Friday, April 8, 2011

Eight Theses for Reading Scripture in the Church

Next week, I'm going before my STM committee at LTSS (Brian Peterson, Michael Root, and David Yeago) to discuss the research I've been pursuing all year regarding the inter-relatedness of scripture and sanctification, particularly in regard but not limited to the Lutheran tradition. A major goal of my project is to formulate an accessible paradigm, applicable and easily appropriated in congregational life, to articulate and guide creative and artful engagement with the biblical words themselves.

In preparation for the colloquy, I wanted to post eight "theses" that I arrived at by the end of the Fall semester. They were originally formulated for an assignment asking how the church ought to read "difficult texts," such as those dealing with womens' ordination or violence. They are loosely modeled after, but by no means exhausted by or dependent upon, the nine theses offered by "The Scripture Project" in their revolutionary volume The Art of Reading Scripture. In nuce, my own working theses are:

A. Theses 1-4: Scripture as Story of God with God’s People
1: The Bible’s Authority is grounded in faith in the Bible’s God
2: The Bible is a narrative in which diversity and disagreement are embedded
3: The identity of the Bible’s God is revealed in resurrection of Jesus Christ
4: Canon does not exhaust salvation history, but establishes its trajectory
B. Theses 5-8: On the Church’s Use of Scripture within the Story
5: Central trajectory of the Bible’s narrative is missional
6: Church exists in a divided state, requiring diversity in interpretation
7: Scripture has multiple senses and can be used in diverse ways
8: Facing difficult texts requires Church to ask “how can we pray this text?”

These are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather, to serve as loci and impetuses for further conversation and study. Over the next few days, I will post my theses serially. These are works-in-progress, and I invite any comments, suggestions and insights. I pray they will open up conversation and discussion, and by the Spirit's grace, may prove useful for use in the life of the church.


Thesis 1: The Bible’s authority for readers/hearers is derived from the authority that the God of the Bible has for them.(1)

Long before postmodernism, St. Augustine asked in his The Usefulness of Belief: “what is more rashly proud than to be unwilling to learn to understand the books of the divine oracles from their own interpreters and to be ready to condemn them without understanding them?”(2) Augustine here urges his friend to risk submission to the tutelage of the Church for the sake of truth, such that understanding might be built on foundations of faith and charity, rather than suspicion and doubt. Right understanding, along with charitable readings, flow from faith, and one’s faith is shaped by the community to which one belongs. Regarding the Christian Bible of Old and New Testament, Joel Green reminds us that as the Church, “we are the people of God to whom these texts are addressed” and “that reading the Scriptures has less to do with the tools we bring to the task, however important these may be, and more to do with our dispositions as we come to our engagement with Scripture.”(3) Faith in the God to whom the Bible witnesses, or, at the very least, desire to believe in this God,(4) is thus a prerequisite if the Bible is to function authoritatively both for individuals and for the community to which they belong. Rudolf Bultmann’s observations about interpreting history thus apply even more stringently for biblical hermeneutics: “to understand history is possible only for one who does not stand over against it as a neural, non-participating spectator, but also stands within it, and shares responsibility for it.”(5) As readers of Scripture within and as Church, our interpretation is never neutral, but must always take place within an invested and intimate relationship with the God revealed by Israel and Jesus Christ, and in communion with Christ’s Body, the Church.

1 The formulation of this thesis is taken from Terrence Freitheim’s chapter “The Authority of the Bible and the Imaging of God” in Engaging Biblical Authority (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007, 47).
2 See Augustine’s The Usefulness of Belief in Augustine: Early Writings (ed. J.H.S. Burleigh. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1979, 322).
3 Joel Green, “The (Re-)Turn to Narrative” in Narrative Reading, Narrative Preaching (ed. Joel Green. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 23.
4 As Brian Peterson has reminded us (at LTSS), even dead German guys whose historical-critical projects seem menacing to those of us who adhere to a more theological-exegetical bent often carried out their work in the assumption of faithfulness (lecture 12.10.10)! My concern here is that while faith is requisite for understanding, we not make faith into a kind of works-righteousness in which its integrity is measured by one’s adherence or confidence to contested and difficult doctrines. Rather, the Church is a mixed body, and we are all mixed persons in various stages of growth in faith, and so, I have written this thesis in the understanding that it is as broadly inclusive as possible.
5 Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings (trans. Schubert Ogden. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 150.

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