Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What are the Scriptures for?

This is a short reflection, mixed of dogmatic thinking and personal experience, on the role of the Scripture in the life of the Church and the life of the individual Christian:

The question of the Scriptures is one that can be overwrought and confusing. I came to faith through the soul-care of a beloved friend who had a very high view of the Bible. I thank God for that because otherwise I think I might have remained in my demon-worshiping Christo-Americanism. The actual words of Scripture, whether I stumbled into them myself, or my friend read them, shattered the illusion that I was any kind of Christian. My faith in Christ was an illusion I constructed from my own arrogant fantasies, some vague cultural familiarity with Christianity, and 2-bit philosophy. I was confronted with the very Word of God, and could not avoid this through sophism or selectivity.

I may not be on the same page as where my beloved friend was when we talked, but I needed that. I absolutely did not need anything that possessed tricks and nuance that evaded the fact that I was coming face to face with the God who speaks. I'd much rather have preferred a mute god then the One who would call my life into a crisis. Still, to this day, and despite some struggles, I would call the Bible the Word of God. No, Christ is the Logos, the Word of God, and the Bible is not Christ, but it is His raiment, the swaddling cloth He wears (per Luther). If Mary is the Mother of God, than the Bible is the Word of God, heralding, revealing, and drawing Man towards our Lord and Savior.

But of course, the problem is what role does the Bible have in our lives? How do we read it? As a pagan, I had high reverence of the Bible, I would've called it a holy book and full of God's light, but I dared not to open it. George Washington instituted the Presidential Oath's use of the Bible, even though the man can hardly be said to have been a Christian, in any orthodox sense.

While the Bible was written by diverse authors through a long span of time, it is believed (and constituted in such a way) to be a unified corpus. While there are many books, it speaks with a singular, though multiform and symphonic, voice. We might say that though it has many authors, it has One editor, namely the Holy Spirit. In this vein we might say that, due to its Divine editorialship, it is infallible and authoritative. God does not lie, God is not confused and divided within Himself. But none of this actually helps us read it. Thus, inerrantist obsession in the modern Evangelical world, while understandable given the climate of Biblical criticism, is unhelpful. What good is an infallible witness if we can't read it?

The Reformation, among with others, have affirmed the perspecuity of Scripture, which I believe to a degree, but given the diverse sects of every degree, clearly this is not the case. That is unless one wants to take the high-ground, asserting the truthful reading at the expense of all the deluded and blind. This is stated by the ultra-Reformed Presbyterian, the Mormon, and the Quaker. This is severely problematic and can only result in division or, ultimately, bloodshed. Roman Catholics, and others, will step in and offer the possibility of a Magisterium of sorts, but this only compounds the problem. If the Pope authoritatively can interpret, ex cathedra, how are we to interpret what he says? If we argue for a consensus of the Fathers, what if they disagree? Vincent of Lerin's Canon (we ought to believe what is everywhere, always, by everyone) is helpful for fostering a peaceable spirit. But this is many times a gloss for more complicated problems: how would we actually know what this is?

Let's look at this another way, and I'll lead in with my own personal affect.

What is Scripture even doing? I've been tempted in two directions, both of which are severely problematic. The first had me take Scripture as a guide for all positive affirmations in a proscriptive sort of way. Scripture would tell me, explicitly, what all I needed to do. This fell apart quickly for me as there is much "data" of Scripture that is seemingly useless or trapped infinitely in the past. While the Old Testament might tell me of the coming Christ, what help is beyond that? The New Testament seemed to provide forms, but there are severe gaps as to what that might actually mean for enforcement. The problem with this is that I am left with a pristine book of a secure past, but everything outside of it is problematic.

We might call this the Fundamentalist type of Biblical reasoning, and I found it severely limiting. Not only does one waste the entirety of Church history, but it keeps it trapped in a bubble. The Bible is pristine, but barely thrives in the modern world. I see many Evangelicals possess this hermeneutic and deal with this problem by crowbarring the Bible into all sorts of bizarre hobby horses. These little projects involves trying to validate the Bible through science, or politics, or moral reform, or what have you. This does little to actually bring the Word of God to bear upon the present day.

Many Evangelicals get sick and restless with this view. They'll move onto higher Church traditions or into a kind of salad-bar Emergent path. In this, the Scripture actually loses its spine in a lot of ways. One way is a pseudo-Barthian divorce of the spirit of Scripture from the text, locking away the truth in existential experiences. This is not unique, as it is a similar mood for some of the Allegorical "spiritual" readings of Scripture. The Bible becomes a kind of open book, peering behind words of this and that.

For me, this lead to a dual result. Firstly, it made me uninterested in reading the Bible. Call me fickle, but I found it more edifying to read theological works by others. I am not saying such is not good and helpful for reading the Scripture and seeking God. But what I am saying is that they are no replacement, because quickly you're adrift in an ocean of confusion. You go looking for some authoritative understanding and you get lost in a flood of opinions. For this reason some find rest in a constructed sense of Magisterium or Consensu Patrum, it's the only way to make sense of the vast ocean of tradition that sometimes speaks at cross purposes. Secondly, I began to wonder why the Bible was even useful. Couldn't I find the same allegorical truths in Homer or Dr. Seuss? Perhaps the Bible contains all the Truth, and I'm not denying that one can be edified by Homer or by Dr. Seuss. But it robs the Bible of its place as the measure for the life of the Church.

Of course, I discovered accidentally a better way to see things, and one that has been more common than not in Christian tradition. The Bible contains many typologies that remain in play for the life of Christ's Church, possessing ideas and words that make sense of things for us then, now, and tomorrow. Thus Old Testament figures can speak to us still as being types for larger entities and movements. We see this in the deployment of the person of Jacob being a representative for the whole of Israel, and then namely Christ Himself. Thus, Christians, as Christ's Body (another Scriptural type), still interact with the truth of this for us now.

This sort of Biblical reasoning applies a kind of Realism to the Scripture, revealing how these ideas are not free-floating, divorced from their own historical fulfillment, but they exist outside of their particular context. In other words, David is not just an accident and the figure of David remains in play throughoutthe life of the Scripture and beyond. This type helps us understand ourselves and our current predicament even now.

This sort of reasoning is open to all kinds of abuse. We see this in Puritans calling the King of England (Edward) as the new Josiah, or as Mary Tudor a Jezebel. But even if there was confusion in the application, this does not invalidate the method itself. The process of engaging in such thinking involves a communal effort in seeking the Scripture as good Bereans. This itself is a type for how the Church ought to be together and consider the truth in weighing things. Thus, the life of the Church jumps off the pages of Scripture and moves beyond it, but wholly within its frameworks. The Church extends through time and space but under the government of the Spirit, the author and possessor of all such figures and types.

I think this makes more sense of Christian history and what we are to do now. Primitivist movements are deluded in thinking they can get back to the First Century. The Church grows and develops, but always in accordance with the figures of Scripture. There was no wholesale corruption over the first centuries after the Apostolic Age. There was not even a closure of the Apostolic Age. We still live in the era of the Apostles, but, as per the ontology of the Scripture, we live among the figures without necessarily the persons. Jacob still was acting on the pages of Scripture, even though he was dead and buried for centuries. There have been those (individuals and groups) who've taken the role of Peter in bravado and failure, turning against Christ and then turning to Him in repentance. There have been those (individuals and groups) who have taken the figure of Judas, betraying the Christ for a bag of silver.

An example, perhaps, that use to vex me. I wondered how the early Church went so wrong so quickly. One looks at how the rise of bishops occurred. Was this vanity and arrogance strong-arming the Church from its non-hierarchical stance? No, Christ commissioned Apostles, there was always an authority structure. So, whence Bishops? Well, St. Paul talks about "offices" of the Church in his letters to Timothy and Titus (Pastoral Epistles). If we look at these things as figures, we see ways that keep us to the text and Spirit of the Scripture. The figure of Episkope, Oversight, is one frequent in Paul's epistles. How do we bring such about, a necessity, in the life of the Church? How do we consider how a congregation might merely become a sect and separate from others? The Apostolic Age that we live in, revealed in the New Testament and hidden in the Old, instructs us how through figures and types. The rise of bishops was/is a way to be faithful to this, but of course we must keep ourselves accountable. In what way might the "office" of Overseer/Bishop overreach its purpose? Medieval Rome reveals such examples.

It's in the above sense that we might appreciate, though possibly (or certainly) disagree with, Anglican apologists who said the Church of England is in the form of the Primitive Church. They did not mean literally, but perhaps in the spirit of figures and types that we know from Scripture. I do not really think any Anglican apologist thought the Apostles had cathedrals, stoles, or incense. But, they might argue, this is only fulfilling types in the proper form of worship.

In this way, I've rediscovered some of my original love for the Bible, though I hope it grows and overtakes my original zeal. The strict boundaries of a Fundamentalist approach murder the text, but they are not wrong to rely upon the Scripture. Of course, it led them to misunderstand the past in pretty disastrous ways. The spiritual/Allegorical approach is not wrong to see that the text is beyond the ink, but can often dissolve the very words themselves, which coinhere (directly!) with one another. In this way, I am a kind of Biblicist and literalist when it comes to the Bible. I am not ashamed of the Scripture, and I can offer reasons why this is so.

I hope this piece is helpful for anyone who struggles with this question. If you need more clarification, please comment.

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