Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A hermeneutical future?

In my current research in a library, I am doing some interesting reading. Some passages more thought provoking than others. Some potentially more seminal for my overall project re interpreting the Bible.

Here, for instance, is a passage from James Barr, writing in The Scope and Authority of the Bible (1980), p. 60:

Let us put it this way: our view of scripture has been too much dominated by the past. I want to suggest that the functioning of the Bible is much more directed towards the future. It is often said that Christianity is a historical religion, and that is in many ways true, though it is a much more vague and uncertain assertion than is commonly understood; but, if it means that Christianity works in the milieu of human historical experience, that milieu exists not only in the direction of the arrow pointing toward the past but also in the direction pointing towards the future. That Christianity is an eschatological religion, looking towards the future fulfilment of God’s promise to mankind, is just as important as that it is a historical religion looking back to certain foundational events.
‘Now this, if valid, is important for several of the questions we have been discussing. First of all, it is important for the direction of the interpretative process. Everyone knows that the Bible is an ancient book. Much of our interpretative striving has been directed towards the task of making the meaning of that ancient book lucid and relevant for the present day, i.e. you take the past meaning of the Bible and seek to transfer it into the present day, to make it clear, bright and meaningful today. But it is doubtful whether this can be done or whether when done it is as rich in results as one would hope.
'Perhaps we should look in the other direction and say that it is not the Bible that needs to be elucidated for the present day, but the present day that needs to be elucidated in the light of the Bible. The Bible is not a book, reporting on what to it was already past, that has then to be dragged into a much later present: rather, it was a book that, though on a first level narrating the past, on a deeper level was speaking of the future and for the future.

Any comments?


Anonymous said...

Off the top of my head, Peter, I'd say that this depends on whether you see the ascension of the Son's glorified humanity to heaven as an indication that his incarnation and eternal mediation were integral to the Father's creative will. If not, then why was this revealed to us as something distinct from the resurrection? If so, then Scotism is more or less correct, and as Christ is oriented to the aeon to come, so must be the scriptural witness about him to those in him. Its temporality is, not a bus driver's chronos, but a midwife's kairos. Indeed, the Jews who made a total midrash of Daniel 7, Psalm 110, and Isaiah 53 and then recognised their Lord (unlike Caiaphas in St Mark 14:62) knew this openness of the text to expectation. And its fulfillment confirmed their reading.

As I suspect Bryden is thinking as he sees this, there is also a simpler way: everything in scripture that opens a new possibility is recorded as an intimation of the Holy Spirit visibly manifested in the founding of the Church. The same Spirit was upon the face of the deep in the creation, fell upon the Virgin Mary in the incarnation, and descended in tongues of fire at Pentecost. Whatever mercy is from God is from this Spirit, for what does not open a new possibility is not mercy.

Now I will be the first to admit that serious neutestamentler would be aghast at the wholly unscientific way in which the apostles read the scriptures, to say nothing of the poor style in which they wrote their own. So it is good that you are in a library full of learned commentary. We must be very careful to choose and follow the right exemplars.

Bowman Walton

Father Ron Smith said...

Two words, Peter, in your quotation (above) - 'kairos' and 'mercy' - seem to oc cur frequent in sympathetic writings of Roman Catholics about the eirenic activites of Pope Francis, in his so obvious feelings about the Church's need to look both to the past and the future - and the time is now. We have only the 'now' in this life to make ourselves useful in the carrying out of God's mercy - for which we may be accounted responsible at the parousia. This is why I believe the 'eternal now' of the meeting with Christ in the Eucharist ought be our constant point of reference for our better understanding of the past, and our being energised for the present - in acknowledgemnet of our certain future. "Now, in the time of this mortal life...."

Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,

I think the key question is around the intended audience. Was the writer producing the book primarily for the benefit of his contemporaries or for future generations? Each of the biblical books says something timeless to the people of God in all ages, but the primary audience is those contemporary to the writer who understand all of the cultural and social context in which it is written.

The best example is the book of Revelation. It firstly speaks to persecuted Christians in the 1st century, encouraging them by revealing the spiritual dimension of their struggle and showing the triumph of God's kingdom. It then speaks to us in our struggles with the same message in a new context. if you do it the other way around, you end up with all sorts of nutty interpretations.

The dangers of taking the future oriented interpretation approach are:
- You throw out the bits that don't look like they make any sense in today's age, eg OT law, OT history
- You lose interpretive discipline by applying texts based on how they look to us today rather than first doing the hard work of determining their original message to their original audience. You end up reading today's events back into the Bible rather than allowing its original message to speak to today's events.
- You misunderstand the nature of God's kingdom by seeing it as an entirely future oriented. Jesus taught us that the kingdom of God was already among his disciples by his presence with them. (Lk 17:21)


Jean said...


My comment is probably the least theological; but as Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever so as I read and contemplate the scriptures they speak to me of interpreting and understanding God in Christ past, present and future. The work involves discerning what aspect God is speaking to you about at the time, albeit knowledge of each has an unlimited depth of application and comprehension.

Happy researching Peter!