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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Jounal of Theological interpretation, Vol. 1.2. – Archbishop Uwe A.E. Rosenkranz

Part 2.

Herod´s Temple on the TempleMount
Mission, Hermeneutics, and the Local Church

Abstract—An earlier generation of missionaries set as their goal the development of independent churches: self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing. Now it is becoming clear that, to be independent, a church should also be self-theologizing. I argue here that, because a church is established in a particular location, the people must look to their own hermeneutical principles in order to interpret Scripture in that context. As their own theological project develops, although they may be in conversation with the universal church, they will establish their own distinctives. Then they will be in a position to continue the theological discourse of the age as well as engage the long tradition of the church. How might their hermeneutical practices differ from the practices that Europe and America have developed? As a beginning, I suggest that we consider the impact of orality, colonization, cultural diversity, and social organization on hermeneutics.

Key Words—local hermeneutics, self-theologizing, culture, orality, colonialism, hermeneutical community, critical contextualization

Graham Ward has asked, “What makes a belief believable?” As a test case, he asks how Karl Barth was able to enter the theological conversation of his time, get a hearing, and end up changing the direction of the dialogue. The suggestion is that Barth was more a man of his times than he was willing to admit, pace Schleiermacher. Barth’s hermeneutical method arose from his culture, and his theological conclusions were credible to his readers. In a world where there is no recognized neutral position, we can ask with Ward, “From what place does theology speak?”
Perhaps light could also be shed from another angle: Why would we ever think that theology was the work of lone-ranger, university-based, isolated academicians? More to the point, why would we imagine that hermeneutics could be freed from culture and the local congregation? Both hermeneutics and theological production, for most of the history of the church, have been the work of communal, church-based practitioners who studied and spoke in culturally credible terms. Historically, the tension between center and periphery has been framed as a struggle between orthodoxy and syncretism. Ward claims, contrary to convention, that “the very hope for cultural transformation lies within this syncretistic process.” Indeed, if the church is to be an agent of the kingdom in the present variety of cultural and multicultural settings, that is, in the world, then there must be a place and a process for Scripture to engage culture, and culture to engage Scripture.
As the early church stepped out of a predominantly Hebrew context into the Greek world, missionaries had to reframe the gospel, aided by the translators who had already produced the Septuagint. Thus, as the death and resurrection of Jesus was interpreted for the Gentile mind, instead of “Messiah” and “Son of Man,” Jesus became “Kyrios,” “Logos,” and “Pleroma.” Poets, songwriters, and other theologians followed, casting theology in verse (Phil 2:6–11, 1 Cor 13), reflecting, correcting, and ordering the slogans and creeds. Theological production followed a new hermeneutic centered in the mission of God in Jesus as this mission met the world.
Today we tend to cast the early theological debates as contests between isolated theologians and their parties. But, why is it that we are able to talk about an Alexandrian school of hermeneutics in contrast to an Antiochian school? Is it because of the individual theologians who happened to be in those places, or is it because of differences in culture between the two locations? Were Alexandrians, as a community, given to allegorical interpretations of events, or did Origen alone invent this hermeneutical approach? If it is the cultures, and I think that it is, then we might wonder whether each culture has something different to contribute to the church’s worldwide, millennia-deep set of hermeneutical principles and practices.

What is the relationship between hermeneutics and location? What would hermeneutics look like in a local church setting anywhere in the world? Larry Caldwell has made a case for ethnohermeneutics using the example of an indigenous Filipino hermeneutical method. When he went into the field to listen to his students proclaim the word, he was aghast.

In stark contrast to the exegetically correct and logically constructed three point sermons they had prepared for class, what I heard were sermons full of allegories and folksy illustrations, with a story-line that seemed to run circles around a loosely constructed main point. They were exegeting the Bible in ways that would earn them a failing grade in the classroom. I was one disconcerted hermeneutics professor! My frustrations, however, lessened over time as I began to realize that my students were making sense to their audience. They were communicating the truths of the Bible in ways that the people from their own rural culture were understanding. They were communicating the gospel. And they were doing so, for the most part, using nonwestern hermeneutical methods.

Caldwell notes, “Most of these western hermeneutical methods are centered upon historical criticism and the tools of the historical-critical approach.”
However, Filipino cultures already have hermeneutical principles and processes in place. I would add that every culture already has a set of hermeneutical principles and processes, though most are not yet described in the literature. Yet, if Christ is to become incarnate in every culture, local hermeneutic principles will be the building blocks of interpretation and proclamation. Caldwell notes caustically that we believe in “sola scriptura,” not in “sola grammatico-historical method.”11
If the location of theology is the local church in any of a number of diverse cultural settings, then what are the dynamics that affect hermeneutics in those settings? There are at least four continua that I offer for consideration:

• Orality—Literacy
• Colonized—Colonizer
• Cultures—Culture
• Community—Individual

Ever since Walter Ong’s groundbreaking work on orality, we have come to appreciate that orality is not just the lack of literacy. Orality and literacy both presuppose a mind-set, a way of experiencing the world that is not commensurate one with the other.13 The differences between orality and literacy affect how a people interpret a story or text, and thus location affects hermeneutics.
First, memory differs in that oral learners are involved in the story with their bodies as well as with their minds. The story is remembered in the movements, gestures, and activities. “Other memory devices employed were that of repetition; the use of formulaic expressions; stress of concept over exact word agreement; traditional choral and public discourses; paintings/codices; rhythm—dance; song; poetry; and tonal variance and metaphor.” How would this affect the local hermeneutic? With regard to repetition, a new sentence might not mean a new idea to an oral interpreter. With regard to the emphasis on concept over word order, similarities or differences in words might not carry the weight that other exegetes like to imagine.
Second, oral learners are part of a community, so that interpretation involves not only the body but the social body as well. A group of learners observes and practices the story, while the teacher may use a minimum of words. Green agrees that “interpretation is thus a fully embodied and social enterprise, which is inescapably implicated in narrativity.”16 On the last day of a seminar that I was giving in Kenya, the participants wanted to respond to the material. I had presented the equivalent of a text on introducing culture change. To show what they had learned, the participants created and enacted skits that demonstrated some of the principles involved. Humor was no small part of the process of interpreting, even reinterpreting the text that I had taught.
Third, the relationship with the teacher or master is as important as the features of the story. In a brief article on communication in cultures, Scheer contrasts a relational culture with a culture concerned with truth: “The foundation and goal of relational communication is not merely to pass on truth, but to establish, maintain, and enjoy the fruits of relationships.” Recently our seminary made some structural changes that affected our postgraduate students. The American students accepted the argument that this was a move toward efficiency and rationality. The international students wanted to know who was behind the changes. One said, “It is like they came and took our Father away and said, ‘Now, this is your Father.’ How can they do that without asking us?”
How might relationships affect hermeneutics? Some of the hermeneutical presuppositions of literate peoples are that the primary purpose of Scripture is to transmit truth: truth isolated from relationships (universal), truth encapsulated in propositions (verbal), and truth independent of community (private/personal). By contrast, oral interpreters will want to discover the relationships in the story. The point worth discovering is how what is said affects our relationships, not primarily whether it is true or not.
This is a hermeneutical principle worth highlighting, particularly in our times when the youngest generation is looking to find relationships and community through Scripture. After all, is the purpose of Scripture to transmit truth or to draw people closer to God? Do we have to make a choice?
The line between orality and literacy may not be as clear as Ong thought decades ago. There is a historical line, between premodern and modern peoples, implying that the majority of early church members were oral learners. There is a geographical line that separates the East from the non-East, reflecting the fact that the majority of peoples in the world today are still oral learners. Finally, there is a generational line, in which the youngest generation in the non-East, though literate, has a preference for oral learning and, perhaps, oral interpretation.19

The relationship between power, the text, and the interpretation has been the topic of postmodern and postcolonial writers. What one sees in the text, with whom one identifies in the text, and how one uses the text are all affected by one’s position in society and one’s society’s position in the world order. For example, the British commentaries produced for use in India in the 19th century interpreted Jesus’ statement about “render unto Caesar” as evidence that Jesus supported the British Empire.
African-Americans have tended to identify with the Israelites, who were enslaved by Pharaoh, escaped their oppressors through the Exodus, and finally came into the Promised Land through the Conquest. However, many Native Americans have identified with the indigenous peoples of the so-called Promised Land, and have categorized the Israelites as one with their oppressors, the European colonizers of the United States.
I once preached the text from Luke as a prelude to foot washing and communion at the United Church in Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. As I called some people forward whom I had selected for foot washing, I took off my shirt and my undershirt. Standing bare-chested in front of the congregation, I told the congregation that I was doing this in part because the text says that Jesus took off his outer garment. The second reason was to identify with the older people in the congregation, who would remember the time when Australian colonial law forbade house servants, men and women, from wearing a shirt or blouse. This demeaning law was imposed because the colonizers thought that poor hygiene made it impossible for Papuans to wear shirts without generating offensive body odor. The text appears different when one looks at it from a position of power than it does when one looks at it from the viewpoint of the oppressed.

The transition from a concept of “culture” as the highest achievements of the non-East to a notion of “cultures” as the diverse but universal possession of all human beings is not yet complete. Anthropologists began the struggle at the end of the 19th century, but the choice of the term “culture” for a specific way of life brought non-Eastern baggage with it. As Tanner points out, though it generally was a synonym for civilization, it was nuanced differently in different countries. In the German case, Kultur “referred to the highest achievements of society,” though this was not synonymous with civilization, which was perceived as products (political, economic, and social institutions); instead, Kultur referred to “a society’s intellectual, artistic, and spiritual achievements.” This played into an emerging German nationalism that framed the argument this way: it was the Volkgeist that projected Germany’s supremacy over other “civilized” societies.
In this sense, the tension between one world culture (globalization) and many cultures (localization) still exists. Although global forces seem overwhelming, local persons still have agency; they are still involved in making decisions about the ideas, goods, and persons in the global flow.
The effects of the tension between cultures and culture are many. First, the local church hermeneutic reflects not just the world view of the people but also their interests in accepting, modifying, or resisting global culture and the global church. This approach recognizes that even grammatical-historical interpretations are embedded in particular cultures—at least (1) the presumed culture of the events behind the text and (2) the pervasive culture of the interpretive community that privileges this approach to the Bible. One hermeneutical practice of local churches then is to resist global hermeneutics, theology, and economy until the local church has time to evaluate the ideas, goods, and persons in the global flow. The Anabaptist tradition has maintained its identity by slowing down this process.
Second, different cultures mean different languages, and different languages mean different world views. The simple translation of biblical concepts is not so simple because no one word overlaps perfectly with the significata of a word in another language. Further, even if it is translatable, the concept certainly does not fit into the same symbol system, the network of signification in the second language. Thus, in the epic Saxon poem The Heiland, Christ is located in a Saxony recently defeated by the Holy Roman Empire; it is the “horseguards” who are reliable witnesses (not the shepherds) and who report the birth of a new king; and it is the Holy Roman Empire and not the Herodian Kingdom that seeks his death.
Third, the kinds of theological questions that arise differ from culture to culture. Note that one of our best works on forgiveness and reconciliation in a social setting comes from the Bosnia—Serbia area. On the other hand, the question of how Christ can be both human and divine would never arises in Papua New Guinea. In most cultures there, two things can be one and the same thing without contradiction, and thus no one reads with an eye to demonstrating both the humanity and divinity of Christ or the reality of the Trinity.
The questions that do arise in Papua New Guinea are concerned with a level of life that non-Eastern theologies have avoided: the level of “the excluded middle.” This is the level between science and systematic theology, between issues of ontology (What exists? How does it work? What can it be used for?) and issues of existential concern (Who are we? Why are we here? What should we be doing?). The middle level consists of everyday concerns, such as: Why is my child sick? What can I do about it? Who will help me now? Notice that these are not questions of the type, Why is there sickness and death?; but, rather, Why has this sickness come to my child now, and what steps can I take to keep him alive?
Fourth, different cultures already have different forms of literary criticism. Caldwell gives an example from the Cotobato Manobo people of Mindanao. These people identify at least four genres of oral literature and thus at least four hermeneutical methods:

peligad (figurative speech that is interpreted according to what it symbolizes), tegudon (the re-telling of historical doctrine from legends in the past that teach Cotobato Manobo what they should believe today), telaki (simple stories that end with an application designed to teach younger Cotobato Manobos the Manobo ideals and values in life), and duyuy (the expression of emotion through stylized singing).

Non-Eastern hermeneutics tend to interpret parables by discovering the main point of comparison, and thus they focus on the kingdom of heaven and the mustard seed. The peligad method would lead Manobos to a similar conclusion, without the non-Eastern hermeneutic, but would probably emphasize the aspect of growth and not the seed and the tree (which trips up non-Eastern interpreters because the seed is not the smallest and the bush is not a tree).
W. Jay Moon reports that the Builsa of Ghana recognize the following genres of rhetoric used among their people (see table 1). The Builsa rank speech according to importance. Pieli is childish speech. If an adult spoke this way to another adult, the narrative would be dismissed as unimportant. Wiani is adult speech. When a person speaks this way, the matter is more important, but the content is veiled. For example, in a discussion someone might say, “the stone that the children used to play with cuts the head,” and insiders would know that the speaker was warning people not to take this issue lightly because later it may come back to do harm. Sobili is even more obscure speech, including archaic words that few people know anymore. Thus, when an elder speaks this way, others should listen and continue to listen because only in continued relationship with the elder will the meaning become clearer. This is the most important kind of speech.

Table 1. Genres of Rhetoric among the Builsa of Ghana

Pieli (white or clear)
Wiani (obscure)
Sobili (black or dark)
Speech of a child or to a child: “plain language”
Speech by and to adults, hidden from children: “symbolic language”
Speech by elderly, hidden from many adults: “archaic language”

(Adapted from Moon, “Using Proverbs,” 14.)

The Bulisa further divide the world of oral literature, or orature, as shown in table 2. The translations are English glosses that may or may not carry all the same meanings as in English narrative criticism. The Builsa place great importance on the use of wisdom sayings in speech and seem to agree with the Igbo of Chinua Achebe’s novel that the use of proverbs in speech is like oil that makes the words go down easy.

Table 2. Builsa Genres of Oral Literature
Wisdom Sayings
Stories with songs
Greetings & Prayers
(Adapted from Moon, “Using Proverbs,” 13.)

The Builsa are practiced at finding hidden meanings, but it takes an understanding of culture and the local setting to inform the interpretive process. Thus, it takes a whole village to interpret a text. These people would delight in Jesus’ cryptic comment that the value of a parable is as much in what it hides as what it reveals (Matt 13:10–17). They do not expect to understand quickly; they expect that it will take some digging in community to gain some meaning, but they also expect that some will get farther than others.

R. T. France nearly 25 years ago gave us a valuable reminder concerning the hermeneutical method of the early church. France asked how many of the references and allusions to the OT the early church reader would recognize and understand. The answer is that no one reader would understand them all; but, if Matthew were read in a group setting where commentary and dialogue were encouraged, the group as a whole would probably recognize and understand all the references, no matter how veiled. France thinks that Matthew’s audience was varied and that Matthew knew this and wrote accordingly. His work has reminded us about the nature of orality, the multiple and varied audience for the text, and about community hermeneutics.
Paul Hiebert has suggested that the next step in mission is to empower local Christians as a hermeneutical community that can do the work of critical contextualization. This follows a long trend in missiology moving from insistence on the formation of a “three self” church—self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating (Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn, around 1860)—to a call for a “fourth self”: self-theologizing. Most non-Eastern denominations have been slow to endorse self-theologizing for fear of syncretism, yet it is in this process that Ward sees the creative engagement of Scripture and culture.35
Hiebert’s notion of critical contextualization recognizes the fact that the gospel both affirms and confronts cultural practices as the local church works with the Holy Spirit to forge a Christian identity and lifestyle appropriate to its setting. Hiebert’s steps are:

• Gather information about the old
• Study biblical teachings about the event
• Evaluate the old in the light of biblical teachings
• Create a new contextualized Christian practice

Yet, despite all the talk in missiology over the last two decades about the local hermeneutical community doing critical contextualization, we have few examples.
Roy McIntyre, a long-time missionary, organized a hermeneutical community in Bangladesh to create a way of discipling Christians that would be appropriate to the cultural setting. McIntyre invited mature Christians to engage Scripture regarding the issue of discipleship. On the one hand, they reflected on the local culture—or, in the case of the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh, the three local cultures of the larger community. The community then decided to stage a life-of-Christ pageant in the village over a weekend. This fit a local pattern of traveling troupes that portrayed the life of Krishna.
The hermeneutical community observed that, in traditional Puja, symbols embodied in ritual movements were important, mantras were chanted carrying specific teachings, and drama often accompanied the festivals. Thus, the people learn in community, primarily by observation and participation, and the drama adds variety while reinforcing the learning.

The Hermeneutical Community determined that there were six basic spiritual needs of their community. There were: the existence of God; God’s almighty power over Satan, other gods, and the spirit world; Jesus and God being one and the same; relating the Scripture to every day life; memorizing teachings; and having an opportunity to express a new commitment made. After identifying these spiritual needs, the Hermeneutical Community then selected the most appropriate teaching to address each need.

On the other hand, as Hiebert’s model directs, the hermeneutical community examined Scripture to find bridges to culture. McIntyre guided the hermeneutical community through several event-planning sessions in which participants proposed Scripture for the jatra, “drama.” The community studied Scripture and made these choices: “The story of creation, God’s power shown through Elijah, Jesus’ birth and miracles, a modern day drama of a changed life, memorizing a mantra of the Apostles’ Creed, and a candle lighting commitment service were chosen as appropriate teachings for each of the needs of the tribal people.” McIntyre reports that the community’s work and the event itself were great successes. A critical piece was his relinquishing control of the process along the way. This he was able to do as the people were empowered to do their own hermeneutical work.
Moon has also used hermeneutical communities in Ghana to explore how proverbs might contribute to a local hermeneutic. Moon’s description of the work of the community shows that, when engaged as a sustained activity, theological reflection in a cultural setting can be more complex and fruitful than imagined.
At the funeral of his only son, a new Christian cited the proverb: “if your relative is in the top of the sheanut tree, then you do not need to eat the sheanuts that have fallen to the ground.” Then he explained that:

Yezu [Jesus] is the relative who has risen from the grave and now sits as the right hand of Naawen [God]. Since he is at the top of the tree, I can pray to him and he will provide what I need. When others offer sacrifices to the ancestors, they are just gathering the sheanuts that have fallen to the ground—everyone knows that these sheanuts are not nearly as good as the ones at the top of the tree.

Although this was a courageous beginning, this did not settle the matter. Other relatives arrived to collect dirt from the grave in order to divine who had caused the son’s death. The man asked them to wait while he consulted with the pastors. After initial consultation revealed a difference of opinion among the pastors, the hermeneutical community was convened to consider the problem. The first answers to the problem were rather simplistic and depended on prooftexting. But soon they were accessing biblical texts to exegete the situation critically and assessing proverbs that would help. On the basis of their hermeneutical method, they found that some interpretations of proverbs are magsi, “proper, fitting,” while other interpretations should be rejected.
In the next session, they began the work of digging to the roots of the culture to see what was behind a certain proverb. They asked these questions:

• Who says this proverb?
• To whom do they say it?
• Where does it come out in conversations?
• Where is this proverb spoken?
• Why do people say this proverb?

Answering these questions led them to concepts of “greed” as described in Gal 5 and “mercy” as God has shown us throughout Scripture. The issue was how to show mercy to difficult people. This led to Matt 18 and the proverb: “The tongue and teeth bite each other but they live together.” They concluded that hurt feelings should not be handled with gossip but instead should be brought quickly into the open so that they do not grow into something ugly.
Now they applied the method to the problem at hand: the elder relatives who came to collect dirt from the boy’s grave. By digging, they realized that the elders were not evil but were fearful for the safety of the community and thus were searching for a spiritual solution to a spiritual problem. To reject the elders outright would be like asking them to take their clothes off and walk naked into the marketplace (another proverb). Then they realized that God shared these same concerns for the community. On the one hand they were mindful that, following 1 Cor 10:20–22, to cooperate with the elders in making sacrifices might mean courting evil spirits. On the other hand, through many passages, they concluded that God wanted local Christians to be a blessing to the community in which they live. Following this hermeneutical process, they decided to “discuss this with the community elders and then explain to them what the church will do to address the other roots of fear, protection, and God’s blessing.” This answer was rooted in Scripture, showed that they also took the culture seriously, and addressed the concerns of the elders.

The practices of hermeneutical communities in cross-cultural contexts are being developed, with or without White missionaries. We have raised a few topics of discussion: orality and literacy make a difference in people’s mindsets, the perspectives of the colonized and the colonizer might suggest different interpretations, the empowerment of local cultures in the face of globalization will open up new interpretations, and the dynamics of community hermeneutics might differ from the dynamics of individual interpretations.
What assessment can be made of the study of local-level hermeneutics in cross-cultural situations? First, there is a lack of precision in talking about hermeneutics as a process separate from contextualization and doing theology. Contextualization has to do with finding appropriate ways of communicating the gospel and of discipling converts. Doing theology involves speaking to the larger concerns of life. Hermeneutics is the science of making (or discovering) meaning. Yet there are several locations where meaning might be found: the presumed cultural context of the writer, the cultural context of the hermeneutical community, and the larger tradition of the church. Missiologists have tended to focus on contextualization and doing theology and have not often asked how hermeneutical principles might differ.
Second, because more attention has been given to adapting the message to the culture, a priority has been established of analyzing the culture first. Then the hermeneutical community tries to find Scripture that speaks to the cultural issues. From a narrative perspective, there is something fundamentally wrong with this order. It is the story of Scripture that is normative; the community learns to live out of the story in life.
Third, ethnohermeneutics is an emerging area that will have to negotiate its way into the discipline of biblical studies. As local churches begin to do local theology, how will the church as a whole resist parochialism and nihilism? The first step is to recognize that there has never been anything but “local.” No hermeneutical tradition stands in a privileged position, though there are many claims to the contrary. The second step is to create links between the local and the universal. One way would be to formalize processes so that any local hermeneutical community would, at regular intervals, submit its work to the scrutiny of the universal church. With the majority of Christians now in the south and east, perhaps it is time to work toward a mutuality in which equal partners enter a roundtable discussion, bringing gifts of hermeneutical principles, in order to do theology together.

Trust and the Spirit: The Canon’s Anticipated Unity

Abstract—How can one talk responsibly and theologically about the biblical canon’s unity in a pluralist age? In this article I explore a number of ways in which theological practice both appeals to and constructs the canon’s unity. The argument of section one addresses biblical, not canonical, unity. I distinguish between the Bible as a given text composed of multivalent layers, individual texts, genres, and a plurality of content; and the canon as a theological concept, which is analytic with unity. The theological arguments of sections two and three situate the theological construction of the canon’s unity in view of biblical multivalence. Some theological issues are at stake in this relation. Biblical multivalence opens up theological, philosophical, and ethical questions concerning how different proposals of the canon’s unity can coexist, while each making claims to truth. Truth criteria—for example, coherence and comprehensiveness—can be worked out in order to determine the validity and viability of different theological proposals. A proposal must also be evaluated on the basis of its adequacy to contemporary concerns. The complex process of forming theological judgments about the canon’s unity contextualizes the selection of one proposal of unity, among others, in a particular matrix of contemporary concerns. Hence, the unity of the canon is anticipatory in view of the process of articulating theological judgments in various contexts. I conclude by proposing that unity and multivalence can be grasped together in the intersubjective orientation to truth that takes place in trust, established by the Holy Spirit.

Key Words—multivalence, Bible, canon, unity, theology, truth, anticipatory, trust, soteriology, Holy Spirit

The question concerning the unity of Scripture should warm even the coldest of theological hearts. When questions of a conceptual nature are asked of theologians by more empirically oriented biblical scholars, theologians ought to be moved to help build bridges across the Enlightenment divide between the empirical and the conceptual disciplines. The concept of unity is a topic theologians love to discuss, and they discuss it by applying theology’s tools to devise conceptual unities that integrate particulars. Theology uses integrative reason to synthesize the manifold so that the manifold can be comprehended as a totality that is more than the sum total of its parts. It is also theology’s concern to investigate the various parameters of unity as, for example, the metaphysical speculation regarding the unity of the whole.
But the theologian’s joy quickly turns to apprehension. The drive toward metaphysical unity has been associated with the peculiarly Christian theological drive to the monarchic rule of power. The desire for unity is accused of flattening, contorting, and silencing the diversity of the manifold. Is the Other not lost in the narcissistic abyss of the Absolute I? Questions of this sort have haunted the West’s preoccupation with subsuming the many under the one, and these questions must be attended to when unity is thematized as a topic for theological consideration.
In this article, I will make a theological case for the unity of the canon, but I will do so only by proceeding on the basis of the Bible’s multivalence. In order to set up the theological argument of section two, I begin section one by focusing on the givenness of the Bible as a text that is multivalent when considered from its literary and historical dimensions. I use the term Bible in this section only to describe the Bible as a historically given book that continues to represent the broad consensus among Christians throughout the centuries that it functions as the textual foundation for liturgy, doctrine, morals, and spirituality.
The theological arguments advanced in subsequent sections (two and three) situate the theological construction of the canon’s unity in view of biblical multivalence. If the canon’s unity is to represent conceptually a theological proposal concerning the unifying elements in the Bible, then it must be constructed in honest view of the different forms and content making up the Bible. I use canon in sections two and three to denote the theological meaning of the term as analytic with a theologically and hermeneutically determined unity. By analytic with unity, I mean that the canon cannot be defined without unity, that unity is contained in the concept of canon. I describe some theological issues at stake in this relation. Biblical multivalence generates theological proposals for unity that cannot all be unified in one formulation. The question of multivalence opens up theological, philosophical, and ethical questions concerning how different proposals of the canon’s unity can coexist, while each making claims to truth. Truth criteria—for example, coherence and comprehensiveness—can be worked out in order to determine the validity and viability of different theological proposals. Furthermore, a proposal can be evaluated on the basis of its adequacy to contemporary concerns. The issue of adequacy shows that the generation of proposals for unity in the theological judgment-making process requires the selection of some layers of the Bible that may conflict with other layers. The complex process of forming theological judgments contextualizes the selection of one proposal of unity, among others, in a particular matrix of contemporary concerns. Hence, the unity of the canon that I have in mind is anticipatory, rather than having been determined once and for all.
In part three, I use Luther’s soteriology in the Galatians commentary as a representative example to show that an individual theologian’s construction of unity is formed by relating biblical, theological, and contemporary issues in the context of a particular community. Truth as consensus complements truth as coherence and truth as comprehensiveness in the evaluation of different proposals. I conclude the article by proposing that unity and multivalence can be grasped together in anticipatory orientation to truth that takes place in trust established by the Holy Spirit.
Before I turn to the theological arguments of this paper, I establish the basic presupposition regarding what I understand to be a serious characteristic of the Bible—the Christian Bible, in the particular case of this study: its multivalence.

“Thus we can see how fabulously the Romanists treat the Scriptures and interpret them according to their whims, as if the Scriptures were a waxen nose that can be pulled back and forth at will,” Luther writes in an early treatise, “The Papacy at Rome: An Answer to the Celebrated Romanist at Leipzig (1520).” Luther summarizes here a consensus in Christian theology: a vast written corpus recorded over centuries by an array of heterogeneous authors can be mustered in support of countless positions, sometimes even opposing sides of the same issue. I describe in this section a few literary and historical features of the Christian Bible—both Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles—that I see to be constitutive of its multivalence.
Multivalence in various aspects is one attribute that characterizes the Christian Bible. Its most obvious physical feature exhibits a fundamental divalence. “In its Christian form, it is made up of two parts, the so-called Old and New Testaments,” as Lori Anne Ferrell claims, “which have been living since the early centuries of the Common Era in an arranged marriage, one contracted on behalf of the younger partner without the express consent of the elder.” This arranged marriage continues to be affirmed by successive generations of Christian theologians who, in their respective historical and cultural locations, advance diverse arguments for the rationale of the marital bond. Whether the unity is construed typologically, semantically, or along the model of prophecy and fulfillment—to name a few examples—the marriage is considered by consensus to have been made in heaven. The theologians who have called for a divorce between the two testaments, for example, Marcion and Schleiermacher, have been sharply criticized. Theological differences between the two witnesses have never been considered grounds for divorce; in fact, Christian theological interpretations of the unity of the two testaments, with the exception of these two theologians, identify the God of Israel with God as Father of Jesus Christ.
A theological commitment to the unity of the two testaments in the Christian Bible is particularly significant in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Contemporary theologians and biblical theologians, for example, R. Kendall Soulen and Bernd Janowski, have uncovered the supersessionist tendency in Christian theological legitimations of the distinction between “old” and “new” that has decisively haunted Christian anti-Semitism. The precritical solution of flattening historical and semantic difference in order to fit the OT to suit the subject matter of the NT—which means reading the OT as a warrant for the triune God in, for example, Gen 1:26—is replaced by a hermeneutic that acknowledges rabbinic Judaism as one historical and theological “outcome” (Janowski’s term) of the Hebrew Bible while remaining committed to the Christian outcome of this shared complex of texts. Divalence calls for a hermeneutical strategy to read the Christian Bible in a way responsible to historical-critical research into the early years of the Bible’s formation and a theological sensitivity to plural ways in which God and humans meet.
The divalence of the Christian Bible is just the starting point for thinking about its multivalence. Multivalence is acknowledged at the origins of Christianity and as a feature of its enduring state. The NT records division between Peter and Paul, dissimilarity between the Synoptic Gospels and John, and spiritual differences between churches in Corinth and Galatia. The study of early Christianity reveals more differences among early actors, vying for positions and jockeying for power. Ernst Käsemann’s 1951 lecture on diversity as constitutive of the NT canon—itself the common focal point of Barton’s and Wolter’s edited collection—added new historical insights to understanding the polemics and disagreements in the early Christian community.6 Current theological interest is focused on the different theological positions the NT presents, sometimes on topics as central to Christianity as justification. As Landmesser has shown, for example, Paul’s account of justification by Christ alone is placed alongside Matthew’s account that justification, in addition to Christ, requires ethical effort. Or as Christian Eberhart points out, the NT’s interpretation of Christ’s death is at odds with a dominant theological strand in Western Christianity that places sacrifice at the heart of its theory of vicarious satisfaction. What theology has learned from biblical scholarship is that difference and polemic have drawn the theological map of Christianity. The harmony of the early church and the goal of theological uniformity is a phantasm.
If theological univocity is exposed as a historical fiction, then literary multivalence in the Bible complicates the picture further. The literary records documenting the life and work of the person constitutive of Christianity’s raison d’être are literarily diverse and therefore literally multivalent. The literary form of the Gospel, a novum in the Greco-Roman world according to comparative historians, is canonized as a foursome, with further gospels appearing plentifully at the canon’s margins. There are four accounts of one person in the NT, each different from the other in literary form, content, and interpretation. Sometimes the accounts betray fundamental disagreement over events that have been seen as most significant for theology, for example, the disagreement between the Synoptics and John concerning the dating of Jesus’ last week of mortal existence. Yet church consensus regarding the coexistence of four accounts in one Bible has been sustained even in the face of attempts to harmonize them, such as Tatian’s Diatessaron in the second century, or the early 19th-century attempts, Schleiermacher’s for example, to distill from multiple sources one biography for Jesus.
The Bible is indeed a dazzlingly multivalent book. It is written by a range of authors and groups with varying literary talents and literary goals. Literary seams indicate an original multivalence, such as the two creation accounts in Gen 1–2 sewn together with no apparent consideration for noncontradiction. Both testaments together are written over a historical range of many centuries, though the speculative bookends (Genesis and Revelation) glimpse into eternity. The Bible is a palimpsest of historical fragments, particularly parts of the OT that include sections redacted a few times into larger overarching wholes. The many genres of story and song, prayer and lamentation, prophecy and praise gather persons and peoples into all sorts of narrative and theological combinations. Where one canonical arrangement organizes the books according to a particular theo-logic, another privileges a different theological scheme. The Hebrew Bible’s tripartite division has different hermeneutical consequences from both the Protestant canon that places Malachi right before Matthew and the Roman Catholic canon that fits deuterocanonical material between them.
As a historically given book that has been retained by church consensus as singular, although not by any intrinsic necessity, the Bible’s multivalence is perhaps its only outstanding characteristic. It is characterized more by difference in virtue of literary, historical, and religious material than by sameness. Perhaps the insistence in the Christian theological tradition upon prescribing unity to the Bible discloses the uneasy awareness that the opposite is in fact the case. Unity is left open as a question to be discussed anew precisely because of the Bible’s multivalence. The question of unity continues to be posed in spite of the fact that past theologians have already proposed answers to it. Whether the answer addresses the historical reasons for the canon’s closure or prescribes theological claims of material unity, the question of unity remains open precisely because the Bible’s multivalence cannot be comprehended by one formula for unity.
At this point I turn to the critical question regarding theology’s tendency to rush to construct the Bible’s unity. I call in the next section for a theological account of multivalence in order that a more precise understanding of the nature of unity in relation to multivalence might emerge.

Theology has a disturbing tendency to be quick to prescribe, often bypassing the particularly curious and beautiful features of a distinctive given. It is the rush to prescribe a unity to the canon with which I am particularly concerned. The modern tendency to unite particulars is a function of reason and hence is part of the inevitable epistemological apparatus that humans contribute to the knowledge of objects of experience. But the specific danger of this tendency is to prescribe unity in such a way that diversity is either promptly occluded or absorbed without differentiation. This prescription of an overarching semantic unity overreaches the transcendental unities that Kant accords the ideas of self, God, and world in his Critique of Pure Reason.
The question of a unifying construct that hermetically protects the canon from the “outside” plagues the theologies of those appropriating the canon as “narrative.” The conceptual paradigm that conceives canon as narrative is the starting-point of the problem. Hans Frei in his influential book Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, makes use of a fundamental distinction between the Bible and culture. Frei distinguishes the theologies that interpret the world from “within” the scriptural framework, namely the precritical theologies of Luther and Calvin, from the theologies characteristic of Enlightenment thinking that judge biblical claims in terms of extracanonical reason, or more precisely, in the categories of culture and history. A similar distinction informs George Lindbeck’s understanding of a “scriptural world [that] is thus able to absorb the universe.”12 I mention these advocates of narrative theology because they represent a structural paradigm that appears, with diverse variations, in contemporary theology and ethics. The “canon as narrative paradigm” demarcates the all-encompassing perspective in which biblical reality is interpreted and lived. By virtue of its bookends of Genesis and Apocalypse, the canon narrative demarcates a world-historical abstraction in the theological terms of divine economy. Creation, sin, redemption, sanctification, and the consummation of the world are held together in a narrative unity. But this unity is a theological abstraction from the Bible. As an abstraction, the canonical narrative remains an intertextual category with no explicit historical or metaphysical reference. Its proponents make epistemically totalizing claims of the Bible’s absorptive capacity without taking into account that their claims require verification by historical, empirical, or metaphysical criteria. The assumption of the narrative canon seals its adherents from the world.
In this vein, I have even become wary of a prescription of unity that I once defended concerning the claim of an objective unity that is grasped by individuals with perspectives from different historical communities. Even though I acknowledged differences in interpretation at the level of historically distinct religious communities, I appealed to an objective unity behind the canon as the all-encompassing way in which world history was embraced by the triune God. But this sort of move abstracts from the canon to a periodization of world history that is then correlated with the trinitarian economy; the canon is conceived as a philosophical problem regarding the God-world relation. Variations of this correlation have also been advanced by John Webster and Eilert Herms.14 I now regard the fundamental correlation subsuming world history under the unity of God’s providential economy to be inherently problematic because it places an entire metaphysical burden onto a text that itself contains a plurality of historical, theological, and metaphysical proposals regarding its references. This apparently singular canonical world is made up of many worlds. Once multivalence is introduced into the discussion of the canon, then any dogmatic-theological claims of trinitarian unity must be tempered hermeneutically, historically, and metaphysically. Even if a trinitarian unity is advanced as the horizon of interpreting the canon as a whole, this unity can only be conceived in the most abstract of formulations. Any attempt to make this claim concrete, by appeal to experience for example, introduces the particular into the unity that then must be reconceived by that determination. So again: the question of the canon’s unity makes me very nervous. When theology’s Apollonian drive for harmonious and beautiful unity is intimately coupled with a Dionysian will to power, the system tends to close in upon itself. Sin as the Reformers clearly saw is the individual curved in upon itself in such a way that the centrifugal power it creates swallows up “the other.” The narcissistic self is the center of its universe. And I fear this outcome for biblical theology.
The givenness of biblical multivalence immediately calls into question the solitude of any canonical unity articulated by theological interpretation. One theological proposal for unity will inevitably be met by another proposal. If Luther understands the material Sache constituting the divalent Christian canon’s unity to be the soteriological benefits of “that which conveys Christ,” Schleiermacher will respond that the NT has its unity behind the text in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.16 Proposals for unity are probably as many as there are theologians interpreting the canon. And this theological multivalence is directly related to the possibilities in the Bible for generating coherent meanings for the people interpreting it. Theologies that are self-consciously committed to a relevant relation with the Bible must be open to the Bible’s own insistence that its content cannot be exhausted by theology. A theology that is ready to relate itself in some way to the Bible must be ready to have the Bible call theology’s own claims into question. It is theology that changes; the Word remains the same. By calling theology into question, the Bible calls theology to accountability regarding biblical multivalence. Can there be a plurality of proposals regarding canonical unity that coexist with each other? Can these proposals then stand up to some common criteria of analysis in order to compare them for their truth value? These are the questions concerning both the philosophical possibility of coexisting theological proposals for unity (which I will not address in this article) and the theological accountability to biblical multivalence regarding the pluralism of unities. True unity is constituted by plurality.
The claim that unity is constituted by plurality best reflects the goal of systematic theology. It is the work of any systematic theology to strive to articulate the one coherent principle constituting the unity of all parts in relation to other parts and of each part in relation to the whole. The unity of the plurality of parts is measured by the way in which the coherence informing the unity also constitutes the parts. A true system rests on the truth criterion of coherence. Yet complex coherence contains a greater truth value than simple coherence because the truth of unity is simultaneously measured by the comprehensiveness criterion. The more predicates, the more determined the subject will be, and the more complete its concept. The most complete concept, as Leibniz articulated it, is the system of the world because it is the most comprehensive concept in terms of the infinite number of predications making up the subject term. Yet the subject term must contain its predicates in such a way that they cohere either logically or ontologically with each other. Similarly a theologically established canonical unity has a greater truth value if it grasps a greater number of aspects of the Bible’s comprehensiveness by a coherent concept than a unity that has a smaller range. The claim to the double truth criterion of comprehensiveness and coherence in relation to the Christian Bible would mean that a canonical unity accounting for both testaments in an explanation of their coherence has a greater truth value than a canonical unity that can only grasp the content of one testament. This truth value has been historically acknowledged by theological and ecclesial consensus. Schleiermacher’s resistance to including the OT as canonical for Christian faith and morals, for example, met with sharp criticism from the first publication of his Brief Outline in 1810 on to the present day. And it is this dual criterion that should be invoked against abstract appeals to the Trinity as the referential unity of the canon’s representation of world history. The truth value of these proposals, although high according to the criterion of coherence, is significantly reduced by the comprehensiveness criterion because of failure to do justice to the historically given diversity of particulars.
The comprehensiveness criterion excludes a naïve return to biblical sources as sole warrants for theological proposals. A unity resulting solely from biblical sources would be a hermeneutical impossibility. Such an account of unity bypasses the historical processes that form the major concepts interpreting biblical material. Concepts such as covenant and Trinity are determined by each generation of religious belief and theological reflection. Although the recovery of the concepts’ original determination is a goal of biblical scholarship, it is impossible to read the Bible without having the concepts as they have developed through centuries of religious and theological history resonating in one’s ear.
A theological concept of canonical unity that takes biblical multivalence and concept formation into serious account must also enter into conversation with contemporary theological and cultural concerns. Herein lies the precise balance between theological freedom and theological truth. An account of canonical unity means on the one hand doing justice to the historically given. Theology must acknowledge the truth of the given, the truth in the fact that its foundational texts are constituted by a plurality of genres, of voices, of testaments, of books, of theologies, and of sightings of Jesus. It is this factual diversity that suggests a possibility of unities, and it is theology’s task to do justice to these possibilities. On the other hand, theological truth also consists in its freedom to discern the layers in the Bible that best inform claims that theology must make today. These claims concern ethical, theological, and philosophical issues that press in upon our times.
Today the topics of economic justice in a global capitalist economy and “horrendous evils” are occupying center stage of intellectual concerns. In meeting these concerns, theology takes the liberty of integrating various issues and methods in its decision-making process that, in consultation with the Bible, articulates proposals of unity to orient contemporary questions. In formulating a theological position that meets the adequacy criterion to the respective context, a theologian might fit together elements from the Bible, contemporary culture, personal experience, and commitment to a religious tradition. The ways in which these elements might be fitted together vary; there are different methods of correlation and strategies for conceptual integration. Yet the application of a method and the selection of content are a process or reciprocal fitting that will result in the transposition of the biblical element into a larger conceptual unity. For example, the death penalty is supported by some passages in the Bible. If a theologian who is committed to a position against the death penalty wishes to form a theological ethic in conversation with the Bible, she must appeal to other biblical elements as sources for her theology. One avenue could be to appeal to another biblical element. The life-sustaining and life-affirming activity of the Holy Spirit is one such biblical element unifying Genesis (2:7) and Romans (8:16). By selecting one biblical element over another, the preservation of precious life over the death penalty, the decision to affirm a theology of justice and an ethic of compassion requires the marginalization of some biblical elements while moving others to the center. Reading the canon as a unity in view of supportive sources for this theological claim thus entails restricting some aspects of the Bible while upholding others. Yet one proposal for unity does not necessarily entail the exclusion of other proposals. As arguments continue to be advanced, as claims continue to be submitted to truth criteria, they will continue to develop, to be refined, and to change. If dialogue is cut short by one imposed claim, then the tradition stagnates and closes in upon itself to die.
There is always an actual danger of repression. Dynamics of power working in tandem with evil silence interpretive possibilities, and the silence in turn spells the impoverishing of future innovation. The Bible as a historical legacy is itself a witness to restriction. The canon is a document that excludes. Its borders were established in the human mix of power, politics, and religion. But the danger of restriction is already checked (at the very least) by the historical givenness of biblical multivalence, which can be invoked to subvert the theological drive to power in the name of unity. If the Bible advocates a few sides to an issue, then theology is not condemned to monopolizing unity. In fact, the givenness of biblical multivalence might even be invoked to question the earliest restrictions of the Bible as a canonical unity. If multivalence is a feature of the Bible, then might not theological constructions of canonical unity appeal to texts deemed noncanonical by ecclesial consensus in addition to the other sources that inform theological claims? Noncanonical texts could theoretically be considered sources for theological decisions on a par with the host of other texts and cultural concerns playing into a construction of the canon’s unity. It would then be theology’s task to apply the relevant truth criteria to all proposals and to prescribe application of these interpretations to ethical practice. The determination of a canonical unity is never “a done deal.” Each proposal must keep open possibilities for future participants in the theological discussion.
The unity of the canon that I am arguing for is primarily a determination of unity in a theologically and hermeneutically elusive sense. It is to a notion of anticipated unity that I now turn.

The constitutive feature of the Christian canon’s multivalence is the reason for the lack of closure concerning the unity question. The givenness of multivalence presents a canon open for many possible determinations of its material unity. The question I address in this final section is how the theological process of determining the canon’s material unity takes place. I define this process on the basis of the canon’s givenness as analytic to unity and propose that the type of unity analytic to the canon is anticipatory. The conclusion to this essay is a theological appeal to the Holy Spirit, who establishes the trust creating the conditions for a plurality of proposals of anticipated unities.
Unity is analytic to canon. The term analytic means that the term canon cannot be defined unless the definition includes the term unity. The canon, at least in the Christian sense of the word, is by definition a unity. The canon is given in the tradition as a unity, and it is used as a unity to inform theological judgments. The particular point about the canon’s use as a unity in the exegetical practice of theological decision-making is an important one. In the process of forming theological judgments, the theologian establishes an interpretational grid that shapes her thinking about a subject matter. This interpretational grid becomes clearer as the process of investigating the subject matter takes place. In order for a judgment to be made about the subject matter, the parts of the subject matter are related to each other through the interpretational grid. At one point of clarity in the process, the interpretational grid becomes an integrative structure that reconstructs the parts of the subject matter in relation to other parts within the whole. When interpretive possibility becomes a claim to knowledge, a judgment is made.
The canon enters into the theological judgment-making process as a preliminary unity. Whether the canon’s unity is construed in terms of a material claim, for example divine providential agency, or in terms of a distinguishing criterion, for example the law/gospel distinction, it informs the process by which a theological concept of interest is analyzed according to its parts. A representative example of how the canon’s unity is used as a resource in the theological decision-making process is Luther’s construction of his soteriology in the Lectures on Galatians (1531; published in 1535). Luther’s soteriology is driven by the idea of attributing curse to Christ in Gal 3:13 (“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written: Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree”). In order to make sense of this predication of maximal sin to Christ, Luther invokes the relation between law and gospel as the fundamental distinction constituting the canon’s unity that he had established after many years of wrestling with the Bible. Luther applies this distinction to the subject matter in focus, soteriology, in order to make the metaphysical claim concerning the transfer of sin onto Christ for soteriological reasons.21 The theological judgment is made about the metaphysical constituents of Christ’s person. This judgment provides the rationale for the claim that Christ’s exchanging of human sin with divine salvation is soteriologically efficacious. In Christ, the law that exposes sin is terminated, and the gospel takes its place. After applying the law/gospel relation to the metaphysical claims concerning Christ’s person, Luther curiously reapplies the category of law and gospel onto Scripture. His soteriology is turned back to Scripture in order to make sense of biblical multivalence on the issue of works and redemption. The result is that Luther suppresses a theology of works articulated in the Bible by the theology of grace that he has arrived at through his theological judgment-making process. Luther replies in direct speech to the question concerning biblical proofs for righteousness by works:

Therefore if He Himself is the price of my redemption, if He Himself became sin and a curse in order to justify and bless me, I am not put off at all by passages of Scripture, even if you were to produce six hundred pages in support of the righteousness of works and against the righteousness of faith, and if you were to scream that Scripture contradicts itself. I have the Author and the Lord of Scripture, and I want to stand on His side rather than you.

The canon’s unity in Luther’s case informs a theological judgment about Christ’s person that is then used to finesse multivalence in view of greater clarity on the unity question. Even in the face of biblical contradiction, Luther argues for the coherence of a theological doctrine that meshes with a judgment about the canon’s unity. As a unity, the canon informs theology’s truth as coherence.
The canon’s unity as it informs theological judgments is an individual theologian’s prerogative and responsibility. If theological issues are to be articulated with clarity and vision, they must rest on secure canonical foundations. The responsibility to understand for oneself the material constituent of the canon that shapes an understanding of the subject matter is part and parcel of the theological métier. This responsibility is unfortunately commonly rejected as a subjective liability. Individual theological judgments are sometimes perceived as ecclesiastically dangerous, as was the case with Luther, or tend to have problems in gaining academic legitimacy in view of modern standards that are assumed for claiming objective truth. Yet the lack of ecclesial support or academic sympathy cannot be invoked to discredit the articulation of a judgment concerning the canon’s unity. In Luther’s case, the law/gospel relation was the result of many years of inductive investigation into all parts of Scripture. He articulated and disseminated this result in a variety of communities in order to test truth by consensus. Intersubjective realities are necessary for exercising the theological responsibility of forming one’s own judgments; judgments are constituted as processes in intersubjective contexts. Yet these contexts do not necessarily need to be predetermined. The intersubjective objectification of individual judgment-making constitutes community.
The making objective of individual judgment inevitably takes place in particular community discussions. Proposals are formed in a common language and are worked out in communication with others. The intersubjective context of formulating judgments opens them up to scrutiny and testing, and these judgments enter into traditions of thought. By making public subjective construals of the canon’s unity as they inform individual theologians’ judgment-making processes, the proposals for unity are brought into the intersubjective realm and are opened for discussion. The intersubjective realm is constituted by a multiplicity of interests, ecclesial and academic, but also by common interests of groups bound together for particular reasons. The Lutheran tradition, for example, adopted Luther’s law/gospel principle as its key hermeneutical principle informing the ways in which theologians from that tradition make theological judgments. The Augsburg Confession that is binding on Lutheran churches and clergy summarizes the following consensus as basis for its unity: “All Scripture should be divided into these two main topics: the law and the promises.” This summary at the start of article IV continues on with the material determination of law and gospel in terms consistent with Luther’s theology: “For the law requires of us our own works and our own perfection. But the promise freely offers to us, who are oppressed by sin and death, reconciliation on account of Christ, which is received not by works, but by faith alone.” The Augsburg Confession establishes the consensus in Lutheranism regarding the canon’s unity. Luther’s individual reformation breakthrough—the law/gospel relation—founds the basis for the consensus of the ensuing tradition. Consensus is the objective instance that opens up possibilities for individual commitments to a tradition. It has its abusive actuality, as all human realities do, in being inevitably drawn into the messiness of the community power dynamics. Yet consensus is the way by which the individual is integrated into the objectivity of intersubjective reality in order that theological judgments can be tested in decision-making processes.
A theological community is constituted by interpersonal relationships that are made by virtue of objectifying one’s proposals or theological decisions in an intersubjective context. Yet the relational constitution of human existence is ontically an extremely fragile reality. The making of community by consensus among individuals requires the exercise of the most important skills of being human; the preservation of community is perhaps humanity’s most difficult task. Dangers of invective and polemic, exclusion and denigration, dominance and suppression haunt and perhaps almost inevitably constitute intersubjective relations. Human truth as consensus requires divinity in making intersubjectivity an actuality for human(e) possibilities.
The main reason for the fragility of human community is coexisting plurality. Uniformity is easy to dictate and enforce. Plurality is much more difficult to negotiate. Yet community is constituted precisely by the invitation for plurality and the commitment to engage in making community while applying criteria of truth to different theological judgments. The concern with the truth of theology is precisely the reason for engaging differences in coexisting plurality. By ensuring a coexistence of proposals, a community promotes its ongoing life in its openness to arguments for the truth of different proposals. Proposals are advanced that are more or less true, better or worse. It is the concern for and commitment to making community that negotiates the application of truth criteria to the variety of proposals. The orientation to truth while acknowledging the actuality of multivalence is preserved by the divine in the midst of human beings.

Human community is so fragile that God must preserve it. Human truth is so fragmentary, opaque, and imprecise that it requires the Spirit’s guidance to allow momentary glimpses of divine truth. The best we can do under these conditions is to acknowledge and promote the coexistence of proposals in the context of preserving community while being concerned with the truth anticipating the unity of plurality.
Each proposal that enters into the intersubjective real in order to be tested by truth criteria determined by consensus is subject to alteration and to transposition. Every theological claim is dated as it is articulated in history; every claim to unity anticipates another possibility for unity that is not yet actualized. Precisely because the canon is given, the plural determinations of its unity are caught up in the historicity and finitude of human decision-making. Given as a unity, the canon is an open problem for every theological mind and for every theological generation. Givenness means accountability, not satisfaction. The practice of accounting for the givenness of biblical multivalence while making theological proposals regarding the canon’s unity is an intersubjective one. The practice of trying to be human is attended to by the Spirit, whose reason for being is to orient individuals intersubjectively to truth. If proposals regarding the canon’s unity are to coexist in a community that works out their truths, then the stance accepting anticipatory unity is trust—Spirit-filled trust attentive to the multivalence of truth’s unity.

Christ in All the Scriptures? The Challenge of Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

Abstract—The issue of responsible Christian reading of Israel’s Scriptures as the OT is posed in relation to the characteristic modern historical-critical erosion of traditional Christian approaches informed by Luke 24:25–27. It is argued that many of the insights of modern historical criticism are sound and should be retained, despite widespread resistance or ignorance. Two case studies in support of this are (1) an examination of renewed attempts to understand Gen 3:15 as a protevangelium and (2) Michael Drosnin’s Bible Code. However, an appreciation of the possibilities afforded by our contemporary “postmodern” situation enables us to see that historical criticism may sometimes need to take a more modest role in biblical interpretation; recognition of the many recontextualizations of the biblical text and the varying contexts, purposes, and perspectives of interpreters should change the shape of the interpretive debate. In this light, it is suggested that classic premodern Christian interpretation of the OT, as expounded by Henri de Lubac, can again become a real resource for understanding. Finally, a brief study of Isa 2 illustrates how a renewed approach to the OT in the light of Christ might look in practice.

Key Words—Enlightenment, postmodernity, recontextualization, protevangelium, Bible Code, de Lubac

In one of the most memorable of all the resurrection stories in the Gospels, the risen Jesus, unrecognized, speaks to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples know a great deal about Jesus and what had happened in recent days, including that his tomb was empty and that some of their women had seen angels who said that Jesus was alive. Yet none of this apparently makes any real difference to them. They are disappointed and puzzled by the death of Jesus, not rejoicing in a risen Lord. When Jesus speaks, he reproaches them for their sluggishness of heart and mind and then proceeds to give what one imagines being the Bible study to end all Bible studies: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
Presumably part of the logic of Jesus’ expounding the Scriptures to his puzzled disciples is that these Scriptures provide a context and a content for making sense of Jesus, when all that the disciples know about him already somehow has not “clicked”; Israel’s Scriptures help one make sense of Jesus. Yet these disciples are Jews who are already thoroughly familiar with these Scriptures, many of which they would know by heart. So presumably a further part of the logic of Jesus’ exposition is that the disciples need to be able to read these Scriptures in a new way, in the light of all that had happened surrounding Jesus, so that they can see in these Scriptures what they had not seen before; Jesus helps one make sense of Israel’s Scriptures. Thus a two-way dialectic between Jesus and Israel’s Scriptures is envisaged, both being necessary for Christian understanding of the crucified and risen Lord.
As a result of this Emmaus story, and much other material in the NT that says comparable things, it has been historic Christian practice to read Israel’s Scriptures as witnessing to Jesus as the Christ. This is why the OT is (or should be) read out in church and expounded, when Christians come together to focus and deepen their identity, understanding, and practice as God’s people.
The question of precisely how the OT bears witness to Jesus the Christ has, of course, a long history of debate. Many Jews from the outset denied that Israel’s Scriptures did any such thing, and their denials were often accompanied by sharp exegetical insight. In the 2nd century, Marcion sought to remove the OT altogether from the sphere of Christian thought and practice. In the 16th century, Luther and Calvin distanced themselves from many hitherto popular Christian construals of the OT.
However, perhaps the most serious challenge came in the 18th century. Enlightenment rationalism combined a particular philosophical and theological revision of the doctrine of God, known as Deism, with a stronger sense of historical distance and of historical method than had generally been available previously. This led to numerous fresh readings of the OT that flatly contradicted the Christian assumption that these texts in any way spoke of Jesus Christ. When the texts are viewed historically in relation to their originating context of meaning in ancient Israel, they do not have the significance that Christians had found in them; if they are indeed predictive, they are predictive of events within the impending future of their own frame of reference and not of the events of the NT centuries later.
From the perspective of the early 21st century, many aspects of Enlightenment rationalism look quaint and very much bound to their particular historical context. Nonetheless, much of its critical legacy has been enduring. Many of its readings of the OT remain reasonable and persuasive, even when the rationalism is discarded. Christian biblical scholars have not ceased to read the OT as Christian Scripture but have done so in ways that might have surprised earlier generations. Their prime response has been to reconceive their task in historical mode: how did Israel’s Scriptures inform the development of Christian understanding of Jesus? Within a NT context, a prime question has regularly been the self-understanding of “the historical Jesus” in relation to Israel’s Scriptures (which texts? how understood?), but the ways in which all NT writers understood and used the Scriptures have been studied extensively. Within an OT context, the varying beliefs and practices in relation to kings of the House of David and hopes for the future have likewise been studied as phenomena of ancient religion. From a Christian perspective, these have regularly been seen as, in one way or other, preparing a way within which Jesus was able to walk—but not as requiring Jesus as the Christ for their intrinsic comprehension.
So, for example, John Goldingay’s recent Old Testament Theology, vol. I: Israel’s Gospel, has a Christianly resonant title and is written from an explicit confessing Christian stance. Yet in the introduction, Goldingay spells out that he wants to “follow the Old Testament’s own agenda,” which has a clear negative corollary:

I … do not focus … on the Old Testament as “witness to Christ.” … I do not focus on the way the Old Testament “points to Christ,” which is another way of saying the same thing.… I do not focus on the Old Testament as prophesying or predicting Jesus.… I do not discuss the way what is concealed in the Old is revealed in the New.… I do not focus on the Old Testament as foreshadowing the New.

I cite this because I think that Goldingay is representative of a wide consensus among Christian biblical scholars; and he offers an unusually clear and helpful example of how explicit Christian use of the OT has absorbed and can make positive use of Enlightenment insights (even though he does not put it in these terms).
To speak of Goldingay’s absorbing Enlightenment insights is not to criticize him; it would be difficult in contemporary Western culture to find someone who had not absorbed insights from the Enlightenment—whether or not he or she recognized and acknowledged the fact. To try to ignore or disown the Enlightenment is both futile and silly. Yet there are ways of making the most of its continuing heritage, and this continuing heritage is hotly debated at present (even if generally without explicit reference to the 18th century). So, for example, although in terms of history I suspect I would have little disagreement with Goldingay, in terms of hermeneutics I am not persuaded that he satisfactorily sets up an appropriate frame of reference for Christian reading of the OT. In other words, I want to ask whether a reappropriation of the two-way hermeneutic envisaged in Luke 24:27 might not profitably be on the agenda.

In the discussion thus far, I have run ahead somewhat and need to backtrack, or at least notice that some may not wish to share all my assumptions. For there are still not a few Christians who, in continuity with many critics of mainstream biblical criticism in the 19th and 20th centuries, are unpersuaded by many of biblical criticism’s characteristic tenets—not least the tenet that the OT does not in any way speak of Jesus as the Christ.
One eloquent example is Walter C. Kaiser Jr. He says, for example, “As soon as the case for supernaturalism is accepted, the claim that God can announce beforehand what he intends to do in the future is, for all intents and purposes, secured.” This stance is meant to imply that Christians who do not share it have a deficient vision of God, because they have to some degree sold their birthright for a mess of Enlightenment pottage. As Kaiser puts it elsewhere, “Care must be exercised … lest a brand of theological positivism be allowed to spring up which would dictate what could or did happen in the progress of revelation. God remained sovereign Lord even in this realm.”5 Space permits only a few brief observations.
First, Kaiser is right to resist any positivism that diminishes our vision of God.
Second, however, there are conceptual issues at stake. Kaiser does not see “supernaturalism” as anything other than a self-evident concept. Yet a key issue in recent theological debate is whether certain Christian ways of conceiving God and God’s action may in modern times have become alienated from their intrinsic biblical character, without their practitioners’ realizing what was happening. Attempts to preserve the sheerly gracious nature of grace and the genuinely Other dimensions of God may have unwittingly become formulated in ways that can make the supernatural reality of which they speak appear to be a kind of optional add-on to a natural reality that remains explicable on its own terms and so play into the hands of a modern marginalizing of God. What we should mean by “supernatural” is potentially as open to misunderstanding as what we should mean by “God.”
Third, Kaiser’s handling of specific texts is often less than persuasive. An interesting example is his construal of Gen 3:15, where God says to the snake: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed/offspring and hers; he/they will strike [šûp] your head, and you will strike [šûp] his/their heel.” Kaiser wishes to reaffirm the ancient understanding of this as the protevangelium, God’s first promise of redemption to sinful humanity, “God’s surprising word of prophetic hope,” “a presentation of the entire history of humanity in a miniature declaration.”8 Kaiser paraphrases the sense of the verse thus:

A divinely inspired hostility (“I will put enmity”) between the person of the serpent and the woman, between his “seed” and her “seed,” climaxes with the triumphant appearance of a “he”—no doubt a representative person of the woman’s seed. He would deliver a lethal blow to the head of Satan while the best the serpent would be able or even permitted to do would be to nip the heel of this male descendant.

The one issue that Kaiser sees as needing argument is the rendering of the woman’s seed by the masculine singular “he.” He appeals for support to the LXX, which uses the masculine-singular pronoun autos despite the neuter antecedent sperma. The interpretation of the text as a promise is also supported by Eve’s words in Gen 4:1, which may indicate expectation of an offspring who would be in some way divine (“If so, then Eve’s instincts about the coming Messiah were correct, but her timing was way off!”).
Kaiser says nothing about the more common understanding of the verse as one that, in the sequence of divine curses, has nothing to do with a promise of redemption but, rather, portrays perpetual conflict between humans, who tread on snakes and try to stamp on their heads to keep them from biting, and snakes, who usually bite the most accessible bit of the human body, the ankle. At least four exegetical questions may be put to Kaiser’s proposal. First, should not a promise of redemption through Eve’s representative descendant (if it is a promise of this sort) be addressed to Eve rather than to the snake? Second, in v. 14a a curse is pronounced, and then in v. 14b the snake’s crawling and eating dust give content to this curse; so too v. 15a announces “enmity,” and v. 15b appears to specify the form that this enmity will take. If v. 15b is to be seen as expressing a different concern (victory/defeat rather than enmity), then some good contextual reason needs to be given to justify discounting the otherwise clear pattern of the divine pronouncements. Third, if v. 15b contains a (“climactic”) hope of victory over the snake, then would not its clauses make better sense in reverse order, with the “hurting” of the snake’s head as the climax of the divine words? Fourth, the key verb, šûp, which depicts what happens between the respective seeds, is rare and its meaning unclear; but because the verb is repeated, it is presumably meant to indicate similarity between what the respective seeds do to each other. Thus Kaiser’s rendering as “deliver a lethal blow” in the one case and “nip” in the other is special pleading constrained by what he wants the text to say rather than attending to what it actually does say (and this is quite apart from the strong objection that his implicit reference to the passion of Jesus as a “nip in the heel” is to trivialize it).
Of course, one might make the rather different case that it is possible for the verse, in the total context of Scripture, to be reread—reinterpreted as a promise of redemption (though Kaiser himself would resist this). The prime reason for this would be the language of Rom 16:20, “the God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet.” But, although one can find resonances with Gen 3:15, the resonances are stronger with the explicit promise of trampling on snakes in Ps 91:13 (compare with Luke 10:18–20). Moreover, it would still need to be shown that, if resonances of this sort were allowed to play back on Gen 3:15, they enhanced one’s reading of the Genesis text; that is, they deepened one’s reading with the grain and did not oblige one to read against the grain. I at any rate find this proposed rereading in this context unilluminating. Because there are so many OT passages that clearly depict confidence in future divine deliverance, it is strange that there should be a renewed attempt to fit Gen 3:15 into this category. The promises of divine deliverance can, as it were, manage perfectly well without this interloper.
Belief in God’s sovereignty, therefore, still needs to be accompanied by a persuasive interpretation of the biblical text, so that it actually says what it is claimed to say. Were Kaiser to appeal to the supernatural to justify his reading of Gen 3:15, it would surely look like a rationalizing of special pleading. This would then invite the characteristic response of modernity to the effect that scientific biblical criticism is able to manage perfectly well without needing to bring in God/the supernatural; all one needs is to attend properly to philology and the historical meaning of the text in its original context.
In other words, Kaiser’s work raises the question whether some biblical scholars may not sometimes be so locked into the frame of reference that is dictated by reaction to Enlightenment rationalism that they cannot see sufficiently clearly what is and is not at stake. Like Job’s well-meaning friends, it is possible unwittingly to become an advocate for what reflective faith should not advocate.

A strikingly different approach to the OT is represented by the widely selling work of Michael Drosnin, The Bible Code, and its recent sequel, which have enjoyed astonishing sales and publicity—not to mention Drosnin’s dismaying access to political leaders and their entourages. Drosnin, a journalist, sets out his stance at the outset in the kind of language and rhetoric (often repeated in the book) that has time-honored appeal to modern audiences wary of religious special pleading and humbug aimed at the gullible—and clearly still insufficiently wary of other kinds of special pleading and humbug aimed at the gullible, especially fraud decked out as appeals to science and technology:

I have tried to deal with this story the way I’ve dealt with every other story: as an investigative reporter: I’ve spent five years checking out the facts.
Nothing is taken on faith.…
Many of the events described in the book were witnessed by me. Accounts of other events are based on interviews with persons directly involved, or were confirmed by published news reports.…
I am not a rabbi or a priest, nor a Bible scholar. I have no preconceived beliefs, and only one test—the truth.

Because we are dealing with eyewitnesses and facts, an avoidance of “special” treatment, and an unprejudiced concern for the truth, the unprejudiced reader (like various “major scientists” who “started out skeptics” but “ended up believers”) should be open to Drosnin’s central claim: “This book is the first full account of a code in the Bible that reveals events that took place thousands of years after the Bible was written.… The only thing I can state with certainty is that there is a code in the Bible, and in a few dramatic cases it has foretold events that then happened exactly as predicted.”15 Drosnin’s parade example is the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, to whom Drosnin wrote an advance warning in 1994, to the effect that his name was encoded in the Bible together with the words “assassin that will assassinate” across his name; but his wider list is impressive: “In addition to the Sadat and Kennedy assassinations, hundreds of other world-shaking events are also encoded in the Bible—everything from World War II to Watergate, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima, from the Moon landing to the collision of a comet with Jupiter.” Compared with these detailed predictions of the affairs of the 20th century, the traditional Christian concern to relate the OT to Jesus Christ seems small beer.
The basis for Drosnin’s claims is a “skip code,” or the idea of equidistant letter sequences. One skips an unspecified but fixed number of letters (ignoring all spaces between words)—reading only every 2nd, or 13th, or 25th (or whatever) letter—and one finds significant names and phrases in the words formed with these letters. This approach was developed primarily by Eliyahu Rips, a professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and depends on being able to process the lettering of Hebrew Scripture in a computer (though it develops some casual observations made by several rabbinic interpreters in the past). The results are “far more than statistics allowed for by random chance.” It means that “the Bible is not only a book—it is also a computer program … [which] now … can be read as it was always intended to be read.” For Rips, the whole approach represents a Unified Field Theory that brings religion and science together.
Unsurprisingly, difficulties in Drosnin’s project, such as its ignoring of variations in text and spelling, are easy to discover. Most apparent, in the first place, is its arbitrariness. Any and every combination of skip codes is tried until results are found. Because words can be read not only right to left (as Hebrew should be read) but also left to right, vertically (up or down), and diagonally at a great variety of trajectories, and the significant letters may themselves be contiguous or spaced in almost any number of ways, it is hardly surprising that apparently significant word combinations can be found—or that comparable combinations can be found in other lengthy literary texts.
Second, it is indicative that Drosnin thinks that the Bible code has to be developed and defended in scientific terms. The concerns that any humane education should bring to bear seem not to bother him at all. In exactly what language, for example, does the code appear? Hebrew, apparently. Yet it appears to be no problem that it is a mixture of ancient and Modern Hebrew, which conveniently includes modern words of non-Hebrew origin that are transliterated into Modern Hebrew (for example, “atom,” “code”). Why not look for messages in languages other than Hebrew that simply use Hebrew letters (such as Yiddish)—which should extend the range of predictions waiting to be discovered most excitingly? Or what about the extensive modern scholarly debates about language, history, and prophecy in the Bible? Drosnin sees no need to situate his proposals in relation to these discussions (and implicitly presents his stance as part of his uncluttered journalistic independence from the baggage of theological debate). An approach to the ancient text that looks ludicrous in terms of the natural categories for textual interpretation (language and history) is simply not evaluated according to those categories.
Third, there are also serious philosophical and theological objections to Drosnin’s code. Unfortunately for Drosnin, with his rhetorical concern for facts (“I didn’t want a metaphysical concept. I wanted hard evidence”), the “facts” he comes up with require understanding and explaining in conceptual categories that cannot themselves be factual. He repeatedly comes back to two issues: How can these predictions be explained? Can what is predicted be avoided? For both of these, he mainly cites Rips for answers while equally trying not to commit himself, though on the latter he does embrace the notion that predictions are warnings that can be avoided if appropriate action is taken.
What about the explanation for such predictions and whether or not they entail belief in God? Rips is portrayed as religious, and Rips is clear that the predictions of the code can only be explained in terms of God. Equally Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a “defiantly secular Zionist” and father of the Israeli politician and sometime prime minister, said to Drosnin, “If this is real, then I will believe in God, not only God, but the God of Israel and I will have to become religious.”22 The stance to which Drosnin himself has come is spelled out at the end of the first book:

It [the Bible Code] is not a promise of divine salvation. It is not a threat of inevitable doom. It is just information. The message of the Bible code is that we can save ourselves.
In the end, what we do determines the outcome. So we are left where we have always been, with one big difference—we now know that we are not alone.

How should this be read? In the wider context of the first book, no alternative to God as a possible explanation is canvassed, and so it may be that “we are not alone” is in some sense toying with a religious affirmation. But if so, then of what sort? No grace. No repentance. No faith, no hope, no love. No transformation in the presence of transcendent mystery, who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Rather, the deity of Deism would be alive and well, making no actual difference to human life but representing an extra entity that can be called upon to explain what otherwise is an unexplained puzzle in the distant past.
In the sequel, however, Drosnin reverts to this issue and makes clear that he wants to distance himself from Rips’s belief in God as an explanation of the code:

Who is the Encoder?
The scientist who discovered the code, Dr. Rips, already had his answer. The code, like the Bible itself, came from God.…
But I do not assume that the Encoder is the Creator. For me, the existence of the code does not prove the existence of God—it just proves the existence of the Encoder.

The solution must in fact be a visitation from outer space. Some alien “must have” brought the Bible code to earth—the same alien, indeed, in Drosnin’s judgment, as the alien who, according to Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, must be responsible for the presence of DNA on earth. Nonetheless, Drosnin portrays all his work in the language of a kind of spiritual quest:

The Encoder remains unidentified. But he may be leading us to him, a step at a time.
Maybe my search for the key code was only a journey that revealed to me levels of reality I never otherwise would have recognized, caused me to ask the cosmic questions raised by the very existence of the Bible code, and perhaps even led me to stumble upon the origin of life.
But I remain certain I will find the key code … perhaps even see the face of the Encoder.

A deist deity or some kind of UFO? It is not much of a choice. Much of this tragically represents a narrowing and decay of the mind and heart, indeed their progressive incarceration within a world increasingly constructed by technology and science fiction, without the appropriate leaven of humane knowledge and wisdom. In a world in which the Bible ceases to be a source and norm for moral and spiritual transformation and instead becomes a code to be cracked by a computer, it is hardly surprising if the quest for transcendence correspondingly should cease to be the challenge of moral and spiritual transformation and instead should become a matter of speculation about visitors from other planets.
It would of course be unwise to isolate Drosnin from a host of comparable projects in the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries. There is, for example, the astonishing popularity and social acceptability of astrology or the revived interest in Nostradamus; there is a current fad for conspiracy theories, not least theories involving the Bible and the church; and sadly there is also Christian misuse of biblical prophecy, especially in Daniel and Revelation, as a program for (near-) contemporary events. The underlying attitudes and assumptions look to be a remarkably resilient pathology of the human mind, which readily looks for understanding and hope in the wrong kind of way, and which flourishes in the deracinated social milieus of urban civilization. The task of Christian theology thus entails a defense of an informed and disciplined rationality that is neither self-evident to nor accepted by many people today.

Perhaps we should stand back a little for a moment to try to gain more perspective on our enterprise. For what should a Christian be trying to do with the OT at this moment in history? We come to the OT within a rich and historic tradition with all sorts of givens and parameters, which we perhaps too easily take for granted. Part of the challenge, therefore, is how best to read the “signs of the times” in discerning which problems and pressures make fresh approaches to the OT appropriate.
One of the increasingly common descriptions of our contemporary culture is that it is “postmodern.” This is a difficult epithet to use well. On the one hand, any attempt to depict culture as a whole is open to the obvious objection that it homogenizes what is more complex and variegated on the ground. On the other hand, postmodern means many different things to different people. Nonetheless, one of its valuable uses is to point up a change of intellectual climate.
“Modernity” was the fruit of the Enlightenment and in its self-understanding was confident that its insights, supremely to do with scientific method, discovery, and technological application, were definitive. “Postmodernity” is less confident, more self-reflexive, more inclined to search out, scrutinize, and question assumptions that modernity took for granted but that are not in fact self-evident—as many a debate about gender and power reminds us. This changed atmosphere is not especially open to Christian faith as such. But it is open to many things that modernity marginalized or disparaged—the widespread renewed interest in “spirituality” is an obvious example; and this openness gives Christian faith an opportunity to reengage with the culture in fresh ways.
To be sure, many are suspicious of “postmodernity.” A good example is the evangelistic atheist Richard Dawkins. One of his pithy formulations is, “Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite.” We can take his point. When we use—indeed, allow our lives to depend upon—technology, we expect it to be a precise application of a precise science. Undoubtedly, much that goes under the label of “postmodern” does appear as sloppy and pretentious relativism. Yet Dawkins fixes on the relatively easy targets of bad practice and does not engage with the issues on a deeper, conceptual level. Total dismissal of postmodernism as mere confusion and relativism misinterprets a profound cultural mood change that does not wish to dispense with science or technology as such (or with the fruit of scientific method in biblical criticism) but that is rethinking their significance within the overall scheme of things.
At the risk of gross oversimplification, I propose that the shift from modernity to postmodernity may be illuminated by an analogy with the 20th-century shift from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian view of the universe, from a mechanistic view to relativity. In many ways, the conceptual shift makes no practical difference. Almost everything we do, including flying at 30,000 feet, can be done entirely within a Newtonian frame of reference. Yet the discovery of relativity has led to a deep conceptual change—a rethinking of the nature of reality and of the scientific inquiry, especially in physics, that seeks to understand it. On one level, little changes; on another level, much changes.
So, in our contemporary context, the rethinking that characterizes postmodernity does not (except in crude, half-baked forms, which admittedly are common) mean abandoning what has gone before in modernity. Rather, it means various kinds of recontextualizing and reprioritizing of what has gone before, in ways that cannot necessarily be predicted. From the perspective of Christian faith and the study of Scripture the overall frame of reference is changing. Let me suggest a few new ways of reading in a revised frame of reference.
First, being a good historian should no longer be a prime requirement of biblical study but should merely be one important ingredient among others needed in the pot to produce nourishing fare. There is no point in promoting poor historical awareness.31 Yet one can be both a good historian and a poor interpreter of Scripture. This is not least because the content of Scripture has to do with moral and spiritual realities, which require moral and spiritual literacy if they are to be handled well. As Stephen Fowl and Gregory Jones have put it, in a groundbreaking study, “the interpretation of Scripture is a difficult task not because of the technical demands of biblical scholarship but because of the importance of character for wise readings.” The rationality that one needs is informed not just by the technical mastery of intellectual skills but also by the moral and spiritual disciplines of the church. (This is one Christian response to the concern raised by feminists and ideological critics about the artificial and distorting results of separating “objective” scholarship from the “subjective” realities of people’s lives.)
Second, Christ must be not only the light to which we look but also the light by which we see. What this means takes much learning in any situation, but our contemporary context is congenial in important ways. For centuries, Christian vision was so tied up with the mainstream establishments in Western civilization that it easily became distorted and dimmed in certain ways—as Jews, among others, can testify. The post-Christian dimension of our postmodern context offers Christians opportunities to discover afresh what it means that definitive truth about God and humanity has been disclosed on a Roman gibbet when seen from the empty tomb.
In the contemporary context of biblical interpretation, to which Jewish scholars have become major contributors in the last two generations, some may fear that to speak of reading Israel’s Scriptures in relation to Jesus as the Christ will mean either a Christian retreat into an intellectual ghetto or a replication of the kind of power plays that characterized too much of Christian social and political dealings with Jews in the past. However, if the definitive truth about God and humanity is disclosed in the passion of Jesus (his faithfulness to his Father in the face of betrayal, mockery, and torture and even an existential sense of abandonment in dying) and his resurrection (a renewal of hope when hope was lost, a renewal of life that is beyond our comprehending because it is analogous to God’s initial work of creation), then this fact should enable Christians to look at the world in general and the Bible in particular with greater honesty, less fear, and less desire to impose predictable answers. The Christian has no mandate to impose Christian meanings upon Jewish texts that will not bear them. Yet, if the light of Christ can enable a Christian to see more truly, then Israel’s texts that speak of divine sovereignty and grace, human sin and repentance, and the calling of Israel to covenant faithfulness should become more luminous, for Jesus embodies (in various ways) that of which the texts speak. Faith in Christ can give believers conceptual and existential resources for truer understanding.
Third, just as certain political campaigns need a clear overall focus (“education, education, education” or “the economy, the economy, the economy”), and as property valuation and marketing is supremely a matter of “location, location, location,” so biblical interpretation needs to be seen as revolving around context, context, context. This involves recognizing that biblical texts have many contexts—which can make the exegetical axiom “interpret in context” less than straightforward to apply. It also includes the context of the interpreter, for the kind of reason implied in the preceding paragraphs—where one stands makes a difference in what one sees, and the way in which one’s mind and heart are formed makes a difference in how one sees.
There is a difference, for example, between the originating context and the literary context of preservation. Goldingay, for example, accepts the general modern consensus that Gen 1 is likely to have been composed by “priestly” Jews in Babylonian Exile in the sixth century. On this basis, he reads the text as a response to Exile and says (among other things):

The experience of the people of God may be not so much fragmentation as disintegration. The fall of Jerusalem was one such moment.… When the creation story portrays God definitively bringing order out of unrelated pieces, this particularly encourages people whose life world has fallen apart in the way it had for Judah in the sixth century. God’s project from the beginning involved bringing order, and it promises that disintegration will not have the last word.

This is a suggestive, pastorally engaged interpretation. But even if composition in the sixth century is the best available historical hypothesis about origins, how far and in what way should it influence interpretation? Genesis 1 in itself makes no reference to Babylon or Jewish struggles. The reader’s imagination is directed not to Babylon at one particular time but to the world as a whole at no particular time (“the beginning”). In other words, the literary context within which Gen 1 now stands, at the outset of Israel’s Scriptures, suggests a rather different kind of reading from Goldingay’s.
When Gen 1 is read as part of a canonical collection that includes the account of personified wisdom, present with God at creation, in Prov 8, a further set of intertextual resonances and possibilities is set up (which Goldingay exploits interestingly with a section about “Ms. Insight,” though quite separately from relating Gen 1 to the Babylonian Exile). When Gen 1 is read as part of the Christian Bible, with the retelling of creation in relation to God’s Logos/Word at the beginning of John’s Gospel, then further resonances are set up (which distance the Babylonian Exile yet further). When one adds to this the Pauline account of Jesus as the image of the invisible God, with its resonances with Gen 1:26–27, and then the broader context of extended Christian engagement with the meaning of creation and humanity in the light of Scripture as a whole, then the question of context for the opening verses of the Bible is rich indeed. It can, of course, often be helpful to narrow one’s focus and bracket out parts of the wider biblical and Christian context within which Israel’s Scriptures have been preserved and cherished by Christians. The point is that the privileging of that bracketing, which was a characteristic move of “modern” biblical scholarship, is no longer self-evidently the best (let alone the only) way of responsibly handling the ancient text. As a result the task of interpretation has become richer.

One corollary of an expanded vision of OT interpretation is that premodern interpreters regain significance. One of the most arrogant self-depictions of modern biblical study was to call itself “critical” and what preceded “precritical”—an epithet that inescapably implied that earlier interpreters somehow lacked the acumen that moderns displayed (except insofar as they anticipated modern concerns by finding bits of the Pentateuch that Moses might not have written). However, the great premodern interpreters were neither less intelligent nor less “critical” than moderns; they were simply “critical” by different criteria.
Interest in the history of biblical interpretation is something of a “growth industry” at present. Often it is predominantly or solely historical in outlook, yet at least some scholars are interested in the hermeneutical implications of premodern interpreters for enriching our readings at the present time. One of the heralds of this movement was the Roman Catholic scholar Henri de Lubac. De Lubac wrote a major work on patristic and medieval biblical interpretation, Exégèse Médiévale, a convenient introduction to which is available in his recently reissued Scripture in the Tradition, to which I will refer here. He worked in the context of the Roman Catholic Ressourcement movement, which sought to enrich contemporary theology through a fresh appropriation of classic Christian resources (going behind the scholastic debates in which their presentation was all-too-often skewed).
Although de Lubac was concerned with the whole of Scripture, his particular focus is the way in which the OT was understood in the light of, and in relation to, Jesus Christ in classic Christian tradition. De Lubac sought to rescue this traditional approach to scriptural interpretation from the misunderstanding and obloquy that has generally been heaped upon it in the modern period and to commend it as something still meaningful for contemporary Christian faith. Peter Casarella introduces the new edition of Scripture in the Tradition in this vein: “By examining Scripture in the tradition, de Lubac is breaking and offering up spiritual bread to those who yearn for genuine wisdom. The patristic and medieval practitioners of sapiential exegesis speak to an age saturated with the means of acquiring new information but spiritually famished.”
De Lubac illuminates the nature of classic interpretation as a matter of spiritual understanding. This is characterized in a number of ways. At root, it involves a conceptual (and, relatedly, practical) transposition of the OT into a frame of reference other than that which was initially its own—that is, it is transposed by and within the definitive reality of Christ:

If we want to get to the root of the problem of spiritual understanding … it seems advisable to refer to the act of conversion. We should look into the Church’s conversion to her Lord, the Church viewed especially as made up of the first generations of the faithful. Nothing is better calculated to make us aware of the seriousness of a problem like this.… All Scripture is perceived in a new light by the soul which is open to the Gospel and adheres to Christ. All Scripture is transfigured by Christ.… A unique activity is involved, and it implies a global interpretation which remains indeterminate as to many points, just as it is obscure to many individuals.… A unique movement is involved; beginning with initial incredulity, it ascends by faith to the very summits of a spiritual life which does not have its term here below.… Newness of understanding is correlative with “newness of life.”

This spiritual understanding can be characterized in shorthand as allegory, which only in degenerate form becomes the kind of arbitrary and fanciful playing with words that it is so often taken to be intrinsically:

For a long time, allegory was taken by theology to mean, and often in the broadest sense, the mysteries of Christ and of the Church as they appeared in Scripture. Hence, the allegorical meaning was the dogmatic meaning par excellence, and it was firmly rooted in history. Far from compromising the historical foundations of the faith, it actually insured for all Christian thought the essentially historical character which is so perfectly in keeping with the Christian faith, but which has so often been disturbingly blurred.

Because allegory represents the reality of Christ, it is that which enables people to discover meaning and truth in history that might otherwise be lacking: “Allegory is truly the truth of history; the latter, by itself, would be incapable of an intelligible self-fulfillment; allegory brings this about in history by bestowing upon it all its meaning.” This meaning and truth is not something merely intellectual, though it deeply engages the mind, but is also a matter of a total human engagement with reality. As the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus shows, “the point is that the exegesis of Christ, in all its essential and decisive aspects, is not principally a matter of words: it is something in act. It is Act itself.”43 An analogy with the eucharist also indicates the kind of transformation that is effected by Christ:

The act of Christ in fulfilling the Scriptures and simultaneously bestowing the fullness of their meaning upon them is also compared by Christian tradition to the act of eucharistic consecration. For in truth Scripture is bread, but bread which becomes for the Christian the life-giving food which it must be only after it has been consecrated by Jesus.

De Lubac also offers numerous clarifications to prevent possible misunderstanding of this task. First, it is in no way an attempt to put the clock back. Rather, it involves relearning to do today something that would correspond to what was done then:

We must, above all else, reproduce a spiritual movement, often through completely different methods, while avoiding a retreat into the archaic or into slavish imitation. And this is the struggle of Jacob with the Angel of God, a struggle which we must begin again and again.…
Without departing from the basic principles of the ancients, we shall often have to depart from their practice and from their imagined justification of it. We shall imitate their habitual modesty rather than their procedures.

Second, allegory is distinct from, but properly complementary to, conventional historical exegesis and understanding, which retains its own significance and role. The historian of the religion and literature of Israel still “seeks to reconstruct the religious consciousness of men [sic] in the biblical past, just as he would do for any other past” and “while preserving himself from the facile ultimate explanations and the extremely arbitrary views sheltered under the name of ‘philosophy of history,’ he is skilled in sorting out the interplay of causality and influence …,” and his work “is not devoid of interest for the believer, not by any means.” Historical interpretation and spiritual interpretation, while distinct, “somehow need one another” and should “interpenetrate,” although the union is “a delicate one.” If each discipline is rightly respected and practiced, then “we shall strive to unite our modern ‘historical sense’ to that profound ‘sense of history’ which the ancients were able to draw forth by means of their spiritual exegesis.”
Third, if one grasps the nature of the “allegorical” transposition of the OT in the light of Christ, it follows that no comparable allegory can be applied to the NT.

If the New Testament is the spirit of the Old Testament, which is the letter of the New, it is clear that it cannot be treated anew like a letter from which the spirit was still to be extracted. This would be to embark on a processus in indefinitum.… This would make of faith in Christ a relative and transitory faith, and would be to view in Christ and his Gospel the figures of another Saviour to come.… When we believe that the New Testament, taken in its full and universal acceptation, no longer entails any allegorical or spiritual meaning, we are, then, simply believing in Jesus Christ, whose testament is “novissimum,” that is to say, last, definitive, eternal; new, in the absolute sense.

Nonetheless, because of the intrinsic richness and complexity of the NT, there remains a derivative sense in which spiritual interpretation remains indispensable to grasp the meaning of the NT as a collection of writings in relation to the reality of which they speak; for it is only spiritual interpretation that allows the reader to engage with “the life of the Church, the life of the Christian soul, the life of the eschatological kingdom … [which] are wholly constituted by man’s assumption into the heart of the Mystery of Christ.… The intention of the Spirit is that one stop no more at the letter of the New Testament than at the letter of the Old.” It is just that the Spirit finds its fullness and realization in and through the letter, because it is of Christ that the letter speaks.
This account of allegory is illuminating. If recontextualization is at the heart of allegory, with a concern for spiritual interpretation in the light of Christ, then in a contemporary context that recognizes plurality of contexts of interpretation and the need for moral and spiritual disciplines to inform interpretation, it may become possible for us today more consciously to stand in critical continuity with some of our ancient forebears.

It is necessary to finish with an example. If the task is, as Richard Hays has put it, “to develop modes of interpretation that recognize the historical sense of the biblical texts but then take their original meaning up into a larger theological framework in which the texts rightly are seen to mean more than their original authors and readers had in mind,” what might this look like? Although an obvious case study would be Isa 53, I propose a different, less well-known passage, Isa 2.
After an introductory, and apparently summarizing, portrayal of Isaiah’s message in ch. 1, a major and recurrent Isaianic theme, exaltation and abasement, is introduced in ch. 2. An initial vision of Mt. Zion in “future days” sees it as the highest of the mountains and raised up above the hills (2:2), the imagery intrinsically suggesting majesty and desirability, so that nations generally will be drawn to it as a place of God’s truth and justice (2:3–4). This vision should encourage faithfulness in the present on the part of the “house of Jacob” (2:5).
This vision stands in stark contrast to the remainder of the chapter, in which faithfulness seems absent. As the text continues, the initial image is of the land of Israel as full of enormous wealth and military resources (2:7)—the things that are generally taken to constitute human greatness. But the wealth and military resources are accompanied by religious practices and personnel that characterize nations other than Israel (2:6) and by religious practices that are simply idolatrous (2:8), for they accord divine honor to their own handiwork. In the prophet’s vision, the consequence is clear: the abasement of humanity, which is reduced to terror before YHWH (2:9–10). An inversion is explicit in 2:11: human attempts at exaltation are brought low while, by contrast, YHWH—indeed YHWH alone—is exalted.
This initial vision of divine exaltation and human abasement is followed by another, couched in terms of YHWH’S “day,” a day that is emphatically “against” (10x in 2:12–16) “all that is exalted and high, and … all that is raised up” (2:12). This is then spelled out in terms of things that are intrinsically high (trees, mountains, towers) or otherwise grand (ships), all of which will encounter the same inversion (2:17), because it is clear that this language of height and exaltation metaphorically depicts human pride and self-aggrandizement. This is then followed by another picture of human terror before YHWH and the recognition of the futility of the costly objects of adoration (2:18–21). This picture leads to a final appeal, comparable to the appeal in 2:5 following the vision in 2:2–4, to “cease from mortals,” with the sense in context of ceasing to trust in human attempts at exaltation rather than trusting in YHWH. Implicitly the chapter’s opening vision of an exalted temple on Zion that is the locus for God’s teaching of justice and of peace points to the “better way” that the audience addressed in 2:6–22 should heed. We are faced with two starkly different visions of possible futures.
How should Isaiah’s vision of “YHWH’S day” be understood? The vision is of a kind of ultimate reality, in which ill-founded human aspirations to greatness and grandeur are found wanting and overturned—when God appears and confronts human pretension with divine truth, with a corresponding sense of urging a transformation of current ways of living in the light of what will ultimately be seen to be of lasting value. Even in the context of the book of Isaiah on its own terms the nature of the vision is such that it is not possible to pin it down or restrict its reference to any particular moment or event. However much one may see an event such as the fall of Jerusalem in 587 as an instantiation of the vision, that 587 fall is neither final nor definitive. From a Christian perspective, however, the coming of Jesus (and supremely his death and resurrection) is precisely that event within history that is final—not in the sense that history does not continue but in the sense that God has definitively revealed and enacted divine judgment on the world. This judgment is such that, at any subsequent point in this world or beyond, that which is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus remains the ultimate yardstick by which all human aspiration and endeavor is measured by God and either affirmed or found wanting. It is not that human self-aggrandizement cannot continue since Jesus came, but the nature of and the reason for its ultimate futility have been definitively disclosed.
It thus becomes appropriate to see the self-revelation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the supreme realization of Isaiah’s vision of “YHWH’S day.” It is not that this is what Isaiah intended (the familiar modern historical concern), although this remains a valid perspective for reading the text. Rather, this is what Isaiah’s words mean when they are Christianly contextualized—that is, when they are read in the light of Christ.
Moberly, R. W. L. (2007). Christ in All the Scriptures? The Challenge of Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. Journal of Theological Interpretation, Volume 1, (1–2), 47–100.


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