Thursday, October 27, 2005

THOUGHTS ON SCRIPTURE pt2- "shaped by our story"

In my last post I talked about scripture being the "family stories" for Christians. In a post-modern context seeing scritpure as the Story that shapes who we are as a people, or family called The Church, is important. In this post I plan to discuss how and why this "story" ought to shape us.

John Calvin spoke of scripture as the lens which Christians view all reality (1). Think about it, a lens brings certain things into focus and eliminates other things from our view. My very good friend John cannot read the words on a page of a book without the aid of his glasses. Likewise, when Christians begin to view the world through the lens of scripture- what and how they see the world begins to change. Our lives and our reality is transformed. "My world- where the poor are treated as failure, the powerful are praised as saviors, where nations are worshiped as gods- is taken up, is translated into the world of the Bible. In this translation, things take on new meanings, different significations. The people at the top like King Herod are brought low and people whom the world places at the bottom are lifted up." (2)

As we move further into what many are calling a postmodern era many Christians are uneasy or uncomfortable with how many people are viewing scripture. On the one hand it is sometimes viewed as God's rulebook and checklist. If one does not do "this" or you practice "that" then you cannot be a Christian. Then there are others who view scripture as God's guide to a happy life. If we can look for the teachings in the Bible that are "universally true" among all faith traditions then we have a guide that all people can follow. The problem with both of these views is that they are based not on something that has been inspired (in-spired = God breathed) but upon individual reason. "The Enlightenment's great confidence in the power or detatched, unaided, individual reason has been chastened in recent years by a new awarenenss that we human beings are socially, culturally, and narratively constructed. That is, we live our lives, we move, and think, and have our being out of a complex of stories, ideas and habits. We have been enculturated into certain ways of viewing and living in the world. Nothing is exempt from this cultural conditioning, even the sciences; and even the ways we view scripture in a scientific, rational and individual way." (3) When we move from the rational propositional way of viewing scritpure into the formational view of scritpure we, through "the story" of God, Israel and Jesus, begin to become enculturated into this different world view. We begin to see a God who cares for the powerless of the world, who lifts them up (Mary'sSong) while bringing the powerful down. Our conception of power changes as we are formed by a Messiah who chose nonviolence over violence in response to both religious oppression and the Roman Empire, even when it meant death on a cross. But that's what these Biblical narratives begin to do to people.

During the modern era the Bible has been used as the science book for Christianity at battle with secular science, the political playbook for the religious right as their general list of qualifications on who is in and who is out in regards to the Christian community/The Church. As we transition passed modernity the church has a wonderful opportunity in regards to scripture. Scripture in the hands of the Christian community has the ability to constitute new worlds. "The church is the imaginative projection of a biblical text. The Bible is not just merely describing a new world but is also constructing one". (4) And we, the church, are God's theatre where the drama is unfolding. In essence a Christian is a human being who listened to a biblical story and allowed that story to inform how he/she lives their life. "Listening to such stories makes us into peculiar people who respond to life in peculiar ways." (5)

In conclusion, the postmodern world is an age in which old Enlightenment texts are crumbling. The lure of absolute certainty, of universal, universally applicable principles like "reason" is in demise. In such a postmodern world, the church has a wonderful opportunity to again rediscover the claims of scripture. The Bible is not content to be translated into the categories of the contemporary world, but rather the Bible wants to absorb the contemporary world into its text.

as we approach part 3 of this series, which ought to be posted on monday of next week, we'll be dealing with scripture as the "norming norm" (thanks scott) and scripture as authority in a postmodern context (thanks craig and lenny).


1. "Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. This, therefore, is a special gift, where God, to instruct his church, not merely uses mute teachers [of nature and conscience] but also opens his own most hallowed lips" (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.6.1; cf. also 1.14.1).

2. Willimon, William, Shaped By the Bible, (Abingdon Press, 1990)

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. Ibid



Scott said...

Excellent post, Jonathan.

As I read, I was thinking about how sin corrupts our vision, and it requires the re-habituation of our practices into the means of grace to re-narrate our lives out of sin and into holiness. I wonder if this is the way of Scripture. As we learn to read Scripture faithfully, our vision is expanded and "corrected," thus expanding our sight of God's love at work in the world. At the same time, this expanded vision draws us deeper into the love of God where we gain even more vision.

Thanks for this series, Jonathan.

Grace and Peace,

Anonymous said...

You have some very good stuff in your post and I think I am starting to get an idea of a postmodern or emergent view of scripture. My thanks.
I agree with you and Calvin that scripture is the lens that believers use to view reality. That is very important and I am glad you included it.

I understand your suspicion of the use of reason to formulate propositions from the Bible. I have seen some that have been pretty awful and passed on as a doctrinal test of faith. Yes, over the centuries many theologians and Bible scholars have tried to discern what are the primary propositions that scripture emphasizes and organize them into doctrines that believers can readily recognize and follow. Much of this has resulted in many denominations and countless differences of opinion. I personally think doctrine is useful and over the years have seen much of what theologians have systemitized in my own studies. I have also had to shed some doctrines that I was taught in college and seminary as valid, because I did not see it strongly in scripture.
If post-moderns want to scrap doctrine and systematic theology and replace it with their own reading of the stories, it seems to me that we will be starting over from scratch. I think eventually even the post moderns will find it hard to resist the temptation to organize Biblical material as many of these folks graduate from seminary, earn advanced degrees and take jobs as teachers and scholars. I think it is human nature to want to understand and codify thought. Look at ancient philosophers and the early church fathers who lived before the modern age. Post moderns argue that it is a characteristic of modernity. Maybe.
Now I understand why Wesley is so popular with this group. He was not a systematic theologian in my opinion, like others. Also, ancient mystics will appeal to these individuals. They do not deal with doctrine, only the mystery of living for God. Actually, anything that gets people into the Word is better than the Biblical illiteracy I see in the church today. I believe that God's word has the power with in it to impact our lives. Push on.
Also, I find it interesting that the Wesley Quad is so highly praised and revered by post moderns. I understand why, but isn't it too a product of a modernist who distilled the Quad from Wesley's thought and codified it as a Methodist doctrine kind of?
See, getting away from the temptation to organize written material is hard to do.


St.Phransus said...

YES YES YES!!! Wonderful additions craig!! I agree that postmodern theolgians will run the risk of making bib. interpretation into a form of doctrine- heck it's in our nature to organize, so it may be inevitable.

however, i don't think modernity or modernistic thought is bad, it is just that postmodern critiques are trying to come at this from a different direction to answer some questions that modernity (ie liberal and conservative theology) cannot do.

thanks a bunch.

Scott said...

I don't think the problem is with reason per se, but with the modern tendency to posit a belief in a universal reason that operates apart from belief in God. We have such a tendency to view reason and revelation dialectically.

Like you, Craig, I see doctrine as a good thing. Doctrine is what shapes us and ultimately what delivered us the Scriptures that we have. I don't see the problem as doctrine per se, but when doctrine is separated from the practice of Christian charity and wielded as a weapon. When I read the early church battles with heretics, I am amazed at what great lengths the church leaders went (not universally, but largely) to bring about reconciliation and healing.

Again, I think the problem has been our very modern addiction to dialectics which tends to breed fundamentalisms of all sorts (from the left and right) that then make Scripture, doctrine, etc. a zero sum game, where we fight to "win" instead of drawing us deeper into worship of God.

Grace and Peace,

St.Phransus said...

yeah, hauerwas says that doctrine is the lens throught which we tell our particular stories ie: wesleyan, lutheran, etc. etc...

as far as reason goes- is it so much that reason is a product of modernity or that reason be filtered throught the lens of scripture- ie reason through scripture allows us to see reality as God intends?

off the top of my head,

Anonymous said...

If you think that modenity is not bad, you are an exception to what I read from others in the emergent movement. Part of the problem that ticks off many of us, is the seemingly arrogant and insulting way some of these guys come across in their writings. I have the same problem in my attitude toward liberals, which I am working on by the way. I do not see that in you, instead you are offering a clear view of what you believe and I respect that.

St.Phransus said...

i appreciate that (a lot). yes, i don't see modernity as bad either, and i also have seen some arrogance within the emerging church movement. but i also think that it may be less arrogance and more a making up for a weak ecclessiology. i like to say that i used to be a liberal who is now a "post-liberal" (thank you dr. spaulding and trevecca). i imagine there are many at trevecca who are coming to the same place as i who are now "post-conservative". we're not sure what we are yet, but it's exciting.

i'm with you though, i'm about listening to all sides whether i agree or not. conversation is good, but we it's also important to hold on to what is important.


Tony said...

Not only does the Word offer us a lens through which to view the world. It is also a mirror with which to view ourselves.

Eric Lee said...


Thanks for this excellent post! And y'all above: great comments.

To have some fun with labels, I'm probably a post-conservative, post-liberal radically-orthodox-inclined nerd. Or something. I was just talking to a guy at work this morning about how I used to be a Rush Limbaugh fan (I've read his books and have four of his ties!) and then I used to be an Al Franken fan, but now I can't stand the whole thing their rhetoric is based upon!

What I do know is that I'm intensely theologically curious at the moment...which is why I read blogs like this :)



Scott said...

I think the problem we deal with now is one of labels. We try to force everything into an ideological container of liberal or conservative. Frequently, when I talk or write, I am labeled a liberal when I am a follower of Hauerwas, Milbank, and others, who excoriate liberalism in their writing. I think a good bit of the vitriol I see on blogs is that we lack the ability to converse without slipping into those ideological lenses.

That is why i think this discussion about Scripture is a good one. Already, we have branched out into doctrine, reason, ecclesiology. I think it becomes clear that we can neither reduce the Scriptures to a set of timeless propositions (fundamentalism of the right) or a set of noble intentions (fundamentalism of the left). Instead, Scripture in all of its beauty manifests the wrestling of people to be formed into the people of God. It should be no different for us. We too must struggle to prevent our vision from becoming myopic. Instead, this will help us to receive the corrected vision that allowing our lives to be narrated by Scripture provides.

Jonathan, I look forward to your post on authority.

Thanks to everyone else for your great comments, too.

Eric, I was a liberal at conservative West Point, and more conservative at liberal Emory. The thing that held constant was my persistent nerdiness.

Grace and Peace,

St.Phransus said...

here here to nerdiness!!! hip hip hooray!!

scott you say it all so wonderfully. let it go on the record that i want to be you when i grow up.

Zoomdaddy said...

Hey all,

Just had a chance to read all this. Great thoughts all. I find it interesting to see our tendency to label/organize even within these comments. I think it is indeed part of human nature, not just a product of modernism.

I have to say, however, when I look at the so-called postmodern critiques of things, they seem not to be truly POST-modern. I guess I just don't see the current culture as any more than the logical result of the seeds planted during the Enlightenment (and not in some Hegelian thesis/antithesis way either). I still think a true postmodernism has yet to be seen. Until then, modernist ways of communicating with our culture about our faith will still be needed and effective in many (for average people--most) instances.

I still think there's a difference between acknowledging that propositional ways of communicating about faith developed within a narrative context, and accepting that context as real foundational communication over and above the product made manifest within the context. For example, I might accept that Sense and Sensibility developed within a context of the rigid class divisions and sex roles of 1800s English society...but that's not what the book is about. In the same way, Paul's most comprehensive treatise about salvation, while communicated in the context of the Early Church as its "narrative", is still propostional and tackled with theological and interpretive tools that help us make sense of propostional forms of communication. I am not seeing how a "story" hermeneutic addresses that.

Zoomdaddy said...

sorry if that last thing seems kind of disjointed; each paragraph is a separate thought, really.

St.Phransus said...

i've heard some scholars say that all that postmodernism is is simply the transitioning out of modernism into the next stage of history which has yet to be named.

postmodernism is modernism in a hypercontext.

jason said...

i agree jonathon - the lingo and rules for this next stage are not set yet so we are dependent upon the modern age for our descriptions and even how we organize our thinking when discussing what's going on

i also agree about the fallacy of modernity bad, post-modernity good - we do not have post-modernity without modernity - value-free descriptives

i agree with scott on the tendency of the political extremes to force scripture to be something that it is not - good words on letting it narrate our own lives - isn't that what really matters? wherever you are in the spectrum of authority, is the Word transforming your life?

St.Phransus said...

another good day of discussion y'all. thanks for your thoughts and for pushing the discussion.

see-through faith said...

Great post