Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

Origen of Alexandria to Gregory Thaumaturgus: “Study the Sacred Scriptures!”

“Greeting in God, my most excellent sir, and venerable son Gregory, from Origen. A natural readiness of comprehension, as you well know, may, if practice be added, contribute somewhat to the contingent end, if I may so call it, of that which any one wishes to practise. Thus, your natural good parts might make of you a finished Roman lawyer or a Greek philosopher, so to speak, of one of the schools in high reputation. But I am anxious that you should devote all the strength of your natural good parts to Christianity for your end; and in order to this, I wish to ask you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what will serve to explain the sacred Scriptures, in order that all that the sons of the philosophers are wont to say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as fellow-helpers to philosophy, we may say about philosophy itself, in relation to Christianity.”

“Do you then, my son, diligently apply yourself to the reading of the sacred Scriptures. Apply yourself, I say. For we who read the things of God need much application, lest we should say or think anything too rashly about them. And applying yourself thus to the study of the things of God, with faithful prejudgments such as are well pleasing to God, knock at its locked door, and it will be opened to you by the porter, of whom Jesus says, To him the porter opens. And applying yourself thus to the divine study, seek aright, and with unwavering trust in God, the meaning of the holy Scriptures, which so many have missed. Be not satisfied with knocking and seeking; for prayer is of all things indispensable to the knowledge of the things of God. For to this the Saviour exhorted, and said not only, Knock, and it shall be opened to you; and seek, and you shall find, but also, Ask, and it shall be given unto you. My fatherly love to you has made me thus bold; but whether my boldness be good, God will know, and His Christ, and all partakers of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. May you also be a partaker, and be ever increasing your inheritance, that you may say not only, We have become partakers of Christ, but also partakers of God.”  [Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe.]

Irenaeus of Lyons and Christological Reading of the Bible

Posted in Reading the Bible as Scripture, Theological Interpretation by Bacho on March 30, 2011

The dominant mode of exegesis in the Early Church was to read the Bible christologically.  What does that mean?  The lens of Christ’s incarnation, life, crucifixion, and resurrection allowed them to read the entire Bible with Jesus as the key figure that stood in the center of the text.  The words of Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lyons are instructive here, “If one carefully reads the Scripture, he will find there the word on the subject of Christ- de Christo sermonem– and the prefiguration of the new calling.  he is indeed the hidden treasure in the field- the field in fact is the world- but in truth, the hidden treasure in the Scriptures is Christ.  because he is designed by types and words that humanly are not possible to understand before the accomplishment of all things, that is, Christ’s parousia.”  [quoted in Christopher Alan Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers , 192]

Jon Levenson: Historical Criticism as a Tyrant, Parasite or Tradition

Here are few exerpts from Jon Levenson’s book The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies.  By the way: this book is a must read for anyone trying to read the Bible as Scripture:

“Even the most antireligious among biblical scholars must face this paradoxical reality: the vitality of their rather untraditional discipline has historically depended upon the vitality of traditional religious communities, Jewish and Christian.”  [110]

“The belief that the meaning of religious phenomena is available only to the outside observer is a secular analogue to religious revelation.  If so, then a system of thought like historicism, which “exempts itself from its own verdict”, is a secular equivalent to fundamentalism.  For though it subjects all else to critique, it asserts axiomatically its own inviolability to critique.”  [117]

“Historical criticism will not only have to surrender the positivistic notion of critical autonomy and recognize itself as a tradition.  It will also have to recognize that it corresponds to a community of interpretation.  It is a very special kind, however, one dependent upon other communities of interpretation for the very object of its inquiry and, historically if not necessarily, for its motivation as well.  Historical critics thus constitute a secondary community; they engage in second-order reflection upon the primary language of the religious communities they study.”  [123]

Kevin Vanhoozer on Theodrama, Faith, and Discipleship

I just came across this lecture by Kevin Vanhoozer titled Gospel Theater: Rehearsing, Imrpovising, Performing. It is an hour long, but worth every second of your time.   To understand Vanhoozer’s program one needs to grasp few key aspects of it.  First, one needs to be familiar with his metaphors, like metaphors for theology (dramaturgy), Scripture (the script), theological understanding (performance), the church (the company), and the pastor (director). Second, crucial for Vanhoozer is his conviction that doctrine is linked with life.  What does that mean?  For Vanhoozer it means that the the doctrine serves the church by guiding it towards wise living.  In his book The Drama of Doctrine Vanhoozer’s goal is “to convince ministers and laypeople alike not to dismiss doctrine as irrelevant, and to encourage theologians not to neglect the needs of the church. It aims to make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion. Its goal is to refute, once and for all, the all-too-common dichotomy between doctrine and real life. Christian doctrine directs us in the way of truth and life and is therefore no less than a prescription for reality” (xii)  It is towards this end that he coins the term theodrama. Under that large rubric he understands the Church as an arena where the gospel is improvised and lived out.  The Scripture is seen as a script to be performed, faithfully, leisurely, and imaginatively.  Discipleship is envisioned as improvisation.

NOTE: this lecture was a part of the the Page Lectures at Southeastern Seminary, Nov. 10-11, 2009, titled “Doing Faith: Seeking (and Showing) Understanding in Company with Christ.”

Christopher Seitz: Why read the Book of Isaiah?

Posted in Book of Isaiah, Christopher Seitz, Theological Interpretation by Bacho on March 21, 2011

“So why read the book of Isaiah?  Merely to see a record of past events, with little relationship to the present?  The book of Isaiah presents another option.  Here we see quite clearly an effort made on theological grounds to catch the inner significance of historical events across the ages, from Isaiah’s preaching in the days of Ahaz and Hezekiah, to the events of 587 BC, and beyond.  The choice is not between history and apocalypse, between seeing the book as relevant only for the past, or having only to do with the readers present.  Rather, a series of crucial historical events are held up and linked together in order to demonstrate God’s ways with Israel and the nations, as much for the present and the future as for the past…The shapers of the Isaiah traditions have worked with one overwhelming conviction: that God’s word to Israel in the past was uttered to instruct present and future generations.”  [Christopher Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 17-18]

God takes no bull from us…

Posted in Humor, OT Theology, Theological Interpretation by Bacho on March 6, 2011

Here is just one peculiar example of why we need:

a.Grow in our capacity to read in the original languages

b.Updated English translations

Psalm 50.9:לא-אקח מביתך פר

Literal: not-I-will-accept from-your-house bull

RSV: I will accept no bull from your house

NRSV: I will not accept a bull from your house

Is YHWH not willing to take any bull from us in the literal or figurative sense?  What, albeit wrong but intriguing implications might the more colorful reading have on our theology?  Preaching possibilities seem to be endless…

David Steinmetz on Sola Scriptura, the Reformers and the early Church Fathers

Posted in Hermeneutics, Reading the Bible as Scripture, Theological Interpretation by Bacho on February 18, 2011

I just came across an interview with David Steinmetz, Amos Ragan Kearns professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, about sola scriptura and the Reformers use of the early Church Fathers.  Here is a snippet:

“The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim. This is one of those things that is so obvious nobody has paid much attention to it—then you look and you see it everywhere.  The Reformers use the Fathers all over the place. We know Calvin read Augustine, and we discovered recently that Luther read Jerome—he had copies annotated in his own hand. The index of Calvin’s Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the Fathers. And in the first preface to that work, addressed to Francis I, Calvin did his best to show his teachings were in complete harmony with the Fathers.  The Protestants did this because they were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy. ‘Ours is the ancient tradition,’ they said. ‘The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!’ They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching.

But they also turned to the Fathers because they found them important sources of insight into the text of Scripture. Calvin and Melanchthon both believed it was a very strong argument against a given theological position if you couldn’t find authorization for it in the Fathers.  All the Reformers loved Augustine (Luther, remember, was an Augustinian friar). Calvin, though he loved Augustine for doctrine, preferred Chrysostom’s approach to biblical interpretation.  Chrysostom is a verse-by-verse commentator in his sermons. Calvin doesn’t mimic Chrysostom, but he appreciates his model. Augustine flies a little too high above the text for Calvin—he is too quick to go to figures of speech, allegory, and so forth. Chrysostom flies at a lower level.

Finally, the Reformation was not an argument about everything, but about just some things. It was not, for example, about the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. The Protestants had their own slant on these doctrines, but they agreed basically with Roman Catholics. Both confessed the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. And if we ask where these accepted doctrines came from—they came from the Fathers’ reflections on the Bible!”

Epistemology, Omletes and Limitaitons of the Post-Critical Mentality

Posted in Hermeneutics, Theological Interpretation by Bacho on November 13, 2010

“One cannot deduce theology from epistemology any more than one can deduce omelets from eggs.  Even if the decision has been made that this particular egg will not be allowed to develop as a chicken, it may be fried, poached, scrambled, souffléed, or dried and powdered; it may be mixed with other ingredients to produce pancakes, waffles, bread, pasta, soup, or any number of other dishes.  The post-critical mentality provides a rich range of materials for reflection, but does not automatically dictate how they are to be assembled in the final products of thought [Martin X. Moleski, Personal Catholicism: The Theological Epistemologies of John Henry Newman and Michael Polanyi, 139-140]

Brevard Childs, the Book of Isaiah, and Seven Features of the Christian Exegetical tradition

At the opening of his book The Struggle To Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, Childs asks if there is any sort of family resemblance in the ways the book of Isaiah has been interpreted throughout the centuries by the scholars and churchmen as Christian Scripture.  Having made a treacherous journey across time and space, Childs provides seven features that he argues characterize the Christian exegetical tradition.  Rather than being seven concluding statements, these are seven areas where Childs perceives the struggle to read Isaiah as Christian Scripture as most definitive.

First, Childs opens his discussion with the question of the authority of Scripture.  This seems to be a basic conviction that spans time.  Childs observes, “Widespread is the confession that God is the author of the Bible’s Word.  It contains the Word of truth calling for the “obedience of faith.” [300]  Childs‘ research finds this conviction manifested in two ways.  First, the Early Church used the authority of Scripture to shape her life via preaching, worship, and instruction.  Second,  the authority of Scripture was evoked in arguments that sought to safeguard the truth of the apostolic gospel.

Second, the Scripture has both literal and spiritual dimensions to it.  One of the enduring characteristics of Childs‘ research is the ever present struggle in the church to discern how these aspects fit together.  He writes, “During much of the church’s history, enormous energy, reflection, and debate has gone into the effort to understand exactly the relation between the literal and the spiritual dimensions of the biblical text.” [303]  One of the most dramatic points in the Church history where this struggle manifested itself most clearly was at the end of the 3rd century with the emergence of the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of interpretation.  Despite centuries of misunderstandings of these schools Childs argues, “Both schools fully agreed in recognizing both a literal and spiritual dimension, and both sought to develop subtle strategies by which to guide and control the interrelationship of the two.” [303] In the end, the way forward was found not in the abandonment of one for the sake of the other, but rather in the careful appropriation of the best practices reflected in both schools.

Third, similar and many ways connected to the literal/spiritual aspect of Christian exegetical tradition is the conviction that the Christian Bible is made of two testaments.  Childs sums up what is at stake in this understanding when he writes, “The Christian scriptures bear a unified witness to one divine story that has a narrative sequence of a beginning and an end.  Moreover, both testaments share an eschatological perspective pointing towards history’s final telos, the reign of God.  The sequence with the terminology is not just a historical one, but is grounded on a trinitarian theology that confesses that one triune God at work in the different divine economies: preparation, old covenant, incarnation, new covenant, and consummation.” [303]

Fourth, Childs observes that the Church has always held in tension the dual authorship of her Scripture.  “God’s is the voice addressing the people in divine speech.  Yet at the same time human beings were designated as authors communicating the teachings of God: Moses, David, evangelists, and apostles.”  [309]  Sadly the emergence of historical-critical approach to hermeneutics has tarnished this centuries long affirmation.  Whether intentionally or unintentionally the pressures to defend the innerancy of the Bible as the Word of God has entangled the Church and her exegetes in battles so severe that the Church’s confidence in being in possession of the definitive divine revelation was severely undermined.  Yet according to Childs “the vestiges of the church’s distant memory were not fully lost.”  [310]  He attributes this to the role of liturgy in the Church.  “The traditional call to the congregation, “hear the Word of the Lord,” before the biblical passage was read continued to remind its listeners that words of a fully human author, often poorly read by a stumbling cleric, could nevertheless evoke a startling sense of the divine presence.”  [310]

Fifth, Childs articulates the struggle for the Christological content of the Christian Bible.  This might be the most controversial aspect of Childs‘ position.  According to Childs what we have in the Christian Bible is not a random and haphazard amalgam of sacred texts.  Neither are they a source of esoteric mysteries.  Rather they are a product of definitive theological reflection that its collectors ascribed to divine inspiration.  The faith of the early church rested on the apostolic witness to what they saw, touched, experienced and came to believe in Jesus.  Thus according to Childs, the canon drew a parameter that established boundaries demarcating orthodox witness to that experienced reality of God in Jesus.  “The implication of the privileged status of scripture was that its witness was not primarily formulated in terms of a single doctrinal formula, but rather as a prescribed circle designating the accepted range of confessions transmitted in the worship of historic Christian congregations (Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, etc.).”  [314]  Childs sums beautifully what the Church has known and experienced for centuries, “the meaning of [the Bible’s] history only comes through the experience of the new birth, which confirms that Christ is the goal of all biblical history.”  [272]  If Christ is indeed the supreme telos, then Childs is correct that “the challenge to “wrestle with Scripture” lies in the struggle to acquire the capacity to receive its message.”  [314]

Sixth, Childs claims that an intense interest in the nature of history has always characterized the Christian exegetical tradition.  He talks about the dialectical nature of history where God’s unique action in history can neither be fused with empirically verifiable history or can it be separated into some sort of esoteric mystery.  According to him, “The Church struggles to discern the ways of God that are revealed to the faithful whose lives of worship and service bear testimony to the promised presence of God’s Spirit in the realm of human affairs.”  [314]

Seventh, Childs reflects on the relationship between the history and the final form of the text.  How is the long history of growth and transmission related with the final canonical shape of the Scriptures before us?  According to Childs most of recent attacks on his Canonical Approach stem from misunderstanding of the nature of exegetical task undertaken.  He writes, “It is one thing to attempt to understand the Old testament as the sacred scripture of the church.  It is quite another to understand the study of the Bible in history-of-religions categories.  Both tasks are legitimate, but they are different in goal and procedure.”  [321]  What are the main differences?  Here we come to Childs‘ programic statement that is worth quoting at length, “To understand the Bible as scripture means to reflect on the witness of the text transmitted through the testimony of the prophets and apostles.  It involves an understanding of biblical history as the activity of God testified to in scripture.  In contrast, a history-of-religions approach attempts to reconstruct a history according to the widely accepted categories of the Enlightenment, as a scientifically objective analysis according to the rules of critical research prescribed by common human experience…To speak of the privileged state of the canonical form is not to disregard Israel’s past history.  However, it refuses to fuse the canonical process of the shaping of the witness of the prophets and apostles with an allegedly objective scientific reconstruction that uses a critical filet to eliminate those very features that constitute its witness, namely, the presence of God in the history of Israel and the church.”  [321]

What draws me to Childs is his focus on the controlling role of the Canon of Scripture.  In him I find a carefully articulated , albeit at times hard to grasp, attempt to walk the line where faith-filled hermeneutics rejects both the limits of modernity and postmodern relativity.  The Canon of Scripture is the Rule of Faith that controls and guides the Church’s reading of her script.  This canon consciousness establishes the continuity between the Old and New Testaments that is neither accidental nor artificial.  The Christian gospel is prefigured in the Old Testament and the Old Testament trajectories lead in the climactic fashion to the Cross of Calvary.

What draws me back from Childs is his thorough entrenchment in the academia.  For all his talk of reading the Scripture in the Church most of his writings never reached a person in the pew.  It is practically impossible to read him without prior knowledge of Karl Barth and the 20th century hermeneutical terrain.  He never produced a popular level book or commentary.  His prose is dense and at places simply hard to understand.  While it is exciting that there are few recent PhDs who are working on applying Childs‘ brilliant approach to specific texts, I hope that soon there will be few brave souls who will attempt to articulate Childs‘ thoughts in the Church setting.  I think Dr. Childs would be delighted with that.

C.S. Lewis, Re-Mythologizing and Christian Exegesis

Posted in Reading the Bible as Scripture, Theological Interpretation by Bacho on October 11, 2010

“I suggest two rules for exegesis: (1) Never take the image literally.  (2) When the purport of the images- what they say to our fear, and hope, and will and affections- seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time.  For our abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modeling of spiritual reality in legal, or chemical, or mechanical terms.  Are these likely to be more adequate than the sensuous, organic, and personal images of Scripture- light and darkness, river and well, seed and harvest, master and servant, hen and chicken, father and child?  The footprints of the Divine are more visible in that rich soil than across rocks or slag heaps.  Hence what they now call “demythologising” Christianity can easily be “re-mythologizing” it- and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer.”  [C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian, 106-107]