Reading Scripture as the Church: Canon, Authority, and Wesleyans

Richard P. Thompson

It should be of little surprise that those of us from the Wesleyan theological tradition sometimes ask questions about Scripture and its authority. After all, John Wesley described himself as a “man of one book.” Throughout his writings, it is clear that Wesley considered the Bible as the primary authority for faith and practice (cf. R. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology [Abingdon, 1994] 36-40). Other sources—namely, tradition, reason, and experience—certainly contributed to Wesley’s thought, which together have formed the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Still, there is little doubt of the primacy of Scripture that shaped the earliest Methodists, an assertion that is part of our ecclesial and theological DNA.

Although our theological heritage affirms the authority of Scripture in matters of faith and practice, often it is difficult to figure out precisely what that affirmation means pragmatically. Part of the confusion arises out of our conflicting practices regarding the interpretation of biblical texts. In recent centuries, the interpretive practices of biblical scholarship have tended to focus on those matters regarding “what the text meant” since these texts were written in and to particular historical contexts. Of course, one cannot and should not detach these writings from the webs of innumerable historical connections, influences, and particularities that comprise them. However, these prevailing interpretive approaches to the Bible—characterized largely by historical concerns that seek the given text’s meaning as a historical, static entity—have often left the church wondering what, if anything, the Bible might actually have to say in contemporary settings. The historical focus of biblical interpretation may often leave the church with an abundant feast of ways to read and understand the biblical texts in their original communicative contexts involving author and audience, yet starving for a fresh message that engages the present. When this happens, our passionate affirmations regarding the Bible’s authority often ring hollow.

Ultimately, this issue concerns something rather basic—namely, the difference between interpreting the Bible and interpreting these same texts as the church’s Scriptures (cf. S. Fowl and G. Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life [Eerdmans, 1991] 20). Typically, these two designations for the biblical texts are used interchangeably. This difference, however, refers at least in part to matters of authority with which the process of Christian canonization was concerned. Although the historical and theological notion of Christian canon itself generally contributes little to the interpretive contributions of the professional guild of biblical studies, this notion is critical to an understanding of the authoritative role of the canonical collection through the history of the Christian church. Associated with the Christian canon are theological assumptions that clarify aspects of its authority, as the process of canonization reflects, which has more to do with its formative rather than epistemic role (cf. W.J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology [Oxford University Press, 1998] 1-56). Thus, as Wesleyans appraise how the Bible has functioned authoritatively as Scripture in previous decades and centuries as well as how that may also occur in the twenty-first century, there are three considerations regarding the notion of Christian canon that potentially contribute to its authoritative role.

Christian Canon and Interpretive Context

The notion of Christian canon alters the interpretive context. Traditional biblical studies in the last few centuries has looked to the historical setting of the original communicative event as the authority or arbiter regarding the meaning of the biblical text. What is frequently ignored, however, is that the development and formation of the Christian canon alters the context within which these texts were subsequently and are now read and interpreted. This is because these previously “independent” texts (including all the historical aspects that comprise them) are now engaged in many ways foreign to those original communicative events, which scholars have considered the basis for all critical interpretive tasks.

Historical-critical approaches have long contended that a text’s meaning was and is controlled by such historical particularities belonging to the composition and initial reception of that text. This obligates the faithful interpreter to comply with the author’s intention or the “original intent of the words of the Bible” (cf. G. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible [Zondervan, 2003] 23). Certainly, such an interpreter accepts the responsibility to deal critically and responsibly with all aspects of the biblical text (cf. M. Turner, “Historical Criticism and Theological Hermeneutics of the New Testament,” in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology [ed. J.B. Green and M. Turner; Eerdmans, 2000] 44-70). Still, the placement and status of texts within a larger list or collection deemed authoritative in formative ways within the church create a context different from that of its original composition and reception. On the one hand, one now reads and interprets a given biblical text with, in association with, and/or alongside other texts that these authors may have never envisaged. Most possibilities of such intracanonical connections are the result of the canonization process rather than anything that may be associated with compositional intention. On the other hand, one now also reads and interprets these texts in a place and time far removed from their origin, yet does so as part of the Christian canon, established because of the formative role of these biblical texts in contexts that may have little in common with those earlier settings.

Such a contention about the authoritative role of Christian canon in the interpretive task often faces resistance from those who insist on biblical interpretation as a descriptive, historical endeavor. The warning from these circles is that the hermeneutical move suggested by the notion of Christian canon snatches the biblical text from the author’s grasp (or intention) and the original historical context, leaving the text’s interpretation susceptible to the subjective whims of whatever reader comes along. However, such an argument is inadequate for two reasons.

One reason has to do with the problems associated with the attempt to retrieve a text’s authorial intention, if by it one wishes to recover the mind of the author. In reality, the only surviving aspect of anything resembling an author’s intention is the extant text, which undoubtedly exists due to some form of intentional composition but which may also contain unintended ideas and/or expressions. Thus, the idea of intention as a textual or literary construct rather than a historical entity may point us in more beneficial ways (cf. S. Fowl, “The Role of Authorial Intention in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology, 71-87).

A second reason comes from our postmodern context, which has correctly told us that the interpreter’s multidimensional context (social location, religious context, cultural values, etc.) contributes to any interpretation (cf. J. Vanier and F. Young, “Towards Transformational Reading of Scripture” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation [ed. C.G. Bartholomew et al.; Zondervan, 2006] 236-54). Although the interpreter must critically consider and assess myriads of textual details (including historical details), a given text’s inclusion within the Christian canon also creates an interpretive context most likely different from that envisaged by its author—a context that will contribute to the interpretation of that text. For instance, the inclusion of texts that were part of the Hebrew Scriptures into what later became the Christian canon moves the interpreter from reading the Hebrew Scriptures per se to reading these texts in light of Christian practices and beliefs subsequent to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ (cf. R. Parry, “Reader-Response Criticism,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible [ed. K.J. Vanhoozer et al.; Baker Academic, 2005] 660; S. Fowl, “Role of Authorial Intention,” 80-81). Thus, the notion of Christian canon alters the interpretive context in substantive ways that contribute to the reading and interpretation of those texts.

Christian Canon and Christian Church

The notion of Christian canon identifies the Christian church as the location where these texts function authoritatively as Scripture. In many ways, the role of the “rule of faith” in the process of canonization emphasizes the confessional context within which the reading and engagement of these texts was and is expected to occur. The texts included as part of the NT were to some extent shaped by and also contributions to the Christian confession regarding the self-revelation of the God of Israel in Jesus as the Christ. The basis of the authority of these texts, however, was their formative role within that confessional context. To speak of Christian canon was and is to understand the church as the location for the reading and interpretation of these texts in formative ways as part of the church’s worship, faith, and practice. This is why the church has returned repeatedly to these texts. These texts are on the table with a standing invitation to read them, to listen to them, and to reflect upon them another time, not simply as static historical documents for a different time and place but as sacred texts to which the historic Christian tradition has consistently revisited (cf. M. Turner, “Historical Criticism,” 57).

Although a contemporary faith community may not fully appreciate or recognize all the specific historical concerns of a respective passage, there is still the hope and expectation that a fresh reading will speak and shape that church’s faith and practice (cf. R. Wall, “The Significance of a Canonical Perspective of the Church’s Scripture,” in The Canon Debate [ed. L.M. McDonald and J.A. Sanders; Hendrickson, 2002] 529-31). Thus, interpreters of these texts are not limited to the biblical scholars and theologians. Rather, all who make up the church are invited to the table, so that laypersons and church leaders participate as conversation partners with theologians and biblical scholars (cf. R. Thompson, “Community in Conversation: Multiple Readings of Scripture and a Wesleyan Understanding of the Church,” in Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways: Some Constructive Proposals [ed. B.L. Callen and R.P. Thompson; Beacon Hill, 2004] 183-84). Although the professional scholars do not monopolize these conversations, this is also not a return to some kind of magisterial context. If the church is to be faithful to her identity and to avoid mirror reading, substantive critical work is required in order to engage the biblical texts in contemporary settings, due to the “otherness” of these texts in terms of time, place, and the like (cf. S. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation [Blackwell, 1998] 75-83).

At the same time, the church must listen in ways that imaginatively consider how these texts may continue to speak. After all, it is inevitable that the text will speak differently to a contemporary context much different from its original one (cf. T. Hart, “Tradition, Authority, and a Christian Approach to the Bible as Scripture,” in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology, 196; S.B. Chapman, “Reclaiming Inspiration for the Bible,” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, 183). Still, the church is the interpretive context assumed by the notion of Christian canon where, as R. Hays suggests, an “integrative act of the imagination” occurs, in which the church places her faith and practices imaginatively within the world presented by those texts (The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics [Harper SanFrancisco, 1996] 6). Such creative readings mirror the ways that texts often functioned in the ancient world and that the canonical texts functioned within the church through her history.

Christian Canon and Performance

The notion of Christian canon suggests that the evidence of its authoritative role may be found in the performance or living out of the church’s engagement with these texts as Scripture. The standard by which one evaluates the authority of the Christian canon in the church must include the reception of and response to these texts in the ongoing life of the faithful Christian community. The interpretive task has typically sought to rearticulate what a given passage might mean with a new set of verbal expressions. The canonical process, however, suggests that some texts were gathered and others were rejected due not merely to what these texts stated but how they functioned—that is, what they did within the context of the church. “Getting it” or understanding the text was evident not merely in another verbal form but in what emerged from the church’s engagement with these texts as Scripture in terms of worship, practice, and response to others (cf. A.K.M. Adam, Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World [Fortress, 2006] 28). Thus, how the community performs or embodies her encounters with the biblical texts reveals how these have functioned formatively as Scripture. Such emergent outcomes disclose the actual importance and authority of these sacred texts for the church’s life and practice.

If one takes this suggestion seriously, then matters of interpretation and the role of the Bible no longer belong exclusively to the domains of pious conversations or of intellectual debates of the academic. Rather, human life and activity are now “fair game” since, if the church really does listen to the biblical texts as Scripture, both the vocal witness of the church and her emergent life will divulge the authoritative role of these texts through the way(s) that collective life has been formed and transformed by those encounters in the Scriptures. Not only statements about interpretation but also the church’s embodiment and performance of those interpretations are open for critical assessment.

Since the primary authoritative sense of the Christian canon is found in the ways that these texts function formatively as Scripture, faithful living before God is an indispensable standard for the evaluation of biblical interpretation. As Fowl and Jones stated, “One cannot begin to judge whether this standard is being achieved unless and until the interpretation of Scripture becomes socially embodied in communities of people committed to ordering their worship, their doctrines, and their lives in a manner consistent with faithful interpretation” (Reading in Communion, 20). Given the imaginative and improvisational dimensions of this aspect of interpretation, the results will undoubtedly vary, especially among various theological traditions and local congregations (cf. Adam, Faithful Interpretation, 98-99). However, the basis for evaluation is the plausibility of these various interpretive performances as authentic responses to the biblical texts as Scripture. Without such responsive reading, talk about interpretation and the authority of the Bible has limited value (cf. Hays, Moral Vision, 7).

Posted Apr 01, 2008