Wednesday, August 5, 2009

ReJesus on How You Should Be Reading Scripture

Update: Forgot a particular quotation from the book that must be included in this post:

In any genuine encounter with Jesus, we can either respond in faith and
obedience, cut and run, or take the fire out of the issue by reinterpreting the Bible to suit our understandings. Ever heard yourself saying, "Oh it's not what it means literally, Jesus is actually saying..." Just see what most preaching does with the kingdom way expressed in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, or the rich young ruler--we emasculate the text by spiritualizing it or domesticating its direct implications.

Finishing up ReJesus by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. Today I read one of the most compelling chapters that I've read in any book in a long time. I'll quote a few chunks, but first I'll say that the chapter has to do with Hellenistic vs. Hebraic approaches to Scripture. The basic goals of the one in nearly exclusive use(Hellenistic) is called into question by the approach Frost/Hirsch call us back to(Hebraic). I must admit, I've had sneaking doubts about the approach to the text that dominates most of our reading and interpretation. I've found myself applying my knowledge to Scripture rather than vice versa, reading Scripture instead of "letting Scripture read me." Here's a common discussion pattern found among Christians, especially in debate, goes as follows:

Christian A: The Bible says God_____________. Therefore we should__________.

Christain B: No that's not true, after all Romans says ____________.

Christian A: Yes but what about in Hebrews where it says________?

Christian B: Isaiah chapter 40: __________

Christian A: You just don't understand what the Bible says...

Exactly who is making any worthwhile points here? This kind of discourse could go on for days with no one actually citing anything that gives their flippant use of Scripture any weight. The problem is, with the widely understood "way of knowing" that we use, nobody's wrong here. This is a perfectly acceptable discussion, even though it leads nowhere. Cite a passage, draw a conclusion, "apply" it to life. Of course, this pedantic, less-educated version of the problem is an easy target, but arguably what many studied and acclaimed scholars do is similar- citing a Biblical text, giving the Greek scholarship along with the sentence construction and historical context, and move from text to conclusion in order to make an abstract point about Christian theology or practice that is divorced from the actual narrative and persons and history that are the substance of what the Bible actually communicates. While the tools of scholarship are valuable, I believe Frost/Hirsch are arguing that we have to ask "who is reading who, here?" Are we coming to the I Am and applying our knowledge to judge who he is, throught the matrix of Scripture, or are we being judged by the Unchanging One himself?

According to Jacques Ellul, at some point theologians began to

regard the biblical text or known revelation as points of departure for philosophy... Very soon the developments in philosophical thinking became stronger than the biblical truth that they sought to retain. The theologians had forgotten the essential point that God does not reveal himself by means of a philosophical system or a moral code or a metaphysical construction but rather enters human history and accompanies his people.

Frost/Hirsch continue the thinking:

The history-anchored worldview values the action and word of God over a philosophical construct of his character. It also requires obedience in order to truly comprehend what is being revealed...Under the new Hellenistic worldview, the Bible is approached differently. God's revelation was interpreted as the climax of the teaching of Socrates, and the Bible was interpreted by the intellectual tools of Greek philosophy. The Torah, for example, is seen merely as a moral code, not unlike the Twelve Tablets, a Greco-Roman legal code. What resulted was of decisive importance. Instead of listening to the text as it was, theologians tried to draw from it a coherent philosophical system, whether modeled after Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, or Epicurus. It all came to the same thing. The biblical stories were treated as myth from which one had to draw some abstract, universal thought. And so the Christian theological tradition empraced a philosophical approach alien to Jewish epistemology(ways of knowing). the Hebraic framework for the true comprehension of revelation was thus discarded in favor of the Hellenistic.


Some will tell me that we have no option but to use our available tools of knowledge even to understand a history. This is true. But I reply that Hebrew thought had its own tools of knowledge that are fully set forth in the language. We should bow and submit and convert to these instead of forcing God's revelation into the strait jacket of Greco-Roman thinking.

This really has jaw-dropping implications if I'm reading it right. Essentially, what many philosophers-turned-theologians(which is all of us who read the Bible in the Hellenistic tradition, btw) do is treat the text as if its purpose is to make metaphysical statements rather than communicate the history of God's interrelation with his creation. The inevitable result is essentially the doctrinal equivalent of what Judaism did with the Talmud- to endlessly qualify statements, split interpretive hairs, and forever add on labrythine abstractions in order to get to the real, objective meaning. The effect is that there ceases to be one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus(1 Tim 2:5).

In fact, there was an exchange at Acheivable Ends that illustrates this quite well. Bill Kinnon answered one commenter who stated that "the foundation for ministry is sound doctrine" by saying no, in fact "the foundation for ministry is Jesus." To which the commenter replied "which Jesus? Doctrine defines what we believe..." At that point, if the commenter is right, he needs to go all the way-- doctrine according to whose interpretation of the text? If we agree on an interpreter(let's say Calvin) whose interpretation of Calvin's words are correct? And what if this new interpreter's words are vague when we apply them to current we need yet another way of showing what this "copy of a copy of a copy" really means for us now(think the bee-wathcer). Down the rabbit hole we go, canonizing the words of whoever we please the entire way. What the "which Jesus" question might actually betray is a distrust of the Holy Spirit, and an unwillingness to let the individual Christian with a Bible go to God without any mediators but the Christ of Scripture himself. You end up at the conclusion that no one but scholars and people who have access to what scholars are saying can "get" the word of God. This is why the reformers repudiated the necessity of "Popes and councils" in interpreting Scripture for the "mere laity." Only now, doctrine replaces the Pope. God comes through Christ, comes through doctrine, comes through so-and-so, comes through so-and-so's reading of so-and-so, and feel free to continue adding so-and-so's as you like.

Of course, doctrine will happen, but if you start saying "doctrine" where you should be saying "Jesus" things go awry. Scripture understood rightly, which is to say as the Hebrews did when they were writing it, is a text to be read as a story, populated with persons, who had certain experiences and interactions with the chief character, God himself. We then allow ourselves to be located in the text(not the other way around) and be shaped by the story(not the other way around). This of course guarantees a subjective reading of the text. That's not a problem. Because the endless search for objectivity is futile when inherently subjective beings pursue it.

I believe Eugene Peterson has been saying these things for quite some time, but I don't know how well I got it until now. There's a lot more to be said here, but you'd better go read the book. ReJesus by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.


Lore said...

"Down the rabbit hole we go, canonizing the words of whoever we please the entire way. What the "which Jesus" question might actually betray is a distrust of the Holy Spirit, and an unwillingness to let the individual Christian with a Bible go to God without any mediators but the Christ of Scripture himself."

Great commentary. Very solid observation and articulation.

Great blog you have here. I appreciated reading what you have to say.

Nate said...

Thanks, Lore. I'm glad someone's reading! Once in awhile, somebody hands one to you...and you just have to blog the pants off it.

nAncY said...

thanks for your thoughts on this.

non-metaphysical stephen said...

One of my favorite passages from Ellul -- I'm very interested in pursuing a Hebraic reading of the Christian scriptures and in scraping away the Hellenic barnacles that have become attached.

I like your comment about betraying the Holy Spirit. But I'm not convinced that the average person is able to make good readings of the Scriptures -- if anything, I see the average person approaching the Bible from a legalistic perspective that's just as off-track as the philosophical perspective. Thoughts?

Nate said...


I think the legalistic readings come from approaching it in this sort of Aesop's Fables way of reading. All text is assumed to be a "direct word" from God to the reader, like an instruction book(how many times have you heard it referred to as 'handbook for life" or "the answers to all you questions"). Thus, people get bogged down in what it's telling them to do rather then what happened in the story.

People in this way of thinking are shocked to find that there are not neat answers to every question, and that there's not a prescriptive for every situation that they find themselves in, especially when life gets complicated or hard. To paraphrase Michael Spencer, "Following Jesus is a lot less like math and a lot more like whitewater rafting."

Perhaps the key is to let the text be what it is, rather than try to draw any conclusions at all. At least in the immediate sense. This way the average person, as you say, could begin to free themselves from "Bible as mathbook" way of reading. But most people are way too pragmatic for that!


Lore said...

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Great followup comment too. These are things I've been thinking so much about recently. I'm going to try to get my hands on that book!

nAncY said...

you are right about patty griffin

starting from the bottom and working my way up on your music list

nAncY said...

this one is so pretty

i see that john spent his childhood in st.louis, about sixty miles from where i spent mine. only he was born eighteen years before i was.

his love of the mississippi river is an interesting thing.

Bob said...

Nancy: I'm glad you like it! I need to update the list...

Lore: It's a great book, I would highly recommend it for an extremely articulate and grounded diagnosis and prescription for the mess we call church in America. I think this was a paradigm shifting book for me.


Erin Hope said...

here, we can trade off quotes:

"The serpent asks, "Did God say, you shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" The serpent does not dispute this word but it enables man to catch sight of a hitherto unknown profundity in which he would be in the position to establish or dispute whether a word is the Word of God or not......The decisive point is that this question suggests to man that he should go behind the Word of God and establish what it is by himself, out of his understanding of the being of God."

"Did God say, You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?" With this it has Eve on its side from the very first, indeed, it compels her to the confession, No naturally God did not say that. The fact that Eve must qualify something regarding a Word of God-even if it is falsely represented- must throw her into the greatest confusion. It must indeed enable her to feel, for the first time, the attraction of making judgments about the Word of God. By means of the obviously false the serpent will now bring down that which is right."

....some bonhoeffer. I'm not entirely sure if it'll make a lot of sense out of the context of the chapter...or for that matter the book... But it's pretty brilliant, He goes really deep into the story of creation....and part of it's about how man started questioning the word of God etc....

eh, you should just read it, cause I can't paraphrase the whole thing, and it wouldn't sound as good either. : )

Nate said...

Sorry, that last comment by "Bob" was actually Nate, working from Bob's computer. Hah, didn't know I was already logged in