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Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: Scriptural Authority and the Formation of Christian Convictions

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship:
Scriptural Authority and the Formation of Christian Convictions

As the second Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON II) gets underway in Nairobi this October, 2013, the issue of Scriptural authority and the formation of Christian convictions lies at the heart of what needs attention in the Anglican Church—as in various other communions of faith in our day.  This post offers some thoughts on the issue that faces the Church in the West and that requires decisive action in our day.  The crises over Scriptural authority and the formation of convictions that are truly Christian are central for the Church and its mission as it considers its identity and witness in the world.

How we form convictions, how we do theology, what we understand by 'revelation', how we get at the meaning of a text--these rather weighty issues all come to bear on the challenges the Church faces today, including its thinking about sexuality.  There is a way to sum up the challenge to the Christian tradition on issues of sexuality with reference to one of the oldest debates in philosophy: can one ever step into the same river twice?  If theology is a body of doctrine, unambiguous and capable of being systematised, then it is a river into which various people at various times in various circumstances might step more than once.  If revelation is from God to humanity, then it is something authoritative, and the first task of interpretation is listening and the second task is obeying.  If the meaning of a text can be ascertained, if it is not illusive, if it comes from the intentions evident within the text rather than from the reader, then the only courteous thing to do is to hear it out rather than pretend like some naughty child that the obvious meaning is not the only one, or that anything another says can be understood in some other way.

But all this is what so many find so challenging today.  Surely no river remains the same from moment to moment as it is in constant flow.  On such a view, authoritative sources are only generative for a community’s discussion, theology must be understood as dialectical and open-ended, revelation must involve the input of readers, Scriptural authority is suggestive and tentative, and meaning is something to be created as texts float freely from the authors' intentions, while readers bring new contexts and interpretations to texts.

What makes the discussion of sexuality so challenging within Western, mainline denominations today is that it is not simply sexuality that is at issue but the whole 'same river' - 'different river' debate of the ancient Greeks as it pertains to our understanding of theology, our reception of revelation, and our interpretation of Scripture.  The very basis for constructing theology and ethics is under attack.  Of course, answers to this debate must take account of the truth in both arguments: the Thames has never become the Severn, but the water that flowed in it last year is no longer what flows in it today.  Thus the contemporary challenge that some pose to Christian tradition and Biblical authority is for us to get over our supposed ‘hang-ups’ with river banks—with static authorities; everything is said to be in flux and is being reconstituted, like the ever-changing river.  The authority for Christian identity and the formation of convictions, on this view, falls to the contemporary communities of faith, who are empowered (by whom?) to deal with their 'foundational documents' and 'generative revelation' in the Bible however they now see fit.

In step with this 'different river' argument, former Archbishop Rowan Williams opposes a notion of divine revelation that is, as he puts it, a 'lifting of a veil'. He writes, 'The language of veil-lifting assumes a kind of passivity on the part of the finite consciousness which abstracts entirely from the issue of the newness of the form of life which first prompts the question about revelation.'[1]  He prefers to speak of revelation as generative in our experience, which he describes as 'events or transactions in our language that break existing frames of reference and initiate new possibilities of life ….'[2]

Robin Gill's assessment of Church and society in the United Kingdom also defends diversity and process on moral issues within the Church.[3]  He approves Stephen Sykes' argument in The Identity of Christianity to say that there will always be moral disagreement in the Church,[4] as in Paul’s day, and this can play an important and positive function: ‘Christian identity is…not a state but a process; a process, moreover, which entails the restlessness of a dialectic, impelled by criticism.'[5]

Paul actually had a response to this.  He agreed that there will always be moral disagreement in the Church and that it does play an important and positive function, but his reasoning was altogether different.  He wrote,

Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine (1 Cor. 11.19).

Almost thirty years ago, George Stroup assessed the new development of 'narrative theology' in terms of a crisis over the identity of Christian community facing the Church at the time.  This crisis, he argued, takes shape in four symptoms in particular:[6]

…the curious status of the Bible in the church’s life, the church’s loss of its theological tradition, the absence of theological reflection at all levels of the church’s life, and the inability of many Christians to make sense out of their personal identity by means of Christian faith.

He went on to say that the doctrine of revelation in the church was 'under siege'.  Stroup defines 'revelation' as ‘the unveiling or disclosure of a reality that is not accessible to human discovery and which is of decisive significance for human destiny and well-being.'[7]  On this view, Rowan Williams' discussion of revelation as not unveiling, as something that includes human initiation and experience, would be an example of the crisis in the Church's doctrine of revelation of which Stroup spoke sixteen years before Williams made his point.[8]  Yet Stroup's own very Barthian understanding of revelation emphasises the dynamic and community role of revelation, perhaps just as much as Williams' argument.  He writes that

… in narrative theology … the authority of Scripture must be interpreted in terms of its function in the life of the Christian community and not in terms of some property intrinsic to it as Scripture.[9]  [He continues:]  In narrative theology Scripture is authoritative in these two ways.  On the one hand, it witnesses to events which are the basis of the church’s proclamation ….  There is no such thing in narrative theology …as a bare fact or an uninterpreted fact….  Consequently the historical-critical investigation of Scripture can never suffice as the only method for determining the sense in which biblical narrative is true .…  [Secondly, Scripture’s authority] is its role in the life of the Christian community [i.e., its authority is functional].[10]

Today, as in pre-Enlightenment times, there is more of an appreciation for the need to acknowledge that readers' perspectives influence interpretation not simply at the level of application of the text but at the more fundamental level of understanding of the text in the first place.  This point can be stated inadequately, as L. Gregory Jones and Stephen Fowl have done by giving up any attempt to discover the meaning of a text of Scripture.  They simply advocate identifying the readers' interpretive interests:

Rather than pursue this illusory quest for the meaning of a text, we recommend that we think in terms of 'interpretive interests' … Once we acknowledge the plurality of interpretive interests, we need not treat alternative interpretations as failed attempts to discover the meaning of a text.[11]

Yet one need not give up on the meaning of the text to agree that interpretive interests are significant throughout the entire interpretation process. Gordon Fee, whom one might describe as a champion of the importance of exegesis for all theology, writes:[12]

…the aim of exegesis [is] to produce in our lives and the lives of others true Spirituality, in which God's people live in fellowship with the eternal and living God, and thus in keeping with God's own purposes in the world.  But in order to do that effectively, true 'Spirituality' must precede exegesis as well as flow from it.

By focusing on the aim of the practice of exegesis, one introduces a moral dimension to the understanding of interpretation.  Whereas Fee speaks of this as 'Spirituality', Kevin Vanhoozer explores this in terms of an ethic of reading.[13]  Thus Fee and Vanhoozer respond to those advocating the readers' role in determining the meaning of a text by saying that there is some truth in this, and therefore it is important that the reader of Scripture not read against but with what it claims and argues.  Vanhoozer discusses this point in terms of speech-act theory (the theory that words, when put together in acts of speech, carry intentions by means of the kind of discourse used and the outcomes expected) and the Trinity:

… as the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, so the literary act proceeds from the author, and so too does the perlocution (persuading, convincing) proceed from the illocution (claiming, asserting).  A text, then, has a mission of meaning, that we may provisionally define in terms of illocutionary success: the goal of a literary act is to accomplish the purpose for which it was sent (Isa. 55.11).  The Word of God in Scripture, similarly, has a mission, and this in turn determines the mission of the Spirit.[14]

Thus, Fee and Vanhoozer suggest that there is a right way to read Scripture.  Readers need to read Scripture with the Spirit and the intentions inherent in its acts of communication. As George Lindbeck has suggested, we need to read for intentions.  But to escape the intentional fallacy (thinking that we can get back into the mind of the author and discover his or her intentions) one must appeal to ‘speech acts being performed by the locutions (the utterances or texts) that are being interpreted.’[15]  The interpreter does not try to get at the author’s acts of intentions but the intentional acts in the Scriptures (which are usually clear enough, especially when heard contextually through careful exegesis).

I believe that there is a Christian hermeneutic which goes beyond the discussion of interpreting any piece of literature.  There is a spiritual dimension to interpretation, which is what Paul had in mind in Col. 3.16 (my translation):

Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly when teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom, when making music with thankful hearts to God through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

The source of wise teaching and admonition in the Church, and of Christian worship, is the Word of Christ--Jesus' revelation in His person and work (as discussed in Colossians).  The fact that readers make what they will of what they read is not an endorsement of multiple readings but a call to 'read rightly.'  In a relativistic age, this may sound somewhere between impossible and shockingly outdated, but for Paul, Christ brought wisdom to Christian teaching and admonition and the appropriate disposition to worship (thankfulness).  The dynamic element Rowan Williams seeks in a doctrine of revelation is not located in a liberation of readers from the Biblical revelation but in the work of Christ and the Spirit in the readers, interpreters, teachers, and worshipers.

In Col. 3, sexual immorality is still sexual immorality; it is not redefined.  Paul simply says,

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry) (Col. 3.5).

What is new is the dynamic power of Christ working in believers such that they are able to 'put to death'--through Christ's death--such sin.  This dynamic power entails letting the ‘word of Christ dwell in you richly;’ it is not a license for believers to form their own convictions.  A Christian hermeneutic is dynamic: it entails the life transforming power of Christ indwelling the community of faith that is faithful to God’s revealed and unchanging truth.

[1] Rowan Williams, 'Trinity and Revelation' in his On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 135.
[2] Rowan Williams, 'Trinity and Revelation', p. 134.
[3] Robin Gill, Churchgoing and Christian Ethics, New Studies in Christian Ethics 15 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
[4] Stephen Sykes, The Identity of Christianity (London: SPCK, 1984), p. 17
[5]Stephen Sykes, p. 285, Gill’s citation on  p. 235.
[6] George W. Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology (London: SCM Press, 1984; 1st publ. John Knox Press, 1981), p. 24.
[7] George Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology, p. 42.
[8] George Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology, pp. 42f.
[9] George Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology, p. 249.
[10] George Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology, pp. 251f.  The idea that Scripture's authority is to be functionally understood within the life of a community was the subject of David Kelsey's The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).
[11] Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 15f.
[12] Gordon Fee, 'Exegesis and Spirituality: Completing the Circle,' in his Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 6.
[13] Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?  The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge  (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), see especially ch. 7, 'Reforming the Reader: Interpretive Virtue, Spirituality, and Communicative Efficacy.'
[14] Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text?, p. 410.
[15] George A. Lindbeck, ‘Postcritical Canonical Interpretation: Three Modes of Retrieval,’ in Theological Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Brevard S. Childs, eds. Christopher Seitz and Kathryn Green-McCreight (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999): 26-51; here p. 48.