Friday, January 10, 2014

Ancient-Future Biblical Authority

TheOoze.com is, or rather was, a sort of website for postmodern Christianity and/or for the emergent church. Since my bachelor's thesis at Dallas Baptist University was about postmodernism and on biblical inerrancy, it is only fitting that I would eventually have something published at The Ooze.

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.)
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ANCIENT-FUTURE BIBLICAL AUTHORITY: A REPLY TO KURT WILLEMS1
by Mark J. Boone

WILLEMS' TIMELY PIECE

Kurt Willems' article "Postmodern Biblical Authority?"2 is engaging, well-researched, and timely. Willems asks the right question: What account of Biblical authority is appropriate for the post-modern era? He answers that Biblical Christianity and postmodernism can converge on the Biblical narrative's authority in the lives of believers. The believer must immerse himself or herself in the Biblical narrative, let his or her life become the application, expression, and continuation of the narrative.

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.

ANCIENT HERMENEUTICS

Where better to start than Saint Augustine: philosopher, theologian, mystic, and priest—at once among the last Church fathers and the first medievals? Let's take a look at four elements of the patristic hermeneutics represented by Augustine in his Teaching Christianity4 and in Book XII of his Confessions.5 This hermeneutics ties together Biblical meaning, authority, and application, both the human-composed elements of the text and those written by God, those characteristics of the Bible loved by fundamentalists and those loved by postmoderns.

Saint Augustine
First, the most basic kind of Biblical authority extends to the text's original meaning; it is the authority of the Bible's human authors, who always speak truly: "let all those depart from me who deem that Moses spoke things that are false" (Confessions XII, chapter 23); "let us so honor this same servant of yours, dispenser of this Scripture and filled with your spirit, as to believe that when he wrote these words by your inspiration he intended that sense in them which supremely excels both in the light of truth and in the fruit of profit" (chapter 30). The authority of the Biblical authors gives us the rule of faith: the command to love God and neighbor (Teaching Christianity Book I, chapter 35) and the tenets of basic orthodoxy—truths given in Scripture and acknowledged by the Church as fundamental for Christian faith (Book III, chapter 2).

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)
Third, the sense of the Bible is not limited to the intent of its human authors. Jean-Luc Marion, the preeminent voice on Christianity's relation to postmodern philosophers such as Heidegger, Derridas, and Levinas, says that the Biblical text "escapes the ownership of its literary producers in order to be inspired, so to speak, by the Word" (Christ).9 Biblical meaning transcends that of its human authors. Marion and Augustine both remind us that only God knows the full meaning of the text.

"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.

NOTES

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-Fran├žois 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).

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