The ideal opportunity came when Kurt Willems wrote a piece on "Postmodern Biblical Authority?" for The Ooze. The Ooze published my reply, "Ancient-Future Biblical Authority," in July 2009.
The Ooze is no longer online, however, and my article is nowhere to be found. But it ought to be somewhere. So now it can be here. My full article is copied below. (I have updated the link in the second footnote, and added some pictures.)
ANCIENT-FUTURE BIBLICAL AUTHORITY: A REPLY TO KURT WILLEMS1
by Mark J. Boone
WILLEMS' TIMELY PIECE
Willems is also right to criticize what he calls fundamentalism for its hyper-literal reading of Scripture and its attempt to justify Scripture on wholly objective, universal, and non-Biblical grounds, a move that risks setting up Reason as an authority over Scripture. But Willems leaves huge stones unturned, for he gives no account of that "traditional biblical authority" which the Enlightenment tried to do away with. A pre-modern account yields different, but compatible, answers to the question of Biblical authority. It also answers a question of interest in any era but especially important to the postmodern: Where is the meaning of the Biblical text?
Willems' remarks suggest the legitimacy of looking to the pre-moderns. Postmodernism conceived as Lyotard's "incredulity toward metanarratives"3 is specifically a rejection of the modern metanarrative. If we are serious about rejecting modernism, we are within our rights to consider pre-modernism a live option; at the least, we owe the pre-moderns and their insights a fair hearing. Some of these insights are common to postmodernity; some are uncommon, but commensurable.
Second, the meaning of Scripture transcends what its human authors intend, meaning no less than what its divine author intends. Thus Augustine prays: "while every man tries to understand in Holy Scripture what the author understood therein, what wrong is there if anyone understand what you, O light of all truthful minds, reveal to him as true, even if the author he reads did not understand this . . . ?" (Confessions XII, chapter 18).
Third, what the human authors say is our guide in exploring whatever Scripture says beyond their words. The rule of faith guides our interpretion of Scripture; when we encounter a passage whose full meaning we do not understand, we must look in it for an expression of the rule of faith (Teaching Christianity, Book II, chapter 9). We don't go searching for meaning in the sacred text without keeping the original meaning on hand as a compass.
Fourth, the truth in Scripture must be lived. John J. O'Keefe and R. R. Reno explain how important it was to the early Church to live Scripture; The rule of faith "has a behavioral as well as doctrinal component"6 and "was a rule for life as well as a rule for reading Scripture and interpreting its meaning."7 The sacred meaning of Scripture cries out to be lived. As Willems says, the Biblical narrative has authority in the life of the believer.
This hermeneutics acknowledges the authority of the Bible's original meaning, but it is open to meaning that transcends it and emphasizes the relationship between the two. It is also swift to apply the meaning of Scripture in the life of the Church. But Scriptural authority in its most basic sense safeguards our participation in the Biblical narrative. Without the authority of the human authors of Scripture, "faith will start tottering," "charity itself also begins to sicken," the authority of the Biblical narrative over the lives of believers is undermined, and the life goes out of the Church (Teaching Christianity Book I, chapter 37).
ANCIENT AND POST-MODERN HERMENEUTICS
This hermeneutics achieves several postmodern desiderata. First, the entire world of the Church becomes, in a somewhat Derridean fashion, the interpretation of the text. There is no external referent to which the Biblical text refers and upon reaching which interpretation ceases. The life of the believer is immersed in the text. The very life of the Church is its ongoing act of interpretation.
Second, the Biblical narrative will not be made to fit inside our minds or be justified by our intellects. Merold Westphal in Overcoming Onto-theology explains that two of the reasons the Christian narrative is distinct from the modern meta-narrative are that it does not seek to be legitimized by science and that its origins are in revelation rather than autonomous reason.8 Augustine's hermeneutics likewise begins with the Biblical text. It sends reason on a mission to understand what is learned by faith, rather than prove faith in the court of reason as a prerequisite for belief.
|Jean-Luc Marion (picture from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Luc_Marion)|
"FUNDAMENTALISTS" AND POSTMODERN CHRISTIANS: ESTRANGED BRETHREN
In acknowledging the authority of the original meaning of Scripture, this ancient hermeneutics also satisfies a major concern of the "fundamentalists" Willems mentions, for it relies on the fundamental authority of the authors of Scripture. The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy seeks to preserve this authority. The central thrust of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is the attribution of infallible authority to the intent of its human authors.10
In other words, the first element of patristic hermeneutics is an overriding goal for the inerrantist, and postmodern Christians emphasize its second and fourth elements. The hermeneutics of the Church fathers unites these elements together with the third. The original meaning of Scripture and that which transcends it are meant to be pursued and lived together.
The Biblical narrative's authority over the life of the Church is real, and Willems does well to acknowledge it; it is also well to acknowledge the authority of Scripture's original meaning; it is best to acknowledge the unity of both regions of authority. In this process there is room for friendship between postmodern Christians and fundamentalists, estranged Christian brethren whose reconciliation is long overdue. Reconciliation will not be easy, but we both share in the hermeneutical heritage of the Church fathers, and a way forward together is possible if we listen to them.
1. The title "Ancient-Future Biblical Authority" is influenced by Robert E. Webber, especially his Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999).
2. Kurt Willems, "Postmodern Biblical Authority," TheOoze: Conversation for the Journey, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/articles/unpublished-papers/postmodern-biblical-authority/ (October 29, 2008).
3. Jean-François Lyotard, Introduction to The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.
4. Augustine, Teaching Christianity, translated by Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press, 1996).
5. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, translated by John K. Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1960).
6. John J. O'Keefe and R. R. Reno, The Sanctified Vision: an Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 124.
7. Ibid., 128.
8. Merold Westphal, Introduction to Overcoming Onto-theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), xiii-xv.
9. Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, translated by Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 156.
10. The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (Chicago: 1978).