Second in a Series on The Bible in the Life of the Church
By A.C. Thiselton
I am glad to welcome the report The Bible in the Life of the Church. I especially welcome the dual emphasis on the community and the individual. Certainly this is not the first report of its kind. In 1994 the Pontifical Biblical Commission presented a report which commended “the study of the Bible as … the soul of theology.” The greatest difference from our present report is perhaps the more detailed and closer survey not only of historical-critical methods but also of the hermeneutics of narrative, rhetorical analysis, the canonical approach, the influence of reception of the text, patristic exegesis, and a host of such methods.
Before this, Frederick Borsch edited Anglicanism and the Bible (1984), which considered the Bible in worship, the Bible at the Reformation, historical criticism, and other approaches. The present report indeed laments and regrets gaps “between ‘the Academy and the pew,’ or between the ‘scholar’ and the ‘ordinary Christian’” (p. 11). But its mood is perhaps lamentation and regret rather than rectification. In this respect it may seem to lag behind the other two efforts.
One of the report’s most helpful emphases is “reading the Bible together” (p. 20). But “together” means more than “in groups.” It means a “togetherness” both in time and space: scholars and congregations in space, and Church Fathers, Reformers, and modern insights in time. This is easier than it used to be, in days of electronic communication and correspondence courses.
Reader-response theory may be one of several ways in which we can seriously involve the reader. Moderate and informed versions of this do not simply provide the reader with “what we want.” If there is a possible weakness in the report, it may be oversensitive concern to provide “what we want.” If the Bible is to transform us, in some sense it must be what Luther called “our adversary,” not simply confirming us in what we already think. Indeed Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature. But if it is God who says where he will be … that place is the cross of Christ” (Meditating on the Word [Cowley, 1986], p. 45).
Reflections by Australian Anglicans help us to some extent by emphasising the Lectionary (p. 25). The Lectionary does not allow us simply to select our favourite passages or chapters. However, these reflections rightly warn us to take account of divisions between “thoughtful” Christianity and “popular” Christianity. Reader-response approaches admittedly work only with a “thoughtful” biblical readership.
If we wish to reach “popular” readers more effectively, we need to make more use of sophisticated narrative theory. The report appears to neglect the huge resources of narrative theory, which literary theory has developed. Not all narratives are chronological accounts to be replicated. The purposes of biblical narrative are multiple. We can draw on the nature of “narrative worlds.” Although these were first promoted by the philosophers Martin Heidegger and H.G. Gadamer, millions experience narrative worlds every day in TV soaps, films, and serial stories. Parables of reversal and deliberate changes in narrative speed (including flashbacks and other devices) can achieve “defamiliarisation” of supposedly over-familiar texts. Too many readers think that they already know what the Bible is about before they actually read it. It might have been helpful to explore the treasure trove of narrative theory. Robert Alt, Wesley Kort, Paul Ricoeur, and many others have shed a flood of light on what would otherwise seem humdrum or routine biblical passages.
Theories of metaphor provide another way of undermining what are supposedly over-familiar readings of material. Creative metaphors expand our horizons. The world of hermeneutics teams with such resources, but the report seems to mention only a very few specifically and in detail. The positive mood of the report is to undertake serious study and engagement with the Bible. That is good. Its more negative mood laments that we cannot do much about gaps that have arisen between scholars and the pew. This problem calls for action, rather than only regret.
In this respect, regional reflections from South Sudan constitute one of the most helpful responses. These draw a contrast between bad theology and the trustworthiness of the Bible, and commend that we should more frequently read the Bible as a whole (p. 28). This touches on a “canonical” approach to Scripture, which Brevard S. Childs pioneered. South Sudan also calls for a study of Hebrew and Greek, which in turn suggests that improved ministerial training should be very high on our agenda. This is one of the practical proposals.
Reflections from Hong Kong and the Philippines take up, in effect, the point made by Bonhoeffer about “looking beyond ourselves” (p. 32). If the Bible is to be transformative, we must reach out beyond our small, narcissistic world, bounded by self-centered interests. Long ago this was one of C.H. Dodd’s primary arguments for the authority and importance of the Bible.
I find the summary of principles at the end of the report helpful, especially the seven principles listed on page 42. I very much hope and pray that all this positive work will be studied and taken seriously.
The Rev. Anthony C. Thiselton is emeritus professor of Christian theology, University of Nottingham, and canon theologian emeritus of Southwell and Nottingham, and of Leicester.
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