The Despised Word of God

John Webster describes, well, the pitfalls associated with engaging with Scripture in academic mode. He has been developing how Scripture, critically engaged, has fallen prey to a dualism (nominalism) that results with the practice of engaging it from a purely naturalistic standpoint; instead of dealing with it as it is, God’s Word! And I would want to extrapolate and apply his point out further into the realm of not just the academic (“critical”) handling of the text of Scripture, but also how that gets fleshed out in non-academic ways. For either the academic or the non-academic (Christian), Scripture, when dealt with dualistically—pressing a hard line between a so called ‘sacred & secular’—results in engaging with a Text that has been annexed to our own proclivities. For the academic, this means developing tools of inquiry that treat Scripture as if it is something that man has control over instead of the place where God contradicts man’s tools and thoughts. For the non-academic, this kind of approach results in engaging with Scripture as if it is a place where I get my daily spiritual fix, it is a place, again, that I largely control (by my emotional state), instead of a place where God is free to contradict our ‘spiritual fixes’ and various emotional states (as he did with Job for example). Here is what Webster writes in regard to the academic (critical) side of a faulty understanding of Scripture’s ontology (or placement relative to its location in God’s Self communication):

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[W]hatever one makes of the details, these kinds of narratives can at least serve to unsettle some of the habits which sustain much modern – by, for example, showing that historical criticism is as much a metaphysical as an historical or literary enterprise. But the pathologies are not unproblematic. As the doctrinal level, they can exhibit something of an imbalance toward the order of creation, and, within that locus, an unease about making much of the distinction between created and uncreated being; and, in at least some accounts, the order of creation outweighs the order of reconciliation. But a further point should be registered: the heart of the difficulty we face in attending to Scripture is not the conceivability of revelation’s taking creaturely form but our antipathy to it. Lost creatures (and the not-so-lost in the church) make Scripture’s humanity a ground for despising its embassy. We do not care for prophets and apostles, because they set before us the sermo divina; and so we spurn them – sometimes in high theory, but more often in baser ways. Once again, the history of conceptions of the Bible is spiritual as well as intellectual history, an episode in the wider course of the sinner’s rejection of the folly of the gospel and preference for ‘eloquent wisdom’ (1 Cor. 1.17). Prophetic and apostolic speech is contested (Jer. 15; Ezek. 2.3); it occurs in the history of rebellion of creatures against the divine Word. Thinking our way out of nominalism may be a necessary part of reconceiving the nature of Scripture and scriptural interpretation, but it can only take us to the threshold, so to speak. Once we are there, the real contest begins: between the prophets and apostles and those who will not listen to them, because they will not listen to God (Ezek. 2.7). [John Webster, Domain Of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason, (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 12.]

When Webster refers to ‘nominalism’, this is the ‘dualism’ that I was referring to in my pre-word to the quote (we won’t get into detailing what nominalism entails at the moment). The basic point of Webster is hard core, and one that most Christians (so a time to be self-critical once again!) don’t want to cozy up to. We would rather just remain satisfied with our cushy pew seats, our casual quiet times (if we even have those), and our all to prevalent privatized faith where we have taken God’s Word captive to our own sentiment; and this captivity has been won precisely because of it. Meaning that we cannot even hear from God through Scripture because we think we are, and we aren’t; we aren’t because we have taken it captive by our own dire situations, our own life circumstances, and molded Scripture’s purpose into meeting those needs, and thus dis-allowing God’s “needs” to be heard through His Word against our words. We cannot distinguish God’s Word from our own, because we have made our words, His (all clothed in good purpose and good will, on our side).

The academic appropriation and engagement of Scripture flows, largely, from the posture I just sketched.

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4 comments

  1. Great stuff, as usual.

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  2. Thank you, Joshua :-)!

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  3. You know, it always bugs me when you say “academic” as though it meant something irreverent. I have a goat, and you’ve gotten it. But it’s equally lazy to critique the laity as indolent and self-indulgent. You’re better than this. Do better than straw-men and stereotypes, or do without and simply argue your point without leaning on third parties.

    Now, if I recall correctly, Webster leaves a necessary dualism in the nature of scripture as creature, in that it is graced, but not therefore less creaturely. Certainly it is, as you have suggested, a place where the self-revelation of God in freedom contradicts us. But scripture does not, for all of that, stand above us. Its nature is not other than our own. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with studying it as a created thing among created things, something that is indeed wholly accessible to our analysis in ways that God never is. Its words are the words of a creature bearing witness. This does not make them superior words. This does not make them God’s own speech, except as God takes them up in any instance—and we may say the same of our own words.

    With regards to nominalism, you do need to specify what it is, especially to be clear that you have understood what Webster means by it in this case. It isn’t just any dualism, and it isn’t even properly a dualism at all. Nominalism has to do with the adequatio mentis ad rem, and the idea that there is an innate capacity for understanding the world, and also that the world simply is the collection of things. In this case, it seems to be a reference to the treatment of scripture as a thing that can be known simply in the conversation of the intellect with the thing. If you wish to push the point that scripture at its best draws us into a conversation with God, that’s one thing. It is a creature, and a graced one, one that refers outside itself to the Word of God, and is by grace itself the Word of God, as God speaks through its witness. (As, Barth would argue, is our preaching.) But don’t drag loaded binaries like “sacred” and “secular” into the matter to muddy the waters. The wax nose of scripture is no less real because we twist it. Scripture in fact has a wax nose. All words do. Only when God speaks, can we hear the Word of God. This is nothing against nominalism, except to say that there is also a reality beyond scripture with which this creature is intended to put us in conversation. It isn’t as though the text, as a creature, is itself the speech of God.

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  4. Then be “bugged,” Matt. It ain’t lazy, it is reflective of my perception. Something that bugs me, and it is something you have a proclivity for, is telling me what you perceive my perception should be as if my perception of things can be enclosed, somehow, by yours. Wrong! I speak and write from my perception of things; that doesn’t mean it is a right perception, but it also does not mean it is wrong, especially in the apparently self evident kind of way it is to your perception. Your perception is yours, and mine is mine. Plus you are totally reading a whole bunch into my identification of ‘academic’ that I didn’t even communicate.

    I will just say of your points on Webster, you will have to read what he writes in this book. Your understanding of him seems much more Barthian, than he himself actually is. As I read him he is much more Trad in his thinking of Scripture’s ontology; he utilizes concepts like Providence, Sanctification, and Inspiration—Unity, Sufficiency, and Authority in ways that go beyond Barth. In a way that sees Scripture, as creaturely, but more than creaturely as it is taken up by the Spirit’s perfecting (so rather neo-Thomist). Anyway, Webster, as I read him, actually does see Scripture more than just a created thing to be studied; but the place where viva vox Dei is encountered in an inspired way, a way that clearly involves attestation of its res, but in a way that has already happened and continues to happen afresh (so the Perfect tense, not just the Present), but in a special way; in a way that won’t happen again, as it did, providentially, among the Prophets and Apostles.

    I don’t really need to specify what I mean by nominalism, but since you took the time to engage that point I’ll respond a little. I don’t agree with you, nominalism is dualistic; the potentia absoluta/ordinata in relation to a doctrine of God says something ontologically, not just epistemologically about how a nominalist conceives of reality as it starts in a conception of God and his being and act. And in this simplest understanding of nominalism it, indeed, represents a dualism (i.e. there is an A and a B that may or may not be analogically related, they could be equivocally related … i.e. like the absoluta to the ordinata—either way, these two conceptions of God’s being and act represent two things of God, and thus in a very denotative way, a dualism).

    You wrote: “It isn’t as though the text, as a creature, is itself the speech of God.

    Webster would disagree with you in a qualified way. He is much more on the Traditional pendulum of things and less on the Liberal; so am I.

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