The Go Eat, Drink, and Be Merry Way of Reading the Bible: Robert Jenson Helping Us Read the Bible Confessionally Once Again

It isn’t that we haven’t referred to this at the blog before, but I like the way Robert Jenson discusses the futility of late-modern biblical scholarship’s enlightened drive to deconfessionalize their reading of Holy Scripture; as if they can read it purely historically (history-of-religions), without reference to the very reality that has held it together from its genesis—the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s as if we can apply the Apostle Paul’s logic and argument from I Corinthians 15 to modern biblical scholarship’s mode; indeed, such scholars, after they finish dissecting the Bible for the day might as well go eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they die along with the rest of us. Robert Jenson writes:

There is yet a further question: Is there in fact “the” biblical narrative, running through all the Scriptures’ historical discontinuities and non-narrative genres? Israel and the church have supposed there is because they have seen one chief agent throughout. If we say the Christian God is the God identified by the biblical narrative, we must also say there is “the” biblical narrative only as we read the temporally, culturally, and religiously various documents in Scripture as witness to the continuing action of one and the same agent.

The circle just traced is benign. We will follow the one biblical narrative, to identify the one biblical God, only as we read the Bible by the purpose for which the church assembled this book in the first place, to be in its entirety and all its parts witness to Jesus’ Resurrection and so to a particular God. Whenever someone has tried to construe the unity of Scripture otherwise than by the identity of this God, the book has fragmented, first into Hebrew Scripture and New Testament and thereupon into traditions and genres and redactions within each. And when communities other than the church—in modernity, the communities of various ideologies and particularly the surreptitious such community of supposedly autonomous scholars—try to appropriate the Bible for their own purposes, the book falls into more shards—to which, of course, anyone is welcome.

The insistence of late-twentieth-century hermeneutics on the determining role of “communities of interpretation” is fully justified. What is sometimes not then faced is that some bodies of text, like the Bible, were created by specific communities for interpretive purposes, and have no unitary entity at all apart from those communities’ antecedent interpretation of them. The final reason that one cannot interpret the Bible independently of the church and its dogma is that without these there is no such book. The modern attempt to interpret Scripture “historically” has been intrinsically self-defeating and has now defeated itself, since it has curiously supposed that to interpret the Bible historically we must abstract from the history for whose attestation the church assembled this collection in the first place, the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ.[1]

One aspect of this, in order to avoid us from collapsing this into a strictly ecclesiocentric reading of Scripture, is to end where Jenson ends: “the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ.” What is given determinative ultimacy for the church’s reading of the text, for any reading of Holy Scripture, is not some sort of magesteria of the church, but indeed the all constitutive event of God’s life being in becoming in the Incarnation to the Resurrection. In this way the hermeneutic and approach to Scripture reduces back to Christmas and Easter, Pentecost and Ascension; to the person of Jesus Christ himself, the telos of all creation and thus of Scripture as a special aspect of that creation.

It is hugely unfortunate that what Jenson is calling the church back to is still not being taken to heart, even by people who say they are the primary of us all who hold the highest view of Scripture of all; i.e. the evangelicals (of which I am reluctantly one), with their doctrine of inerrancy in tow. The evangelicals, among other sub-communities within the church (and outside of it), have adopted the fragmentizing ways into Scripture foisted upon it by the very folks Jenson is referring to. They are attempting to read the Bible from a community that has sharded the Bible into various forms and redacted pieces, and subsequently created a whole hermeneutic around such proclivities, which has resulted in a field of biblical studies that is strangely (but not so strangely) at odds with what has held the Bible together for millennia in the Christian church; the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why would I want to read the Bible like that? Why would I want to borrow tools from communities that subjectively project their own histories upon the canon of Holy Scripture, and read it that way? I don’t want to.

Has there been no value created by modern biblical studies? I wouldn’t go that far. But at the same time, to attempt to read the Bible from directions that are anti-thetical to Scripture’s very reality makes no sense.

 

[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 58-9.

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