16 April 2008

the incarnational analogy

One might raise a variety of objections to using an incarnational analogy to explain the phenomenon of holy scripture - that is, seeing the incarnation of the divine Logos as human as a paradigm for understanding the relation between the human and divine within the inscripturated Word.

Various theologians have raised cogent objections, many of which have some traction (see, e.g., John Webster, Telford Work, Markus Barth, Andrew McGowan). Some of these objections focus upon the disanalogies between a text and the hypostatic union, though of course every analogy involves similarity within some differences.

But the most powerful objections, it seems to me, come from those who want to situate the phenomenon of scripture within a doctrine of general providence and of the Holy Spirit. In responding to these sorts of objections, I would suggest that part of the problem of the incarnational analogy is perhaps that our christology remains insufficiently pneumatological and our doctrine of creation and providence remains insufficiently christological.

Whatever the difficulties, however, it still remains the case that the incarnational analogy of scripture is both persistent and pervasive throughout Christian reflections upon God's word, from the time of the Fathers onward. Thus, it seems to me, that such an analogy, whatever its shortcomings, is not easily dismissed and is not entirely without some usefulness.

In what follows I want to simply register a brief response to one particular sort of objection to the incarnational analogy that I have sometimes come across. The objection is this: some portions of scripture appear to be divinely dictated to a human scribe. Thus, whatever generalizations we may make about scripture as a whole, the incarnational analogy is an ill fit with those portions of scripture that might reasonably be taken as "dictated."

Here's what I'd say by way of a response.

Does the incarnational analogy apply any less to cases of putative dictation? I suspect that such an objection has not fully thought through what it would mean for dictation to occur.

Even in a case of divine dictation to a human scribe, I would suggest that the incarnational analogy still fully applies. After all, inscripturation is a human process. Consider, for instance, how God might speak to his scribe. Does he place audible vibrations into the air? Does he take up existing forms within the scribe's mind from his past experience of language and culture? Does God make use of the scribe's own imagination or dreaming?

The means by which God dictates - the event of revelation and divine self-disclosure - would still involve thoroughly human, created means, even before the words made their way onto the parchment: particular sounds, in a particular language, at a particular time and place, with all the ordinary sorts of ambient distractions, possibilities for mis-hearing, mis-copying, and so forth.

Moreover, the event of divine dictation would be embedded within a particular sequence of events by which the scribe would be able to recognize and understand these words to be those of God and not of his own mere imagination or a hallucination or the voice of an evil spirit. Thus there is still an ineliminable interpretive element for the scribe in his assessment that his situation is in fact one of God speaking to him for the purpose of his writing it down.

Beyond that, there is the role of the Spirit in shaping the scribe's experience and activity in such a way that he not only accurately transcribes all that he writes down, but also that he leaves nothing out and adds nothing of his own where he might be inclined to "fill out" what God is saying.

And finally, we would have to give some consideration to the irreducibly human and situated process by which the dictated text would make its way into a collection and perhaps even undergo editing, updating, and contextualization into the life of the believing community.

Therefore, it seems to me that there is still a fully and richly human element even in the event of divine dictation of scripture and that the incarnational analogy would apply there as well as anywhere. So objection to the incarnational analogy from the possibility of cases of dictation fails.