‘Qualified History’ – God’s Providence and Holy Scripture

I think John Webster offers a helpful way into Scripture (surprised?!) by identifying its proper placement vis-á-vis a doctrine of God’s providence. This way natural history does not get to frame Scripture; naked history does not get to holyscriptureframe it; but God in his providential work is understood as the one who provides the space wherein Scripture finds orientation. And it is in this providential space that salvation-history, and thus scripture, find their integrity; not before God, but after him. Here is what John Webster writes (be blessed!):

The human words of Scripture are caught up in God’s providential ordering of all things in accordance with his wisdom and by the operation of his power, Providence, in other words, is at the heart of the historia scripturae. Setting Scripture in the realm of providence excludes from the beginning the secularization of the history from which the biblical texts emerge. It is insufficient to describe this history as a realm of pure human spontaneity, a history of religion in the sense of a realm of immanent of sociocultural forms. This is not to deny that the texts are cultural products with cultural effects; their mysterious, providentially ordered relation to the divine Word cannot be accounted for by envisaging them as miraculous exceptions to the pragmatics of text production and productivity. Talk of providence does not eliminate the natural and cultural so much as indicate their deep ground in God, and thereby articulate what the natural and cultural truly are. Put differently, the historia scripturae is ‘qualified history’ – history which is determined by God’s ruling, accompanying and preserving.

This does not mean that Scripture is less than history. The operations of providence sustain creaturely life and activity, directing and animating rather than stultifying. In the high culture of biblical Wissenschaft it is often assumed that talk of God’s relation to the human words of the Bible will inevitably compete with and supplant their naturalness. If we are to think our way out of the assumptions, we have to free ourselves from some rather well-seated habits of mind: the collapse of ‘created’ into ‘natural’; the presumption that the nature of things can be grasped without reference to their divinely given finality; the fear that divine governance is mere extrinsic, causal compulsion. God’s providential activity does not force created realities against their natures, but orders those natures in such a way that they move themselves to their true end. Providence is ‘a necessity of nature’. Applied to the biblical writings this means that God’s providential ordering of the history of the biblical writings is not a deviation from natural history, properly understood, but an interior movement in which God accomplishes his will for creatures by creatures. When we say that God orders the course of these texts to serve his self-manifestation, we are not describing a second history running alongside their natural history – a mythological Dopplegänger to the history of human religion and textual poetics. We are simply saying what the history of Scripture is. This is the first, most general, aspect of the mystery of Scripture, of the divine Word as human words. [John Webster, The Domain of the Word, 14-5.]

Webster proceeds to share two more points in regard to Scripture’s giveness; here is how he presents his thesis on Scripture (this paragraph that I am about to quote from Webster actually proceeds the two paragraphs I just quote from him above):

Rather than deploying a Christological analogy, it is more fruitful to approach the matter by pondering the sequence of three terms: providence, sanctification and inspiration. Together, the three terms indicate the scope of God’s work in relation to the scripture words, starting from the most general characterization of God’s purposeful dealings with created occurrence, through his formation of specific instruments to serve in his self-communication, to his particular work of making these instruments suitable for and effective in discharging the office to which they are called. [Ibid.]

I will share the next two terms from Webster later (i.e. on sanctification and inspiration, respectively).

What I think is lacking in much of biblical studies, to be frank, is a failure to be self-critical and conscious about articulating their doctrine of Scripture. I think biblical commentaries ought to have a prolegomena preceding said commentary. This would force the commentator to, indeed, be self-critical and allow their readers to better understand their doctrine of Scripture; which is very important, actually, toward understanding how and why said commentator has come to their interpretive conclusions in the body of their various works (i.e. their commentaries). I don’t think it is enough for a commentator to simply ride on the coat-tails of their asserted ecclesial tradition, or socio-cultural posture (e.g. conservative, liberal, post-critical, post-liberal, post-conservative, Reformed, Arminian, Lutheran, etc.); they need to be prescient about their own approach to an ontology and doctrine of Scripture. For the most part biblical studies guys and gals have failed in this area.

John Webster could be, and should be somebody that biblical commentators might appeal to in articulating their own approach to a doctrine of Scripture. This issue is much too important, hermeneutically, to simply allow it to remain in the category of ‘understood’. I have a hard time believing, to be honest, that most biblical commentators actually do understand their own doctrine of Scripture; I think they just inherit, uncritically, for the most part, whatever posture and trad is present within the halls of their respective places of training (grad and post-grad). In the end, for someone to approach Scripture as a Christian, they ought to do so, I think, through the contours of thought indicated above by John Webster. Scripture is not a naked history waiting to be reconstructed; it represents, instead, the signs of a God-given history, which are oriented towards his ends, and his end in Jesus Christ as the telos and purpose of all of history. There aren’t multiple histories, there is just one, and it is given and secured by God himself in his providential reality in a Christ-concentrated form.

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