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Archive for February, 2013

Scripture and Authority

images“There is a well-established and very useful distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic authority.  If one accepts a statement as true, not because the statement in itself can convince one of its truth, but because the person making the statement is qualified to make it, has the authority to say what is true in this case, then the statement depends on authority external to it—extrinsic authority.  If one obeys a command, not because one can see the point or purpose of what one is being required to do, but because the person making the command has the authority to command one, then the command relies on extrinsic authority.  Someone who is sick and goes to a medical doctor, who diagnoses his condition, tells him what is wrong, and prescribes medicine for him, may well be quite unable to judge for himself whether the doctor’s diagnosis is correct or whether her prescription is likely to work, but because she has medical qualifications and is regarded as reliable by the community, he trusts her diagnosis and obeys her orders.  This is extrinsic authority.  If, on the other hand, someone observed that my poor state of health could well be due to the overwork and stress I have been suffering recently and that I really ought to take a holiday, I might find this a convincing diagnosis and be able to see that the advice is sensible.  In this case it would not matter who made the observation; they need no particular expertise or authority to back up their statements.  The statement itself convinces me, so that I accept it as true and do what it requires of me.  The statement has intrinsic authority.

It is also worth noticing that in many everyday situations extrinsic and intrinsic authority are both operative in varying degrees.  Imagine yourself the pupil of an expert teacher, whose authority to speak about his subject is not merely textbook knowledge but is also based on half a lifetime’s experience of the subject.  He will give you factual knowledge, which you can in fact check for yourself from the books if you feel the need.  But you will also benefit from his powers of judgment, his accumulated knowledge of what works in the subject.  This you have to trust, though gradually, as you become expert yourself, you will be able to verify such things from your own experience.  But finally there may also be personal knowledge that you cannot check or verify for yourself.  A teacher of modern art who had known Picasso personally might tell you anecdotes about the artist or report what Picasso had told him about his work.  Here you or anyone else could only take his word for it.  This does not at all mean that you have to be credulous or uncritical.  You may have grounds for trusting your teacher’s accounts, because you have been impressed by him as a reliable person.  What he tells you may cohere with whatever else you know of Picasso and so be plausible.  It may, as it were, ring true.  But in the end you take what the teacher says on trust.  In this example there is, in some areas of the knowledge you gain, a shift from more reliance on extrinsic to more reliance on intrinsic authority, as you yourself come to understand the subject more profoundly, but there are also other areas in which extrinsic authority is irreplaceable.  In a mature understanding of the subject, as much of what you have been taught you come to find convincing in itself, so also your grounds for trusting what you cannot in principle verify become more substantial.

If we apply this kind of analysis of authority to the Bible, it seems to me that for most believers the Bible’s authority is a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic elements, and that this is also how the contents of the Bible represent themselves.  Surprisingly rarely do the biblical writers demand obedience or belief by sheer appeal to the authority of God.  They appeal in all kinds of ways to reason, imagination, and experience.  They persuade and convince in all the ways in which literature can persuade and convince.  Certainly there is a major dimension that can only be taken on trust, but it is constantly admixed with the intrinsic authoritativeness of what is said.  Moreover, much of what Christians, like the pupils of the expert teacher, must begin by taking simply on trust gains a degree of intrinsic authority for them as they grow more deeply into and practice the faith.  (Moreover, we should think of the community of faith as much as of the individual.  The community’s experience of the intrinsic authoritativeness of Scripture far surpasses the individual’s.)  The Bible claims an irreplaceable and important element of extrinsic authority, but it does not rely on this alone.

In summary, then, the Bible combines internal convincingness and the requirement on us to trust the truth of its message.  This combination is a complex and intimate one.  All too easily people make a simple distinction between extrinsic authority as oppressive and intrinsic authority as consistent with human autonomy.  As we have seen, it is not as simple as that.  Both in everyday life and in Christian experience of the Bible, the two go together in various different combinations.

This seems to me broadly consistent with traditional doctrines of Scripture.  Perhaps these have emphasized the extrinsic authority of Scripture too one-sidedly: Scripture has the authority of God’s Word, and what it says should be believed because God has the authority to say it.  But traditionally the inspiration of Scripture had as its corollary the inspiration of the reader of Scripture or the reading community.  The Spirit who inspired the Scripture also inspires its believing readers to accept it as God’s message and to understand it.  This should not be understood as a kind of magic that makes credible to us what would otherwise have no credibility.  It can be understood to mean that as the Spirit inspires our Christian living and thinking, leading us further into the experience of what the Bible teaches, so we find the Bible making more sense to us—existentially, intellectually, imaginatively.  As the Spirit actualizes the Word of God in our lives, so the Word of God authenticates itself to us.  There is a kind of hermeneutical circle of authority and experience.

I suppose that, for people growing up in a Christian context, it has often been the case that they start by regarding the Bible as an extrinsic authority, because everyone they learn from does.  Then there comes a point when it begins to penetrate their existence—some might call this their conversion—and the Bible, they might say, comes alive for them, speaks to them; they feel for the first time that they know what it is really about.  That is recognition of intrinsic authority or convincingness.  Maybe now for many people things happen the other way around.  In a secular culture they are not inclined to treat the Bible as authoritative at all, and it is only when its message in some form (not of course necessarily as the text of the Bible itself) strikes home for them that it first gains any authority for them at all.  They start with the existential convincingness of the gospel message, but they also then need to acquire a trust in the word of this God they have begun to know.  There has to come for all of us a taking, on authority, of what we cannot exhaustively verify.  For the new convert and important dimension of that is becoming part of the Christian community for whom as a whole the Bible has authority.” (Richard Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom, pp. 56-58)

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Communitarian Ethics

Community“The question whether the demands of Jesus [in the Sermon on the Mount] can be fulfilled is not one which can ultimately be answered by an individual, especially an individual sitting at a desk.  Jesus’ ethic is not directed to isolated individuals, but to the circle of disciples, the new family of God, the people of God which is to be gathered.  It has an eminently social dimension.  Whether or not this ethic can be fulfilled is something that can only be determined by groups of people which consciously place themselves under the gospel of the reign of God and wish to be real communities of brothers and sisters–communities which form a living arena for faith, in which everyone draws strength from each other…

The social context in which Jesus placed his demands and in which they become visible has to a great extent slipped away from us.  Jesus did after all turn to the people of God and gather disciples around himself, in order to make Israel the true people of God.  It is impossible to discuss the fulfillment of the Sermon on the Mount without taking all this into consideration.  If we really wish to know if the Sermon on the Mount can be lived, we need to ask the groups and communities in which Christians not only live alongside one another but have undertaken a journey together as the people of God…

According to the will of Jesus, different social relationships obtain in [the church] than in the rest of society.  There is no retribution; there are no structures of domination.  This alone makes it clear that we are dealing with a very concrete social reality.  Jesus’ ethic was…not directed toward the isolated individual, for isolated individuals are simply not in a position to exemplify and to live the social dimension of the reign of God.  Nor was Jesus’ ethic directed to the world as a whole.  A new order of society and of life could have been imposed on the world as a whole only by force.  But that would have contradicted the very nature of God’s rule.  Only one path remained open: that God beginat some place in the world, in one people, to create something new.” (Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community, pp. 62, 72)

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Stories and the Self

Books“The more you see a bookshop how I tend to, as a chemist’s dispensing an almost universal range of mood-altering substances, each slightly different from the next, the more essentially interchangeable books seem.  The promise of reading recedes.  But I don’t let go of it even its satisfactions seem to be dissolving.  I don’t give it up.  It is entwined too deeply with my history, it has been forming the way I see for too long…

Our reverence for books, too, has really not much to do with them requiring deeper concentration than Mortal Kombat.  It is the directions they can point us in that we value–and then the way those interact deep down in our reading minds with the directions our own temperaments are tentatively taking…With its conventions that mimic the three dimensions of the world off the page, and its simulation of time passing as measured by experience’s ordinary clocks, we hope it can bring a fully uttered clarity to the living we do, which is, we know, so hard to disentangle and articulate.  And when it does, when a fiction does trip a profound recognition…the reward is more than an inert item of knowledge.  The book becomes part of the history of our self-understanding.  The stories that mean most to us join the process by which we come to be securely our own.  Literacy allows access to a huge force for development.  When an adult in a remote village rejoices that ABC is mastered, it isn’t just because books bring the world to them; books bring them, in new ways, to themselves…

Story’s lucidating way with experience rushes into the primary fashioning of a self, the very first construction of a person out of the materials of environment, and family, and reading silence.  This degree of inwardness is what truly leads us to value the book for children so high, at least in theory; over the video game, over the entertainments that can flood the forebrain, but deliver to the place under the skin where identity is kept only color and sound.  The association between books for children and autonomy for children is very strong…

[Books] freed us from the limitation of having just one life with one point of view; they let us see beyond the horizon of our own circumstances.  William Hazlitt said, ‘Books alone teach us to judge of truth and good in the abstract: without a knowledge of things at a distance from us, we judge like savages or animals from our sense and appetites alone; but by the aid of books and of an intercourse with the world of ideas, we are purified, raised, ennobled from savages into intellectual and rational beings’…The books you read as a child brought you sights you hadn’t seen yourself, scents you hadn’t smelled, sounds you hadn’t heard.  They introduced you to people you hadn’t met, and helped you to sample ways of being that would never have occurred to you.  And the result was, if not an ‘intellectual and rational being,’ then somebody who was enriched by the knowledge that their own particular life only occupied one little space in a much bigger world of possibilities…

[My history of reading books] is my inward autobiography, for the words we take into ourselves help to shape us.  They help form the questions we think are worth asking; they shift around the boundaries of the sayable inside us, and the related borders of what’s acceptable; their potent images, calling on more in us than the responses we will ourselves to have, dart new bridges into being between our conscious and unconscious minds, between what we know we know, and the knowledge we cannot examine by thinking.  They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination.” (Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built, chapter 1)

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Luke“There were two exegetes who prayed as they entered the library to work on understanding a biblical text. One was a biblical scholar and the other a common lay preacher. The biblical scholar, on route to deep seclusion in the collection of recent monographs, prayed like this: ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like other exegetes– the youth ministers, authors of popular devotional literature, mass production book publishers or even this lay preacher. I study the Scriptures for hours every day– in their original… and several other languages, not to mention my work in ancient history and historiography, literary theory, social-scientific research, the most important commentaries, the most recent monographs and dissertations, and the most scholarly periodicals!’ But the lay preacher, trying to remember how to use the complicated cataloging system to find an understandable commentary on a passage of Scripture, prayed thus, ‘God, please help me, a mere preacher, find something to help me understand Your word.’  I tell you, this person– who desperately needed it– received help from the Lord.” (Craig G. Bartholomew and Robby Holt, “Prayer in/and the Drama of Redemption,” in Reading Luke: Interpretation, Reflection, Formation, p. 350.)

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Berkhof“The Spirit is Christ in action…Kasemann rightly says, ‘This means that the Spirit is the earthly presence of the exalted Lord.  To say it more precisely: in the Spirit the Resurrected One is manifested in his resurrection-power.’  The Spirit is the new way of existence and action by Jesus Christ.  Through his resurrection he becomes a person in action, continuing and making effective on a world-wide scale what he began in his earthly life…Barth [also] defines the Spirit as ‘no other than the presence and action of Jesus Christ himself: his stretched-out arm; he himself in the power of his resurrection…as it continues its work from this point.’” (Hendrikus Berkhof, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, pp. 26-27, 29)

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On Reading the Song of Songs

Song of Songs“Carl Jung once remarked that when people brought sexual questions to him they invariably turned out to be religious, and when they brought religious questions to him they always turned out to be sexual.” (Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, p. 15)

“As theologian Sarah Coakley has so brilliantly said, ancient Christian reflection on desire shows that Freud is exactly wrong: Talk about God is not repressed talk about sexuality; talk about sex is, in fact, repressed talk about God.” (Jason Byassee, “Not Your Father’s Pornography,” First Things, January 2008)

How should Christians read the enigmatic book usually called “The Song of Songs” which is found in their Old Testament Scriptures?  The proper approach to both the explicit sexual imagery found within these pages, and to the equally unbounded celebration of the sheer goodness of erotic love, is neither allegory (i.e. the whole thing is really about God and His people, and not the mutual delight between spouses) nor literal (i.e. sexual love is secularized and entirely disconnected from its relation to God’s covenant with Israel).  Rather, the Song simultaneously celebrates both forms of covenant love (human and divine), simply because the erotic love of spouses in marriage is itself already typological and symbolic of divine love for Israel by virtue of creation and redemption.  From the beginning, “sex” and “spirituality” have always been mutually interpreting and intimately linked to each other.  Every unfolding stage of the biblical metanarrative only serves to further establish and explain this foundational logic.  For Christians who think rightly about their story, this much must be said: in talking about the one (either sex or spirituality), the other subject is always necessarily in view as well.  Neither can be understood or experienced rightly in splendid isolation.

Robert Jenson strikes the right balance:

“The Song’s poesy of sheer bodily delight, invoked in order to speak of the Lord and his people joined passionately in the temple, simultaneously evokes human love as it would be, were we lovers in Eden or in the garden the temple depicted: it would be the joyous image of God’s love for Israel.” (Robert W. Jenson, “Male and Female He Created Them,” in I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, eds. Braaten and Seitz, p. 185)

And Stephen Barton appeals to the inherent symbolism of human sexuality in the Christian story for the “multiple levels” approach to the Song of Songs:

“Nor is sexuality limited to our relations with one another.  It has a mystical dimension whereby it is able to become fundamental to our relations with God as well.  That is why the Song of Songs has always been interpreted both as a celebration of love between a woman and a man, and also as a celebration of the relation of mutual desire between God and the people of God.” (Stephen C. Barton, “‘Glorify God in Your Body’ (1 Cor 6:20): Thinking Theologically About Sexuality,” in Life Together: Family, Sexuality and Community in the New Testament and Today, p. 80)

Similarly, Richard Davidson contends that:

“Those who have resorted to an allegorical interpretation to legitimize the existence of the Song in Scripture have missed the crucial point—the Song of Songs in its plain and literal sense is not just a ‘secular’ love song but already fraught with deep spiritual, theological significance.” (Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, p. 621)

For instance, the strong allusions to and echoes of the Garden of Eden in the Song point beyond the particular love of this anonymous couple, back to God’s original creational intentions for all of humanity which were scarred and frustrated by sin:

“In the Song of Songs we have come full circle in the Old Testament back to the garden of Eden.  Several recent studies have penetratingly analyzed and conclusively demonstrated the intimate relationship between the early chapters of Genesis and the Song of Songs.  In the ‘symphony of love,’ begun in Eden but gone awry after the fall, The Song constitutes ‘love’s lyrics redeemed.’  Phyllis Trible summarizes how the Song of Songs ‘by variations and reversals creatively actualizes major motifs and themes’ of the Eden narrative: ‘Female and male are born to mutuality and love.  They are naked without shame; they are equal without duplication.  They live in gardens where nature joins in celebrating their oneness.  Animals remind these couples of their shared superiority in creation as well as their affinity and responsibility for lesser creatures.  Fruits pleasing to the eye and tongue are theirs to enjoy.  Living waters replenish their gardens.  Both couples are involved in naming; both couples work…Whatever else it may be, Canticles is a commentary on Gen. 2-3.  Paradise Lost is Paradise Regained.’” (Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, pp. 552-53)

Finally, in her wonderfully lucid commentary on the Song, Ellen F. Davis provides much grist for the mill for confused modern readers:

“The task of writing a theological commentary on the Song of Songs is a daunting one.  Is it the least ‘biblical’ book in the Bible, or the most?  There is in the whole book not a single overt reference to God, to prayer, or to any aspect of Israel’s religious practice or tradition…Overwhelmingly, modern interpreters read the book as purely secular love poetry, even soft pornography.  Yet, taking a longer view, Christians have through the centuries regarded the Song of Songs as one of the most religiously profound–and most difficult!–books of the Bible.  Except for Genesis and the Psalms, the Song has generated more commentary than any other book of the Bible…

The approach taken in this commentary is that the Song of Songs is, in a sense, the most biblical of books.  That is to say, the poet is throughout in conversation with other biblical writers…The Song is thick with words and images drawn from earlier books.  By means of this ‘recycled’ language, the poet places this love song firmly in the context of God’s passionate and troubled relationship with humanity (or, more particularly, with Israel), which is the story the rest of the Bible tells.  Far from being a secular composition, the Song is profoundly revelatory.  Its unique contribution to the biblical canon is to point to the healing of the deepest wounds in the created order, and even the wounds in God’s own heart, made by human sin.  Most briefly stated, the Song is about repairing the damage done by the first disobedience in Eden, what Christian tradition calls ‘the Fall’…Vritually all the books of the Bible bear traces–one might say ‘scars’–of the great and terrible experience of exile as a result of disobedience to God.

The theological importance of the Song is that it represents the reversal of that primordial exile from Eden.  In a word, it returns us to the Garden of God.  There, through the imaginative vehicle of poetry, we may experience the healing of painful rupture [in our relationship to both other human beings and God]…The lovers’ garden of delight is the very opposite of the harsh world into which Adam and Eve ‘fell’…The lovers’ graden is subtly but consistently represented as the garden of delight that Eden was meant to be, the place where life may be lived fully in the presence of God.

Because healing must occur at multiple levels, the language of the Song of Songs plays simultaneously upon several registers…The poem uses language and symbols that elsewhere in the Bible represent the love that obtains between God and Israel…In my judgment, interpreters of the Song are always in danger of becoming doctrinaire in one of two directions.  Modern commentators tend to adhere rigidly to a sexual interpretation, decoding the highly metaphorical language of the Song into a serires of physically explicit references.  The suggestion that religious experience is part of what the poet had in mind is regarded as foreign, if not hostile, to the Song’s celebration of faithful human love.  Their ancient and medieval counterparts erred in the other direction.  For them, the poem was an allegory, a coded account, of religious experience.  So every image had to be decoded: the two breasts that are ‘more delightful than wine’ (1:2) were the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament and the New Testament, Christ’s mercy and truth, and so on…

The sexual and the religious understandings of the Song are mutually informative, and each is incomplete without the other.  For a holistic understanding of our own humanity suggests that our religious capacity is linked with an awareness of our own sexuality.  Fundamental to both is a desire to transcend the confines of the self for the sake of intimacy with the other.  Sexual love provides many people with their first experience of ecstasy, which literally means ‘standing outside oneself.’  Therefore the experience of healthy sexual desire can help us imagine that it might mean to love God truly–a less ‘natural’ feeling for many of us, especially in our secular society.  On the other hand, from what the Bible tells us about God’s love we can come to recognize sexual love as an arena for the formation of the soul.  Like the love of God, profound love of another person entails devotion of the whole self and steady practice of repentance and forgiveness; it inevitably requires of us suffering and sacrifice.  A full reading of the Song of Songs stretches our minds to span categories of experience that our modern intellects too neatly separate.

Yet the Bible itself often allows the two realms of human love and religious experience to interpenetrate.  It is telling that the metaphors by which the prophets–who were themselves poets–most commonly characterize God’s relations with Israel are those of courtship and marriage, and also adultery, divorce, and difficult reconciliation…

The recurrent tragedy of biblical history is that human love and responsiveness to God repeatedly weakens and fails.  The Song of Songs answers that tragic history, stretching all the way back to Eden.  What we hear throughout–and only here in the Bible–is mutual love speaking at full strength…The Song affirms as incomparable the joy of faithful sexual relationship…[and] the images of the Song underscore throughout the lushness of sexual exclusivity (5:1, 6:9)…The lovers’ mutual delight is completely nonutilitarian.  The Song shows us love in its purest form.  This is the only place in the Bible where the love between man and woman is treated without concern for childbearing or the social and political benefits of marriage.  Of course, in this world, all love, including the love of God, is inevitably ‘tainted’ by an awareness of practical benefits.  Perhaps this is why the Song has no clear story line (despite the attempts of numerous commentators to give it one!)…

The Song affirms that the desire for loving intimacy both in sexual relationship and in relationship with God is fundamental to our humanity…Perhaps the greatest religious value of the Song of Songs for our generation is to make the [original] perspective from the Garden real and compelling…

The Song of Songs is, more than anything else, like a dream transcribed.  The scene shifts constantly and without apparent logic; characters appear and disappear abruptly; fragmentary images are left unintegrated.  Yet the images, though jumbled together and sometimes bizarre, are not random.  Dream images are rooted in a personal and social history, and working with them inevitably leads below the surface of awareness, often revealing surprising connections.  So it is with the Song: its images are deeply contextualized.  Their roots can be traced into ancient Near Eastern religion, art, literature, and history, and the physical geography of Israel, as well as through many books of the Old Testament.  Like our most important dreams, the Song reaches far back in order to say something startlingly new.  Therefore it resists simple decoding and invites us instead to ponder, puzzle, draw connections, and push beyond what we thought before.  In short, it encourages the vigorous exercise of the religious imagination, while assuming that our imaginations have already had some ‘training’ in biblical tradition.” (Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, pp. 231-38)

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Newbigin“Deeds of mercy and justice that are divorced from words are betrayal, and gospel words void of deeds are false.” (Leslie Newbigin, “Crosscurrents in Ecumenical and Evangelical Understandings of Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 6.4 (1982), p. 148)

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