Reading Scripture: Scholars, Clergy & Laity

Chris Tilling recently wrote a post in response to my reflections (and the ensuing comments) on the form of hermeneutics espoused by Piper and Co. (cf. http://christilling.de/blog/ctblog.html). It is worth reading what he has to say, and it has prompted me to further explain my approach to reading, understanding, and applying scripture (especially as that reading relates to the laity, as per one of the comments on my original post).
1. Scripture, as a witness to the Word of God that is for all people, should be available to all people.
2. Furthermore, precisely because scripture is a witness to the Word of God, all people should be encouraged to read scripture.
3. Therefore, all Christians — be they scholars, clergy, or laity — should both have access to scripture, and be encouraged to immerse themselves therein.
4. However, scripture also exists as a text, or rather, as a large collection of texts written at various times, by various authors, in various genres, to various audiences, with various purposes in mind.
5. Consequently, we must recognise that scripture, as a whole, is a rather complicated thing and, having made this recognition, we must approach scripture with a great deal of caution.
6. Such caution is also necessary because we ourselves exist within a particular place, time, culture, and moment in history and we have all, to some degree, been conditioned by this context.
7. However, this context is one that is foreign to scripture and so we must be careful that, in our reading of scripture, we do not import foreign concepts, values, paradigms and presuppositions into the text.
8. Indeed, when we become aware of the issues involved in reading, understanding, and applying scripture, may seem so complex that we leave scripture strictly within the hands of the professionals.
9. But this would be a mistake, not only because the scripture is a witness to the Word of God that has been given for all people (see points 1-3), but also because scripture is a witness to other scripture.
10. When I say that scripture is a “witness to other scripture,” I mean that scripture, acting as a witness to the Word of God within a particular text found within the canon, also acts a witness to the Word of God in other texts found within the canon.
11. This means that there is a certain coherence to scripture, a certain storyline that runs from Genesis to Revelation, and certain characters, events, motifs, and injunctions that appear (and develop) throughout the whole.
12. Consequently, by continually relating the parts to one another, and by reading the particular in light of the whole, one is able to comprehend the gist of scripture (even if one does not comprehend every particular or all the details).
13. This understanding could be said to be the understanding that comes from the ‘plain reading’ of scripture.
14. This also reveals that the sort of reading that is required, in order to achieve this sort of understanding, is quite a bit more vigourous and sustained than the type of reading that is practiced by much of the contemporary Christian laity in the West (indeed, it is questionable as to how much of the laity actually reads the scripture with any regularity — although the same critique could, and should, be made of the clergy, and Christian scholars).
15. However, assuming that we actually are reading the scriptures with some regularity, one cannot simply read a chapter per day, or a verse per day (or a random selection of verses found within a daily devotional) and hope to get much that is meaningful or transformative out of scripture (instead, using this method, one will probably discover what one wants to discover, or what one has been culturally-conditioned to discover).
16. Unless, that is, the clergy have provided the sort of foundation that allows such a reading (of, at the very minimum, a chapter per day) to be meaningful.
17. That is to say, the clergy should be the ones providing the laity with the ‘big picture’, with the leitmotifs, and with the paradigm(s) that one finds in scripture. Thus, when I read about Pentecost in my devotions, I should be trained to automatically think of Babel and the call of Abraham, when I read about resurrection I should automatically think of the return from exile, and so on and so forth.
18. Consequently, ‘Sunday School’ (by which I mean the education of both children and adults in church), rather than providing us with a seemingly random sample of stories, should provide us with the story. Thus, when we read one particular part of that story — say the story of the exile of Israel — we will automatically remember earlier parts (the exile of the nations, and the exile imposed upon humanity and the cosmos) and anticipate later parts (the godforsakenness of Jesus on the cross, and to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead coupled with the outpouring of the Spirit).
19. In this way, new light will be shed upon our daily readings of select parts, and our consumption of each bit becomes, in actuality, a re-consumption of the whole. It is precisely this sort of reading that becomes both meaningful and transformative (just as the continual consumption of the body and blood of Christ found in the Eucharist is both meaningful and transformative).
20. It also means that our reading of scripture should be more sustained than it is. We should read daily, we should read sustained units of the story, and we should read in a way that genuinely engages the text at hand. Such a reading, with the requisite foundation, should make the ‘plain reading’ of scripture clear.
21. This, then, raises the question of the role of biblical scholars (and theologians) as they relate to the reading, understanding, and application of scripture within the church.
22. By and large, the role of the scholar is to inform the clergy (who then inform the laity).
23. By making this assertion, I am not seeking to create a hierarchy, or suggest that the scholar is superior to the priest (or the lay person). The scholar may be the minister of the (written) word, but the clergy member is the minister of the sacraments, and the lay person is a minister of the koinonia of those in Christ.
24. No one — scholar, clergy member, or lay person — is greater than the other, but each has his or her own role, and each should defer to the other in their respective areas of ‘expertise’. That means that, when Christian scholars tell the clergy (and the laity) to interpret a particular passage in a particular way, it is the responsibility of the clergy (and the laity) to do so. Or, conversely, when the clergy (and the laity) tell the Christian scholars that their lives need to reflect the content of their studies, it is the responsibility of the scholars to make the necessary changes.
25. Of course, such thinking relies, to a certain extent, upon a consensus within Christian scholarship. Yet, such a consensus is rarely found.
26. In the absence of consensus, it is the responsibility of both the scholar and the clergy member to inform themselves, as best they can, of the various sides of the argument at hand, before making a decision.
27. When debates get technical, as they often do, the scholar is better equipped for engagement than the clergy member. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the scholar to summarize the various positions, and their strengths and weaknesses, for the clergy member.
28. Therefore, when confronted with a controversial issue, the clergy member, like the scholar, must practice a great deal of patience before presenting a position to the laity and should not succumb to the temptation to give a hasty answer to seemingly urgent questions (hence, the laity must learn to practice patience as well).
29. After all, one cannot simply go with the majority of scholars (majorities are sometimes wrong), nor can one ignore solitary ‘radical’ voices on the fringes of the discussion (such voices are sometimes prophetic), nor can one simply go with the majority of scholars who are affiliated with one’s particular denomination (all denominations are flawed, and hold wrong views on some things), and so negotiating these waters can be extremely difficult.
30. Consequently, in areas that are especially controversial, the best a clergy member can do is to present the range of options to the laity and ask the church, as a congregation, to either: (a) prayerfully and carefully come to a consensus for how they, as a local body, will choose to act (while remaining aware that other local bodies have selected other options); or (b) refuse a consensus and allow for the whole range of options to be visible within one local body.
31. Of course, both (a) and (b) will likely lead to some members leaving the church but a local church cannot make this sort of decision based upon how many members, or which members, choose to stay or leave.
32. In all of this the clergy member, like the scholar, must be careful that he or she is not simply imposing his or her own personal preference upon the church.
33. That said, exercising caution, and recognising the plurality of options available to Christians on some issues, is not the same thing as cheerfully tolerating all positions.
34. Consequently, there are times when Christians must strongly disagree with, and refuse to accept, the positions held by other Christians on some issues (indeed, such disagreements have always been a part of the history of the people of God as the prophetic material in the OT shows us, and the Gospels and the letters of Paul in the NT remind us).
35. However, to refuse to accept a position that is held by another Christian, is not the same thing as refusing to accept that other Christian as a Christian, or as a fellow member of the body of Christ.
36. In extremis, such disagreement may even need to be voiced in the act of excommunication. However, even the act of excommunication does not say that a person is ‘damned’ or has ‘lost their salvation’ or whatever. Rather, it simply asserts that, at the present moment, the excommunicated person’s actions prevent that person from participating in the body and blood of Christ (and it makes no assertion whatsoever about the status that person might attain to after death).
37. Unfortunately, none of this has addressed how one is to discern which issues are the ones that require a person to take this sort of stand… but I have gone on long enough for now.

Piper & Co. on Hermeneutics (a rant)

My experience [with the New Perspective on Paul] is that people who talk this way do not generally see the meaning of the New Testament as clearly as those who focus their attention not in the extra-biblical literature but in the New Testament texts themselves. For the ordinary layman who wonders what to do when scholars seem to see what you cannot see, I suggest that you stay with what you can see for yourself.
~ John Piper
On this blog, I have, for the most part, deliberately avoided engaging with certain voices from within American Evangelicalism — in particular, I have tried to refrain from commenting on the likes of John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and James MacDonald.
To be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why these fellows are even considered credible, or scholarly, or whatever. Any first year bible college student who has taken ‘Hermeneutics 101’ could easily rip apart most of what they have to say (or, perhaps better stated, that student could easily rip apart most of what is distinct or definitive about their position). Consequently, the thought of actually commenting on what they have to say, leaves me feeling sort of like a schoolyard bully — sure, one could rip apart their arguments… but isn’t that sort of like beating up a person with disabilities? (Indeed, lest this analogy be misunderstood, let me be clear that I think that we would be far, far better off if we invited persons with disabilities into our theological discussions — such people have greater insights than people like Piper & Co., and I’m not afraid to confess that they often have greater insights than I do).
So, when I find people within Evangelicalism deferring to these voices, I end up being rather lost for words and usually end up saying something like: “John Piper? Man, that guy’s a douchebag.” Granted, hardly a contribution to dialogue (and hardly a move away from being a schoolyard bully!), but if somebody is willing to treat such voices as authoritative then I suspect that we’re living on different planets and genuine dialogue is likely next to impossible.
However, I thought I would comment on the quotation from Piper that I included at the opening of this post because I think that the position that he takes towards hermeneutics is a position that extends beyond his inner circle and is quite common in Conservative Christianity more broadly. This is the type of hermeneutics that favours the “plain” reading of Scripture over and against any sort of “scholarly” (or, dare I say, informed) reading.
Of course, Conservatives, and people like Piper and Co., are committed to hermeneutics, but only to a certain extent. All of us, even Conservative Evangelicals, are aware of the importance of “context” for understanding scripture (hence Gordon Fee, and others, argue that the three things necessary for good interpretation are “context, context, and context!”). However, the problem for Conservatives is that the more hermeneutics has developed and grown (and incorporated various historical, literary, and socio-rhetorical criticisms), the more we learn about the context of the biblical texts, the more the Conservative position ends up being ‘boxed out’. That is to say: the more informed our hermeneutics, the more untenable their position.
This is well illustrated in recent developments in New Testament studies. Scholarly consensus is now that the life, ministry, and commitments of Jesus, as displayed within the Gospels, exhibit of sort of socio-political radicality that undermines contemporary Conservative approaches to socio-political realities. The same case is made convincingly for the other major New Testament “narrative” pieces — the book of Acts and the book of Revelation. Consequently, the Conservative has two options. The first option is to impose a new ‘canon within the canon.’ Many flee to Paul and, in particular, the deutero-Pauline epistles (the Pastorals) which then become the interpretive grid for reading what is more commonly recognised as the genuine (and more significant — at least as far as size is concerned) Pauline letters. Paul has become the last bastion for Conservatives who seek to root their position in serious engagement with the New Testament, and the Pastorals become the most authoritative books within the canon. Unfortunately, this Pauline (if one can even call it that) stronghold has faced a vigourous assault in recent years and, IMHO, has now been fundamentally compromised and revealed as false. Paul is not nearly the Conservative that many have assumed him to be, and I suspect that scholarly consensus will, in the next few years, embrace a Paul who is understood to be just as socio-politically radical as Jesus.
This, then, leads us to the second option. Having been effectively ‘boxed out’ of all areas of the New Testament, they can no longer flee to another voice within the New Testament canon. Thus, they simply flee from scholarship. Consequently, you get the utterly moronic advice of Piper: when you disagree with the experts, trust yourself not the scholars! Of course, the beauty of this position is that it is unassailable:
Have you encountered a position that refutes your own? Have you heard arguments that make you uncomfortable? Don’t worry about it. Trust yourself! If they insist on talking to you, just plug your ears and say, “Lalalalala, I can’t hear you!”
If one were to take this advice with other experts, like one’s doctor for example, the results could well be tragic. Indeed, the result of taking Piper’s advice is just as tragic as refusing to listen to one’s doctor when she tells you that you must stop engaging in a certain activity if you want to go on living.
I find the position of Piper & Co. to by mystifying, not only because it chooses to remain ignorant about the context of the biblical texts, but because it reveals a shocking ignorance about the way in which one’s own context impacts the way in which one reads the bible (of course, this criticism is one that extends beyond the position held by Conservatives, and could be applied to representatives of all camps). An accurate reading of the bible requires us to be continually learning about the context of the biblical texts, and the context in which we find ourselves. To pursue one, without pursuing the other, is dangerous and irresponsible. To refuse to pursue either, while simultaneously refusing to listen to those who do engage in those pursuits (√† la Piper), is so stupid that I’m amazed that anybody would listen to people who propose such things.

A Hermeneutics of Suffering?

Many people have considered Christian faith an easy thing, and not a few have given it a place among the virtues. They do this because they have not experienced it and have never tasted the great strength there is in faith. It is impossible to write well about it or to understand what has been written about it unless one has at one time or another experienced the courage which faith gives a man when trials oppress him.
~ Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian”
They say that one needs to suffer in order to write a great work of literature. In this quote, Luther is suggesting that one must suffer in order to be a great exegete. More than that, Luther says that oppression is necessary if we are to understand Christianity. Of course, this is only a further reason why the kingdom of God is so often found among the poor, and not, alas, in churches (and perhaps even seminaries) full of wealthy, and even eager, Christians. So, for those of us who are training as Bible scholars, I wonder: how can suffering be established as a part of our curriculum?
The one who beholds what is invisible of God, through the perception of what is made, is not rightly called a theologian… But rather the one who perceives what is visible of God, God’s ‘backside’, by beholding the sufferings and the cross.
~ Martin Luther, “Theses for the Heidelberg Disputation”
Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace… Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.
~ Martin Luther, “The Ninety-five Theses”