The Authority of Scripture in Practice: Reading, Hearing, and Doing (O’Donovan)

Here is a lecture by Oliver O’Donavan that ministered to my soul as I read it – The Reading Church (27 April 2009):

The authority of Scripture is emerging once again as a topic for theological reflection after a long eclipse. From a variety of recent literature I may mention the valuable little essay by Professor John Webster, Holy Scripture, as well as the more complex study by the young American theologian, Telford Work, Living and Active. [1] This follows a century or more during which theological discussion of the bible was led by a self-consciously scientific-historical and literary-critical line of questioning which deliberately abstracted from normative considerations. That tradition left us a handful of hugely important discoveries, a fair collection of helpful insights and a huge mountain of over-confident speculative rubble. But it also taught some indispensible reading disciplines, for it encouraged an attention to the text as close, perhaps, as at any time of Christian history. In reaction to that school of scholarly enquiry there arose a doctrinal and apologetic way of talking about Scripture, one driven by the pastoral need to secure the church’s respect for it as the revelation of the mind and purposes of God. Attributes of divine perfection were ascribed to Scripture, the negative epithets, “infallible”, “inerrant” etc., playing the same role as negative epithets do in the doctrine of God. The problem was not that these epithets could not be persuasively argued for on their own terms, but that they had no more to say about the authority of Scripture than did the scholarly tradition they challenged. They offered an icon of revelation for us to wonder at and worship, but no sense of how it could and must direct and shape the lives we have to lead. “Authority” is a term of practical reason, and it needs to be discussed within a context of practical reason.

Theology is no longer stuck in those opposed positions. Let me point to one small but interesting straw in the wind, blowing from a direction where the most old-fashioned views on Scripture are commonly supposed to prevail. The “Jerusalem Declaration” issued last June by the GAFCON conference included the following brief clause: We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading. [2] I have not seen any public remark on these words; yet I should have thought they merited serious interest. To anyone not tone-deaf theologically it must be clear that the key, even the tune, has changed. Where have the negative epithets gone to? In their place GAFCON has combined a formula of Reformation origins that speaks of the function of the Bible in salvation with a new statement about the practical requirements Scripture lays upon the life of the church.

. . . The five verbs of the Jerusalem Statement, “translated”, “read”, “preached”, “taught” and “obeyed”, no less than the famous five verbs used about Scripture by Thomas Cranmer in his Collect for Advent II, “hear”, “read”, “mark”, “learn”, “inwardly digest”, which, no doubt, they self-consciously complement, circle around the single verb, “read”. . . a church which is shaped in any measure by the authority of Scripture will be a reading church. . .

. . . so becoming a living expression of the law, circumcised in the heart, not dependent, as they ironically comment, on legal counsel that must be sought either from the heaven or from beyond the sea. The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart. Delicately the Psalmist contrasts the independence of mind enjoyed by the reader with the subjection to social influence of those whose culture is formed laterally, by those living around them. These walk in the counsel of the wicked; they stand in the way of sinners; they sit in the seat of scoffers. . .

. . . Speech is potent for good or ill, and therefore Christ says, Take care how you hear! Reading is a kind of hearing, yet it does not hear voices around us or speak directly to us. The voice the reader hears is from another place and time. As we read the historical and geographical dimensions of the world are opened up to us. . .

. . . Reading is serious to the extent that it exploits the power of text to span history. Much hermeneutic theory has taken immediate communication as the paradigm for all communication, and so assumed that difficulties in reading increase with distance of time and circumstance.   In my view, the opposite is the case.   New literature is more elusive.   Not yet detached from ephemeral communications, the importance it may have for future generations is not at once apparent.   Literature is quite different from music in this respect, which, as a performing art, always depends in part on immediate effect for its communicative power.   With literature communication is constituted essentially by distance, whether historical, cultural or simply philosophic. . .Reading is serious to the extent that it exploits the power of text to span history. . .

. . . The art of writing, Leo Strauss insisted, is an art of concealment, not of making plain. It aims at postponing the encounter with some truth. Perhaps he had in mind the prophets . . . Jeremiah, in compiling his collected works, meant them not for Jehoiakim, who tore them up and burned them, but for those who would read them seventy years on, when God’s purposes were ripe for accomplishment. What was written in former times was written for our instruction, wrote Saint Paul,. . .

. . .The text has its purpose beyond its own age and circumstance, and no text can be interpreted merely by careful evocation of the moment in which it arose. Interpreters who reduce the meaning of written words to a note about their provenance, merely misunderstand them. But neither is the text interpreted by what our age makes of it. . . .

. . What was written in former times was written for our instruction, that by patience and the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope. The patience that endures the span of history, the comfort that belongs to the community of thought, yield hope for the coherence of time and for the fructifying of God’s long purposes. . .

. . . Acts of reading that refuse the text patience invariably miscarry. . .

. . . For Christian thought the idea of a canonical text has depended for its intelligibility upon that of a central, normative strand in history. The privileged book witnesses to privileged events. The end of the ages is not only the fulfilment of the promise of the text, but the Christ-moment which fulfils the promise of history, the moment at which history’s direction is made clear, the lurking promise of past events breaks surface in what God has done on earth through his Son. . .

. . . We must speak, therefore, of God’s self-emptying into Scripture no less than of his self-emptying into humanity. It would be the worst mistake to imagine the textual form of Scripture as a kind of straitjacket imposed upon the Incarnation.

I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. In that pregnant saying law and saving-history are mutually co-involved. We must think it through from both sides:- . . .

. . . the authority of Scripture is the moment at which the attested reality of God’s acts disturb the ideal constructions and zealous projections of human piety. . .

. . . I pass on quickly to the last of the five verbs, which may seem to be the most self-evident but is the hardest to come to grips with: we are to obey the Scriptures. Here is brought most sharply to our notice, what all the other verbs suppose, that the authority of Scripture is a ground of practical reason. It has obedience in view from beginning to end, and obedience is a way of acting. Precisely for this reason there is an element of indeterminacy in what the authority of Scripture requires of us. In a wholly determined world there would be no obedience. For there would be no need for thought about how to act consistently with what we have heard. If we were excused the work of thought, we should be excused obedience, too. Thought “how to” does not merely replicate what we have been told; it devises action, and forms it, conceiving of an act that will respect the norm within the material conditions we find ourselves in. . .

. . . “If it is revealed religion we want to think about, it is to do with an agency, a freedom.” And it is because God freely summons us to obedient freedom, that “there will always be more questions put to us by what we encounter.” [Archbishop of Canterbury] How could there not be questions put to us if authority is genuinely a practical, not merely a speculative category, and if obedience is the final term of revelation, not merely assent? Obedience is never predetermined, it has always be thought through and sought after. . . .

. . . The encounter with Scripture is an encounter with what God has done in liberating us to work the works of God, as St John’s Gospel puts it, to work them here in our time and place, to work them here in our time and place, far removed as this may seem from the works of which we read in the Gospel text. The distance is not only of time and place, but of kind, too. Whoever has faith in me, will do what I do himself; and will do greater things than these, because I go to the Father. Disciples shall do more than simply replicate what Jesus did. . .

Lest you think I’ve quoted the whole lecture (The Reading Church), I’ve merely scratched the surface (and no doubt done it a serious injustice).

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