Saturday, September 25, 2010
Ordo Scientiae: Bible and Theology
I realize that academic study of the Bible is not the be-all end-all in the Christian faith, and there are many things that we discuss in great depth in the discipline to which the devout Christian may, at the end of the day, legitimately respond, "who cares?" I probably see fewer of these cases than some, but they exist. For example, I'm quite linguistically geared. I can, in a passage when the meaning is obvious, obsess for quite a while about why a word is spelled a particular way and not another. I have my reasons that I think these things are important, but they really don't make a difference for any practical point of theology or practice in the Church directly.* Reasons though I may have, it would taste a lie to say I didn't love obscure little points I have the privilege to work out (or at least work on).
However, since the reformation, there has been a place in the church for serious academic study of the Bible. This actually was born out of the Jewish approaches to the Old Testament that were started in the Middle ages, during the Arab enlightenment, and moved westward. The middle eastern Jewish and Muslim scholars started using rational, historical, and linguistically based approaches to the Qurʾan and the Hebrew Bible (for the record, Muslims do not use these kinds of methods any more, though Berkley might change some of that soon, God willing). These were not actually innovations of the Arab world, but rather they were methods used by the Greek scholars at the library of Alexandria for interpreting ancient text which had been more or less lost, and were revived by the Arabs (including Jewish Arabs).
Jews have always said that these kinds of readings, historical readings, are not normative for Judaism, but have rather used them as a basis for inter-faith dialog and polemic, since the historical meaning of the text is theoretically something that can be discovered through investigation. It was used heavily in arguments against Christians and Kara'ites during the middle ages. Though it has never been the basis for Halaka (norms of Jewish behavior, which are far more important than theology in Judaism), it has been used a fair amount in defense of it.
At some point Christians decided this was a pretty clever idea, and some Christians went so far as to suggest that he historical meaning of scripture was the one true meaning. That's a major part of what caused the reformation. I'm not sure whether it's the 'one true meaning,' but really, it's the only way to have a discussion about scripture that places everyone on equal footing. It gives at least a semi-stable way to evaluate meaning. In this manner, it provides a way forward for a discussions between Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Christians, and even to some extent believers and atheists/agnostics.
Of course, atheists and agnostics don't consider themselves bound by the meaning of scripture, but I've had discussions that warm a lot of them up to the Bible quite simply by discussing its content through the lens of reason, admitting the areas where the Bible leaves questions that reason cannot answer, and also showing how the study of the Bible is not just a bunch of nonsense people saying what they want to say about it, but there is are actually some people who are willing to deal with hard data in a way that gives their interpretations a kind of universal accountability. There is no data that can prove that Jesus is the Son of God and is coming to judge the living and the dead. That is a revelation from the Spirit, and cannot be otherwise. However, it does give people a glimpse of a form of faith that is able to work with reason and isn't totally arbitrary. It makes sense that, if the Bible is true, we should be able to investigate it. (Obviously all of this is coming from a 'realist' perspective on knowledge. If Nietzsche and Derrida are right, and they could be, then reason doesn't make a difference, but that isn't really a very practical approach, so we keep doing what we can. Even Derrida keeps doing what he can.)
That brings us to the interplay between the Bible and Theology. From my protestant perspective, the Bible is the ultimate source of theology, or at least the ultimate standard. I believe Catholics and Orthodox would also agree with this, though they see tradition as the reliable stream of interpretation. I like tradition a lot, but I see it as more of a servant to biblical interpretation, rather than the master of it. Catholics do things a little differently, as far as I know. I'm a protestant, so all I can explain is why I do what I do. If a Catholic would like to chime in about their approach to scripture, I'd be happy to hear it.
Now, if the Bible is the final standard by which theology is measured, what does theology have to say about the way we read the Bible?
My answer, perhaps somewhat controversially, is 'very little indeed.' I do not say 'nothing,' because we do need a few theological presuppositions to begin reading and interpreting (a metaphysical discussion, and I'm not qualified to lead it). However, if in the course of interpreting scripture, we find something that challenges those theological presuppositions, I think we've got to yield to scripture. Otherwise, we run the risk of getting into a feedback loop where we perpetually hear our own voice in scripture, rather than the voice of God. This goes for any presuppositions, but theological are those that make themselves most felt in the circles where I run. Essentially, if we begin to feel comfortable with the Bible, I doubt we are reading it correctly anymore.
Theology does have an important place in the church (though I think it sometimes overstated), and I'm all in favor of a pragmatic theology to get the job done (the job of the Church, that is), but I think that's really something we ought to check at the door when we come to scripture, if it is really to be authoritative.
Now, having limited the role theology is allowed to play in interpretation, it would be perfectly valid to ask why human forms of reason should have any greater place in interpretation. I agree (in part) with a lot of the recent critiques that reason is simply a human construct, and does not necessarily have any point of reference in reality. So why should we trust it? To that, I give a theological answer (and this is why I say that theology does have a very small part in interpretation): God has made the attempt to speak to humans in human language. If that is the case, there must be some expectation that humans will try to figure out what he's talking about the best they are able, and, in fact, that they must have adequate faculties to do so, even if they are sometimes imperfectly employed.
This presupposition, I think all will agree, is borne out page after page in scripture. If scripture is to be the basis for faith (which I'm not about to try and argue), this, at least, we can count on. The existence of God's verbal communication, in a way, validates the whole enterprise of reason; perhaps not with regard to nature, but at least with regard to the humanities (and maybe nature as well, but we'll have to wait and see about that).
In this way, the very existence of the Bible is an invitation to human reason. Naturally, this does not rule out the joint participation of the Holy Spirit in interpretation. It also does not mean that reason stands above the text. Rather, the reason is simply the proper tool by which to investigate it. The text itself may challenge our presuppositions about reason, and it certainly defines its limits in various places, but it permits its use, along with the Spirit, as the starting place for our inquiry.
That's why I do what I do.
*They may, however, shed light on the development in the Biblical languages, eventually lead us to understand certain linguistic phenomena better, which may in turn bring us to a new understanding of a difficult or theologically weighty passage. I'm not going to lie, most of what I do at school has no immediate relevance to anyone... but it's a part of the process.