Scripture and Theology: Compass Points in the Current Discussion

Joel B. Green

With apologies to Martin Luther, some eighteen months ago, I created “Table Talk,” a center for threaded discussion on our seminary’s Intranet. Open to staff, students, and faculty across our three campuses, “Table Talk” has become the locus of debate on all sorts of topics: pacifism, library hours, capital punishment, Harry Potter, the nature of the atonement, infant baptism, and more. Running like a scarlet thread through most every conversation (grade inflation and the quality of food in the student center come to mind as exceptions!) has been the question of theological method. More specifically, conversation returns again and again to the role of Scripture in theological discourse.

With regard to theological hermeneutics, “Table Talk” within our seminary community is little more than a microcosm of the larger world of the church and theological academy at the turn of the third millennium. Although most Christians would presume some integral relationship between Scripture and theology, the nature of this relationship today is contested. Does the Bible function as final court of appeal? Criterion? Source? Norm? Resource? The pathway from biblical text to Christian theology has neither been well-identified nor well-marked, even if blazing that trail has become the preoccupation of an increasing number of scholars (cf., e.g., J.B. Green and M. Turner, eds., Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 2000]).

One typical way of relating the Bible to constructive theology is to plot a linear course from exegesis to biblical theology to systematic theology to ethics. Three difficulties present themselves immediately. First, in terms of simple historical development, it is erroneous to imagine that Scripture has priority over theology. “Rules of faith,” narrative summaries of the kerygma, were shaped before and alongside the formation of the Christian canon and, in fact, performed a determinative role in the formation of the Christian canon. Second, there is the problem of continuity: Can these biblical documents, by themselves, support the theological weight placed upon them? Add to this the fact that biblical texts, taken on their own terms and without recourse to a history or community of interpretation, are capable of supporting multiple interpretations, and it becomes clear that, even if we want to affirm that scriptural engagement is inescapable for the Christian community, sola Scriptura can never guarantee that one is Christian. Irenaeus (ca. 130—ca. 202), for example, noted how Gnostics made use of biblical exegesis in their arguments, but insisted that they did not read the Scriptures aright on account of their disregard of the “order and connection” of Scripture; failing to understand the Bible’s true content, they put the pieces of the biblical puzzle together in a way that turned a royal personage into a hound or fox (Adversus Haereses 1.8.1). The “order and connection” to which Irenaeus referred was the Rule of Faith, a summary of the Christian kerygma that measured faithful interpretation of Scripture.

If this sort of hermeneutic does not map the way ahead in a straightforward sense, to what points on the theological compass should we attend? In order to point the way forward, I want to engage in a brief conversation with F. Schleiemacher, and especially his explicit statement regarding the relation of theology and the Bible which appears at the head of his discussion of “The Formation of the Dogmatic System”: “All propositions which claim a place in an epitome of Evangelical (Protestant) doctrine must approve themselves both by appeal to Evangelical confessional documents, or in default of these, to the New Testament Scriptures, and by exhibition of their homogeneity with other propositions already recognized” (The Christian Faith [Fortress, 1928) §27).

Schleiermacher thus underscores helpfully such crucial concerns as the priority of classical formulations of the faith of the Christian church; the import of addressing Scripture theologically, and from an avowedly theological stance (and, by implication, the decisive role of the theological formation of readers of Scripture); and the place of coherence in theology. Taking seriously his legacy as the “father of Protestant theology” and now reading this methodological axiom more than 160 years after its first publication, we can see how Schleiermacher brings into focus important issues that continue to trouble us. In what follows, I want to use Schleiermacher’s statement of method as a beginning point for discussion of three issues.

  1. The Status and Role of the OT

    Schleiermacher’s use of “New Testament” to modify “Scriptures” makes explicit what has been and continues often to be the practice associated with theology in diminishing the status and role of the OT as Christian Scripture. This is an almost inevitable outcome of the impulses of the sort of history-oriented analysis that has occupied biblical scholarship since the 18th century. Requiring that the meaning of texts resides at their historical address, historical criticism has no intrinsic need and little room for the theological claim constituted by the location of these two collections together as one “book.” More pointedly, though, Schleiermacher saw his disjunction of Old and New Testaments as the disjunction of Judaism and Christianity. Admitting the historical connection between Christianity and Judaism “through the fact that Jesus was born among the Jewish people” (§12.1), he nonetheless lumped Judaism together with Heathenism “inasmuch as the transition from either of these to Christianity is a transition to another religion” (§12.2). Although this assertion flies in the face of the findings of more recent study, it remains true that OT scholarship in the historical-critical mode has continued to segregate the OT from its canonical mores in the Christian Bible, increasingly treating it as a self-contained collection of documents known as the “Hebrew Bible.” The teleological movement of the Christian Bible from creation to new creation, together with its christological pivot-point, is thus displaced.

    In his study of the enduring theological witness of the OT, C. Seitz points us in a helpful direction. For Seitz, what holds the canon together is the God who covenanted with Israel and raised Jesus from the dead. Christians who downplay or deny the ongoing theological witness of the OT thus cut themselves off from more than “background material.” At stake, rather, is the fulness of God’s self-disclosure—that is, the possibility that we might erroneously imagine that we have access to a “person-event, Jesus of Nazareth, apart from the claims of the triune God” (Word without End [Eerdmans, 1998] 45). Scripture is not a people’s attempt to understand God, but God’s own self-disclosure: “The two-testament witness renders not a great code, but God as he truly is, without remainder, save that blocked out by a darkened will and mind” (14).

    A “Christian” reading of the OT is not one that asserts the superiority of the NT over the Old, or that the OT requires the New as hermeneutical key, but rather one that recognizes that the OT points beyond itself toward the fulfillment of God’s purpose at the same time that it narrates the expression of that purpose in creation and among those whom God has made his people. To interpret the pages of the biblical texts in this way is itself already a theological task, one that requires both less and more than proper exegetical tools. To grapple with Scripture in this way presumes an openness to a living relationship with God, on the basis of which we come to Scripture with respect, in gratitude, ready to embrace and to be embraced into God’s own ways and work.

  2. Does Doctrine Eclipse the Witness of Scripture?

    For children of the Reformation, the relation of the biblical text to the theological tradition presents an unresolved and inescapable conundrum. The same may be said for children of the Enlightenment. The slogan sola Scriptura raises the question, How does Scripture function vis-à-vis doctrine, the teaching office of the church, experience, and so on? Recognition of the historical particularity of all knowing raises the question how theological statements from another time might bear on our own.

    For this reason, we need to hear Schleiermacher’s emphasis on “confessional documents.” Although his concern is with a particularly Protestant interpretation of Scripture, at a more basic level his is a call to take seriously that a reading of the Bible worthy of the name “Christian” is a “ruled reading.” That is, the question of validity in interpretation for theological readings of Scripture cannot be separated from the question of a particular reading’s coherence with classical faith.

    Let me propose, however, that more needs to be said and that, for a contemporary theological hermeneutics, it is important to characterize the relationship between Scripture and doctrine as mutually informing and influencing. For example, the Apostles’ Creed summarizes one of our central beliefs in a rather one-sided representation of the Return of Christ: “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” It is astonishing that the Creed can speak of the coming judgment without bearing witness to the consummation of God’s purpose in creation and covenant, and, indeed, to the biblical hope of the restoration of the cosmos. On this point the Creed’s witness is truncated and in need of augmentation.

    Again, it is astounding that neither the Apostles’ Creed nor any of the Rules of Faith that dot the writings of the early centuries of the church ever mentions Israel. In this regard, we should take note of the need early on for Christians to work out their self-identity, especially with respect to Judaism, and that they did so by adopting a supersessionist narrative of God’s purpose (cf. R.K. Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology [Fortress, 1996]). However, for Luke and Paul, to name two prominent New Testament witnesses, the narrative of God’s purpose cannot circumnavigate Israel and remain the biblical narrative, even if the “confessional documents” of the Christian church seem willing to write Israel out of the story altogether. Here is evidence that doctrine cannot simply trump the work of biblical interpretation but must be placed in a dialectical relationship with Scripture that is mutually informing.

  3. Our (Modernist) Tendency to Reduce and Objectify

    Schleiermacher’s reference to “an epitome [Inbegriff: “synopsis” or “condensation”] of…doctrine” witnesses a concern with analytical synthesis at the level of abstraction and systematization that lies behind the general disdain for systematics among biblical scholars. Insofar as systematic and biblical theologians alike participate in and perpetuate the modernist tendency to reduce and objectify, and to dismiss mystery and resolve tensions left standing by Scripture in the service of principles and schemas, it will be difficult to unite the two so long divided, exegesis and constructive theology. Even a cursory examination of the content of the Bible will illustrate why this is so. Although one finds lists of precepts (“You shall…”) and the formulation of truth claims (“God is…”), overwhelmingly the Bible is cast as narrative. What is more, even those texts that do not exhibit an explicitly narrative mode of discourse—say, the latter prophets or letters—themselves have a storied character about them. These observations have immediate ramifications for the theological use of Scripture.

    First, widespread efforts either to distill theological claims from narrative or to deny that theology can be derived from narrative notwithstanding, we must recognize that narrative in Scripture simply is a mode of theological discourse. If we deny this, it may be because we have learned too much from Schleiermacher concerning the way “theology” must be done. Alternatively, it may be because we have a truncated notion of narrative, one whose primary categories are “true” or “false” rather than oriented toward the communicative role of narrative texts. This has to do largely with problematic notions of “history” in terms of “what actually happened”—a modernist perspective that, again, divorces history and theology and minimizes the role of historical narrative in the Bible. As the field of philosophy of history has developed, we have seen, instead, that history is both less and more than the past; history is diegesis (narration), not mimesis (imitation). Here is the axis around which the entire enterprise turns: Events are chosen and linked in light of the commitments of the historians (and their communities) concerning their sense of beginnings and endings. That is, selectivity and narrativity in biblical historiography are theological statements, forged in relation to a vision of how Yahweh’s will is coming to fruition.

    Second, rather than restricting Scripture’s role in theology to that of “foundation” or “source,” it is important to recognize that the Bible is not raw material waiting for theology to happen. “Faith seeking understanding” is already going on in its pages. Answers to the question, How might Scripture function in systematic theology?, often revolve around issues of content. What does James teach about God, for example? If these books are themselves “faith seeking understanding,” however, different questions surface, for one finds in their pages “theology” both in its critical task of reflection on the practices and affirmations of the people of God to determine their credibility and faithfulness, and in its constructive task of reiteration, restatement, and interpretation of the good news vis-à-vis ever-developing horizons and challenges. How is James situated in and reflective of a particular sociohistorical environment? What is its response, on the basis of the great story of God’s activity in the world, including the world of James, to that environment? When read against that mural, what does James affirm, deny, reject, undermine, embrace? What strategies for articulating the good news and construing practical faithfulness are portended in those pages? How does it invite its readers into the reflective and constructive task of discourse on the nature of faithful discipleship? On what authorities does the text of James draw? What vision of the “new world” does it portend? In short, if we are concerned with the “theology of James,” we cannot be satisfied with “description,” but we must explore how this letter draws its readers into transformative discourse.

Shaping Our Theological Horizons

What sort of reading of Scripture would be sponsored by this theological approach? First, it would be a critically engaged reading, one that would account for the text in its final form; for the text as a whole; for the cultural embeddedness of all language; for the canonical address of the text, particularly with reference to the location of particular biblical witnesses within the grand mural of the actualization of God’s purpose; and for the witness of Scripture as seen in its effects within and among the community of God’s people, not least in the distillation of Scripture’s message in the great creeds of the church which confess and proclaim and worship the Triune God.

Second, it would be “partial,” in the sense of the ecclesial and theological locations of its practitioners. From this vantage point, the best interpreters of the Bible are those actively engaged in communities of biblical interpretation and the single most important practice to cultivate is involvement in reading the Bible with others who meet regularly to discern its meaning for faith and life. Moreover, a reading of the Bible as Christian Scripture can never be satisfied with anything less than interpretive practices oriented toward shaping and nurturing the faith and life of God’s people. Faithful appropriation of Scripture requires attention to theology, with the result that we can hardly speak of biblical illiteracy in the church without at the same time decrying our concomitant theological amnesia.

Finally, a theological hermeneutics of Christian Scripture would take seriously the referential relation between the words of Scripture and the ongoing presence of the crucified Christ, who is Lord of the church. Such a hermeneutic would find its orientation not in an objective reading of biblical texts, but in the creative and redemptive aims of God that come to their most visible expression in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word become flesh. This is not to belittle or otherwise to minimize the importance of Scripture, as though God’s purpose were mediated apart from Scripture. It is, however, to underscore, first, that the truth we seek cannot be dissolved into objective truth claims; and, second, that a Christian theological hermeneutic is necessarily tied to its effects in transforming persons and communities in ways consonant with God’s project of liberation.

In the end, a theological hermeneutics concerned with the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture is first as an invitation from God. We are beckoned to come and live the biblical story, to inhabit the narrative of God’s ongoing and gracious purpose for his people, to resist attempts at revising the words of Scripture so as to make them match our reality and instead to make sense of our reality, our lives, within its pages, within its story. To embrace the Bible as Scripture, then, is to accept it not as one narrative among others, but to accord it a privilege above all others, and to allow ourselves to be shaped by it ultimately.

Posted Feb 01, 2002