Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Perspicuous, puzzling, pleasant and painful passages: theological development across Scripture?

Prompted via an offline discussion of last week's post, I am going to continue digging into reflection on Scripture as the Word of God written.

Can we say, accurately and fairly, that the whole of Scripture is "God's Word written"?

Scripture, after all, is pretty much divisible into two kinds of passages: the perspicuous and puzzling (see last week's post on Psalm 17), and the perspicuous passages in turn could be divided into the pleasant (i.e. passages we like, which inspire and comfort us) and the painful (i.e. passages we do not like, for one reason or another, which are difficult to reconcile with our understanding of God and God's Word, as revealed in the pleasantly perspicuous passages).

Thus my interlocutor during the week mentioned passages I am calling "painful": 1 Samuel 15, Joshua 11 (passages about destruction of Israel's enemies) and 1 Timothy 2:13-15 (a passage with a dim view of Eve/women). There are many such passages.

We can, of course, attempt to respond by explaining such passages: they are not as bad as they seem ... the destructive talk was rhetoric, it never actually happened ... but even the best explainers among us have to admit that we are not going to deal with all such passages. My interlocutor's point was not whether we can minimise the number of such passages but whether the existence of even one such painful passage undermines generalised talk of Scripture as God's Word written.

Is it reasonable to speak of Scripture as God's written Word when it contains painful passages (i.e.  passages which raise the moral challenge of whether God is actually good) and puzzling passages (i.e. passages which raise the moral difficulty of why God communicates through words we do not understand)?

Note that this question is not an idle one for Anglicans because we are committed to reading Scripture in our public worship services, in our daily devotions when we follow Morning and Evening Prayer, and generally because of our commitment to Scripture through our constitution.

Thus, I remind myself and you, dear reader, of Article 6, "In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church ..." and Article 20, "... And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." The book we commonly call "the Bible" is the Scripture which is God's Word written.

What are we to say about the painful and the puzzling passages in Scripture: are they God's Word written, or not?

Another bit of inspiration for this post is a lovely three volume set of books which arrived at my front door this week: Robert Alter's three volume translation with commentary of The Hebrew Bible. Reading his superb apologia for why he is offering "yet another" translation, I was struck in a fresh way by the depth and width of the humanity (i.e. human authorship) of Scripture - a process across time, arising from community and experience, incorporating diverse sources and varied theologies.

In short, Scripture is NOT God's Word written because God dictated the words of Scripture in toto. (Clearly some of Scripture is a form of dictation because "thus saith the Lord" passages are composed with words the prophets believe have been dictated to them to say.) Whatever we make of the painful and puzzling passages of Scripture, we acknowledge that  the humanity of Scripture lies behind those passages and is expressed through them.

Then, reflecting further on the recognition of the humanity of Scripture, I suggest we need to account for the fact that Scripture's words are counted as "Scripture" by a community which received them. And the nature of that community has changed through the centuries. In the mists of time, for instance, the community of Israel received the Book of Judges as among its Scriptures, even though it includes the most horrible stories such as the story of Jephthah's Daughter (chapter 11).

In the not so misty period of ancient time, the Christian church has chosen to maintain such a story within its combination of Old and New Testaments. Yet dare any Christian today say that if we were compiling Scripture from scratch from ancient treasured documents for the edification of the church today, then we would include this dreadful story?

That is, our continuing reception of the Bible as the Scripture of the church (NT and OT), in continuity with the Scripture of ancient Israel (OT), involves some fancy theological footwork. We simply do not accept that the theology of Judges 11 (God blesses a man who takes a vow with tragic, terribly, terrifying consequences) is the final, completed - in the light of the whole of Scripture - theology of the church. Yet. Yet we do not expunge that chapter from the Scriptures we read, commend and reflect on. Why not? Why risk detriment to an understanding that Scripture is
God's Word written?

I suggest that we retain rather than exclude Judges 11 because a stubborn integrity acknowledges that in the history of God's people understanding who God is and what God is saying to us has developed over time as not only God has revealed more of himself but also as we have demonstrated capacity to receive more of that revelation. Even when God in Christ came into the world, there was a limited capacity to receive him as God's living and final Word (cf the gospels!! ... and the importance of Paul, on the one hand, and the writer of the Fourth Gospel on the other, in making sense of what God was saying in and through Jesus Christ). Judges 11 stands as witness to an impoverished and dangerous understanding of God's Word for that day but it stands in our Scripture as a witness to God's continuing patience with God's people as God spoke and spoke again to stubborn hearts and limited minds. As also do the prophets stand witness, in a different, centuries later era.

There is lots more to be said - books and books have been written on the topic, and by far better thinkers than myself -but I will stop here for now, with one final thought.

It is not necessarily the case that the latest writings to be written down which represent the greatest, clearest "Word" from God. The greatest, clearest Word is the message of divine mercy, grace, kindness and love. That message permeates Scripture. It is summed up in 1 John. God is love.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Anglo Catholic Hui

Last week I attended the first day of our church's second Anglo-Catholic Hui - hosted by the Wellington Diocese.

I really enjoyed (and was encouraged, challenged and inspired by) the main speaker, Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, England.

Taonga has a report here.

I am pleased to report that the next such Hui will be hosted by the Diocese of Christchurch.

Otherwise, I am working on another long post on Scripture as God's Word written ...

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Perspicuity, diverse readings of Scripture and Psalm 17

The perspicuity of Scripture is the clarity with which Scripture conveys to us the revelation of God. In part, the Reformation was about Scripture's perspicuity: is the message of the Bible (at least after translation into an understandable language) clear to its readers and hearers in its own right, or does it need the (formal/informal) M/magisterium of the church to clarify that message?

We can readily, with hindsight, conclude that what we have ended up with is quite a bit of "on the one hand ... on the other hand ...".

On the first hand, Protestantism both seized the right to translate the Bible from  the power of Rome, and unleashed the Bible from its Latin chains, enabling its treasures to be read in local languages across Europe (and, later, spurred the work of Bible translators around the globe). At the very least, as a consequence, the ordinary reader could determine for themselves whether or not Scripture was clear, whether in its overall message or in its details. To say nothing of the ordinary reader determining whether or not Scripture and church teaching were well aligned.

On the second hand, Protestantism soon found that some magisterial assistance was required to ensure that (so to speak) the right clear message from Scripture was received through reading and hearing Scripture in one's own language. Cue various statements/articles of faith, Luther's Works and Calvin's Institutes. And, in more recent times, cue Protestant resistance to false readings of Scripture as propagated through, e.g., Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons. For those who know their German Reformation history, both Luther and Muntzer read the same Bible, to very different political conclusions!

On the third hand, Rome agreed to Bible translations and (after some initial resistance in the early 20th century) has encouraged full engagement by Catholic biblical scholars in the enterprise of academic biblical scholarship. In the world of biblical scholarship today, there is an alignment of interests and concerns which was scarcely imaginable in, say, 1525. Note, as one instance, the incredible, common reception of the New Revised Standard Version across Protestant and Catholic worlds.

On the fourth hand ... in the comments you might like to add an observation or three!

In other words, Catholics and Protestants have learned a few things from each other through the centuries.

But there remains work to do on the role of the Bible in the life of the church. For instance, sometimes in Anglican settings, I come across promotion of a certain kind of scepticism about the Bible in terms of understanding that its words collectively amount to God's Word written - this scepticism prefers to put more weight on "hearing what the Spirit is saying to the church" than on "the words as written and as we read them." Of course I have also come across promotion of a different form of scepticism in which the role of the Spirit in illuminating the meaning of Scripture is downplayed. To get the balance correct on such matters is is challenging - much ink has been spilled over the years.

Not least in the challenge, is the question of the perspicuity of Scripture: how clear is Scripture?

I recognise that the Bible is a complex set of books, of genres, with multiple layers of messaging, which often falls short of perspicuity.

A recent case in point, for me, was reading Psalm 17:14-15 (initially, NRSV).

I will cite from verse 13, because in this version verse 14 is a continuation of a sentence begun in verse 13:

13: Rise up, O Lord, confront them [= psalmist's enemies], overthrow them!
By your sword deliver my life from the wicked,
14: from mortals - by your hand, O Lord - from mortals whose portion in life is in this world.
May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them;
may their children have more than enough;
may they leave something over to their little ones.
15: As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied,
beholding your likeness.

These verses struck me in this way: the psalmist sees around him satisfied, contented, materialistic, this worldly people (uncannily like many secularised Western persons in the 21st century) but is himself eager for something more, much more than that. The psalmist, verse 15, wants to see God.

Nevertheless this reading of verse 14 is at odds with verse 13: there the psalmist implores God to overthrow his enemies, whereas in verse 14 the psalmist seems quite comfortable with these same enemies having a good life.

Then I looked the verses up in some other translations and discovered some quite different translations of verse 14:

The Revised English Version (REB) has:

14: With your hand, Lord, make an end of them [= enemies of the psalmist];
thrust them out of this world from among the living.
May those whom you cherish have food in plenty,
may their children be satisfied
and their little ones inherit their wealth.

The first sentence here is in keeping with verse 13's diatribe. The second sentence changes the subject: no longer the enemies of the psalmist (and of God) but "those whom you cherish."

The Good News Bible (GNB) has a different translation again:

14: save me from those who in this life have all they want.
Punish them with the sufferings you have stored up for them;
may there be enough for their children and some left over for their children's children.

The first sentence continues verse 13 - the psalmist wants to be saved from his enemies, here described as those who have all they want in this life. But the second sentence is vindictive: may those enemies be punished and may the punishments stored up for them by God be sufficient to have punishments left over for their children and their grandchildren.

Between these three translations there is not much perspicuity in Psalm 17:14!

Looking up the commentaries, we find that the underlying Hebrew is difficult - so difficult that the MT has a marginal note or two, offering alternative readings. Hence the variations between English translations. Naturally this drives a reader to the commentaries (a form of magisterium) which are all united in saying ... that the Hebrew is difficult and one must wring one's interpretative hands to make sense of the passage.

The best of the ones I consulted is Goldingay, who offers a meticulously justified translation which is pretty close to the NRSV:

14: from mortals by you hand, Yhwh,
From mortals - in their lifetime will you fill their belly
with their share in life, with what you have stored up.
Their children are to be replete,
they are to leave what they have left to their offspring.
(John Goldingay, Psalms vol 1: Psalms 1-41, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006, pp. 236-37).

Incidentally, in relation to the NRSV, I have come across a comment that "stored up" means the punishments that God has stored up in order to mete them out to the enemies. But Goldingay's translation does not support that sense.

Thus Psalm 17:14 is a puzzle and underscores that Scripture is not always perspicuous. Simultaneously 17:14 illustrates that Scripture has within it diverse ideas, because each of the possible translations of this verse can be matched to other statements in Scripture re the fate of the ungodly.

By contrast, 17:15 is much clearer. Moreover, it sets out one of the great, recurring themes of the Bible: that God will be seen by those who aspire to do so and to whom God reveals himself ... Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Thus 17:15 illustrates that Scripture does have consistent theological themes, that we can reasonably expect to find in Scripture an understanding of God and the godly life, disclosed for our benefit and bearing witness to the character and identity of God.

Herein is something of a conundrum for those (such as myself) who lean evangelically within Protestantism towards an understanding of Scripture that Scripture is God's written Word - the whole of it.

Is it only God's Word when perspicuous? Does it remain God's Word when the text is somewhat mangled?

But here also is a possibility for evangelicals to sit more kindly within churches where diverse readings of Scripture are supported (such as many Anglican churches which belong to the Communion): acknowledging that Scripture is not perspicuous everywhere, that Scripture gives rise to multiple readings is a starting point for living with disagreement within the body of Christ.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

What the divine nature is not ...

I am working on a longer "all my own work" post but time has escaped me, albeit for some pleasant reasons, including a lovely wedding at the weekend.

But why bark like a gruff dog when the tenor lead can sing beautifully?

Edward Feser has a mind stretching, let's remember Aquinas was outstanding post on the theology (lit: study of GOD) of Herbert McCabe here.