It has become almost self-evident that the way Christian persons are to interpret Holy Scripture comes from reconstructing history; through philological acumen; the ability to understand grammatical syntax, etc. While all of this, and more, is important towards culling the heft and riches of Scripture’s intent, in relation to its reality, Jesus Christ, it is not the only way to frame, nor I will suggest, the primary way we should approach the interpretation of the Bible.
And since I want this post to be meaningful, in a contemporary sense, I want to focus, once again, on how the above has been being played out at a popular level; particularly in and among Progressive Christians (which is a continuum of belief, no doubt) relative to Biblical interpretation. Suffice it to say, that the popular way, and not just for the Progressive Christians, to interpret Scripture is indeed by flattening Scripture out to a reduction of historical venettes that are purely naturalist in orientation. In other words, the Providence of God, and his life in Christ as the telos or purposeful ground for all of reality, inclusive of biblical reality and history, is no longer considered viable when constructing a hermeneutical theory alongside a text-critical apparatus. What I am suggesting in this post, is that this has deleterious consequences for the way that we as modern Christians conceive of a theory of authority (i.e. God and his Word), alongside, as corollary, a theory of history.
The theory of history that has become the dominant one among modern day Christian biblical exegesis is purely ‘linear’ (we will explain what this is just below). As Hans Frei has noted according to Matthew Levering, in regard to biblical vitality for us today: “[biblical history] can be brought to the highest degree of probability or the greatest possible moral certainty in accordance with all the logical rules of a historical proof” (Levering, 21). So, again, the Bible no longer is situated, by way of its ontology (i.e. in its ordered relation to God’s providential relation to the world) within God’s purposeful orientation, in Christ, for history; instead human history has become a naturalist thing, something that belongs to humanity as its own end. As such, when Scripture is placed into this ‘linear’ or human-alone matrix for understanding the relevance of history, it no longer has the possibility of being primarily steered by God’s providence and life-imbuing meaning; instead we (humanity) gets to decide what Scripture means, and this based upon our reconstructions of natural/human history as ends in themselves. In summary, then, the linear theory of history has abstracted humanity and ‘natural’ history from God’s life as the ultimate and primary ground of all reality and history. Modern day Christian exegesis is attempting to take this linear approach, do the ‘natural’ work of historical reconstruction, and then stuff God back into that conception of things (i.e. natural theology).
Matthew Levering in his very insightful way brings everything we have been sketching above together; he helpfully draws out the implications of following this naturalist linear theory of history, and its impact upon us modern day Christian exegetes. In his way, Levering asserts a better way forward, one of ‘participatory history,’ a theory that ought to ground the linear way, and bring us back to a submissive reading of Scripture wherein God’s life is the ultimate res or reality for a truly principled Christian reading practice of Holy Writ. Levering writes:
What happens, then, when Scripture is seen primarily as a linear-historical record of dates and places rather than as a providentially governed (revelatory) conversation with God in which the reader, within the doctrinal and sacramental matrix of the Church, is situated? John Webster points to the disjunction that appears between “history” and “theology” and remarks on the “complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology, through which the sensible and intelligible relams, history and eternity, were thrust away from each other, and creaturely forms (language, action, institutions) denied any capacity to indicate the presence and activity of the transcendent God.” Similary, Lamb contrasts the signs or concepts that can be grasped by modern exegetical methods with the moral and intellectual virtues that are required for a true participatory knowledge and love the realities expressed by the signs or concepts. Lacking the framework of participatory knowledge and love, biblical exegesis is reduced to what Lamb calls “a ‘comparative textology’ à la Spinoza.” Only participatory knowledge and love, which both ground and flow from the reading practices of the Church, can really attain the biblical realities. As Joseph Ratzinger thus observes, the meaning of Scripture is consituted when
the human word and God’s word work together in the singularity of historical events and the eternity of the everlasting Word which is contemporary in every age. The biblical word comes from a real past. It comes not only from the past, however, but at the same time from the eternity of God and it leads us into God’s eternity, but again along the way through time, to which the past, the present and the future belong.
This Christological theology of history, which depends on a metaphysics of participation inscribed in creation, provides the necessary frame for apprehending the true meaning of biblical texts.
In short, for the patristic-medieval tradition and for those attuned to it today, history (inclusive of the work of historiography) is an individual and communal conversation with the triune God who creates and redeems history—and the Bible situates us in history thus understood. (Levering, 23)
We have covered a lot of ground, and too quickly (but such is the medium). In conclusion I simply want to assert that there are better ways to approach the interpretation of the Bible over and against what we have been told is the only way to interpret the Bible today as modern Christians (typified, popularly by Progressive Christians); i.e. in the linear alone frame (as described above). Clearly, we have more work to do if we really want to understand what reading the Bible from a participatory frame of knowledge is all about. We have seen in the quote from Levering that there is a complex of factors involved in the history of ideas that have led us to where we are today; yet even though there is this complex it is possible to identify general shifts in trajectory that have led us here to where we are, even now. Nominalism was mentioned by Levering, that is key to understanding things further. We will have to unfold that later. But even better you could pick up Matthew Levering’s book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation, and feast.