Learning How To Read Scripture As Christians, Through Understanding Scripture’s Proper Placement

If you have ever struggled with biblical interpretation and hermenutical theory (i.e. your philosophy of Biblical interpretation), maybe part of that struggle has been because of unconscious captivity to a certain mode or bible-cover-pagephilosophy of Biblical interpretation that you have inherited from your own Christian tradition (denomination, etc.). Maybe it is because you have been holding to a doctrine of Scripture (and an ontology or ‘reality’ of Scripture) that has been hindering you from fully engaging in a genuinely Christian attempt at reading Scripture.

I think my above hypothesis is probably true for most of us Evangelical Christians, in particular; but also true for so called Liberal Christians, neo-Orthodox Christians, and whatever other variety of Christian there might be. If so, then John Webster provides a good picture of the differences between the typical approach (with various expressions) of Biblical interpretation—and how that is previously related to a prior commitment to a particular doctrine of Scripture—and a truly and principled Christian reading of Scripture (as related to Scripture’s placement within a theological account). Here is what John Webster communicates:

[I]n Christian theological usage, Scripture is an ontological category; to speak of the Bible as Holy Scripture is to indicate what it is. In applying the designation ‘Scripture’ to the biblical writings, we are not simply or primarily indicating something about the place which these texts occupy in the religious or moral world of their readers; nor are we describing our own intentions and those who make use of these texts. ‘Scripture’ is not merely a morally or socially evaluative term, an epithet of honour which draws attention to the veneration bestowed upon these writings by a particular community. To say ‘Scripture’ is to say ‘revelation’, not just in the sense that these texts are to be handled as if they were bearers of divine revelation, but in the sense that revelation is fundamental to the texts’ being. Revelation engenders Scripture, and in that relation of being engendered Scripture is what it is. By ‘revelation’ here is meant the communicative presence of the risen one in the Spirit, his resounding divine voice ‘like the sound of many waters’ (Rev. 1.15; cf. Ezek. 43.2). Scripture has its being in the ‘word’  (the magisterial self-utterance) of the risen one. Brought into being by that word, made resonant by it, the biblical texts are caught up in the exalted Christ’s proclamation of himself and his glory.

Such affirmations resist the historical naturalism to which accounts of the nature of Scripture quickly succumb. Once the historia scripturae is allowed to be determinative of the way in which the ontology of Scripture is conceived, then the biblical texts become a subset of the larger category of ‘texts in general’. They may still, of course, be distinguished by certain contingent properties which pick them out from other members of the class; but in a naturalist textual ontology such properties indicate the attitudes, policies or evaluations of the users of the biblical texts, but do not give any direct indication of the place of the texts in a divine economy. The biblical texts may be lifted beyond other texts by virtue of their content (doctrinal, moral, experiential); but explanation of this difference remains at the level of interpretive or religious intention. No language of divine action is required for determining what the texts are, for they are essentially ‘historical’ entities. They are to be conceived as the products of human religious agency, occupying and doing their work in an immanently conceived communicative field. As such, investigation of their natural properties and the natural properties of the agents of their production, dissemination and interpretation, is sufficient. To such investigations, evaluations of their religious significance may be contingently attached, but must remain subsidiary to the definition of what the biblical texts are. [John Webster, The Domain Of The Word, 39.]

Most of what counts today as Biblical exegesis, even among Evangelical Christians has been given its reality by way of ‘historical naturalism’. Indeed, I could think of many academic Christian Biblioblogs, for example, that are given shape by this very mode of Biblical interpretation. It does not normally take its form from intentional Christian thinking about the Bible, instead it has allowed various historical-cultural forces (primarily from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries) to impinge upon its existence as a discipline of Christian exegesis. This same drift is true and evidenced in Christian theology in general; except in this arena, the exemplification of this is that Philosophers of Religion and Philosophy of Religion (and all of its assumptions) are baptized for Christians, as their theologians—but there is nothing methodologically significant about this, since these same Philosophers of Religion, if they happen to be Muslim, could take their same mode and practice and just apply it in the direction of Islam instead of Christianity. So there is nothing unique or special, either about this kind of typical “Christian” Biblical exegesis, and/or this type of “Christian” theology. Matthew Levering identifies similar things as Webster does, when he writes:

[…] By the eighteenth century, logical rules of historiography took priority over the Bible’s narrative as the ground on which Christians could understand themselves. These rules envisioned God’s action as radically “external” to human action, and thus extrinsic to historical accounts of Scripture’s genesis and meaning. In patristic and medieval hermeneutics, by contrast, not logical rules of historiography, but faith in providential God grounded the assumption that the books of the Bible displayed the divine patter of salvation. This faith nourishes and is nourished by the Church’s biblical reading, understood as a set of embodied and liturgical practices constituting the Church’s conversatio Dei. [Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation, 21-2.]

Neither, Webster, Levering, or myself are suggesting that engagement with the historical, grammatical and literary realities of the text of Scripture should not be the primary means by which we exegete Scripture. But what is being suggested is that without a proper understanding of Scripture’s placement (ontology) within God’s relationship to us (so Dogmatic), given its clothing by the humanity of Christ by His Spirit spiration, then Scripture and its interpretation becomes dislocated and lost in the wilderness of human proclivity; lost because it is not first and intentionally grounded in its reality in Christ. And thus Scripture is no longer read through the faith of Christ, but instead through the disorderly turns of natural history and man’s own disposition.

This entry was posted in Biblical Interpretation, Biblical Studies, Biblical Theology, Bibliology, Doctrine of Scripture, Hermeneutics, John Webster, Matthew Levering, Ontology Of Scripture. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Learning How To Read Scripture As Christians, Through Understanding Scripture’s Proper Placement

  1. Hi, Bobby

    I have not commented in a long time.
    I stil read your posts, though.
    They are beyond me theologically oftentimes
    but I usually still get the gist of what you’re saying.

    I’ve learned a lot reading your posts.
    So thank you once again.

    BTW, I really like the lay out of the blog right now (especially the white/orange contrast).

    QUESTION: do you experience burn out reading and studying so much?


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    HI Juan,

    Great to hear from you. I know that the way I usually write here at the blog is pretty technical for most. I wish I had more time to devote to my other intended blog, EC in Plain Language. I will have to try and at least put up one post there a week.

    Yes, I do get burned out some times. Ironically, the way I am refreshed is by reading more, even more scripture :-).


  3. Jerome says:

    Hi, Bobby – I’m with Juan Carlos on this – I read most of your posts and get the gist of them (I think!).

    This particular post is interesting to me as I’ve seen others denigrate theology and theological writings by say things like “we don’t follow writings, we follow the bible!” They seem to think that they are reading the bible in some kind of theological vacuum, with no presuppositions inherited from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, as you mentioned.

    The subject of your post would be a great candidate for EC in Plain Languange. I do check there every once in a while, hoping!


  4. Jerome says:

    Another reason your post rang a bell with me is my having read someone casting aspersions on the authenticity and trustworthiness of the received canon of scripture. Not exactly what you were talking about, but connected.


  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Jerome,

    I hope to write more an EC in Plain in Language; it actually takes more work (and thus time) to write in that mode than this one. Yeah solo scriptura is a huge problem for many Evangelical Christians. We do read Scripture alone, but it is never alone in the sense that we read it in an interpretive vacuum. I always like to use the issue and development and grammar of the Trinity to reduce this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion.

    The Text and Canon is demonstrably reliable. This just shows that people “out there” are very ignorant and speak of things they don’t know with too much confidence.


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