Sunday, June 27, 2010

Jenson on the church's Bible

"The error of most modern biblical exegetes is a subliminal assumption that the church in and for which Matthew or Paul wrote, or in which Irenaeus shaped the canon, and the church in which we now read what they put together, are historically distant from one another.  That is, the error is the assumption that there is no one diachronically identical universal church.  And that is, the initiating error of standard modern exegesis is that it presumes a sectarian ecclesiology.  But while Athens may perhaps have disappeared into the past and been replaced by Paris or London or New York, Paul's church still lives as the very one to which believing exegetes now belong. . . .
"When academic exegetes, continuing our examples, say that Paul's opinions about sexuality are too historically conditioned now to be helpful, or that the parable of the vineyard-keepers cannot itself control what we make shift to draw from it, they are simply interpreting Scripture as it now will inevitably be interpreted outside the church."

Robert Jenson, "The religious power of Scripture," Scottish journal of theology 52, no. 1 (1999):  98-101 (89-105).  The relevant
historical distances. . . . are [only] differences of times and places within the life of one community.
The historical distances with which the interpretation must indeed reckon and of which historical-critical labors must maintain the awareness, are the distances between Moses and the later prophets, or between the prophets and Jesus, or between Jesus and Paul and Paul and us, but never between the story as a whole and us, never between the biblical community as a whole and the present church. . . .
. . . [There is only] the one story of God with his people, who are we
(100-101).  After "they are simply interpreting Scripture as it now will inevitably be interpreted outside the church", this follows immediately:
Current academic, political, and publicistic elite communities are indeed alienated historically from the community in which the Bible emerged, and this is the reason and indeed excuse of their helplessness before this body of text. But when the church reads Scripture in course of her own worship and catechetics and preaching, her interpreters cannot give up so easily, because they are themselves at stake.
Those who interpret Scripture in and for the church are compelled to keep trying to say what it says, and by the mere act claim that Scripture does say something to us; the struggle itself is the hermeneutical principle. Pastors and other scholars in their service are the ones who labor to read the text honestly and faithfully, and whose assumption of the labor this means in their office, will maintain the authority of Scripture, or whose failure to do so will undercut it. The old-Protestant doctrine of Scripture gave it a second essential predicate: it is 'perspicuous', by which they did not mean it contains no obscurities or can be understood without effort, but that the effort need not be finally defeated
(99).  "or can be understood without effort" is followed by footnote no. 26, which is derived from Gerhard's Loci (i.ii, §414):  "Non excludi a nobis per assertionem perspicuitatis pium studium in lectione et meditatione Scripturae adhibendum, nec adminicula ad Scripturae interpretationem necessaria" (Not excluded . . . by the assertion of perspicuity [is] the bringing of devoted effort to bear on the reading of and meditation upon Scripture, nor [that] aids for the interpretation of Scripture [are] necessary; Dinda translation:  "with our pious assertion concerning clarity we do not exclude pious study, which one must apply in reading and meditating on Scripture, nor the essential aids to the interpretation of Scripture" (Johann Gerhard, On the nature of theoogy and scripture, translated from the Preuss edition by Richard J. Dinda, Theological commonplaces (St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 385).

This, from pp. 98-99, is straight Gadamer, and therefore sub-theological:
What the most percipient of the previous generation's 'hermeneutical' theory said must therefore hold in the church and of her Scripture, though perhaps nowhere else: our present effort to understand a handed-down text cannot be hopeless, since it is merely the further appropriation of a continuing communal tradition within which we antecedently live. Past and present do not need to be bridged before understanding can begin, since they are always already mediated by the continuity of the community's language and discourse: the questions and concepts and turns of phrase and dominating metaphors and ready-to-hand warrants with which I now try to say what the text says, cannot be wholly unsuitable since they were inculcated in me by the very tradition of which the text is a part. 'Understanding is not so much an undertaking by the subject as it is further entry into a continuing tradition-event in which past and present anyway mediate themselves'.
Citation for the direct quote is Hans Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1965), 275.


Elaine said...

My 24yo is still the same person he was when he was two, but his condition and relationship to his world has really changed. It is the work of the church to infiltrate and change the world. To the extent that it has done so, its relationship with the world is inevitably different now. But it is true that its relationship with scripture is unchanging, as is its relationship with the bridegroom.

Steve Perisho said...

A decent analogy: organic growth and development through time and in relation to a changing environment, but personal identity throughout.
It is the identity of the church of today with the church whose composition and canonization of the New Testament was its reception and authoritative interpretation of the Old that modern biblical exegesis tends to deny. And not just this identity, but a visible, unbroken, and living continuity through time.