Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ordo Scientiae: Bible and Theology

I love the Bible. I love everything about it. I enjoy it as literature; I value it as a historical source; I read it devotionally; I take it personally; I believe it is God's word to humankind and chief source of authority in the Church today. I also study the Bible academically, trying to use inductive reasoning to find out as much as I can about the Bible. Like anyone, I am a flawed interpretor. I come to the text with theological and philosophical presuppositions. Furthermore, I am personally involved and bound to whatever meaning I find in the text. However, this weakness is also a becomes a strength, after a fashion. Because I am so personally bound to the text, I think it is important to actually know what it means. Hence: hard work.

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.


  1. Perhaps it would be helpful to begin as Barth and Bonhoeffer have...with "revelation" and then to move to a discussion of "reason" (though for varying reasons they each have different conclusions about the place of reason as it relates to revelation). Revelation is that which comes from without. It is the "other" is God...the transcendent...who speaks...who acts...who makes Himself known. Reason is somewhere after revelation. Reason is anthropocentric. It begins from self and has no proper starting point apart from revelation. Just some thoughts. I'm glad to see you are back to blogging again Aaron! I'll have to add you to my blogroll! Blessings brother!

  2. "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."

    I love this.

  3. A great rant, indeed! One comment and two questions.

    Commment: You write "Halaka (norms of Jewish behavior, which are far more important than theology in Judaism)"

    --Actually, many would argue that there is no distinction between halacha and theology in Judaism. Indeed, this seems to be the approach of Maimonides but also of many others including, in more recent times, the Chazon Ish (Rav Avraham Yishaya Karelitz).

    Question one: You write- "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."

    --What do you mean by *historical readings*?

    Question 2:And what exactly do you mean by 'theology' as in: 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?

  4. Comment on your comment, and then responses to your questions:

    As a total noob to Jewish theology, what you say sounds reasonable. I would however qualify the direct ontological equation of halaka to Jewish theology. Rather than say that halaka 'is' Jewish theology, I am inclined to say that they form a symbiosis in which they both feed on and grow out of the other. The reason I think they still may not quite be the same thing is that one must not necessarily hold to all of the theological principles endorsed by the halaka in order to observe the commandments themselves.

    For example, Jewish liturgy looks to me like an imitation of temple worship. The same is true or Christian liturgy. Doubtless, most of the common elements in Jewish and Christian liturgy stem directly out of liturgy that was in use at the temple, though the sacrificial system has necessarily been replaced. All orthodox Jews even pray for the restoration of temple services (some Christians do it as well, which is a bit of a non sequitur for me), and most of the feasts in some way also look forward to the restoration of the temple. Nonetheless, the majority of orthodox Jews with whom I've spoken directly have no desire to reinstate the sacrificial system and feel that the religion is much better off without it; that prayer and Torah study are much more appropriate forms of reverence. They might be right or wrong, but they do seem hold a theological idea here that is at odds with what the halaka endorses.

    Still, as long as they stick to the halaka in practice, their private misgivings about the theology espoused therein doesn't seem to bother too many people. If the temple does manage to be rebuilt, and they refuse to participate in the sacrificial system, that would be a big deal. For the moment, it doesn't really appear to matter. Anyway, that's why I say stuff like “halaka is more important than theology in Judaism.” I'm sure this is only one face of the gem, and I would love to peer through the other sixty-nine, if you'd care to share.

    Response one:
    When I said 'historical meaning,' I meant what the medieval interpreters called the p'shat. I didn't call it the p'shat, because that word has no meaning to most of my readers. I don't translate it as the 'simple meaning,' because the means employed to get there are usually anything but simple, and often require a lot of explaining. I don't translate it as the 'literal meaning,' because p'shat methods certainly recognize metaphor and other forms of literary creativity when they appear.

    It would probably be more accurate to call it the 'literary meaning.' Those among the rishonim who were after the the p'shat relied much more on literary and linguistic arguments than historical arguments per se. It is difficult to whether this was more of a methodological choice, or simply out of a lack of evidence about the wider world in the Biblical period outside of the text itself. Certainly, they referred to extra-biblical traditions when they found them relevant, though they did so judiciously (or, some of them did).

    The reason I call it the 'historical meaning' is because I attempt to find the historically situated meaning of the human author, though I do think literary tools are the the most important for doing this. I'm not sure if the rishonim would have articulated their goal in the same way, though they often came to conclusions that are similar to those of modern scholarship, or if not, at least prefigure them in some way. I admit that it is probably a slight anachronism to assign the word 'historical' to the methods of the rishonim when I am not sure that they thought about it in this way, though I do think my methods for finding the 'historical meaning' are essentially the same as the methods they used. Calvin called the same method 'grammatico-historical interpretation,' so I might have been taking queues from his phraseology.

  5. Response two:
    By 'theology' in this case, I mean presuppositions about what kind of being God is, what he may or may not do or say, and how he may or may not communicate. The one presupposition of this kind that I have listed is that the Bible actually does speak on behalf of God, which is a sort of unprovable absolute. On the other hand, I do think it is important to recognize that we all come to the Bible with the weight of tradition and various theologies, and I think it is good to recognize when they are useful. On the other hand I think it is also wise to recognize that they may be an encumbrance at times.

    Naturally, I'm speaking to other protestants when I say this. I see extra-biblical tradition as a servant rather than a master. I think extra-biblical tradition is great, which is more than a lot of protestants can say, but at the end of the day, I still eat it with a knife and fork. When it comes to the Bible, I have to try and come to terms with all of it one way or another. Sometimes tradition helps with this. Other times I find it unsatisfying. For forms of faith where tradition is also authoritative, I suppose a more synthetic approach is desirable. I'm a Protestant, so I do this.