The ‘Good’ of Tradition; The Impossibility of Reading Scripture Without Theology

What I realized in seminary while immersed in historical theology and new testament studies was that doing theological exegesis and engaging with the tradition of the church is an inescapable reality; even for those who claim to be doing otherwise. The fact that we are human, extended out into space and time located on a continuum conditioned by the forces of intellectual and theological history is indisputable. As such it is dangerous and irresponsible to pretend like we can just read the Bible as if we are John Locke’s tabula rasa being stimulated by the text alone; thus forming notions of God in Christ as if abstract monads, incurved selves with no relation to other selves along a continuum of growth and development as that has taken place in the church and in socio-cultural-ideational history in general. In other words nobody, not even so called text-critical biblical scholars read the Bible outwith tradition; and that’s okay!

Stephen Holmes in his little book Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology offers a wonderful and precise sketch of the reality of tradition/theology vis-à-vis the reading of Holy Scripture. I first read his book (which I will be quoting from) in 2005, just two years after I graduated from seminary. His first two chapters helped solidify my thoughts in this area, thoughts that had been given birth even as early as my time in undergrad (bible college); and that developed with much more awareness because of my time spent in historical theology during seminary. Because I think this continues to be a reality that I’d say most free church evangelicals, in the pews, don’t really have a handle on; because this continues to be a reality that many scholars who have gone the route of ‘biblical studies’ don’t really have a handle on; I think it is important for me to reiterate this again (and again, and again).[1] With this in mind let me share some of Holmes’ thinking in this direction; he will problematize some of the facile manner I have presented some of this in as well (for purposes of ease and time I am going to offer pictures of the text I want to present; hopefully that is not too cumbersome for you the reader):

.[2]

We could say much more, but hopefully the weight, indeed the pressure from what is shared is felt. Indeed, as Holmes notes, an unmediated access to the text is always something that we are struggling towards, in the sense that we are engaging with the actual content and material reality of the text itself; viz. Jesus Christ. But even as we are constantly in this spiraling and toilsome task, even as we attempt to get as close as possible to the inner-reality of the text in Christ; the grammar we will use to even speak of Christ comes in mediated form through the Niceno-Constantinopolitano-Chalcedono verbiage developed in the ecumenical church councils. This does not lessen the reality of the living voice of God we encounter in Scripture, it only is to admit to the reality that God is constantly the One who must lower himself to us in Christ by the Spirit and encounter us before we can encounter him in and through all the shrouded contours of our own machinations. But this is a hopeful reality; i.e. we come to encounter Christ through the tradition as that impinges upon our interpretive capacities as we come to the text. The text becomes the instrument through which our traditions themselves constantly take shape as we dialogically encounter the risen Christ by the Spirit upon each page turned of the holy ink. In other words, it is this hope, our hope that God is graciously willing to speak to us afresh and anew in our baby talk so that we might genuinely know him and make him known. It is in this dialectical or prayerful process of reading Scripture that the categories of the always reforming and developing tradition of the church have the ability to transmute into a reality that brings us closer and closer to a more fulsome knowledge of him. I wonder if this makes sense to you; I wonder if it makes sense to me (it does!)?

I hope people can appreciate not just the negative aspects of tradition, but more importantly the positive; indeed the inevitable reality of tradition/theological development. It’s a natural reality of being creatures in the theater of God’s glory that is within the domain of his living Word in Jesus Christ. On the analogy of the incarnation, by the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit, in the new creation of Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity, as we walk by faith not by sight, we have been given eyes to see and ears to hear the living voice of God (viva vox Dei); tradition is simply the churchly expression of that encounter. What is important is to remember that this encounter is something that happens afresh and anew as we come to trembling to him, yet in boldness, through the ‘spectacles’ of his written Word.

This is a lively and exciting topic. We can say more, of course. Hopefully, if nothing else, what has come through is that not a single soul can approach Holy Scripture without doing so through various iterations of tradition and theological development. This is not a bad thing, but a good thing. In order to understand this as a good thing the bible reader, the Christian must have a good grasp on the reality that a theological ontology has upon a theological/Christological conditioned epistemology (and I will have to explain what I mean by that, if you don’t know, at a later time or in the comments).

 

[1] I’ve also come to realize that you never know who might be reading your blog posts.

[2] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 6-8.

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