Reading Scripture: No Easy Task

I said this about 2012, I will say it about 2013, and I expect it for 2014. In all the books concerning Theology and Christianity that I’ve read the past couple of years, whether they be written for lay people or academics, a recurring theme continually strikes me as having incalculable significance for today’s Church. Reading the Bible is no easy task, and yet it is vital to the life of the Church.

This past week I’ve read Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture together with N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God. Initially it was very clear that they take different approaches to understanding (and Hauerwas would prefer I said using) Scripture.

Wright appears to fall very neatly into the Historical Critical camp, writing against fundamentalism:

Genuine historical scholarship is still the appropriate tool with which to work at discovering more fully what precisely the biblical authors intended to say. We really do have access to the past; granted, we see it through our own eyes…Real history is possible; real historians do it all the time. Real, fresh, historical readings of the Bible, measured rigorously by the canons of real historical work, can and do yield fresh insight.”

In his book, Wright analyzes the polarization of debates and the need for fresh Kingdom-oriented, historically rooted exegesis. He has an entire chapter that lists out the major misreadings of the “left” and “right.”

Hauerwas takes a different approach, as he usually does I am told. His book is written to ask:

“Is your Bible made in the USA? Most Christians assume that they have a right, if not a pious obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.”

The two most common reactions for folks who haven’t read Hauerwas before are to assume that he is either an elitist lunatic or that he can’t actually be serious, he just means to shock. I can tell you that after having read the book, neither is true. While Hauerwas does want to shock Christians on the one hand, he is doing it with the utmost seriousness, humility, and sincerity. I think the book makes a compelling case in support of the thesis I quoted above. Though, being a History major and having read Wright and others like him for some time now, I still feel comfortable in the higher criticism camp of interpretation. Contrasting with the view Wright portrays in his quote, Hauerwas writes:

I believe that the battle between literalistic fundamentalism and critical approaches to the Bible is the result of the abstraction of the text of the Bible from such practices. They share the assumption that the text of the Bible should make rational sense (to anyone), apart from the uses that the Church has for Scripture. Fundamentalism and biblical criticism seek to depoliticize the interpretation of Scripture on the grounds that the text has an objective meaning. The result is unchecked power to some interpreters over Scripture without such power being justified.”-p.18

Scripture can be rightly interpreted only within the practices of a body of people constituted by the unity found in the Eucharist. The Church, as the body of Christ, stands first and is more full than Scripture. This does not limit Scripture, but it reminds us that Christ appears before us not only in Scripture, but in the Church.” Hauerwas goes on to mention the earliest Christians not having the written gospels, and so text could not be the sole source of knowledge. The Church acted according to the spirit of the Gospel, and the Gospel came to life in the Church. There is a complex relationship between community and text, and in this case Church and Scripture.

Hauerwas also critiques Sola Scriptura when it is used to mean sola text, saying: “That Christians have thought it possible to translate our Scriptures should be sign enough that no strong distinction can be made between text and interpretation.” There is also a lot of good writing about America and individualism resulting in destructive understandings/uses of Scripture.

To the above, Wright responds in his own book: “…one hears it said frequently that all reading of scripture is a matter of interpretation, with the implication that one person’s interpretation is as good as another’s. This is of course a classic postmodern position that there are no such things as texts, only interpretations, since when I read a text it becomes something different from what it becomes when you read it (Heisenberg’s uncertainty again).”

Hauerwas responds:

“Fundamentalists and biblical critics alike argue that their project is to get to the text’s “real meaning.” But of course the text has no real meaning, rather Scriptures are maintained by the Church as having particular prominence because Christians have learned that the Scriptures exist to further the practices of witness and conversion. If i deny the text has a meaning, some biblical scholars fear an uncontrollable subjectivism. Interpreters, especially laity, can simply make of the text anything they wish, creating the meaning of the text at will. Such a presumption however assumes the only entities involved are the text and the individual interpreter. Texts and interpreters, however, work only within contexts that make what they have to say irrelevant or interesting. Of course the Church creates the meaning of Scripture.”

When time allows it, I’d like to lay out completely the ways in which Wright and Hauerwas have written the two books almost completely parallel to the other. Both are incredible scholars, and as I have read so much of Wright the last three years, I am looking forward to owning much more that which Hauerwas has written as well.

The differences are clear, but there is an extremely unavoidable similarity in their books: The need for a transformed self and spiritual formation.

Hauerwas writes: “According to Athanasius, any attempt to make Scripture intelligible in and of itself can only be seen as an attempt to protect ourselves from the challenge of having our lives changed. Such change means making our lives available to others who have begun such a transformation. In short, if we are to understand Scripture it is necessary that we place ourselves under authority, a placement that at least begins by our willingness to accept the discipline of the Church’s preaching.”

And Wright echoes: “We urgently need an integrated view of the dense and complex phrase “the authority of Scripture.” Such an integrated view needs to highlight the role of the Spirit as the powerful, transformative agent. It needs to keep as its central focus the goal of God’s Kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus on earth as in heaven and one day to be completed under that same rubric. The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion: that the shorthand phrase the authority of scripture, when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church–precisely as the Scripture-reading community.”

 

 

What is the New Perspective on Paul?

In the past week, I had two of my closest friends ask what on earth the New Perspective on Paul was about. I really did enjoy talking through some of the bigger issues like the shape of Paul’s theology, specifically his revised Jewish understanding of election, justification, and eschatology because of his central belief that Jesus was promised and long desired King of Israel. An exhaustive look at the NPP is something completely beyond me, but I am about 3/4 of the way through N.T. Wright’s massive book Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I also own, but have not read, James D.G. Dunn’s book entitled The New Perspective on Paul and E.P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. 

This short video features two well respected New Testament scholars, and also two of the important emerging voices from amongst the more properly titled New Perspectives on Paul (emphasis on the plural). You might note from their words that before there can be a NPP, the foundational work has to be in a new perspective of Judaism–which is why Sander’s book takes such an important role as an initiator of NPP studies. Let me know what you think: