Historical artifact or living canon?

A few weeks ago I asked myself a couple of questions: (1) Do I think that the Scriptures are the church’s Scriptures? (2) If I was reading Scripture for the pastoral task how would I do it?

Oddly enough the answers that came to my mind made me reconsider how I was reading Scripture. In previous years I have built a library with books by people like Marcus Borg, J.D. Crossan, James D.G. Dunn, Richard Horsley, J.P Meir, N.T. Wright, and others. I have gleaned much from reading these scholars, but I found myself more frustrated than excited. Why? There are no two so-called “historical Jesus” figures or “historical Paul” figures that even remotely mirror each other. Likewise, the historical-critical approach to Scripture often leaves commentary after commentary from series after series that do not seem to agree on the basic historical-grammatical meaning of any text!

Now I am not denouncing historical-critical studies nor the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. Those have their place. But I cannot read Scripture seeking to be an “objective historian” (something that doesn’t exist in my opinion). I cannot read Scripture in order to get “behind the text” to events that shaped the text. I’d rather have the text itself. At this juncture of my life I distrust these more “scientific” approaches to Scripture for one very simple reason: what kind of science has such inconsistent results?!

Christianity claims that the triune God speaks through the biblical texts; not the events “behind the text”; not the socio-political climate; not the author’s inner thoughts. Again, those are worth pondering, speculating, and debating to some extent. But we do not have those things. We have the text.

If all we have is the text then I ask myself what do we do with these other approaches. I think Kevin Vanhoozer is correct when he says, “Critical tools have a ministerial, not magisterial, function in biblical interpretation.” [1] So I respect my fellow evangelicals who venture into these fields. We need the N.T. Wright, the Nicholas Perrin, the Craig Blomberg.

Sadly, our current climate has made the Bible more the university’s book than the church’s and it has made it more a historical relic than locus where people meeting the living, speaking God. When I answered those two aforementioned questions I realized that (1) I do think that the Scriptures are the church’s Scriptures and that while others can observe and read these texts, there is more to “understanding” the text than their methodology allows and (2) if I was reading through pastoral eyes I must read the text as a place where God speaks; as a living, active medium of the Spirit.

How did I get here? Well, it began as I read Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. I haven’t finished digesting that work, but thus far his philosophical hermeneutics have displaced the Schleiermachean approach and now I am hearing more about another philosopher named Paul Ricoeur that I intend in reading soon. These philosophers have shaken my confidence in historicism.

Another philosopher would be Jacques Derrida. I don’t say this because I follow his whole project of deconstruction, but rather because it gave me insight into the arrogance of modern, historicist hermeneutics. It showed me that it is as contextualized as any other approach. Its proclamation to be the objective, trans-cultural, historical approach appears, to me, to be a fraud. Again, Vanhoozer says it well:

“A host of postmodern thinkers has slain the giant assumption behind much modern biblical scholarship that there can be objective, neutral, value-free readings of biblical text. Postmodern thinkers have charged modernity’s vaunted historical-critical method with being just one more example of an ideologically motivated approach. The critical approach only pretends to be objective, neutral, and value free. Modern biblical critics are as rooted in the contingencies of history and tradition that begins with a faith in reason’s unprejudiced ability to discover truth.” [2]

There are others. My Th.M. advisor Marc Cortez taught the philosophy class where I encountered Gadamer and Derrida and a year prior he taught a course on the Greek Fathers where I met Athanasius, Basil, the Cappadocians, and others. As I watched them interact with the canon it became apparent that for all the good and bad of patristic exegesis they heard the text better than many modern scholars.

Also, I have been in a seminary (Western Seminary) that refuses to separate theology from the life of the church. That means most of my classmates have been pastors and other church leaders in the making. As I sit with them in class I am forced over and over again to ask if Scripture speaks to their vocation and to their calling.

Some of the people who read this blog have contributed to my unrest: James Tucker, Rodney Thomas, Bobby Grow, and Nick Norrelli to name a few (there are many).

Where to go from here? I have two concerns: (1) How to relate biblical studies to Christian theology (i.e balancing exegesis, historical studies, and a theological conviction that God speaks in Scripture and that canon shapes doctrine)? (2) How do I do Christian theology that speaks to the church?

I don’t know if this ramble is coherent, but that is what is on my mind.

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer. “Introduction: What is Theological Interpretation of the Bible?” in Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey. 22.

[2] Ibid. 19.