Monday, March 19, 2001

Reclaiming Scripture from the Romantics' Museum

Reclaiming Scripture from the Romantics' Museum

By Stephen Noll

The following appeared as two short pieces (called sidebars) in the "After Lambeth" issue of Trinity School for Ministry’s magazine Mission & Ministry. The original titles are printed in blue.

The Only Views Possible

JUDGING from the way many Episcopal leaders talk, one might think that there are three ways to understand Scripture: the "fundamentalist" (the view held at Trinity), the radical/liberal, and the truly Anglican, which as a via media incorporates the good points of both of these without suffering any of their problems.

Seeing things this way offers political advantages, for it allows one to rule out any view requiring decisive action, whether traditional or radical. But, theologically, there are only two ways of interpreting the Bible: what I call the classic and the romantic-historicist.

Two views
The classic view (the one caricatured as "fundamentalism") is based on the nature and revelation of a transcendent God who speaks in history, and even more, on a God who in His very Person is the Word who enters history Himself. This God created reality by His Word and formed man in His own image to be a hearer of His Word.

The Church’s classic approach to Scripture, implicit in its creeds and confessions, is that God has given a central verbal message, the Gospel, which participates in His very character and is necessary for salvation (John 1:1-18; Romans 1:16-17). It is because of the correspondence of God the Word, the written word of Scripture, and the reasonable character of man made in the image of God, that we can speak of "verbal inspiration," meaning that the words of Scripture do really convey to us God’s mind and will.

In contrast, the romantic-historicist view accepts the Enlightenment belief that the proper starting point for human understanding is not a transcendent word of God, but human consciousness. As Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am."

Why do I call this the "romantic-historicist" view? This view is historicist because it asserts that all cultures and all values are creations of human history and therefore earthbound and relative. The historical-critical method is the tool by which reason debunks the supernatural claims of revelation and gets back to the merely human origins of the Bible.

It is romantic because it does not stop there. Though the romantic-historicist accepts such destructive criticism, he still tries to find behind the God-talk of all religions a primitive God-consciousness, what Schleiermacher called the "feeling of absolute dependence" and Rudolf Otto the mysterium tremendum et fascinandum. If the historical expressions of this God-consciousness are all relative, something behind them is eternal and universal. According to romantic logic, I feel religious, therefore God is. This feeling is the romantic element (and a kind of pantheism).

Bultmann and today
It may seem strange that a Rudolf Bultmann could combine a highly skeptical attitude to the historical Jesus with a strong commitment to his version of the Christian kerygma, but this is typical of romantic-historicism. (Readers may remember that Bultmann once declared that people could not turn on an electric light and believe in the supernatural world of the New Testament.)

While Scripture must be "de-mythologized" and stripped of its supernatural claims (this is the historicism), Christianity is still the highest and most rational expression of the universal human experience of God-consciousness (this is the romanticism). Stripped of the claim to be an historical truth, a story like the story of the Resurrection can be seen as revealing insights into authentic existence.

Bultmann died in 1976. What about the Bible in late 20th century "postmodern" society? Isn’t romanticism dead? Apparently. Postmodernism retains the historicist doctrine of cultural relativism but has lost the romantic confidence that the decisive manifestation of the universal has occurred or can occur.

Yet even this view, seemingly free from romantic illusions, is still a romantic-historicist one. The historicist attack on biblical authority is still as sweeping, but the romantic belief in a universal experience of God-consciousness has been shifted to political liberation, "justice-love," or multiculturalism.

So the matter still comes down to a choice of two, and only two, views of Scripture. If you do not believe God has spoken in Scripture, and want nevertheless to keep some place in Christianity for Scripture, you can only be a romantic-historicist, whatever the current morph of that view may be.

A Postmodern Disaster

MANY Americans have seared in our memories the image of the Challenger spacecraft exploding in mid-air with smithereens falling randomly into the ocean. Perhaps some of us remember how these pieces were meticulously collected and reassembled in a hangar by those investigating the disaster.

Modern Bible interpretation has to a large extend succumbed to the fate of the Challenger.

The explosion
For 1500 years or so, the canon of Scripture was something like a working spacecraft. It was a vehicle for bringing people to faith.

Yes, there were real live people turning to Scripture who assumed that Scripture offered some shelter on their pilgrimage, even if that journey was an adventurous one. Furthermore, the Church understood that the Scripture was so engineered as to guide its decisions, even when major disagreements developed among Christians.

The advent of Modernism constitutes the initial explosion of this understanding of the Bible. "Higher critics" in effect argued that the Bible was not a coherent whole, inspired by God and leading readers toward salvation, but a collection of odd pieces of history, culture, and religions.

The effect of fragmenting the Bible was also to fragment the Church, because suddenly it became necessary for Christians or church bodies to say, "Well, I am of ‘J,’ while you are of ‘Deutero-Isaiah’," or "I am of the historical Jesus while you are of the early catholic church." What formerly were tensions or stresses became fissures and fragments. And put off by the babble of different "voices" in Scripture, folk move on to surer voices of authority.

The effect of this deconstruction of the Bible is historic. Among those Churches that have most fully adopted the Modernist approach, the Church has lost members and is constantly looking to other sources of authority in worldly ideologies.

The reclamation project
The historian Van Harvey referred to the process of modern biblical study as a salvage operation. While it might have been sufficient for nonbelievers to leave the Bible in pieces, theologians of all stripes have tried to find a way to salvage its authority but finding possible ways to put it back together. Some have discovered a theme which they consider central, like covenant or salvation history. Some have introduced an interpretive grid, like feminism, to sort out the pieces of worth from the detritus.

The result of the reconstruction project has been, sadly, to treat the Bible as an artifact of another age that can be admired and even referred to on occasion but which no longer "flies." As one writer recently put it: "the Bible is a (not the) primary resource for Christian ethics; to approach the Bible as the sole and absolute source of revelation is idolatry." Understood like this, the Bible becomes "someone else’s mail," as someone put it.

Another way to reclaim the Bible is what is called "imaginative construal." The interpreter, without particular concern for the original intent of a passage, uses it as a metaphor for exploring some aspect of spirituality.

This is roughly like placing a flight simulator in the cockpit of the Challenger shell and pretending to blast off into space. Gives a momentary rush of adrenaline, but you know you will be able to get out and go home afterward.

I observed this process at the Lambeth Conference, where bishops did their Bible study of 2 Corinthians guided by glitzy videos that "spring-boarded" the viewers into discussing not the text but general themes like "reconciliation." Present at the conference was Bishop Paul Barnett, a New Testament scholar who had just completed a full-scale commentary on the epistle. He had not even been consulted in the preparations for the Bible study.

These new methods of reclaiming the Bible are no more successful in restoring its power and vitality than the reconstruction of the Challenger was able to return it to the flight pad. Higher criticism and imaginative construal can point out weak points in the classic way of reading Scripture.

But the Churches that read Scripture solely with these approaches do not convey life. In these Churches, the Bible becomes at best a museum piece.

Explode the myth
So where does that leave us? The Good News, I believe, is that the explosion of the Bible as God’s Word, unlike that of the Challenger, is a myth. It never really plunged into the sea.
It has continued to nourish millions of believers around the world who take it to be a trustworthy vehicle into the heavens. What we need to do is explode the myth and read the Bible again in its "plain sense," with expectancy and faith, allowing it to challenge our modern and postmodern presuppositions.

Copyright 2000 Stephen F. Noll.

Have a comment? Please send it via email.

Follow-ups from Stephen

There are no follow-ups to this post at this time.