Reality and Evangelical Theology pp. 100-107

Reality and Evangelical Theology

In view of the foregoing discussion of the asymmetric correlation between God’s self revelation and the Holy Scriptures which continue to mediate that revelation in history, what general guidelines may be offered for the actual task of biblical interpretation? If we are to take our cue from Athanasius, and the kind of hermeneutical activity that preceded and underlay the classical conciliar theology, to which all Christendom is so heavily indebted, three or four such guidelines may be considered.1 If interpretation is to be faithful to what the Bible discloses itself to be, it must operate within the boundaries of the ways and acts of God out which the various Scriptures arose. Hence it must (1) attend to the “scope” of divine revelation in the Scriptures, (2) respect the objective grounding and ordering of Scriptural statements in the “economic” reality of the Words and Acts of God Himself, (3) be guided by an interpretive framework of thought derived from the connections and coherences in the biblical subject matter, and (4) clarify and check interpretations in accordance with “canon of truth.” Clearly all of these overlap with one another.

  1. THE SCOPE OF THE BIBLE

In one of his early essays Karl Barth wrote about “the strange new world within the Bible,” by which he meant the world of divine Reality which breaks into ours and opens its range far beyond itself by giving our world an objective and a perspective centred in God himself.2 It is only by entering this strange new world that we can come to grips with the contents of the Bible, and that means that we must learn to entrust our thought and our destiny to it and let it carry us far beyond ourselves, disturbing though that may be. This is very close to what the Greek fathers meant by the scope of the Holy Scriptures, the whole new world of meaning centred in God, and his Words and his Works, which we cannot understand from a centre in ourselves. It is only within this new divine perspective and in accordance with the distinctive slant it imposes upon the Scriptures that they may be faithfully interpreted and properly understood. In the language which we have been using, the scope of the Bible relates to the objective reference of its component Scriptures, which gives them their line of direction and their ultimate coherence, and at the same time determines the way in which they are to be treated. Thus the word “scope’ can be used in a wide sense to describe the general perspective or frame of reference with which the Scriptures are rightly to be interpreted, and in a deeper sense to denote the basic pattern of meaning that is discerned when the interpreter not only looks at the written words or statements but looks through them at the objective centre of reference beyond.

The question must be raised as to how we get inside this new world of meaning or come to share in the new perspective, especially if it is so radically new that we could have no inkling of it beforehand.  That was a question constantly posed to the church on the boundaries between Christian and Hellenic thought. The answer given, for example by Clement of Alexandria, was that here we have to reckon with realities which, like the first principles in geometry or the simple facts of perception, are known on the strength not of anything else but of themselves, that is, through a basic act of assent or faith in recognition of and in response to those realities.3 The right way to break through into the new realm of meaning or truth, therefore, is the way of faith, for unless we believe we will not understand.4 Now faith involves the conceptual assent to an unseen reality, for the proof of an unknown reality is its own evidence and the evident assent it calls forth from us. That is to say, if we are to really understand, we must willingly allow our minds to fall under the compulsive self-evidence of the reality, otherwise we merely lapse back uncritically into our own false preconceptions. What is needed is an anticipatory or proleptic conception derived from initial contact with the hitherto unknown reality, for without a basic clue of this kind, we will never learn anything new.5

This is certainly not easy with the “strange new world” which meets us in the Bible, for we are unable to grasp or conceptualise it in terms of what we have experienced elsewhere or already know, and for it we need quite new ways of thinking and understanding. This is possible only if we persistently attend to the organisation of conceptual form and material content already embodied in what the Bible says, let it talk to us, and allow ourselves to be directed by the semantic bearing of what it says upon the objective events and realities it attends, so that our minds may fall under the power of their inherent intelligibility or logos. This is a difficulty that crops up again and again for those who already operate within the scope of the Holy Scriptures, when they are presented with novelties in the text and in the subject matter alike, of which we are unable to make rational sense in terms of any normal framework of thought. Instead of dismissing them right away as quite unintelligible, however, as doubtless they be tempted to do so, they must rather try to understand them, if possible and as far as possible, out of the conjoint signification of their own in which the meaning of the realities denoted and the meaning of the terms denoting them are grasped at the same time and are matched to each other.6 This will entail a modification or reconstruction of what they already claim to know and accept as rational or significant. A repentant rethinking of this kind is steadily called for when we seek to interpret the message of the Holy Scriptures out of its own strange perspective and of its own inherent demands and semantic reference. The Greek fathers were surely right when they insisted that in a genuine act of knowledge we seek to apprehend something new or hitherto unknown or unique by allowing it in its own reality to prove itself to us and disclose its intrinsic significance and truth, and this to impress on our minds the appropriate way in which it is to be understood and expressed.

It must be pointed out that this way of entering into the new world of meaning and learning how to interpret the Bible within its own scope of significance is essentially an epistemic and not a psychological operation.7 What is involved, then, is a subject/object and a subject/subject relation. Interpretation operates on two levels, for there is a subject/object relation between the interpreter and the text, and within the text there is a subject/object relation or between the biblical witness and that to which he bears witness. Everything goes wrong if the interpreter attempts to transcend the subject/object relation by trying to relate his own subject directly to the subject of the biblical witness (the individual or community), in which he can only begin with his own self-understanding under the delusion that he can understand the author better than he can understand himself. It goes entirely wrong, for it destroys the whole scope or objective frame of reference within which the Bible presents and interprets itself to us. In the next section we shall reckon with the fact that here in biblical interpretation as in theological activity we must be concerned to penetrate into what we have called object/object relations, that is, the relations inherent in the objective realities which control  our subject/object relations and prevent them from lapsing into subject or psychologising movements of thought in which we would inevitably be trapped within the circle of our self-centred preconceptions and private opinions.

To seek and understanding interpretation of biblical documents, does not mean we try to divine the subjective reactions and states of their authors, but rather that we respond to their call to share with them the same objective orientation toward the living, speaking, and acting God as they found themselves obliged to adopt—often, quite obviously, against the grain of their own desires and in conflict with their prejudgments. Hence as we attend to what they actually say as carefully as we can, we try to follow through the semantic reference of their witness and reports so that we also may experience and apprehend the living God in Reality of his own Words and Acts for ourselves. As we do that we find ourselves confronted with the ultimate realities of God’s self-revelation and self-communication. These realities stake out for us the ground on which alone they may be understood, and thereby they constitute the scope or perspective within which all witness and reports on the part of the biblical authors are to be interpreted. Thus, so far as the New Testament Scriptures are concerned, the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ constituted the ground on which they were understood and validated, brought about a radically new conception of God and a complete transformation of man’s outlook in terms of a new divine order, and—thus bracketing within them the whole life, activity, and passion of Jesus Christ—gave rise to the basic framework within which the New Testament Scriptures are set and have to be interpreted.8 That is to say, the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ gave the New Testament the comprehensive scope within which all its writings took shape and form. Thus these realities forced themselves upon the mind of the Christian community in sharp antithesis to what people had believe about God and in genuine conflict with the framework of secular thought or prevailing world view; they took root in the church, which they had called into existence, only through a seismic restructuring of people’s religious and intellectual beliefs. Through the New Testament Scriptures the self-revelation and self-communication of God in the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ continue to supply the objective framework within which the gospel is to be understood and the Scriptures are to be interpreted. But they are ultimates, carrying their own authority and calling for the intelligent commitment of faith, and they provide the irreducible ground upon which continuing theologico-scientific inquiry and formulation take place.

A great deal has been made in modern biblical scholarship of what is called ‘pluralism’ manifest in the New Testament writings, and that is understandable once they are subjected to critical analysis apart from the basic framework of the New Testament in which they are set. But a very different picture emerges when we attend to the actual scope within which they have arisen and take shape. Then for all their rich diversity they are found to have a deep underlying unity in Jesus Christ the incarnate and risen Lord, who is the dynamic centre and the objective focus of their creative integration. But that calls for a way of interpretation in which the images or patterns at the linguistic and theological levels are stereoscopically coordinated in our viewing, for it is through the scope of their conjoint reference that real meaning and coherence come to light.

The interpreter operates, therefore, on both levels at the same time. At the level of the text the interpreter seeks to keep what Athanasius called “scope and character of the Holy Scripture.” By that he meant not only the peculiarities of linguistic expression and syntactic structure which may have arisen under the impact of divine revelation, but the customary way in which the Scriptures take language developed to describe our experience in this world and gave it a new sense beyond commonly accepted usage to convey its message about God and man. It is, the, in accordance with this new slant or shift in meaning that the sense of a particular passage is to be judged, that is, within the general direction and coherent tenor of biblical usage. The interpreter must operate at a deeper level that his, however, by keeping to what Athanasius called “the scope of faith.” By that he meant the objective meaning that lies behind the written words, arising out of the ontological orientation constituted by what the Scriptures tell us of the ways and works of God and in accordance with the religious experience which they evoke. That is to say, interpretation of biblical statements and reports must reflect “the mind” of the Holy Scriptures, or more specifically “the Mind of Christ,” which has left its imprint upon them. Strictly speaking, Christ himself is the scope of the Scriptures, so that it is only through focusing constantly upon him, dwelling in His Word and assimilating his Mind, that the interpreter can discern the real meaning of the Scriptures. What is required, then, is a theological interpretation of the Scriptures under the direction of their ostensive reference to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and within the general perspective of faith.