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The Bible for Sinners- C. Rowland & J. Roberts

November 9, 2015

TBFSSome liberation theologians talk about doing ‘theology from the margins’, ‘reading the Bible from the underside’. And while Jesus said that he came for the poor, today’s self-righteous’ claim his teaching as their own and then ignorer the bits that don’t suit them.

This book looks at the competing exegetes, with a particular emphasis on the way in which gays and divorced people have been clobbered by the churches. Who is ‘twisting the Bible to suit their own agenda?’

And it explains what words like ‘hermeneutics’ and ‘exegesis’ mean.


For Wright suggests that in the recon­struction of ‘Act Five’ of the lost play it is the experts that will use their historical and dramatic expertise to reconstruct the plot and its outworking. In ecclesiastical terms, the logic of his analogy is that the ‘experts’ who make the reconstruction should be the clergy. It is at this point that we part company with him because in the context of the Christian Church (as reflected in 1 Corinthians 12) expertise is not only the pre­rogative of the theologians, bishops and ecclesial officials.’

The God who has poured the Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2.17) empowers all to contribute to the writing of this final act. Indeed, it is one of the contributions of liberation, black and feminist approaches to theology that they have stressed the import­ance of the perspective of ‘outsiders, and the vulnerable and oppressed to the understanding of the divine purpose. Jesus gave thanks that it was the little ones who understood while the wise and learned couldn’t get the point (Matthew 11.25).

It is clear from the passion with which Paul writes his letter 11 that standing up to those who did not want to rock the boat was crucial for him. There was something important about the gospel practice that was in danger of being sacrificed by the attempt to try to be in continuity with the past. Paul had little or no basis in scripture for the kind of common table that he was supporting, in which Jews and pagans ate their meals to­gether. Nevertheless his decision to support and encourage this kind of mixed dining and the practice of shared fellowship was absolutely central to what he understood his faith to be about. In his first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 11), he reproaches those Christians in Corinth who would cause division, this time on class lines rather than on ethnic lines, and stresses the unity of the community in the one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12.13).

In this dispute, and in many of Paul’s discussions about the Bible, Paul’s opponents had all the best arguments, for they had both precedent and scripture on their side. Take the case of Abraham. Paul picks on Abraham’s ‘justification by faith’ in Genesis 15.6 as an example of the way in which God justifies the ungodly without obedience to the Law. What he omits, how­ever, is that just two chapters later the Bible mentions that God instructed Abraham to circumcise himself and his sons (Genesis 17.11-14, 23-24, 21.4). Paul, the rabbi, must have been aware of this. Though he had some grounds for his argument in the scriptures, they were nothing like as strong as his opponents’ scriptural backing.

These examples are helpful in thinking about the place of the Bible in Christian discipleship. They suggest that the prime Christian commitment is not to be obedient to the words in scripture, but to follow Christ and, in Paul’s phrase, ‘to be found in him’ (Philippians 3.9). Of course, this still involves engag­ing with the Bible, for one comes to know about Christ by attend­ing to what others have written about him. However, the Bible does not offer extractable ‘answers’ to modern-day questions, but rather lived examples of interpretation in action; that is, a record of the hermeneutical methods that Jesus, Paul, Peter and others deployed in the specific human situations in which they found themselves. Seen in this light, the New Testament writ­ings point us to a form of Christian commitment that never bids us look to texts from the past as the prime source of under­standing of the divine will, for that understanding is always to be found in Christ through the Spirit. The scriptures may be the vehicle of the divine Spirit, but Christ must never exclusively be bound to them. That view reflects a widespread conviction, with a long history in Christian theology and rooted in the Bible itself, that the prime responsibility of a Christian is to find Christ outside, rather than primarily inside, the pages of scripture.

Christians lose sight of this when they treat the Bible as ‘the word of God’ rather than — in T. S. Eliot’s phrase — ‘the report of the Word of God’. This important distinction was addressed by the influential twentieth- century systematic theologian, Karl Barth. Barth stressed the importance of distinguishing between the words of the Bible and the divine Word in Jesus Christ to which the words of the Bible bore witness. He warned that there was a great danger in confusing the two as this would lead to God’s revelation — which actually took place in a person and in the events of history — being confused with a book….. Windsor Report, the 2004 document which sought to offer a way forward in the debate over same—sex relationships within the Anglican clergy. Given the directness with which many Anglicans (particularly those of an evangelical orientation) have spoken on this issue, one might anticipate that their arguments are grounded in a blunt and legalistic hermeneutic in the Windsor Report itself. This is not, however, the case, as for much of that report, the Anglican Church suggests an understanding of scripture that is very similar in its hermeneutical structure to that of Barth:

If the notion of scriptural authority is itself to he rooted in Scripture, and to be consonant with the central truths confessed by Christians from the earliest days, it must be seen that the purpose of Scripture is not simply to supply true information, nor just to prescribe in matters of belief and conduct, nor merely to act as a court of appeal, but to be part of the dynamic life of the Spirit through which God the Father is making the victory which was won by Jesus’ death and resurrection operative within the world and in and through human beings. Scripture is thus part of the means by which God directs the Church in its mission, energises it for that task, and shapes and unites it so that it may be both equipped for this work and itself part of the message.
How then does Scripture function in this way?. . . The early Christians understood themselves to be both beneficiaries and agents of the saving sovereignty of God, the ‘kingdom’ which had been accomplished in Jesus Christ. The ‘authority’ of the apostles . . . was their God-given and Spirit-driven vocation as witnesses of the resurrection … It is within this context of apostolic witness . . . that the writings we call the New Testament came to be written, precisely to be vehicles of the Spirit’s work in energising the Church in its mission and shaping it in the holiness of new creation . . . From the first, the New Testament was intended as, and perceived to be, not a repository of various suggestions for developing one’s private spirituality, but as the collection of books through which the Spirit who was working so powerfully through the apostles would develop and continue that work in the churches. This is why, from very early in the Church, the apostolic writings were read during worship, as part of both the Church’s praise to God for his mighty acts and of the Church’s drawing fresh strength from God for mission and holiness. This, rather than a quasi-legal process of ‘appeal’, is the primary and dynamic context within which the shorthand phrase ‘authority of scripture’ finds its deepest meaning……’

the appeal to ‘what the Bible says’ is what Paul so emphatically opposes, for he would point us to what a loving God is doing in transforming and enabling lives in the present through the Spirit. This will depend not on the letter of the text, but on using the Bible as part of the complex way of discerning what the divine Spirit is now saying to the churches. Too often Christians have ended up functioning as if they did not have a doctrine of the Spirit, or, if they have, somehow the voice of the Spirit is identified with the text of scripture or what Christians have said in the past (more accurately, what the majority of — and most influential — Christian voices have said). To take seriously the fact that ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3.6) means quite simply that God’s Spirit may be saying something new in speaking to our ever-changing situations.

The task Barth sets out on here is called `Sachkritik, a word not easily translated into English. It is about getting at the reality of the text, not merely by repeating or expounding its literal sense but by seeking to put into words what a biblical writer like Paul would be saying if he were here now. Later writers like Rudolf Bultmann suggested that Sachkritik was about correcting what Paul actually said (for example on homosexual practice) in terms of what he meant (the inclusiveness of the gospel), which might mean criticizing some of Paul’s statements in the light of a broader understanding of the truth of the gospel, as understood by the modern interpreter’s own wrestling with the scriptures. This is the form of Sachkritik mentioned in the previous chapter, which involves interpreting particular words or phrases and the scope of a particular idea in the light of the overall context. The origins of this approach lie deep within the New Testament, and are exemplified in the attempts by both Jesus and Paul to show what the Law of Moses is really about in passages like Matthew 22.36-40 and Romans 13.9-10.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission underlines the importance of Sachkritik when it affirms:

[E]xegesis is truly faithful to proper intention of biblical texts when it goes not only to the heart of their formulation to find the reality of faith there expressed but also seeks to link this reality to the experience of faith in our present world.’

Reason alone cannot fully comprehend the account of the events of salvation. Faith lived in ecdesial community and in the light of the Spirit control its interpretation. As the reader matures in the life of the Spirit, so there grows also a capacity to understand the realities of which the Bible speaks.’°

Exegesis produces the best results when it is carried out in the context of the living faith of the Christian community, which is directed toward the salvation of the entire world.”

Here the Pontifical Biblical Commission, like the Windsor Report, like Barth, like Tom Wright, makes an explicit com­mitment to a Spirit-oriented contextual theology. However, that ‘context’ — in each of these cases — seems limited to the academic or ecclesiastical context within which they operate. There is little sense of ‘context’ here meaning ‘life’ in the way that most people think of that term. By contrast, Liberation The­ology (a life-oriented contextual theology) is entirely dependent upon the conviction that the divine Spirit’s work will emerge in the very process of commitment to, and practical concern…for the vulnerable.

Contextual theology offers a greater opportunity for interpret­ation to be self-aware than do the alternatives. It is the sort of self-awareness, by analogy, that comes in psychotherapy, and that can prevent us from perpetually re-enacting the errors or unhappiness of the past. The psychoanalytic tradition provides a helpful analogy here due to its focus on self-aware patterns of reflection, which enable the extent and character of power-relations to be ever-present as the quest for understanding goes on. Critical reflection involves some kind of process of distancing, to enable space for self-examination, and even for attention to the extent to which there is resistance to a text or too ready acceptance of its contents on the part of the reader.

That quest for understanding God’s will, as we have argued throughout this chapter, is one that is rooted in practice and is not prior to it. In other words, the practice is itself the necessary context in which the understanding is developed and articulated even if the intellectual reflection and theorizing is a necessary complement. What is crucial about this is that critical awareness has a component of human engagement, and the involvement in that is the means of exemplification of what the text might mean and the basis for understanding and reflection.

In Jeremiah 22.16, for example, the prophet asserts that knowing God comes through doing justice: ‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me? declares the LORD.

Denck subordinates the words of scripture to the Word that is Christ: the importance of scripture lies not in itself, but in its witness to the Word that became flesh, Jesus Christ. Denck writes: Holy Scripture I hold above all human treasure but not as high as the Word of God that is living, powerful and eternal — unattached and free of all elements of this world; for since it is God himself, it is Spirit and not letter, written without pen or paper so that it can never be eradicated . . . Therefore, salvation is not bound to scripture however useful and good it might be in furthering it.’

Mark 10 has all the features of rabbinic debate of the period in which a specific issue becomes the basis for legal disputation. That sort of theoretical discussion, as with all rabbinic debates, is not an absolute pronouncement on the matter, but part and parcel of the to and fro of application which is typ­.ical of all casuistry.

Exegesis and eisegesis – These two related words describe ways of engaging with a text, or indeed with the interpretation of anything. Exegesis is about ‘getting out of a text only what it contains’. In other words, this is the task which allows the text to be understood without any agenda of the interpreter affecting the quest for the text’s meaning. It is the inter­ference of the interpreter’s agenda which can lead to eisegesis, where the interpreter uses a text as a peg on which to hang their own agenda. Throughout this book we question whether there can be a neat distinction between the two. Attempts to explain the literal meaning of the text don’t really get us very far and even the most sophisticated interpreters are bringing something else to a particular text (whether it’s another text or one’s own agenda) to make sense of it.

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