diversity, find unity in Christ which is characterized, in its best expressions, by loving openness (I'll touch on the critical, corrective side of this love later). And while unity will find its fullest expression only within the life of God's people, this side of the eschaton even that diversity in unity will fall short - sometimes tragically sort, given human sin and pride leading to blindspots, hyper-critical attitudes, exercises of power, and the like.

What emerges from this discussion is that God always intended from the beginning for there to be diversity and unity in human life, language, community, and culture, with neither unity nor diversity being absolutely ultimate, but rather co-inhering through love. God is infinite and as his image we have the potential, within ourselves and our relationships (personally, communally, and culturally), for near infinite depths and variation as we learn about God and about ourselves in relation to God (two tasks which, as Calvin notes at the beginning of his Institutes, are inseparably entwined).

Human diversity - including its cultural embeddedness and historical contingency and particularity - was intended by God as a contribution (not a barrier or limitation) to our understanding of him and of one another. Each language and culture has a unique perspective upon God and the human condition that it can contribute to our experience and understanding. Thought it is certainly true that, apart from Christ's redemptive work, sin distorts, uproots, and cuts short true understanding, in him, in the reality of Pentecost, a new way is opened up. In eternity, I imagine, entering into the fullness of the beatific vision will involve learning each others' langauges and cultures, and creating ever new modes of being in and understanding the world, in a process of eternal unfolding...

...If God intended, apart from sin, for each individual, community, and culture to manifest him from a particular perspective and in a particular way, then it should be no surprise to us that the Scriptures are a culturally embedded and conditioned document, written by ordinary people using ordinary means (researching, employing sources, consulting records, copying, editing, reworking, using literary artifice and modes of expression, etc.). This is all part of the "scandal of particularity" that is indispensable to a faith that is centered on the life, death, and resurrection of a particular first-century Jewish carpenter...

Scripture itself teaches us about the various modes and means by which God has made himself known, even apart from Scripture itself: the natural world, general history, the act of creation, redemptive events, God's mighty acts, miraculous signs, the divine voice, dreams and visions, the conscience, theophanies, and so on. God's revelation has come at many times and in various ways. While there is a complex relationship between modes of "general revelation" and "special revelation" (a variation on the relationship between nature and grace), in each instance God uses creation itself as the means of his own self-disclosure: events, perceptions, persons, minds, language, and so on...

The Scriptures are not merely a human record of the other kinds of revelation already mentioned (for instance, a record of Israel's experience of Yahweh), even if such a record were somehow written down at a divine prompting and divinely preserved from error. Rather, as traditionally understood, every part of Scripture is a word carried on the Breath of God and thus is "God-breathed." How precisely this is the case in respect to the human authorship of Scripture requires an examination of specific texts, as well as the narrative shape of the canon as a whole, since the Spirit used various methods including research, language, cultural symbols, dreams, and the like.

God always intended for the human, the cultural, the finite, the linguistic, the conditioned, to reveal him and to do so truly. Scripture's being a human product is not a problem or a difficulty to be overcome. Rather, the human problem is sin - a refusal to give oneself over to in love to God and others. Thus, through the Spirit's presence and work of love (opening the human authors to God and his people, consecrating all the very human work of authorship) Scipture is truly human (involving all human beings do as humans in the process of writing) as well as truly divine (fulfilling God's highest intent to reveal himself through human means)...

...God's relationship to the creation is one in which the actions, events, and processes of the created world are both attributable to God and to the creation itself, though not in a kind of 50/50 sum. Rather the creation is receptively creative, God's loving providence manifest in creation's own God-gifted powers so that all that exists and occurs, in its positivity and goodness, is wholly of God and wholly of the creation (though not in precisely the same ways). When God discloses and communicates himself through created media including human creative processes of composition, research, revision, and the like, we can again say that the result is truly human (part of the ordinary processes of creation, even if transformed by grace) as well as truly divine (since the processes of creation are always already the works of God)...

...Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is also the divine Logos who reveals the Father in all of Scripture. The Logos, therefore, is also whom the Scriptures reveal - not as if Scripture were a sign pointing to an absent reality, but in a manner akin to the sacraments, graciously making divine and soteric realities present. The Scriptures, therefore, are a disclosure of Christ himself as divine Logos and for this reason are sometimes ascribed divine attributes: holiness (Dt 31:26; 2Ti 3:15), eternity (Ps 119:89, 160), omnipotence (Ge 18:14; Isa 55:11; Lk 1:37), perfection (Ps 19:7ff.), worthiness as a object of reverence (Ps 34:5; 56:4, 10; 119:48; Isa 66:5). As a manifestation of Christ as Logos, the Scriptures are a primary means of God's saving power, presence, and mission in the world.

Nevertheless, the Logos became flesh and lived among us. Jesus Christ's humanity was not an elaborate pretense of being human, but a true humanity. He was born at a particular place, in a particular age, within a particular culture, was taught a particular language, practiced a particular religious tradition, with a personal appearance (hair, eyes, flesh, hands, carriage, facial expressions), particular ways of speaking (style, vocabulary, timbre, tone, volume). Christ ate and drank, sweated and bled. This concrete Incarnation sits at the heart of the Gospel.

Christ was both wholly God and wholly human, though in differing ways (the Person of divine Logos is eternally and necessarily God and assumed humanity to himself). Nevertheless, in his true humanity - united to the divine Person of the Logos and, in the Spirit, perfectly fulfilling our human vocation in loving openness to God and neighbor - Christ did not sin nor err. As the incarnate Logos, the faith of Christ working itself out in perfect love was the wholly consecrated means of God's own self-disclosure in all that Christ said, taught, believed, and enacted.

This doesn't necessarily mean that in his humanity Christ knew everything (for instance, I imagine he could be startled as anyone by a beetle scampering over his foot), nor that he spoke without complexity and ambiguity, nor that he even understood fully the implications and meaning of everything the knew, believed, and taught. Nevertheless, what Christ said, believed, did, and taught as a human person was precisely the true presence and self-communication of God that God intended, given the culture in which Christ appeared, according to the conventions of the languages that he spoke, and given the contexts in which he spoke and acted and for the purposes that he intended...

...Given all of what I've said, I think we are in a position to sum up what we can say about the nature of Scripture as the authoritative and true word of God. By God's special providence and grace - as creatures moved and shaped by God, as human beings created in the image of God and intended to disclose God, as people lovingly transformed by the Spirit's presence in conformity to the true image of the eternal Logos - the authors of Scripture spoke and wrote what they did in a way that is both ordinary and unique.

Their activity was ordinary in all the respects we have already mentioned. It was unique in that these authors, by the consecrating work of the Spirit, were so preserved from the effects of sin in their authorship of Scripture that they were singularly open to the love and influence of the divine Logos and were oriented to God, their world, and God's people in love. This is not to say that these human authors were, in general, sinless or never made mistakes. Rather it is to say that in the composition of Scripture the effects of sin and error were restrained and overcome by grace. In doing this God was not distorting or overthrowing the finite limitations of human embeddedness in language, community, and culture, but rather he was perfectly directing these realities to their highest intended ends.

In this way, then, God was present and active within the human composition of the Scriptures so that they can be said to be as much breathed out by God as they are truly human. And so, the words of Scripture are the words of Christ, the divine Logos, as the author and content of Scripture, even as human persons are also the authors and contents of Scripture.

"Inerrancy," therefore, need not imply that the Scriptures are "above time and history" as you suggested. This is because time and history (apart from the effects of sin) are not a problem to be overcome or a barrier to God's self-disclosure or the fabric of error. To say otherwise would entail, it seems to me, that Christ himself, in his humanity, as a person in time and history, was an inadequate revelation of God and his redeeming purposes and was an error-laden and misshapen representative of our human vocation. If that is so, then we cannot have fellowship with his righteousness and our faith is in vain.

Moreover, if Scripture is about God's mission to redeem humanity in all of its historical, concrete reality, then the Scriptures must be part of that reality. They cannot simply point elsewhere to some kind of abstract truth or to the human condition in general. If the object of redemption is humanity and, through us, the whole creation, then the biblical story must be one that is historical in character, situated in the messiness of human culture and community, itself one part of the great and infinitely complex human story. "Being human" isn't something that we can talk about in complete abstraction from the history and narrative of actual human lives and peoples. As Newbigin says, "the biblical story is not a separate story," but rather the place in which the meaning and redemption of the whole human story is disclosed.

And this redemption is not yet complete, but takes shape as we read and interpret the biblical story, learning by faith to become actors in that great drama, taking up our divinely-assigned roles in God's redemptive mission through the church, and finding creatively faithful ways of improvising that story, carrying its narrative trajectory into ever new contexts...

I'll leave off there transcribing my side of this exchange since, as you can probably tell, it's about to venture into the question of interpretaion, tradition, the project of the theology and so forth. Unfortunately, at the time I wrote this, I hadn't encountered the work of guys such as Kevin Vanhoozer or John Webster or others who, today, I consider important and influential over my own thinking. Still, I've been intrigued to get a glimpse of a long past version of myself.

In any case, I'll post the rest of the excerpts later.