I wrote this on FaceBook this evening:
I think the power of reception, when reading the Bible, as far as interpretive and even meaning generation, is more powerful than many might think. At least as I contemplate this this is what is standing out to me. And at some level I would attribute this more to a participatory reading practice embodied by the church through the centuries rather than say something like a PostModern understanding of reader response. I think it has to do with dialogical realities between Christ and His church, and the imagination and creativity he evokes as we prayerfully submit ourselves to Him.
If I casually was scrolling through FaceBook and read this it might cause me a little bit of concern; it might make me think that whoever wrote this (if it wasn’t me) had abandoned the idea of authorial intentionality or the idea that God is a good communicator. But then as I got to the last few clauses I might see what this person was trying to say (if that person wasn’t me).
As Divine Providence would have it I just tonight bought a new book on theology, one written by Sarah Coakley called God, Sexuality, and Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’. Again, as Providence would have it, Coakley addresses exactly what I had in mind when I wrote what I did on FaceBook; and as far as chronology goes, I wrote what I did on FaceBook just prior to reading what I am about to quote for you from Coakley. Coakley helps explicate what I had in mind with my statement; particularly when it comes to ‘creativity’ and ‘imagination’ coram Deo (before God). I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I believed that meaning, relative to God, is not a stable thing, or something unbeknownst to him; instead what I had in mind was from our direction of things. As Thomas Torrance et al. often underscores an ‘order of being’ precedes an ‘order of knowing’; as such, while meaning is fully objectified (and subjectified) in Godself, we only see through a rose colored glass. If this is so, even as we repose in God’s full Self-revelation and exegesis in Jesus Christ, even as we’ve been given new antennae for God ‘in Christ’ (for knowing Him), we still suffer with the polluting effects of sin; we still don’t know fully as we are already fully known in Christ. This means that meaning, instead of my ‘generational’ language in my original FaceBook post, has the ability to be clarified over and over again (as we are changed from glory to glory by the Spirit, cf. II Cor. 3.18). So as Coakley astutely recognizes (along with other people like John Webster, Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth et al.) God draws us closer and closer to Him, and our knowledge of Him, through deepening our horizons relative to who He is within the bedrock parameters He has already provided of Himself as Triune God revealed in and by His Son, Jesus. He ‘illumines’ our imaginations, and allows for the human mind, grounded as it is in the archetypal human mind of Christ for us, to think even more aesthetically and more deeply about who He is (in se), as we encounter Him over and again by the Spirit in the evangel.
Coakley writes this, and it is this that I was originally trying to get at in my FaceBook post. She is referring to her theological approach, one that is grounded in prayer and deep contemplation. She is responding preemptively to the potential charges that hers is a subjectivist approach. It is her response to that where she not only answers for herself, but in her answer she helps to answer for me in regard to what I was attempting to suggest.
Finally, one charge that might be levelled against the theological approach outlined here should perhaps be faced and deflected immediately, at the close of this Prelude. That is, is the appeal to the life of contemplation, or deep prayer in the Spirit, necessarily tainted with subjectivism? Is it just another form of wish-fulfilment or projection, spun out of a misguided inner need for comfort or certainty? My answer to that charge would be a firm no; and at least three reasons will emerge, in this book and its successors, for countering that charge. The first is that, as already intimated, this approach does not involve a philosophically naïve appeal to ‘subjective experience’, as if that were somehow separable from the exercise of biblical exegesis, patient examination of tradition, reasoned theological exposition, and testing by the criterion of ‘spiritual fruits’. Rather, the practice of prayer provides the context in which silence in the Spirit expands the potential to respond to the realm of the Word, and reason too is stretched and changed beyond its normal, secular reach. This can be strangely far from ‘comforting’ as a new undertaking — indeed deeply anxiety-making in its initial impact. It cannot therefore be claimed to be an exercise in mere wish-fulfillment: its spiritual impact far exceeds what it finds to be confirming of original expectation.
The clearest illustration I can think of found in Holy Writ is the story of Daniel; this:
15 As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. 16 I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter … 28 Here the account ends. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly terrified me, and my face turned pale; but I kept the matter in my mind.
While Daniel is referring to visions, in principle I think it correlates to what Coakley is getting at. While in prayerful contemplation with all the saints we are pushed deeper into the verities of God’s life that opens us further to who He is. Indeed, He is such a consuming fire that our frail frames often lack the capacity to cope with the intensity of who He is; in Daniel’s case it caused psychological and physical sickness.
The point of all this, in my mind, is that our mode before God always needs to be in prayerful contemplation and dialogue with Him. It is through this that the church of Christ grows deeper into the one faith once for all delivered to the saints; it is in this mode wherein who God is in reality (meaning) is opened up further and further, and this modulated through Jesus Christ. This process of knowing God is one that is ‘eternal life’ itself (Jn. 17.3), and it involves the history and witness of the church militant and triumphant. It involves our imaginations and creativeness as those are enlivened by the imagination and creativity of the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2.16) which we are in participation with. In another post of mine, somewhat on this topic, David Guretzki wrote this to me:
Bobby, what if you instead thought of these authors as part (even if not the only) communion of the saints? We do not read scripture as individuals, but as the Church–of which these doctors of the Church are a gift (charism). The Protestant evangelical way of reading Scripture assumes perspecuity (clarity) available to all–that is its strength. But its weakness is that it too often has degenerated into a non-ecclesial way of reading scripture. It is precisely other voices that keeps us from hearing only the echoes of our own thoughts and subjectivities imposed upon scripture. The problem, of course, is that we are too often too selective of the voices we listen to. The danger is not that we read Barth or Aquinas or Augustine, but that we are too apt ONLY to read Barth, Aquinas, or Augustine (or Calvin or Luther, etc. etc.) and thus keep reconfirming too often our own subjectivities and biases.
This is in keeping with what I’m after with this post. We are part of the communion of the saints, and the Spirit has been working in the body of Christ for a long time. We are part of that body, and when we read Scripture we do so in reception of what has already come before through their witness. The body of Christ comes loaded with the mind of Christ spread throughout the centuries, and we can do nothing to disentangle ourselves from that (and of course we shouldn’t want to); thus it behooves us to participate in that great cloud, and actively engage with them through prayerfully engaging with our great God. He is the objective/subjective ground, and it is He, in Christ who regulates and informs our imaginations and creativity towards Him.
 Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 25.
 Daniel 7.15, 16, 28 NRSV.
 David Guretzki, accessed from this post Sanctorum Communio, The Communion of the Saints and being catholic Thinkers.