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II. Traditional Christian Biblical Commentary
Of course it isn’t always easy to tell what the Lord is teaching us in a given passage: what he teaches is indeed true; still, sometimes it isn’t clear just what his teaching is. Part of the problem is the fact that the Bible contains material of so many different sorts; it isn’t in this respect like a contemporary book on theology or philosophy. It isn’t a book full of declarative sentences, with proper analysis and logical development and all the accoutrements academics have come to know and love and demand. The Bible does, indeed, contain sober assertion, but there is also exhortation, expression of praise, poetry, the telling of stories and parables, songs, devotional material, history, genealogies, lamentations, confession, prophecy, apocalyptic material, and much else besides. Some of these (apocalyptic, for example) present real problems of interpretation (for us, at present): what exactly is the Lord teaching in Daniel, or Revelation? That’s not easy to say. What are we to learn from the imprecatory psalms? Again, not easy to say.
Even if we stick to straightforward assertion, there are a thousand questions of interpretation. Just a couple of examples. In Matthew 5:17–20, Jesus declares that not a jot or a tittle of the law shall pass away and that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” but in Galatians Paul seems to say that observance of the law doesn’t count for much; how can we put these together? How do we understand Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body which is the church”? Is Paul suggesting that Christ’s sacrifice is incomplete, insufficient, that it requires additional suffering on the part of Paul or the rest of us? That seems unlikely. Is it that our suffering can be a type of Christ’s, thus standing to the latter in the relation in which a type stands to the reality it typifies? Or shall we understand it like this: we must distinguish between two kinds of Christ’s suffering, the redemptive suffering, the expiatory and vicarious Atonement to which nothing can be added or taken away, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, another kind, also “for the sake of his body,” in which we human beings can genuinely participate? Perhaps suffering which can build up, edify the body of Christ, even as our response to Christ can be deepened by our meditating on Christ’s sacrifice for us and the amazing selfless love displayed in it? Or what? Do Paul and James contradict each other on the relation between faith and works? Or rather, since God is the author of Scripture, is he proposing an inconsistent or self-contradictory teaching for our belief? Well no, surely not, but then how shall we understand the two in relation to each other? More generally, given that God is the principal author of Scripture, how shall we think about the apparent tensions the latter displays? 1 John seems to say that Christians don’t sin; in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he says that everyone sins; shall we draw the conclusion that there are no Christians? There are also problems about how to take the parables of Jesus. In Luke 18:1–13, for example, is Jesus suggesting that God will hear us just from sheer perseverance on our part, perhaps finally answering just because he’s finally had enough? That doesn’t sound right, but then how do we take the parable?
Some of these issues are important to the way the church conducts its day-to-day business: how shall we understand the Eucharist? Should infants be baptized? What is the proper structure of authority in the church? Although these issues are important, the scriptural teaching on them isn’t very clear—which is why Christians of wisdom and good will disagree about them. There are other issues—for example, whether a conversion experience is necessary for salvation, how important glossolalia is to a proper Christian life, the extent to which Christians should live in the world and accommodate to contemporary culture (how to be in but not of the world), what the structure of a worship service should be—on which the scriptural teaching is even less plain. And there are still others—whether it is infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism or neither that is the truth, whether Christ died for everyone or only for the elect, just what and when the millennium will be—on which scriptural teaching is less plain yet.
here we must pause to note a serious blemish on the face of
Christendom. Christians have been at each other’s throats and fought
enormously destructive battles over all of these matters. In some
cases, of course, the battles were literal battles; and the sight of
Christians (with their teachings about peace and love and turning the
other cheek) at each other’s throats must surely have been an important
cause of modern and Enlightenment apostasy.456456 And perhaps also of contemporary apostasy. In
explaining why “contemporary theologians” are not interested in the
topics contemporary philosophers of religion discuss, the theologian
Gordon Kaufman proposes that
it now seems that the Christian faith, Christian ways of understanding the world and the human place within the world, a powerful Christian sense of divine authorization and thus superiority over other religions, Christian imperialism, Christian racism and sexism, and other characteristics of the Christian religion and of “Christian civilization,” bear some significant responsibility for most of the evils I have just mentioned . . . two horrible world wars, the Nazi holocaust and other instances of genocide, the ecological crisis, the use of atomic bombs in World War II and the ever-present possibility of nuclear obliteration of the human race. . . . Christian theologians today have thus been driven, in a way unprecedented historically, to ask some hard questions about Christian faith, practices and institutions, questions that force close examination of the very symbols and ideas that have traditionally informed this faith. (“Evidentialism: A Theologian’s Response,” Faith and Philosophy [January 1989], pp. 41–42)
Kaufman’s essential position here, I think, is that contemporary philosophy of religion still (or again) takes seriously traditional Christianity, with its belief in God, incarnation, atonement, and so on, while contemporary theologians, paying attention to the factors he mentions, have “gone beyond” all that. See above, chapter 2. (Of course, as Kaufman acknowledges, he speaks for only some contemporary theologians.) Nowadays, perhaps, we don’t engage in literal battles;457457 But I won’t easily forget the sight (in Belfast) of a Protestant preacher shaking his jowls and roaring about “the God-cursed blasphemy of the idolatrous whore of Rome!” and looking for all the world as if there is nothing he would like better than to sink his sword into the breast of some hapless Roman Catholic. nevertheless, serious Christians still spend an enormous amount of time and energy in disputes over these matters. Isn’t it obvious, however, that the path of wisdom for Christians is to proportion willingness to fight, here, both to the degree to which it is clear that the item in question is, indeed, proposed for our belief by God and also to its importance for the Christian life? Christians will have much to answer for, along these lines, and it is not going to be pleasant.
Scripture, therefore, is inspired: what it teaches is true; yet it isn’t always trivial to tell what it does teach. Indeed, many of the sermons and homilies preached in a million churches every Sunday morning are devoted in part to bringing out what might otherwise be obscure in scriptural teaching. Given that the Bible is a communication from God to humankind, a divine revelation, there is much about it that requires deep and perceptive reflection, much that taxes our best scholarly and spiritual resources to the utmost. This fact wasn’t lost on Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and the others I mentioned above; between them they wrote an impressively large number of volumes devoted to powerful reflection on the meaning and teachings of Scripture. (Calvin’s commentaries alone run to some twenty-two volumes.) Their aim was to determine as accurately as possible just what the Lord proposes to teach us in the Bible. Call this enterprise ‘traditional biblical commentary’ and note that it displays at least the following three features.
First, Scripture itself is taken to be a wholly authoritative and trustworthy guide to faith and morals; it is authoritative and trustworthy, because it is a revelation from God, a matter of God’s speaking to us. Once it is clear, therefore, what the teaching of a given bit of Scripture is, the question of the truth and acceptability of that teaching is settled. In a commentary on Plato, we might decide that what Plato really meant to say was XYZ; we might then go on to consider and evaluate XYZ in various ways, asking whether it is true, or close to the truth, or true in principle, or superseded by things we have learned since Plato wrote, and the like; we might also ask whether Plato’s grounds or arguments for XYZ are slight, or acceptable, or substantial or compelling. These questions are out of place in the kind of scripture scholarship under consideration. Once convinced that God is proposing XYZ for our belief, we do not go on to ask whether it is true, or whether God has made a good case for it. God is not required to make a case.
Second, an assumption of the enterprise is that the principal author of the Bible—the entire Bible—is God himself (according to Calvin, God the Holy Spirit). Of course each of the books of the Bible has a human author or authors as well; still, the principal author is God. This impels us to treat the whole more like a unified communication than a miscellany of ancient books. Scripture isn’t so much a library of independent books as itself a book with many subdivisions but a central theme: the message of the gospel. By virtue of this unity, furthermore (by virtue of the fact that there is just one principal author), it is possible to “interpret Scripture with Scripture.” If a given passage from one of Paul’s epistles is puzzling, it is perfectly proper to try to come to clarity as to what God’s teaching is in this passage by appealing not only to what Paul himself says elsewhere in other epistles but also to what is taught elsewhere in Scripture (for example, the Gospel of John458458 See, for example, Richard Swinburne (Revelation [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992], p. 192), who suggests that Paul’s Christology at Romans 1:4 should be understood in terms of the ‘high’ Christology of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. We could say the same for Paul’s Christology in his speech in Acts 13, where he seems to suggest that a special status was conferred on Jesus, as opposed to John 1, according to which Jesus is the incarnation of the preexistent Word. See also Raymond Brown, New Testament Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), pp. 133ff.). Passages in Psalms or Isaiah can be interpreted in terms of the fuller, more explicit disclosure in the New Testament; the serpent elevated on a pole to save the Israelites from disaster can be seen as a type of Christ (and thus as getting some of its significance by way of an implicit reference to Christ, whose being raised on the cross averted a greater disaster for the whole human race). A further consequence is that we can quite properly accept propositions that are inferred from premises coming from different parts of the Bible: once we see what God intends to teach in a given passage A and what he intends to teach in a given passage B, we can put the two together, and treat consequences of these propositions as themselves divine teaching.459459 Of course this procedure, like most others, can be and has been abused; that possibility in itself, however, is nothing against it, though it should serve as a salutary caution.
Third (and connected with the second point), the fact that the principal author of the Bible is God himself means that one can’t always determine the meaning of a given passage by discovering what the human author had in mind. Of course various postmodern hermeneuticists aim to amuse by telling us that, in this case as in all others, the author’s intentions have nothing whatever to do with the meaning of a passage, that the reader herself confers on the passage whatever meaning it has, or perhaps that even entertaining the idea of a text’s having meaning is to fall into “hermeneutical innocence”—adding, with a certain air of insouciant bravado, that such innocence is ineradicably sullied by its inevitable association with homophobic, sexist, racist, oppressive, and other unacceptable modes of thought. This is, indeed, amusing. Returning to serious business, however, it is obvious (given that the principal author of the Bible is God) that the meaning of a biblical passage will be given by what it is that the Lord intends to teach in that passage, and it is precisely this that biblical commentary tries to discern. But we can’t just assume that what the Lord intends to teach us is identical with what the human author had in mind;460460 A further complication: we can’t simply assume that there is some one thing, the same for everyone, that the Lord intends to teach in a given passage; perhaps what he intends to teach me or my relevant sociological group is not the same as what he intended to teach a fifth-century Christian. the latter may not so much as have thought of what is, in fact, the teaching of the passage in question. Thus, for example, Christians take the suffering servant passages in Isaiah to be references to Jesus; Jesus himself says (Luke 4:18–21) that the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1–2 is fulfilled in him; John (19:28–37) takes passages from Exodus, Numbers, Psalms, and Zechariah to be references to Jesus and the events of his life and death; Matthew (21:5) and John (12:15) take it that Zechariah 9:9 is a reference to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem; Hebrews 10 takes passages from Psalms, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk to be references to Christ and events in his career, as does Paul for passages from Psalms and Isaiah in his speech in Acts 13. Indeed, Paul refers to the Old Testament on nearly every page of Romans and both Corinthian epistles, and frequently in other epistles. There is no reason to suppose the human authors of Exodus, Numbers, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Habakkuk had in mind Jesus’ triumphal entry, his incarnation, or other events of Jesus’ life and death—or, indeed, anything else explicitly about Jesus. But the fact that it is God who is the principal author here makes it quite possible that what we are to learn from the text in question is something rather different from what the human author proposed to teach.
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