Scripture within the Theological Method
We are considering the five elements to the theological method being explored at London School of Theology in the Master’s of Integrative Theology program. The primary and most privileged source in an evangelical theological method is that of Scripture. As we have already noted in my last article, loyalty to Scripture is a common sentiment within the evangelical community but it does not, by default, exclude a role for the other four sources. In fact, in many cases, it is the way that these other sources interface with our approach to Scripture that cause us to not even perceive them as sources. They often function as elements operating at a subconscious level as we are engaging Scripture. A theological method seeks to identify the ways that each of these sources draw upon our commitments and the way that this thereby impacts our theology.
The term “authority” is often used to describe the privileged role given to Scripture. The question is, how does the inspired Word of God become an authority for one’s life? We are, in fact, referring to an ancient document, belonging to an ancient culture, which, in most cases, addresses completely different concerns than our own. Besides this, the relationship between the “common” reader and the text was even challenging from the very beginning of the Christian church. Even before the close of the New Testament, the apostle Peter writes that some of the things written by Paul are hard to understand and are being twisted, “as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:14-16). The apostles were certainly operating on a very deep level of engagement with the Hebrew scriptures together with their experience of the Messiah and the Spirit. Those newly coming to the faith entered into this rich heritage of ideas, images, and experiences but, as evidenced in what Peter writes, some struggled to grasp what was being said and some found in the depth of Paul’s writings, a chance to twist meaning. Certainly this risk remains. Many evangelicals consider themselves loyal to the Scripture. What they actually mean, however, is that they are loyal to their doctrinal views, which most likely belong to a certain tradition of theology. These traditions of theology (doctrines) are indeed formed by the stringing together of truths found within the Scripture. This is not wrong and in many cases, a necessary part of our collective engagement with Scripture (more on this in our article on tradition). There is a growing view among some scholars, however, that the closer we come to understanding the context and worldview of the biblical writers, the more purely we can read the Scripture. One example of such a biblical scholar is Dr. Michael Heiser, who has a podcast called “the Naked Bible podcast.”(1) His explicit goal is to get people to read the Bible apart from denominational or traditional filters which have sometimes been established “to protect people from their Bible.”(2) The idea that academic scholars could free us from the restrictive forces of Church tradition is a common sentiment found in the philosophy of Modernism (more on this when we talk about reason). Modernism actually led the Church into some pretty dark places, and it is still one of the influences that direct many in the theological academy away from a living faith. The difference here is that instead of wanting to free the Scripture itself from its supernatural or cosmic elements (what many attempted to do in Modernism), Heiser, and others like him, look rather to free people to read the Scripture in its original worldview context, as best as possible. His goal is to get you to think like a “second temple Israelite.” Loyalty to Scripture must indeed include a commitment to understand the Scripture in its original context. This includes a willingness to “come out” from our perspective in order to see a biblical passage, as much as possible, from the perspective of the author and the original hearers. This is an important first step, and this actually needs to be said because, unfortunately, few believers value this step and choose rather to take the fast track of their doctrinal statements. At the same time, for us to cross into the perspective of the ancient writers and readers, one has to also venture beyond merely academic knowledge regarding the original context of a passage. Kevin Vanhoozer rightly states that the theological interpretation of Scripture “is at once an intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual exercise.”3 Despite, the insecure relationship the evangelical world has with the term imagination due to the King James usage of the word, imagination is indeed a necessary element to a healthy interaction with Scripture.4 Effective exegetical work involves not only the increase of cognitive understanding but also the formation of a “new imagination.” What I mean is this; to the degree that we leave the text a little more inhabited by the imagination of its authors, is to the degree that its authority will have more impact on our lives. It is an unfortunate thing when someone walks away from engaging a prophetic passage in Jeremiah, having gained understanding of its context but lacking that vital connection with the prophetic imagination,5 which envisions Yahweh in confrontation with the machinations of twisted politics and religion of his time.
Along with this, one of the most helpful philosophical approaches toward Scripture is the recognition of the element of narrative in the Bible; not just that the Bible is made up of stories, but that the Christian Bible itself comprises one large, very unique story. This story is woven together with an ancient historical people, brought to a head with the historical actions of Jesus of Nazareth, and it anticipates an ultimate conclusion in a future climactic event. The cosmic nature of this powerful story and its totalizing purpose establishes it as a meta-narrative, a story that the whole world, throughout all generations, can fit into. The main thrust of biblical authority, therefore, rests on the power that this story possesses to be authoritative in every possible context. This of course doesn’t mean that every person finds this story meaningful or true, or sees it at work (this issue is itself addressed in the story), but rather that those who identify with it are beneficiaries of its powerful truth, regardless of where and when they live.
A differing biblical philosophy sees Scripture as an agent of revelation of the Divine Being standing within and behind the stories. Here Scripture is seen more as a deep cave, needing to be mined for the treasure of the raw data of God’s nature. Static truth claims about the Divine Being (or about anything for that matter) are woven into the text and need only to be plucked out and strung together. Although I certainly do not wish to make light of definitive statements revealing God’s nature, or even to ignore that this plays some role in the purpose of the text, this approach has arguably contributed to a proof-texting engagement with the Bible. Proof-texting is that unfortunate experience when someone grabs a verse out of the Bible to make an authoritative point that has nothing to do with the original context or recognized authorial intention. People who relate to the Bible as a series of static truth claims contribute to this common problem. I am of the opinion that the meta-narrative of Scripture, which certainly also reveals God’s nature, ought to be the guiding force in our engagement with the text. It is that element that translates into our world most effectively. In business language, it scales really well, and it is the most reproducible element within Scripture!
Yet even here we must be careful. It is so easy to predeterminedly shape God’s “big story” instead of letting ourselves be shaped by it. N.T. Wright has convincingly argued that the Western Church, since the Reformation, has been giving a biblical answer to an unbiblical question.6 The primary question that was being asked by the Medieval Church was, how does a person get into heaven when they die? This, the Reformation answered much more biblically than their Catholic counterparts at the time. Unfortunately, however, they didn’t challenge the premise of the question, something that was long left undone. The main story of the Bible is not about God getting a group of people into heaven when they die, it is about God’s plan to restore all things, which includes a new heaven and a new earth. The telos or goal of God defines the narrative from beginning to end, and ought to be the most powerful force shaping the biblical imagination. Many who have approached the Scripture with the goal of a disembodied, ethereal heaven, have also tended to emphasize the concept of Scripture as the cognitive apprehension of the revelation of a great “Divine Truth Proposition” in Heaven. Salvation is seen as living in mental agreement with that “Divine Truth Proposition” now and the bonus of a good afterlife. Those shaped by God’s telos evident in the “big story” will recognize that we are not primarily being called into agreement with a “Divine Truth Proposition” but rather, that we are being brought into relationship with a determined, pulsating, burning Divine Heart, who is on a mission to bring all things back into rightness.
Loyalty to Scripture means letting that Story, which is raw, supernatural, cosmic, totalizing, liberating, and redemptive, shape our intellect, our imagination, and our lives.
2. For a little more context to this idea please read http://drmsh.com/naked-bible-why-do-we-do-what-we-do/
3. Vanhoozer, Kevin., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 24
4. Hart, Trevor A., ‘Imagination’ in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 321-323
5. Brueggemann, Walter., Prophetic Imagination
6. A very clear premise to many of his works but I am especially referring right now to The Day the Revolution Began