Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jesus and Scripture - Anglicans seeking common understanding

Readers of this blog may be aware that the Anglican Communion is engaged in a hermeneutics project in which Anglican churches are encouraged to work on what it means to read the Bible together, seek common understanding of its meaning, and to do so with particular reference to human sexuality. In practice some Anglican churches are doing more on this than others. ACANZP is one of those. I have a tiny bit part in this work as a member of the organising committee for the second of three hermeneutic hui (conferences), and a task to work on a joint presentation at the next hui (in May 2009) on Jesus and Scripture.

So, in a spirit of collaboration, I share some of my early thinking on this subject in order to seek some feedback, so that what I present might be sharpened to the point of usefulness! Incidentally, the central focus of the next hui is on ‘the church’. Kind of a safe subject to see how we might read the Bible together about it; a practice session for the difficult subject of human sexuality at the third hermeneutical hui!

When Christians read the Bible (or, as I prefer it, ‘Scripture’), we sometimes forget that Scripture has Jesus Christ at its centre – not only as chief subject but also as the centre of its authority over the life of the church. Though often tempted to ditch the Old Testament, the church cannot do so because Jesus himself upheld and honoured the Old Testament. A contrasting temptation is to pit ‘Jesus’ versus his later interpreters such as ‘Paul’, with the former offering pristine truth and the latter sadly manipulating it under the influence of Hellenism. The temptation is resistible as we note that Jesus himself authorised his disciples for their apostolic mission as a continuation of his own, in word and in deed; Paul himself being an ‘untimely’ yet genuine addition to the apostolic band. In perhaps over simplistic terms, Scripture is the book of truth authorised by Jesus Christ.

Thus when working together on our understanding of ‘church’ or ‘human sexuality’ with reference to Scripture, we are not working with a series of texts which may be singled out one by one for examination and marked down as valid or invalid according to some assessment criteria of our own making. Rather, we work with the book authorised by Jesus Christ (we could also say, authored by the God of Jesus Christ through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit). Each text on which we seek a common understanding should be approached from the perspective of the authorisation of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour of the church whom we believe in together.

OK, since this is a blog post and not a book I’ll stop that line of reflection and move to this observation which arose the other day through a daily Bible reading: Jesus is the hinge upon which the meaning of Scripture turns.

I was reading Jeremiah 33:17-18, ‘For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time.’ The larger context, by the way, is the Babylonian exile of Judah, the sacking of Jerusalem, and the vision of a ‘new’ covenant with a rebuilt Jerusalem also envisaged.

Now, if we press the ‘literal’ button of understanding Scripture, Jeremiah 33:17-18 is a falsehood. David has lacked a man to sit on his throne and the Levitical priesthood has been in vacancy mode for thousands of years. But if we approach Jeremiah 33:17 through the lens of the whole of Scripture, including the Synoptic Gospels, Paul’s writings, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, then we (i.e. the church collectively through its history) understand Jeremiah 33:17 to be truthful in this way: the throne of the house of Israel is the throne of the kingdom of God and on that throne forever sits Jesus Christ, a descendant of David, the temple of Jerusalem is consummated in the person of the great high priest, Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice on the cross incorporates all Levitical sacrifices and is eternally present to God.

Our point here is not only that Jesus Christ ‘makes’ Jeremiah 33:17-18 to be true but also that in the person of Jesus Christ a new expression of the authorial authority of God comes to humanity. Who dare offer a new interpretation of the words of God? The Word of God himself! Matthew’s Gospel, for example, takes up Mosaic teaching in the teaching of Jesus and recounts for us a new interpretation of Moses’ law. Is this the work of another rabbi from among the ranks of the learned rabbis of first century Israel? No, according to Matthew, this is a new and greater Moses who has come among us! John's Gospel, as with many themes in the Synoptic Gospels, develops the idea of Jesus as a greater Moses, offering the more penetrating insight that Jesus is the Word of God and his teaching transforms 'law' into 'grace and truth' (John 1:1, 17).

If we read on in Jeremiah 33 and note the kind of underlining God gives through Jeremiah of his promise in 33:17-18, we can marvel at the authority of Jesus Christ over Scripture which gives 33:17-18 a new and unexpected meaning. The one who does this is rightly ascribed as both a new and greater Moses and the Word of God become human flesh.

With this authority we must reckon as we wrestle with the words of Scripture seeking a common understanding.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I haven't read this yet (it hasn't been published yet!) but it could be an interesting new contribution grounded in Reformation belief and contemporary hermeneutics:


Tim Ward's a clever guy, did his doctorate 'Word and supplement' (pub. OUP 2002 - see Google Scholar) under Kevin Vanhoozer, whose own book 'Is there a meaning in this text?' is a fine read too.

Anonymous said...

Peter, you say, In perhaps over simplistic terms, Scripture is the book of truth authorised by Jesus Christ.

I think we have to put forward this kind of 'ranging statement' as a preliminary. Ellen Wainwright at the last hui said "my sacred story/our sacred story - this is the way I think about the Bible".

I like the view that the Bible is the book of the household of Christ - the First Testament the household into which he was born, the New Testament, the household of his own; both, the household of the people of God. Not sure yet what I want to add about the Gospels

Anonymous said...

Peter writes: 'But if we approach Jeremiah 33:17 through the lens of the whole of Scripture, including the Synoptic Gospels, Paul’s writings, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, then we (i.e. the church collectively through its history) understand Jeremiah 33:17 to be truthful in this way...'

Ah, tell it not in Gath, but you have endorsed the Moore College approach to Scripture (typological fulfillment) as opposed to Dallas Theological College (dispensationalism), liberal Anglicanism (Marcionitism), and St John's Auckland ('Geri Myers? Was she one of the Spice Girls?') :)

Don't forget that the Risen Lord in Luke 24:27 gives the (Jewish) Scriptures a distinctly Christological focus. This is the lens we should look through.
John Wenham's 'Christ and the Bible' (orig. 1972, enlarged ed. 1991) is a helpful primer for lessons forgotten - or probably never learned - on the nature, authority and Christ-centered approach to interpretation.

Peter Carrell said...

What makes Scripture 'sacred' in Elaine Wainwright's description?

I am endorsing nobody and no institution but seeking to understand Scripture. Typology has its place, though I was not consciously seeking to be typological - simply to make sense of the words of Jeremiah in the light of history and of Christ.
What is your solution to the fulfilment of the prophecy?

Anonymous said...

I gave Ellen's ranging statement as an example - not because i agree with. it But as in your own case, and mine, it commits to the public arena a presuppositional definition (in a way too many people are to discinclined to do). this at least forwards the discussion.
Her statement continues "they told their stories of encounter with God" - so it implies a pretty bottom up approach to the authority of scripture. Not surprsingly she later talks about the necessity of being willing to criticise certain aspects of the story.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Rhys
I am myself committed to testing each and every point and proposition advanced about our faith, including Scripture, so am happy to consider presuppositions, and for my own to be critiqued.
In the case of Elaine Wainwright's statement, I agree that it is a 'bottom up' approach ... inevitably it begs the question whether 'sacred' then has any meaning; and other questions such as what occurs in 'encounter with God' and is the resulting 'scripture' fair reflection of God speaking to humanity or of humanity reflecting on that encounter (or both).

Anonymous said...

Peter, Perhaps a difficulty in your definition is that it raises the question, authorized for what and to what extent. For example the authority of Leviticus would be actually different for the ancient Israel believer and for the Christian reader. Your exegesis of Jeremiah shows such a shift occurring; does ‘the book of truth authorized by Jesus Christ’ hint sufficiently at the dynamic quality you want.

We might ask ourselves, if we want generosity extended to our ranging statements should we extend it to Ellen Wainwright’s? Nevertheless, I think hers does raise the questions you suggest – and I wonder if there is any way from her approach to the government of the the life of Church that is our concern in the Windsor process.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Rhys
Yes, fair point re what does my statement mean ... will give that some thought, and perhaps pots on it.
I don't want to be ungenerous to Elaine's proposal ... indeed I think there is fruitful exploration to be had of the word 'sacred' ... and I share with you the concern for something to say about Scripture which helps rather than hinders the governance of our church!