Saturday, November 17, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Private Prayer

Having completed my discussion of the use and interpretation of Scripture in liturgical contexts, I can turn to the remainder of the topic, beginning first with private prayer.

Lectio Divina

A particular famous and important use of the Scriptures in private prayer is of course the practice known as sacred reading, or in Latin, lectio divina. This has sometimes been worked up into a fairly detailed four-stage method of prayer, but this is perhaps not true to its real nature.

Instead of the most common description of sacred reading as being about particular stages, I want to look "under the hood," as it were, and see what is particular to this form of the use of Scripture which can perhaps illuminate other non-liturgical uses.

The primary thing we notice in attending to this monastic practice of sacred reading, is that it is not merely the text which is sacred, but the manner in which it is read. Moreover, there is reason to think that for monks this was for a long time the only way to read a text, rather than merely one, that it was what it is to read a sacred text.

The conviction then is that the proper way to read the sacred text is to do so in a particular way. Only later does that way become understood as a particular method of prayer. So embedded in this particular method are some convictions about what it is to read properly.

First, and most clearly, reading is done with no particular goal beyond edification. The reading is not targeted at reading any particular amount, or to establish some point or other, or to address a particular question. Of course, these had always been ways Scripture is used, but the prayerful sacred reading of Scripture, as practiced by the monks, was not this.

The assumption is made that God will be met in the text, and if that assumption is correct, if God will be met there, then it will be the transcendent God who cannot be controlled and refuses to be at our beck and call. Indeed, the more sure we are that we will meet God in our reading of the text, the more careful we inevitably will be that we approach without a presupposition of what we will find.

The reading is undertaken slowly as if we were savoring every bite. (And the word ruminatio, rumination, is associated with this practice, after all.) There is an attitude of reception, of waiting, of hearing. This is very different from exegeting Scripture for the purpose of proving a point, or just the scholarly task of hearing what the text says.


Scripture also forms a great source of material for private prayer. The psalms are not merely a great source of prayers for liturgy, but they are also prayers which can be used at need as one's own prayers.

And there are of course a whole host of quasi-liturgical devotions, whose words are substantially from the Scriptures, for example, the rosary, the angelus, novenas, and so forth. As a general rule, the observations I have already made about the Scriptures as liturgical source texts apply here.

But there is an additional aspect to the use of the Scriptures as sources of private prayer, and that is that they are chosen by the individual in a way that the liturgy is not. (And for quasi-liturgical devotions, there is a spectrum here.)

The private use of the Scriptures as prayer then is something chosen, and the question of how the individual can adopt the words of Scripture as her own prayer becomes manifest. What remains, however, once a given text is used and is appropriate, is that it can be a tremendous asset to many to have words provided. This is particularly true at times when words fail, or with individuals who may not know how they feel until they find words for it.


The question now is what implications the use and interpretation of Scripture in private prayer may have for the remainder of the church's life. In one sense, the answer is not at all, and in another, it is immeasurable in every way.

In the former sense, the understandings reached in private prayer have no authority for the church. What one encounters in sacred reading, or the understanding one uses in taking a text as one's own prayer, is not therefore the correct use of the text in preaching or otherwise ordering the church's life. As I have already argued, the liturgical use is primary, and therefore cannot be dependent upon the private use.

This does not mean that the preacher's private prayer and encounter with God in Scripture is irrelevant. It simply means that, once the prayer is over, the preacher must now ask the questions of what must be preached, and there is no question of taking the encounter in private as normative in public. What is to be preached must be judged on a liturgical basis (as I have already argued) and is not to be subject to any particular private encounter, even that of the preacher himself.

But if the prayer is genuine, it will also be that the encounter with God in the text will be transformative, as any true prayer and encounter with God can be expected to be. And this will in turn bear its fruit in all areas. As a Christian becomes more and more conformed to God, especially through prayer and contact with God, we can expect that all their life will become more embued with the will of God, and this applies to their use of Scripture no less than the rest of life.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Supervening Liturgical Authority

We turn now to the last liturgical category for the use and interpretation of Scripture: its use as an authority prescribing or prohibiting liturgical actions.

For some, this follows from a general rule that Scripture must be the authority for all of life. In this of course there is broad agreement, though the exact parameters of what it means in practice are highly controversial. So we will do well, in accord with my general procedure in this series, not to attempt a general, over-arching account, but rather to attempt merely to understand this one small piece.

Positive Obligations from Scripture

We can of course find in Scripture some positive commands regarding worship. For example, that we pray, that we confess our sins, that we give thanks to God, that we celebrate the sacraments, all these are commanded in Scripture.

Beyond this, Scripture occasionally commands certain texts, for example, the Lord's Prayer, as normative for prayer. I have already noted the importance of the Lord's Prayer and lamented its neglect by some churches which proclaim a very high view of the importance of the Scriptures.

What is striking, however, is that the positive obligations from Scripture are so spare. The tractarians as well were impressed by this fact, and concluded from this and from minor references to liturgical practice that the apostles taught liturgical practice, but it was not the role of the epistles (let alone the Gospels) to command this practice to the church.

Here we see a striking variance from the historic position of the Reformed, who proclaim that only what is commanded may be done. As evidence of this, they point to the strong language in the Old Testament which seems to absolutely prohibit any human invention about how to best worship God. For the Reformed, God tells us what God wants from us in worship, and that is the end of the matter.

But of course this is a useless doctrine when it comes time to write a prayer. Did God command this or that particular sentence of thanksgiving? No, of course not. The Reformed plead that God did command, for example, thanksgiving. Yet, the Scriptures do not tell us what the sentence must say. So if we are actually writing a liturgy, we cannot possibly hope to find complete instructions in the Scriptures.

At best we find general heads, and we are left to fill them out. But then we have a loophole through the Reformed principle which is big enough to drive the entire Tridentine liturgy through. We are left then with the Lutheran position.


The Lutheran position then is that some things are obligatory, and some things are prohibited, and in between them are things indifferent. One may do them, but one may not make them a condition of church unity. Of course, the problem with that, again, is that they are a condition of church unity, when we look at the actual folks in the pews.

The exact language of a thanksgiving prayer will serve again as example. The exact wording is an adiaphoron. Now, think of the average worshipper: it is a condition of their participation that they pray that particular prayer, because that simply is the prayer the group is using. And there may well be no other church around for them to attend.

The actual worshipping dynamics of congregations, as I have argued before, always involve people who decide what will happen and other people who simply must take what is offered and do not get to decide. And precisely because of this, talk of "freedom"--or adiaphora in the Lutheran fashion--is quite out of place.

The Authority of the Church

And so who will write that thanksgiving prayer? We cannot find it in Scripture. We cannot say that because it is not in Scripture, anything orthodox will do, without stepping on toes, since the priniciple of adiaphora preserves the right of all to reject the practice without losing unity.

The Anglican solution is to argue that particular churches have the right to order their ceremonies as they see fit, and impose them on worshippers, but must do nothing contrary to scriptures, and must not require to be believed what cannot be proved from the Scriptures. Notice that requirements about practice can be imposed--which is a good thing, since public worship necessarily involves the imposition of requirements about practice.

But this still leaves unsaid why the church should have this authority. And here, we appeal a good old Tractarian idea: the ministerial commission. As we all know, the talk about lay ministry in the Episcopal Church has not replaced the central authority of the rector over worship, nor could it. Indeed, I will subscribe to that hoary old Tractarian conviction that there is a ministerial commission, given to the church, and to particular individuals within it, to order the life and worship of the church. This commission resides in the bishops and the lower clergy to whom they have delegated that task through ordination.


So now we can get to the point! What does this tell us about the use and interpretation of the Scriptures when it comes to their role as the authority for our worship? It tells us that the task of deciding what must be done, when the scriptures do not give us prohibitions or commands, falls upon the clergy, and primarily upon the bishops.

But the interpretation of the Scriptures is controversial. Not everyone will agree on which points have been prohibited or commanded by Scripture. (For example, some believe that blessing same-sex marriages is prohibited, others disagree.) Who is to make the authoritative determination for the church? For either we do the controversial practice or we do not; someone must decide.

Clearly there is no way to separate this deciding (what do the Scriptures require or prohibit for our worship?) from the first one (what should we do when the Scriptures leave us free?). There is no way to constitute an authority for the second which will not, ipso facto be determining the first.

The bishops (and the lower clergy under their deputation) thus for the first time in these essays have a distinctive magisterial role, but one which is entirely practical. (Homiletic, already treated, is another, but does not involve authoritative statements in the way liturgical decisions do.) The bishops have an authoritative role in interpreting the scriptures as far as necessary to determine whether a given practice is commanded, prohibited, or left open to the church to decide: and in the last case, to make that decision.

This process requires that the bishops act with integrity. It is not plenary authority to do what they please with the liturgy; it is an authority constrained by the Scriptures. But, and this is absolutely crucial, the recognition of that constraint is not imposed by someone else. One might disagree with or object to the bishops' decisions about some liturgical question, or biblical interpretation weighing in upon it, but the determination of what to do still resides in the bishops' hands, and they are not acting illegitimately simply because their interpretation differs from one's own.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

Saturday, October 6, 2007

St. Isaiah the Solitary 11

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

11. The demons cunningly withdraw for a time in the hope that we will cease to guard our heart, thinking we have now attained peace; then they suddenly attack our unhappy soul and seize it like a sparrow. Gaining possession of it, they drag it down mercilessly into all kinds of sin, worse than those which we have already committed and for which we have asked forgiveness. Let us stand, therefore, with fear of God and keep guard over our heart, practising the virtues which check the wickedness of our enemies.

From the initial counsels about freeing the intellect and becoming at rest, we turn now to a crucial warning. It is tempting to think that, once freed, one has no enemies. Isn't this just what happens after great military victories? But the elation of V-E day yields shortly to the realization that the true enemies are not so quickly vanquished.

The modern tendency is then to say that the true enemies are internal, and in a sense, this is right. But the mythological language here, of demons, is helpful. Don't get caught up in metaphysics! The point is that the forces which plague us are not, truly, internal, but rather, external, and they succeed by a cooperation between the internal and external. What makes the external demons able to accomplish their nefarious task is an inward readiness for them.

And, alas, that readiness is what happens if we "cease to guard our heart, thinking we have now attained peace." It is the consequence of the spiritual pride, which would say, "I have now purified the intellect, and I am at peace," and that suddenly makes it possible for the true reality: that freedom and peace are not so simple.

It is when we think that we have nothing more to do that this warning comes to play. The spiritual pride of thinking that we have reached our goal is precisely the thing which opens us to even greater dangers.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Saturday, September 8, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Ritual Object

We move on to a perhaps surprising topic for some: the use of Scripture as a ritual object in the liturgy. Here we are concerned with the physical object rather than the particular words within it.

For some, Scripture is so primarily and only a text, that it ceases to be a thing, an actual written thing. Some react to the reverence shown the book of the Gospels (especially by the Orthodox who enthrone it) as tantamount to idolatry. (These are, of course, the same Christians who reject statues and bowing to altars, and such.)

Now what is odd here is that our monotheistic fellows in other Abrahamic religions, with far more stringent rules about the veneration of material objects, do not shirk when it comes to their sacred texts. We know of Torah scrolls, made with painstaking care by specially trained scribes, kept in special chests, and treated with much reverence. Muslims always place the Koran on the highest shelf and treat it with special respect in a variety of ways.

So how does Christian liturgy treat the Bible as a ritual object, and what can we learn from this?

Size and Dignity of Book

Bibles are famously large. In the modern age we have perhaps missed this, with inexpensive printing on very thin paper, but any look (still) at a so-called "pulpit Bible" will show that making a Bible on good weight paper at a large size for public reading means making a very large book indeed.

Rubrics commonly direct that biblical readings be made from dignified volumes. Moreover, as a general rule, readings come from complete bibles or from lectionaries, and should not come from random sheets taped here and there. By using as a ritual object a complete text (or a complete lectionary) one knows that this is an excerpt, and perhaps more importantly, that the reading comes from somewhere, indeed, comes from something which existed prior to this reading!

Signs of Reverence

In the Middle Ages, the very best illumination was reserved for the text of the Scriptures. This was not a kind of sumptuary legislation, as if decoration of other books would be wrong, but it was an indication of importance: with limited time and money, start on the most important book.

Particularly books of the Gospels are decorated splendidly, and given special honor in liturgy: they are carried in processions, and serve as signs of Christ's presence, the idea being that they carry the words of Jesus. Indeed, the Western liturgical tradition objects to the use of a processional cross in the gospel procession precisely for this reason: it is the book itself which is the marker in that procession. (For a like reason, processional crosses should not be used when the paschal candle is in the procession, but the candle should come first.)

Many churches arrange to have candles mark the reading of Scripture; either the Gospel alone, or all the readings. Special reading desks, reserved for this purpose are commonly seen; one very popular style in the United States is to have a grand eagle-shaped lectern to hold the text.

Ordination Rites

Of particular importance is the use of the Bible in the ordination rites. In the western liturgy, this is generally the only time the Bible is given prominence outside of its use as a source of text for proclamation.

In the historic western pattern for the ordination of a bishop, the period of silent prayer before the laying on of hands features deacons holding the open book of the gospels over the head of the kneeling candidate. In contemporary Anglican rites, the Bible is given to all candidates for ordination (of whatever order). In neither case is the text being used to read from: it is instead being used as a pure symbol.

(This does not mean the written words are far from mind: in the historical episcopal ordination rite, the book of the gospels is the one from which a reading has just been proclaimed a bit earlier; in the Anglican rites the handing of the Bible is accompanied by a formula which often relates to the text, if only obliquely.)

Non-liturgical Uses

Notice the image of the fundamentalist preacher holding his bible as he speaks. Do we not see here as well the use of the Bible as a ritual object? He may turn through it, read it, but we also see its use as an object. The English cliche of the "Bible-thumper" shows this as well.

Also to consider, with some interest, is the general tendency of Christians not to show particular reverence to the text of the Scriptures outside the liturgy. One used to see a "family bible" placed in a position of honor in some households, and there are those who imitate Muslim practices by wrapping the text in cloth and storing it specially.

Some conclusions

What do these scattered observations tell us about the use and interpretation of Scripture? I list them first, if only to remind us that the use of Scripture includes these uses even if they do not involve reading.

But beyond that, these uses express the community's love for the Scripture, and highlight it as important. When these uses are not in place (allowing for liturgical expression to vary from place to place, of course), when there is really nothing special done for the physical objects, we can properly wonder if we are seeing a community which does not value the words as much either.

For this reason, liturgical leaders should take seriously the injunctions to read from dignified books, and should relish opportunities to show such signs of honor as fit in a particular liturgical context.

We also see, in the ordination rites, that the Scriptures are particularly associated with ordained ministry. By no means as if I were saying that lay people need not be concerned, but rather, that ordained ministry is being associated particularly with the text. As a source of inspiration, as a guide, as a mark of authority: in all these ways, the community indicates a relation of intimacy and importance between scriptural text and ordination.

This is, perhaps, the most important reason for expecting ordinands to have serious training in the Scriptures. Whatever value that training may have in preaching and other tasks aside, there is independently a value placed upon the leader knowing the text. And here, for the first time in this series, do we see a role emerging for private study and its importance: in the use of the book of the Scriptures at ordination, we see an expectation that such private study will occur.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

Thursday, May 3, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Source Text

Next we are concerned with the use of Scripture in providing a corpus of texts for other purposes. Hymns, poetry, prayers, and so forth, all draw from Scriptural roots, often borrowing phrases quoted whole, modified slightly, paraphrased, or alluded to. The Scriptures form a set of images, stories, metaphors, and such, which can be deployed in other and different contexts from where they began.

Scripture in Prayers

The use of Scriptural text in prayer is ancient, but often neglected today. It is difficult in an ex tempore prayer to effectively make use of Scripture, and the result is that churches which laud ex tempore prayer as the only genuine prayer tend to have a fairly low dose of Scriptural content in the prayer. (Ironically, such churches are often found to hold very high doctrines of the importance of Scripture!)

We are not concerned here with whether prayer is "Scriptural" in some sense of being obedient to it. Of course, prayer ought to be orthodox; and if orthodoxy is captured by being "Scriptural", then prayer ought to be such. Instead, the concern here is whether the language of Scripture is also the language of prayer.

Perhaps the most important example here is the Lord's Prayer. As Anglicans have always pointed out, when Jesus was asked to teach how to pray, he responded with a set form of words and a rubric ("go into your closet and shut the door"). The wholesale use of prayers from Scripture as one's own prayer is deeply embedded in the traditions of liturgical worship. The Lord's Prayer, the psalter, canticles, and so forth, must always have pride of place.

The use of Scripture as a source text for prayer is not only however that it gives us texts to pray; it also gives us phrases and ideas. So prayers do not merely refer to the contents of the Bible by treating the Bible as a source of true statements about history and theology, but also as a source of images, metaphors, and so forth. "Here I raise my Ebenezer" went the traditional words of "Come thou font of every blessing." The Episcopal Church has now dropped those words, under the (surely correct) assumption that almost everyone who sings them has forgotten—or never learned—1 Samuel 7.

Meaning and Interpretation

Immediately with all these uses of Scripture as source texts runs the worry that the text will be taken in a way which does violence to its meaning. I believe that this worry fundamentally misunderstands the nature of scriptural interpretation. It operates with the idea that there is a "meaning", which is determined separately and apart from the actual use of the text in the Church, and which the Church's use in prayer must then be respectful of. This is the right description, because if interpretation is not to be separate and apart from the actual use of the text, then we would see the actual use of the text as source material as precisely one of those things which interpretation must take into account, rather than judge over.

But this does not mean that a text cannot be misused in quotation. Of course it can be. What it means is simply that the judgment whether it has been misused cannot be made on the basis of fidelity to some separately acquired meaning. And the caveats about historical continuity now apply. We must be extremely cautious about deciding that a traditional use of a text in quotation is a misuse. If we are tempted to say that indeed it is, we must now step back and re-evaluate that perhaps it is rather our criteria for judging use and misuse which should be amended.

Two examples will make the point. The liturgy grabs one verse of Psalm 118 and embeds it in the Eucharistic Prayer, in which it functions as an acclamation of Jesus Christ, the one who "comes in the name of the Lord." And many worshippers have gone further and re-interpreted the text as referring to themselves. (This is a convenient modern idea, but has no basis in liturgical history; it then drives the text to be re-translated to avoid the "he" since the worshippers are both men and women.) But this is not what Psalm 118 means, the Biblical Scholar proclaims; it does violence to the psalm; the psalm is a Royal Psalm, about King David, and not about Jesus.

The second example of the use of Scripture as quotation is the celebrated quotation of Isaiah in Matthew, in which we are told that a "virgin will conceive", now applied to Mary. Not even a mis-applied quotation (since in Isaiah, we are told, it was about Ahab and the immediate political context), but a misquoted and mis-applied quotation, since Hebrew almah does not imply virgin, as Matthew is using it.

What to do?! Notice now the validity of the historical caution. If we decide that the antecedently determined meaning must control all use in quotation, then we must jettison not merely the Benedictus in the Eucharistic Prayer, but also large stretches of the New Testament—for starters. This should tell us that the rule being proposed is the wrong rule.

Many adopt a quite bizarre rule, one which says that it's ok for Scripture to misquote and misuse Scripture, but not ok for us to do so. This cannot be right. Instead, what we must give up on is the idea that these are misuses or misquotes at all.

Matthew is quoting Isaiah, we must say. We can comfortably say that Isaiah never intended what Matthew gets out of it, but so what? Isaiah does not own the text, and have we not learned that "authorial intention" is the shakiest of grounds to base a hermeneutic upon?

But once we say this, that Matthew is quoting Isaiah, we must also say that this is not the only way one may quote Isaiah. The other ways remain; the other uses of Scripture remain. If one is worried that we will not be able to hear about Ahab and his situation because Matthew has altered the meaning of the text, then this worry can be put to rest. Since we are not engaged in a search for "the meaning of the text", we need not worry that affirming Matthew means discarding other uses and interpretations.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

Thursday, February 22, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Homiletics

One of the primary means of using Scripture in the liturgy, after the reading of it, is preaching based upon it. The primary role of the liturgy is thus underscored not only by reading it in liturgy, but in regularly commenting on it in the context of the liturgy. This is then the primary means by which the Scripture is commented on in the Church. But it is specifically liturgical; and some features of this commentary are particular to that context.

Objective Setting

By the objective setting, I mean those features which depend not on the particulars of a given congregation or preacher or moment. We are concerned then with the ritual context in which the homily is found, the particular liturgical festival or occasion, and so forth.

A homily is intended not merely to explain a given text, but to explain it for a purpose, that is, for the purpose of its setting in that particular liturgy. A Eucharistic homily thus differs from a homily preached at an office. Preaching at an ordination differs from preaching at a funeral. Preaching in Easter differs from Christmas, and both from Lent or Advent.

There is no question, therefore, of giving a homily which simply explains a text as a written commentary might; the homily is necessarily directed to the occasion and setting. Moreover, because of the priority of liturgy in the Church, the liturgical homily, with its particular setting and role, stands over written commentary.

This is not to require that every use, to be appropriate, must be preachable. Many are not, and indeed, this is the point. It is the preachable uses which enjoy priority. The homily is not intended to give a comprehensive explanation of a text, and there are explanations of the text which are not appropriate for homiletic. Perhaps a given text is read only on a particular sort of occasion, which occasion does not provide for a given interpretation. One might suppose that this is to be lamented: that the text should be taken some other time, so that the proposed interpretation can be preached.

But this would be to understand the priority of liturgy and liturgical use incorrectly. There is no antecedent correct interpretation which it is the job of the liturgy to enact or preach. Rather, the liturgical interpretation has priority (though without replacing the other uses), and that priority has its own integrity.

Crucially, liturgical contexts are given antecedently. Except on rare occasions, one does not begin with a homily and then seek a liturgy in which to embed it; likewise, liturgical procedure chooses readings first and only then begins consideration of homiletic: and the choice is made (generally not by local communities) with regard for the entire year and not simply a single occasion.

Nothing wrong has happened because a given text is read and not homilized about, or that a homily can only say some things and not everything. This is, in fact, of the nature of liturgical preaching, and it does not mean that liturgical preaching is only of secondary importance to some understanding of the text reached before; rather, it means that liturgical preaching enjoys a priority, with these characteristics as part of why it has that priority.

Subjective Setting

Different communities differ, as do different preachers. One day it may be raining; the deceased at a funeral may be well known or indigent. Appropriate preaching is responsive to all these various changes in communities and situations.

The dynamic of liturgical preaching is driven then by the relation between the fixed text of Scripture and the dynamics of actual liturgical communities, as mediated by liturgical designers who have done their work without knowing the details of the particular community.

Different interpretations are made in a homily, as a result, depending on all these factors. What establishes the correctness of the homily must be judged by the internal canons of liturgical appropriateness, and not by fidelity to some antecedent interpretation of the text or of the particular liturgical situation. One preaches on 1 Corinthians 15 at many funerals, but the content can and should vary appropriately.

Moreover, what is said in one community about 1 Corinthians 15 may be quite different from what is said in another. This does not result in any question of which is correct, merely because they may disagree in the words spoken. The job of a homily—which is a liturgical job—is to be part of a particular ritual, just as much as the lighting of candles, playing of music, or reading of prayers.

This does not mean that all preaching is equally appropriate, of course. One must judge the homily, but the judgment must be with respect to the liturgical situation in all its particularity, rather than to some idealized reading of a text or even of a liturgical context.

Locality of Reference

Any given homily is only about certain parts of the Bible. Because of the necessarily contextual setting of a homily, there is no need for the sort of consistency required of other uses of Scripture. Because a text may have many meanings; because, that is, there may be many hermeneutical filters which could illuminate it; because there is no interpretation of Scripture prior to the homily which could judge it—there is no reason that a given text must always be given the same explanation, or even compatible explanations; still less that one text must be given an explanation compatible with that given a different text.

Two points are crucial here. First, that there is (in general) no violation of appropriate homiletic in giving different readings of the same text on different occasions, or giving readings of different texts on separate occasions which could not be joined into a single homily. This follows necessarily from the reality that there is no antecedent correct interpretation to be found, which in turn follows from the priority of the liturgical use of Scripture.

Second, this places hermeneutical filters and techniques at the service of the homilist and not as a master. Moreover, because a homilist must be attentive to the objective and subjective contexts of the homily, it is unlikely that any hermeneutical filter could be determined in advance without, on some occasion or other, producing bad homiletic. (One thinks here of those Lutheran preachers who feel constrained to preach justification by faith alone in every sermon.)

The Judgment of Homiletic

I have insisted that homiletic cannot be judged by fidelity to antecedently chosen hermeneutical criteria or preceding interpretation. I have, however, been vague and inspecific about what the criteria are which distinguish good from bad homiletic.

Homiletic, embedded in the liturgical context, must function together with that context. It cannot, therefore, operate as a challenge to the basic assumptions or mechanisms of the liturgy. (If such a challenge is necessary, then one has an obligation to stop engaging in the offending liturgy rather than enacting it while criticizing it.) This is true both for objective and subjective factors.

A homily must serve the rite, offering words that enable the hearers to more effectively participate in the liturgy. A homily which so enrages the hearers that they leave (or stay only through a mistaken sense of propriety) is a failure, even if the words would be true on some other occasion. Or rather, such a homily may be successful, but not as a homily; that is, its interpretation of text has failed to be what it should be, and thus is no longer a use or interpretation of Scripture in that community.

A homily must be responsible, both to the wider Church, and to the ongoing life of a given congregation. Even when a homilist is invited to preach in an unfamiliar community and expects never to return, the homily should be responsible as if the preacher needed to stay around and deal with fall-out, as if the preacher were prepared to be judged for the content of what is said.

Finally, a homily is not a lecture, nor is it bible study. Homilies which are so inattentive to liturgical context that they are lectures have left the liturgy entirely. Likewise, homilies which are really introductions to group bible study (so-called "dialogue sermons," for example) have deviated so strongly from their liturgical moorings that they are no longer homilies, but something else. While in both these cases they may be very good lectures or bible studies, they no longer enjoy the priority properly ascribed to the homily.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

Monday, February 19, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Readings in the Liturgy

The primary criterion of Scripture is its use in the liturgy, specifically its use as the key readings in the liturgy. From this comes the essential criterion of canonicity, as well as the other uses of Scripture in the church.


Only some books are read and not others. Because the question of what is read must be made: one either reads a given book, or not, the question is inescapable. The practice of course derived from the synagogue with its own practice of readings. Immediately one notices some qualifications necessary.

First, there are readings from non-biblical literature. These are most often found in the morning office, as patristic readings. They were prescribed by the Rule of Saint Benedict, and are found in other liturgies as well. Recently some Anglican liturgies have made their use optional. Special services, especially weddings, often find such readings.

We can note some facts about these additional non-Scriptural readings which explain why, despite their use in the liturgy, they are not thereby Scripture. They arose only later, and always surrounded with the rule that they can augment, but never replace, the Scriptural readings. Second, they are limited to only some services and not used in others, while Scriptural readings are used in nearly all services.

A second qualification is the use of hymns from non-biblical sources, especially in contexts where biblical texts are normally found. For example, in the Anglican office one finds the use of the Te Deum and the Gloria in Excelsis as canticles for some days and not others. We should note, however, that in the Roman Office, the Te Deum has its own place, and the Gloria is not found in the office at all. Perhaps even more interesting is the extensive use of "canons" of antiphons in the Orthodox services, which have come to replace almost entirely the singing of the biblical canticles with which they were associated.

However, we can see that these hymns are used as the expression of the worshippers: quite rather than being read to the worshippers, they are sung by the worshippers themselves as their own prayer. And, most importantly, while some of them have come to replace or even supplant biblical texts, they are not allowed to introduce upon the readings in the liturgy proper.

So the liturgy marks out, by particular forms, certain texts, which are read from the Scriptures at particular moments, and surrounded by particular ceremony and responses. These texts are taken from the normative canon of Scripture, and it is this selection which determines the canon.

Choice of Books

The texts chosen vary from church to church. Different churches have made different judgments about canonicity, with different reasons. Broad agreement was reached fairly early, with disagreement arising in the sixteenth century about the "apocrypha": Jewish texts in the Greek and Latin Bibles but not in the Hebrew.

One can judge that what a church reads in worship, as a canonical reading, is what that church takes to be canonical. But there are some constant worries. For example, Anglicans have always read from the apocrypha, but have a rule that the texts thus read are not to establish points of doctrine. The Orthodox have always admitted the Revelation of John as canonical, but do not read it in services.

So the actual practice of churches is a bit fuzzy. I judge, however, that the choice to read a text in church as scripture establishes its canonicity for that community; while a decision not to read it is determinitive neither way. So we must say that the apocrypha are canonical for Anglicans, and we must understand the decision not to base doctrine upon them in some other way. The Orthodox, who insist that the Revelation is canonical, must be taken at their word, though it is not read in services.

For every church cannot read everything, or at least, thus has been the case.

Choice of Readings

The choice of readings offers the fear that we establish a canon within the canon. Such choices are made often for practical reasons, but an examination of lectionaries will show that other concerns are also often present.

Sometimes a text is excluded because it is ugly: this is often the case with various psalms in various liturgies. More often, it is excluded from reading because, essentially, the compilers of the lectionary do not know how it could be read and understood as Scripture by their community.

They express, thus, a sort of half-doubt about canonicity. They do not wish to read texts about which the worshipping community will react with marked hostility; in this they reflect (or try to) the judgments the community itself makes. It is just this which is invoked to exclude the Revelation of John from Orthodox liturgy; and likewise, one can imagine just such motives behind the particular omissions from various New Testament epistles in the Daily Office lectionary of the Episcopal Church.

However, the lectionary compilers are not excluding such readings from the church. One finds that, in fact, no broad exclusion is made; merely that the particular reading is not included in the lectionary. But the actual practice of the churches allows readings outside the lectionary for various purposes; importantly, no judgment is made that the text is in principle incapable of being used as scripture, merely that it is pastorally inadvisable in the particular setting.

One must always be wary, however, that a continued practice of this sort does result, ultimately, in a loss of canonicity for that community. Lectionary authors are therefore advised to be extremely careful with such cases.

Liturgical Honorific

The readings are marked by particular honorifics. Most notably in the West is the acclamation "thanks be to God" after readings; in recent years this is preceded by the declaration of the reader: "The Word of the Lord." Moreover, liturgy renders an honorific immediately by the near constant use of Scripture in liturgy. Nearly every service has a reading, even if reduced to a single sentence or two. (And, in those cases, it is still regarded as a reading.)

One finds directions about reading from dignified books, elevated platforms, surrounded by lights, and so forth. The reading of the Gospel, in particular, is associated with special honor played the Gospel book and the management of its reading in liturgy.

In these ways and more the church confesses something about the reading of Scripture. But most importantly, what it confesses is that Scripture should be surrounded by reverence. It should be treated as important, and this is crucial. Nothing is so strange to the liturgical worshipper as the fundamentalist preacher holding his Bible, with no actual reading having occurred, as he pages around in his sermon identifying bits and explaining them. It looks so undignified; the text is being made to serve the speaker. At no point can the text simply be heard.

The Puritans insisted that a homily should be associated with every reading, but Anglicans followed liturgical tradition in refusing. In particular, we trust that the reading, by itself, is capable of doing something. In not demanding a homily at each reading, we mark a conviction about the power of the text itself.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

A series on the use and interpretation of Scripture.

1. Prolegomena
2. Liturgy: Readings
3. Liturgy: Homiletics
4. Liturgy: Source Text
5. Liturgy: Ritual Object
6. Liturgy: Supervening Authority
7. Private Prayer
8. Private Study
9. Canon Law
10. Dogmatic Polemic
11. Dogmatic Foundation
12. Conclusion

Index of Indexes

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Prolegomena

What is the correct way to use and interpret Scripture? This is a very important question, and part of what makes it difficult is the way that presuppositions are made which prejudice the results, presuppositions which are taken as obvious, so obvious they need not be stated, and yet which, when stated, lack defense.

So in this series of posts I wish to explore this question for two purposes: to outline what I believe is the correct way to understand the use and interpretation of Scirpture, and second, to explore the way that hidden presuppositions can color the results.

This impinges upon me the need to describe where I start.

Historical Continuity

I take it as a given that the Church is a historically continuous entity, and that nothing can be essential for all Christians which did not exist for some. (This leaves open the possibility, of course, that something can be essential for all Christians after some point; to defend such a possibility in a particular case requires a clear explanation of what changed at that point.)

We are investigating the proper use and interpretation of the Scriptures within the Christian Church. There may be uses and interpretations of Scripture which are found outside the Church; nothing here prevents such investigation, but neither can that investigation be relevant to the ecclesiastical task.

We necessarily find, therefore, that the Church existed before the New Testament; that it is incorrect to state that the Scriptures give birth to the Church. The Church existed fully and completely on the Day of Pentecost; moreover, no word of the New Testament was penned except by members of the Christian community seeking to inform or govern other members of the community, and the text was received as such as any other communication from the same author would have been. (We can see this in Paul most directly, who clearly writes as if a live communication would have the same authority as a written, and indeed, stresses that his written communication should be received as if he were present in person. Clearly, then, the written text of Paul's letters derives its authority—at least for its first hearers—from the authority of Paul, and had no particular additional authority that other forms of communication from him would not share.)

Under this heading also, we must be committed to a robust conviction of the historical continuity of the Church in its use of Scripture. Just as we cannot unchurch the first generation of Christians, we cannot unchurch the rest. We may well have criticisms to make, but we cannot make them in such terms that we render unrecognizable the Church of a given age, or rather, to make a criticism of a certain depth requires that we cease recognition of this or that group as being the Church. And, if this in turn means we must see a fundamental break in the continuity of the Church, we must go back and reform our criticism. It is thus that historical continuity is a brake upon arbitrary claims of new understanding which render all previous understanding unimportant. (Such a break happened, for example, in the thought of the Protestant Reformers; their accusation that the medieval Church simply was not the Church must tell us that in fact their accusation was incorrect [or the historical continuity of the Church would be lost].)

Finally, historical continuity operates in a "softer" fashion, requiring us to examine the use and interpretation of the Scriptures throughout the history of the Church and not merely at present. We are not obliged to sanction every practice, but we must be very hesitant about jettisoning this or that as being a fundamental misunderstanding; this would be very close (if not too close) to saying that the practitioners in question have made such a fundamental misunderstanding that they are unchurched.

Liturgical Priority

Because the Canon of Scripture was initially determined specifically with reference to what is read in church, we must not lose sight of this fact. The Canon is simply and plainly, what is read in the church as Scripture. What distinguishes the Bible from other books is, in the first instance, that it is used liturgically in a different manner from other books. Only as a secondary question comes the use of the Bible as a doctrinal or juridical standard, as a tool in private prayer, and so forth.

Whatever ascriptions of authority the Church makes for the Scriptures are made in virtue of this primary liturgical use. It is because the text is received and heard in this manner that it can be confessed as Scripture. Two consequences follow: first, the Church is not of one mind about what can be read in this way, and second, the exact bounds of the Canon admit some curious flexibility.

Any description of the use and interpretation of the Scriptures which insists on a clear bright line rule, or that the Scriptures are self-authenticating (as John Calvin and Karl Barth seemed to think) must fall. We would be forced to do violence to the historical continuity of the Church if we begin asserting that the disagreements about the bounds of the canon are determinative for the being of the Church. Likewise, we must take account of the complex ways the Scriptures are used in the liturgy, in all their actual complexity. (For example, we must note that the Orthodox accept the Revelation to John, but do not read it in services; we must note that Anglicans do read the Apocrypha in services, but do not permit doctrine to be established from it.)

Actual rather than Ideal Use

We must focus on the actual use and interpretation of Scripture in the Church, in all its breadth, and not on only some small subset. Barth, for example, writes in KD 1/1 as if the principal point of the Scriptures is to ground homiletics and dogmatics. True enough that the Scriptures are importantly used for those purposes. But we must also consider that the Scriptures are used as sources of prayers, as material for lectio divina, as historical information, as a source of artistic and literary material, as the occasion for Bible study, as liturgical objects in their own right (consider the book of the Gospels!), and so forth.

We may well judge that a given use is inappropriate, but we must not simply disregard certain uses, or start with the assumption that this or that use is inherently determinative. This focus on actual use exists in some tension with the liturgical priority rule. If we find that we are using the rule of liturgical priority in such a way as to preclude an independent look at some other use of the Scriptures, we have gone too far. Likewise, if this independent look cannot be related faithfully back to what is done liturgically, then we must be prepared to mount a criticism of the liturgical practice (which may, in turn, do violence to the insistence on the historical continuity of the Church), or else we must criticize the independent look.

Thus, the liturgical priority becomes not a way to judge all other uses, but rather a way of ensuring that the other uses are interrelated and not with violence to each other. The liturgy functions as the hub of a wheel.

Public Interpretation

All seem to be always agreed that the Scriptures are not of private interpretation. But the issue here is not about whether the ideas are published; the question is whether they have authority. To agree that the use and interpretation of Scripture is a public task, one which must ultimately be responsible to a public standard, is to grant the legitimate use of authority in determining the bounds of that use and interpretation.

This grounds the canon and the liturgy as well: canonical text is that read as Scripture in the services of the Church by the authority of the Church; the liturgy is that public worship which is officially done by the Church as such and not simply the particular worship of this or that group. In both cases, the existence of authority is central to the normative status of the result.

Moreover, while the Scripture is often appealed to over and against a local authority (local in time or space), it is in the last analysis the job of that very authority to judge the question. If the authority judges wrongly, we can only (in extreme cases) separate ourselves from it: and if we do so in such terms that the historical continuity of the Church is threatened, we can know that it is we who are in error.

The process by which the authority of the Church established the canon of Scripture is continuous with its authority in other matters: there is no special "Scripture-sanctioning" authority in the Church, nor are the structures and procedures for its exercise radically different in these cases than in others. As we have seen, the Church establishes the canon by liturgical legislation.

We cannot therefore begin by assuming any particular priority of authorities. It is incorrect to say that the Church stands under the Scripture, if we mean by this some transhistorical judgment of the Church by the Scripture. At most, we can use this language of "standing under" only as a recognition that the Church must be responsible to its own past (historical continuity) and its present (structures of authority). And nothing about those qualifications is limited to the Scriptures: the obligation to be responsible to the past may also apply in the case of creeds, immemorial liturgical customs, and so forth.

Incorrect Starting Places

We must not start by thinking that the job of the Scripture is to communicate truths from God to human beings. This immediately restricts the use of Scripture to being primarily or only a question of determining the meaning of what the text says.

We must not assume that any single hermeneutical category will suffice for the entire Scripture, or for all uses and interpretational goals, or for all time. There is no question (at least, not at the outset) of presuming that we can find a "hermeneutical key" which will shed light on all the Scripture. Most importantly, the "discovery" of such new categories, if they are intended as totalizing statements of the correct method or procedure for interpreting the Scriptures, will do great violence to the historical continuity of the Church.

If we are led to a negative hermeneutical category—one which tells us not to read a text in this or that way (examples include Bultmann and Spong)—we must be particularly attentive to the historical continuity of the Church: if that way of reading was once permissible and is so no longer, we must hesitate until we have a clear indication of when the change occurred and why. We cannot allow ourselves to simply dismiss earlier reading as uninformed, primitive, or "culturally alien".

We must not assume that every use or interpretation of the Scripture will yield a consistent "meaning". We must not assume that a given passage (or the text as a whole) has "a meaning"; we must not say that an interpration of passage X is incorrect because it yields an answer different from the interpretation reached of passage Y. We must allow, as well, that interpretations can differ as the uses of Scripture differ: a use may be permissible in homiletics but impermissible in dogmatics. (For this reason, the Barthian clam about dogmatics as a check upon and a monitoring of homiletics must be partially incorrect.)

We cannot adopt maxims such as sola scriptura or let Scripture be interpreted by Scripture itself except as they can be justified as any other hermeneutical principle must be. In particular, we must be attentive to the use of such maxims as negative principles, often intended to exclude prior strategies of reading the text; these must be rejected when they amount to an assault on the continuity of the Church.

Interpreting the Prolegomena Itself

The principles (both positive and negative) which I outline here are not theological starting places; they are principles which can be defended. They are not assumptions but merely indications (with some reasoning attached) of what I believe are the only appropriate places to start this investigation.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Church Dogmatics, I.I.4

Karl Barth
Church Dogmatics

The Doctrine of the Word of God
Chapter I: The Word of God as the Criterion of Dogmatics
Section 4: The Word of God in its Threefold Form

"The presupposition which proclamation proclamation and therewith makes the Church the Church is the Word of God. This attests itself in Holy Scripture in the word of the prophets and apostles to whom it was originally and once and for all spoken by God's revelation."

The Word of God Preached

Barth rightly identifies that merely intending to proclaim is not sufficient; we must distinguish in principle between true and false proclamation, and what makes proclamation real proclamation is its being a proclamation of the Word of God. This is a presupposition of dogmatics because dogmatics assumes that the Word of God has been spoken and heard; its task is not to prove that it has been.

Barth here then explores the relation between the Word of God and proclamation in what he calls four "concentric circles". The first circle is the commission in virtue of which the proclamation is made. Proclamation is not made in response to objective needs "imminent in the existence of man"; nor is it made in response to subjective needs in the personal convictions of human speakers. Rather, while such motives are present and cannot be excluded, proclamation is proclamation (that is, is properly related to the Word of God) when it originates is the command and decision of God. Thus, in order for proclamation to be the Word of God, it must be the Word of God.

The second circle is that proclamation must be of the Word of God. I am not entirely confident that I have grasped Barth's point here, but it seems that the basic idea is that what makes the proclamation the Word of God is that the content of it, the thing which is preached, is itself the Word of God, with its foundation not in "metaphysics or psychology" but in the communication of God to human beings.

The third circle is that of judgment; that proclamation is judged by God and God alone, that it must be obedient and is subject to the authority of God.

And finally, the fourth circle is that of a genuine disclosure of God to human beings in the activity of the proclamation; without the human factors vanishing, the proclamation simply is God's proclamation.

So what distinguishes preaching, true proclamation, is then these four: the commission, from God and not from human concerns or the preacher's aims; the content, which must be God's Word; the standard under which it is judged, which is God's; and the revelatory content in which God himself becomes the actor of the preaching event.

The criticism to be levelled here is natural and immediate. These are the standards of prophecy. Barth's characterization of preaching conflates it with prophecy, and this is natural given the decision to begin with proclamation as such. By elevating the importance of preaching beyond all appropriate measure (as we saw in the preceding section), it has become something more than preaching: it has become prophecy. Now prophecy is a very good thing, and a great blessing for the church. But it is not simply the same as preaching, and I think we have not really gotten the argument here that preaching ought to be prophecy.

The Word of God Written

The second circle of contact between preaching and the Word of God was the content, which Barth explains as "recollection of past revelation and...expectation of coming revelation." The past revelation is the written Word of God, which is specifically the Bible.

Here Barth attempts to tackle the questions I raised in addressing the second section of the Introduction. Barth recognizes the Scriptures as having a Canon which was decided by the Church, but in terms of the Church's recognition of the status of these books. That is, the Church is not the author of the text, it is the recipient and receiver of the text, which it always experiences as given to it.

I cannot see how this could actually be true; it is a sensible enough understanding of how the Church understood these texts at the time the decisions about canonicity were being made, but the Church predated those decisions. Did Paul conceive of his writing as a source or as a recipient? It seems difficult to read the letter to the Galatians as being anything other than Paul's communication, undertaken in his own voice. Insipired we may confess it to be; but we cannot conceive of Paul having the attitude towards the text which Barth says we must have. As such, either Paul is not really part of the Church when he writes, or the Church has a double role, both as originator and recipient of the Biblical text.

Moreover, the very givenness of the text is hard to make convincing when there are multiple Canons among which to choose. Barth does not touch at all the question of which books are in the Canon, and this is disastrous for his presentation of the material. If he did answer that question, he would be making himself (and dogmatics), or his confessional tradition, the judge of which texts count, and thus not purely recipient. So he must not, making it possible to pretend that the text was given, and that his role and the Church's today is simply to receive.

Barth's objection to a teaching succession and an ongoing apostolicity found in the pastors of the Church as teachers is that in so doing, the past becomes the mere puppet of the present. He says, in fact, "Naturally it might also have pleased God to give His Church the Canon in the form of an unwritten prophetic and apostolic tradition propagating itself from spirit to spirit and mouth to mouth"; the argument that he has not done so is its consequence: "In unwritten tradition the Church is not addressed; it is engaged in dialogue with itself."

However, this only works if we have bought into the fictive view of the Biblical text as purely address to the Church, rather than as documents written by the Church. We have in the Biblical text an emissary from the earliest days of the Church and before; we hear the apostles speaking to us, but we still hear the Church speaking to the Church. Barth demands that there must be something undergirding preaching which is not the "Church speaking to itself"; and we get this in the Bible. But actually, this simply is not what the Bible is, no matter how many fanciful tales we spin. If the Word of God is in the Bible (and I confess it is!) then it is so in the same way that it may or may not be in preaching. The Bible is of the same character as preaching; the confession that it is the Word of God is not a confession that it is radically different in nature from preaching, but simply that it is authoritative and binding preaching. We confess that it is the Word of God (in the full sense of Barthian proclamation), in just the way that a given preaching event hopes to be the Word of God. When that preaching succeeds, it is the Word of God in just the same way and to the same extent that the Bible is.

We have, from Barth, only the magical statement that "The Bible is the Canon just because it is so. It is so by imposing itself as such." Calvin tried to say much the same thing, and it doesn't work now any more than it did then. I have on my shelf three Bibles; one with the Anglican Apocrypha, one with the (shorter) Roman Catholic Apocrypha, one with neither. Which of them "imposes itself"? How do I recognize this?

The Word of God Revealed

Preaching is based upon the received past revelation recorded in Scripture and in promise and hope for revelation to come; now we are confronted with the revelation itself. Preaching and the Bible are witnesses to revelation, preaching to future revelation and the Bible to past revelation. Present revelation is also the Word of God; it is the Word of God to which preaching and the Bible seek to give witness.

Since they are always and only pointers, we must consider what they point to; this is the fundamental content of the Word of God: "God with us", which is both a thing that has happened, "Deus dixit", but also something which is present here and now. There is then always the direct action of God revealing God's self to us, and this is itself the Word of God to which preaching and the Bible give witness.

We say "God with us", and we identify that this divine act is present now, and also fully and completely fulfilled and done in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus the content of revelation, properly speaking, is Immanuel, God with us. It is this which preaching and the Bible are concerned.

Now this is nice to see; it is much more helpful than the Lutheran restriction at this point to simply "the forgiveness of sins" or "justification by faith".

What is perhaps objectionable at this point is the way in which the only pointers granted here are proclamation, are preaching and the Bible. The sacraments are allowed as proclaimers as well, but this is where the catholic spirit wants to rejoice and say that the sacraments are not merely proclaimers, but enactors of revelation. The Eucharist is the Body of Christ, is God with us; it is Jesus who baptizes in every baptism. These acts are not merely servants of preaching, "seals" which are placed at the end of the homily to label it "God's"; they are independently means by which God communicates his grace to us.

Barth cannot have this because he wants to preserve God's freedom; but the self-limiting and self-emptying of God is just at this point the point of the "God with us". Barth sees in a catholic doctrine of the sacraments here a domestication of God, who is no longer free but bound up with the Church and its activity; by contrast, preaching is supposed to be free and always able to be what it will be. Perhaps this is simply because the words variable? Preaching, always, either will be or will not be the Word of God, and this is actually Barth's point: the catholic sacraments are always "God with us", not just now or then, not just "if God happens to make it so this time", but always, by God's own promise.

In this way, the sacraments are continuous with the Incarnation. By contrast, Barth cannot allow the Incarnation to be a present reality in this sense. In the Incarnation the Son of God consented to be mistreated, to be subject to people's manipulation. We hear of a woman healed by touching his robe in a crowd, and Jesus' response "Who touched me?" suggests that there was something "automatic" in the transaction. For this is what it is to be a human being. The self-emptying of the Word of God in Jesus Christ thus was a consent on the part of God to be present without controlling the event, to be subject to human beings.

For Barth, this ended; in the Resurrection Jesus Christ must have ceased to be subject to human beings anymore. We thus must query the doctrine of the Ascension for Barth, which must become the doctrine of the Great Absence, in which Jesus Christ is no longer "God with us" in the irrevocable and subject-to-human-misuse way he was. But the catholic doctrine insists that, in virtue of the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus Christ is still with us, and this is where the sacraments have their character and use.

The Unity of the Word of God

Finally, Barth briefly makes clear that this triple of preaching, Bible, and revelation, are not three different things, but three forms of one thing. The relations are thus:

"The revealed Word of God we know only from the Scripture adopted by Church proclamation or the proclamation of the Church based on Scripture.

"The written Word of God we know only through the revelation which fulfils proclamation or through the proclamation fulfilled by revelation.

"The preached Word of God we know only through the revelation attested in Scripture or the Scripture which attests revelation."

The analogy to the Trinity is deliberate and intentional: the Father, revelation; the Son, the Bible; the Holy Spirit, preaching.

Now we can see more clearly the problems. First, the connection of the Holy Spirit to preaching shows that indeed the preaching office has been assimilated to the prophetic office. This is all the more crucial to be clear about as a defect in Barth's treatment because he is silent on the point: he does not defend this because he does not seem to be aware of it or of the pitfalls which it leads to. The Spirit blows where it wills, but for Barth, this is found only in the relatively free words of the preacher. Preachers are rightly bound to the biblical text, but prophets are not (as a look at the Hebrew prophets will show); prophecy is not interpretation of Scripture. The result is that Barth expects too much of preaching and too little of prophecy by making up a new office halfway between the two. (Or rather, by uncritically accepting the Reformers making up of this new office.)

The connection of the Son to the Scriptures, especially in virtue of the fact that the Bible is, for Barth, what it is precisely in its givenness and unchangeability; its specifically not being subject to human vicissitudes and misuse. We end up with a doctrine in which Jesus Christ is something which happened, but does not still happen; in which the Ascension is God's way of keeping Christ from harm.

The connection of the Father to revelation then mistakes that revelation is centrally and precisely the role of a prophet, through whom the Holy Spirit speaks. Moreover, since the Father is centrally and characteristically identified as the agent of creation and the source of divinity, this is precisely what is lost when those topics are treated.

A perhaps more felicitous analogy might be this: In the Son we have the Word of God in the sacraments and being of the Church (which is, after all, the Body of Christ); subject to the use and misuse of human beings, but also the direct and ordinary means of grace for all who come in contact with him. In the Father we have the Word of God spoken in creation and providence; accessible to all but veiled by human sinfulness and inability to simply infer who God is from the facts of the world we see (a point Barth rightly makes well). In the Holy Spirit we have the free breath of God, blowing where it will, bound by no human form and acting in all cultures and in the hearts of God's people, and animating in particular the Church and making its sacraments effective.

Index of Comments on Karl Barth

Friday, February 16, 2007

Church Dogmatics, I.I.3

Karl Barth
Church Dogmatics

The Doctrine of the Word of God
Chapter I: The Word of God as the Criterion of Dogmatics
Section 3: Church Proclamation as the Material of Dogmatics

"Talk about God in the Church seeks to be proclamation to the extent that in the form of preaching and sacrament it is directed to man with the claim and expectation that in accordance with its commission it has to speak to him the Word of God to be heard in faith. Inasmuch as it is a human word in spite of this claim and expectation, it is the material of dogmatics, i.e., of the investigation of its responsibility as measured by the Word of God which it seeks to proclaim."

Talk about God and Church Proclamation

Proclamation is specifically an activity of the Church, but is also only one particular activity. It is one kind of talk about God, but not the only kind. Barth also helpfully deals with the worry that all talk is really talk about God (which, he says, it perhaps ought to be, and might well be whatever we do): such a perspective is possible from the perspective of glory, but not for fallen human beings.

Church talk about God which is not proclamation includes talk which "is addressed by man to God", and thus excised from the realm of proclamation is the entire content of hymns, prayers, and creeds. Moreover, talk based on addressing social needs or educating children is not proclamation. And finally, theology "as such" is not proclamation. (This is odd, given that theology includes proclamation according to the first section of the Introduction; perhaps we should read here "dogmatics" or place some special emphasis on the "as such".) The point is not to devalue these things, ostensibly, but simply to identify just what proclamation is by distinguishing it from other sorts of talk about God in the Church.

After some general descriptions then of proclamation, which make it what one might have called "prophecy": that is, speaking God's words to people, with the intention of doing so and as such. God is not confined to proclamation; God can and perhaps does speak to us in many other ways, but we are not therefore called to take up those ways in attempts to speak God's words. This is because God's word is spoken by human beings only in response to a commission from God to do so. So we certainly can hear the Word of God in experiences of worship, but we do not have a commission to pursue worship as proclamation.

Now this is odd, and it is perhaps only plausible in virtue of what follows, which is a dramatic and unsurprising reduction of proclamation to a very narrow category of activity. We surely do have a commission to worship, and it is extremely hard to see worship, with all of its words about God, the practice of the church in using it as a theological authority ("the law of prayer establishes the law of belief"), and that it is surely part of the commission of those so commissioned to offer prayers—complete with theological content. The point seems to be the grammatical person of the pronouns: in a prayer, God is addressed as "you", and therefore it's not proclamation. (One wonders, then why creeds are not proclamation. Of course the answer is because Barth has his thumb on the scale: creeds must not be allowed to have authority, and so despite their grammar and history, they are not proclamation.) The conviction that prayer is, in fact, the activity of the Holy Spirit within us, should put to rest the "addressed by man to God" claim for such things.

The list of what is allowed as proclamation then is this: preaching and sacrament. The former is specifically limited to homiletic exposition of texts of Scripture. Now without at all diminishing the importance of this activity, why must it be present in every service of worship? Barth cites approvingly the sentiments of his Reformed forebears who attacked ever reading the Scriptures in public worship without attaching a homily to them.

It seems rather as if a rabbit has been pulled from a hat. One must reach the Reformed conclusion that the entire purpose of services of worship is preaching and sacrament (and that a minister is, as the Presbyterian Church has it, a "minister of the word and sacrament"). And so we get there by first, excluding the cognitive and proclamatory content of every other element of worship, on the basis that it is "addressed by man to God" rather than the other way round. The result is a rather disturbing dualism. The possibility that a prayer is in its primary content addressed by the community to God (not just "man", ambiguously singular), and then secondarily by some in the community to others in community, is one which is excluded. Because such an act is not primarily addressed to human beings, but only secondarily, Barth draws the conclusion that it is not addressed to human beings at all.

So many rabbits are being pulled out of so many hats, that we cannot help but try to find the real reason for limiting proclamation to preaching and sacrament. The short answer is, I submit, this. We must find a way to confine proclamation to the individual preacher, whose words owe nothing to any human authority. The argument is driven entirely by its conclusion: we must find that the Word of God is transmitted by preaching and Scripture and, in the ordinary covenanted course of things, by nothing else whatsoever.

We must arrive at that conclusion because thus we can exclude the Modernists (who want to say that God speaks in an ordinary and covenanted way through reason and emotion too) and the Roman Catholics (who want to say that God speaks as well through the traditions and prayers and doctrinal history of the church).

We will, then, find that here is being layed the groundwork for the polemic against the Modernists and the Roman Catholics, but also that no argument whatsoever is being laid to support that polemic. What is here is not a sufficient argument, it's a rabbit out of a hat. It was pulled out this way and not some other way, precisely so that we would be able to make the "necessary" polemic when we get to that point. So we must not be tricked into thinking that what is, in fact, a wildly circular assertion is actually an argument, and we must consider that, when all is said and done, nothing has been done to effectively limit the commissioned and covenanted transmission of the Word of God to only preaching, the Scripture that preaching necessarily uses, and sacrament.

Dogmatics and Church Proclamation

Proclamation is again ratcheted up to the highest degree; here it is the Church's "most proper responsibility"; it is "the one thing needful"; it is "the service of God in the supreme sense of the term". Well, we know what Barth thinks of proclamation! But we cannot allow this to stand; the argument, such as it was, for limiting proclamation to preaching was simply the grammatical point that prayers are addressed "by man to God" and not the other way round. At no point did this make it better or more central or more crucial.

Indeed, one might have thought that the Church's primary responsibility was not to be a conduit for the Word of God, but rather to respond to it. Yes, preaching is necessary for that, but as a preparation, as a servant, not as a master. Preaching has an apologetic role, it has an educative role, it has a proclamatory role; but all of this is done for the sake of what comes next. It is in prayer, not in preaching, that we approach God; heaven is constituted by unceasing prayer and not by unceasing preaching. Sacrament is, most centrally, prayer, not proclamation; while it does have a proclamatory element, it does so because it is prayer and all prayer is proclamatory.

Here, however, we are concerned with the relation of dogmatics to proclamation. On the one hand, dogmatics has the task of judging proclamation to see whether it is up to snuff. Barth situates this obligation in virtue of the extraordinary importance and value of preaching, but even once we jettison that as unargued and unsound, we can still recognize that dogmatics has a role in judging proclamation, just as it has a role in judging all the Church's activity.

Dogmatics has a second role: hearing the Church's proclamation, dogmatics considers how proclamation should proceed tomorrow. For this reason, preaching is normally "linked to the class of theologians". How wildly different this is from the catholic view that preaching is done normally by the clergy because they are, first and foremost, leaders and sacramental ministers!

The central task of this minister, for Barth, is preaching, and because preaching requires dogmatics, preachers are chosen from the ranks of theologians. Because sacrament is assimilated to proclamation, as simply a kind of enacted proclamation, it doesn't get much play here. And the links to this surprising conclusion (though hardly unexpected) are the most tenuous.

Index of Comments on Karl Barth

Friday, February 9, 2007

Church Dogmatics, Introduction.2

Karl Barth
Church Dogmatics

Section 2: The Task of Prolegomena to Dogmatics

"Prolegomena to dogmatics is our name for the introductory part of dogmatics in which our concern is to understand its particular way of knowledge."

The Necessity of Dogmatic Prolegomena

The desire to immediately start with epistemology is interesting from a philosophical perspective. We associate it with the early moderns, who were passionately interested in epistemological questions, and the need to found all else upon a clear understanding of epistemology.

Philosophers have (mostly) given this up. Not that epistemology has become unimportant (far from it!) but that it is no longer assumed that it somehow comes first. So there is this interesting thing here, right off the bat, that Barth addresses in this section "dogmatic prolegomena" which have two properties: they are introductory, and the concern is epistemological.

The question Barth addresses is confined in this first part to whether such prolegomena are necessary. He addresses the fact that much earlier dogmatics often has extremely brief or even absent prolegomena of this sort. He says that one reason often given for the need for prolegomena is a concern for relevance, or a submission to some philosophical standard, or a conviction that in the past such things were unnecessary but now they are necessary. All of this, according to Barth, is foolish.
(There is no difference to be shown between our times and previous times; dogmatics must have its own standards; apologetics is not dogmatics, and in any case, cannot be "planned".)

The actual reason that the prolegomena are necessary is that they are to address heretics, who are paradoxically recognized simultaneously as having faith, and yet a position which can only be seen as unfaith.

What Barth does not notice is that the epistemological questions are also addressed by many of the previous theologians, but not as necessarily preliminary. In other words, I can agree that a discussion of epistemology is an important part of dogmatics, but I cannot see why it must be first, and Barth seems to simply assume this, as the wording of the summary quote above indicates.

Under the heading of the heretics come two: Modernists and Roman Catholics. (Later in The Doctrine of the Word of God we find the maddening assertion that Anglicans are happily "Evangelicals", and so not heretics. Barth's ignorance about Anglicanism will perhaps come up when I comment on that.)

The Possibility of Dogmatic Prolegomena

This part's contents do not really match the heading. Actually we are concerned here with the beginning of the polemic against Modernism and Roman Catholicism. But the key to the polemic against Modernism is that it subordinates theology to other concerns, particularly secular ones, and in this gives up what theology is.

Importantly, Modernism locates the epistemological questions of theology in its being one of a genus of sciences, or of ways of knowing, or whatever; it subordinates theology to other things particulary in its epistemology. (And in this, it should be noted, is why in the first part above Barth so earnestly rejected the Modernist statements of why prolegomena are necessary.) So the Modernist says that prolegomena are possible, an explication of the basis of theological knowledge can be given, because they are just a special case of general principles that all can agree on, even those with no concern for dogmatics.

This is the central point of attack for the beginning of the polemic against Modernism, and it issues in the title of the part. (It of course also gives a parallelism with the title of the first part; Barth seems to have a great affection for nice parallel structures in writing.)

Prolegemena are there to answer heretics; the Modernists say that prolegomena can be set forth from outside the dogmatic enterprise itself: but in this they are already marking their ground. In fact, says Barth, this is the sort of statement that can only be made outside Evangelical or Roman Catholic dogmatics—but it is precisely the sort of statement we should expect from Modernist dogmatics. To accept it is already to accept Modernism.

The polemic against Roman Catholicism is very different. The criticism of Roman Catholicism here is extremely brief (one page, compared with the three and a half given to Modernism). Essentially, the problem is that Roman Catholicism takes the Incarnation too seriously. "Their presupposition is that the being of the Church, Jesus Christ, is no longer the free Lord of its existence, but that He is incorporated into the existence of the Church..." One wonders why it was all right for the free Lord to become incorporated into pale earthly flesh. The docetism that we find throughout Barth pops in right here.

The catholic faith (and here I include myself, of the anglo- variety) certainly does say that the being of the Church is Jesus Christ, or more exactly, that the Church is the body of Christ, and that Christ is its Lord. At no point does Jesus Christ cease to be the free Lord. All of the things that Barth finds so objectionable would be objectionable if they were something human beings imposed upon God. But thus so is the Incarnation itself. The Pauline theology of the Church sees the Church precisely as the extension in time of the Incarnation, and sees incorporation into the Church as incorporation into Christ. Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.

What Barth sees as human presumption would be, were it not for the fact of revelation. What Barth has done is to give an instruction to God: Thou Shalt Not Humble Thyself. It is true that for the catholic grace "becomes nature", perhaps in the sense of a "second nature", or perhaps we might say a "new creation". If we trust that Paul meant what he spoke, is not this new creation a creation, which is to say, a thing which works according to principles, and not just divine whim? When we proclaim Christ crucified, we proclaim a God who deigns to humble himself for our sakes. In this we do not magnify ourselves, but the grace of God. (More Pauline imagery!)

Perhaps this is clearest when Barth begins painting the Evangelical position, in which the opposition to Roman Catholicism is marked by a rejection "of the presupposition of a constantly available absorption of the being of the Church into a creaturely form, into a 'There is'." What does he think Paul means by speaking of a new creation, if not, well, a new creaturely form?

So, the Evangelical position is marked out thus, after the opening salvos of the polemics have been made. Agreement is made with Roman Catholicism that the prolegomena to dogmatics can only exist within dogmatics itself. The prolegomena are therefore concerned with the Word of God (hence the title of this first volume).

Barth here then expands on the older Protestant tradition, which centered its polemic on claims about the Bible, and he takes the Word of God as a category, into which the theology of the Bible will be a part. Now a problem here is that the older Protestant polemic was based upon three untruths at this point, and the attentive reader will want to see if Barth bothers with these problems.

The first problem is that the catholic position, in which Scripture arose within the Church as a part of the activity of the Church, is denied without any corresponding account of where Scripture comes from and the basis of its authority.

The second problem is that the Protestant polemic includes an accusation that the catholics do not obey Scripture, and this is said such as to imply that the catholics are acting in wildly bad faith. Since the catholic position is not to place tradition "above" Scripture, this was never a just attack. Moreover, sometimes it is painfully absurd: Luther, for example, condemns monasticism as a violation of the commandment to marry; and yet, does not Paul express a wish that all would be single as he is?

The third problem is that the Church existed, fully and completely as the Church, before the New Testament existed. Any account of the Church which makes the existence of Scripture an absolute necessity for the Church is therefore wildly inattentive to historical reality; if it makes it only a necessity now but not then, we are owed an explanation of how and when the change occurred.

Index of Comments on Karl Barth

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Index of Comments on Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics
1. The Task of Dogmatics
2. The Task of Prolegomena to Dogmatics

The Doctrine of the Word of God
I. The Word of God as the Criterion of Dogmatics
3. Church Proclamation as the Material of Dogmatics
4. The Word of God in its Threefold Form
5. The Nature of the Word of God
6. The Knowability of the Word of God
7. The Word of God, Dogma and Dogmatics
II.I. The Revelation of God: The Triune God
II.II. The Revelation of God: The Incarnation of the Word
II.III. The Revelation of God: The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit
III. Holy Scripture
IV. The Proclamation of the Church

The Doctrine of God

The Doctrine of Creation

The Doctrine of Reconciliation

Index of Indexes

Church Dogmatics, Introduction.1

Karl Barth
Church Dogmatics

Section 1: The Task of Dogmatics

"As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God."

Barth unpacks this under three headings First on on the role of dogmatics in the church as a particular sort of theology, and whether dogmatics is a science, then on dogmatics as that process of self-examination, of enquiry, and finally on dogmatics as an act of faith.

Barth situations, it seems, dogmatics as one kind of theology. The other two kinds are talk about God in "the action of the individual believer" and then the "specific action as a fellowship, in proclamation by preaching and...sacraments, in worship, in...mission."

From an Anglican perspective this is interesting; we are used to talking liturgy as "primary theology" and then the other stuff as "secondary theology". The fellowship and mission, and individual action, we would tend to perhaps identify as a tertiary theology; as meaningful but not done for the purpose of conveying meaning.

But the words in worship (which we would not separate off from preaching and sacraments as Barth seems to) are primary for us. And by primary, we usually mean that the task of secondary theology is to unpack their meaning for us; to reflect upon them. There is a two-way street, of course: when writing the liturgy, the church consults, among other things, dogmatics, and there are elements of the liturgy (such as the creed) which have their origins directly, though only partly, in polemical dogmatics. (The creeds originate in baptismal liturgy, not the other way round.)

This creates a fundamentally different orientation for dogmatics than Barth. Where we see dogmatics as having its central function in commenting on and enriching and explaining, and (maybe) relating to this or that current philosophical concern, Barth sees dogmatics as, at the outset, exercising a critical judgment over the other forms of theology.

It is not that the liturgy is infallible, but the general orientation among us seems to be to learn from the liturgy, rather than to teach to it. Dogmatics then is judged by its conformity with the liturgy, in the normal course of events, and not the other way round. The "normal course of events" is reversed when the it becomes clear that a given liturgical practice cannot be given a defense or an understanding in dogmatics, and then it is to dogmatics that we turn in considering revision of the liturgy. But then, very quickly, the normal course returns, and the (now revised) liturgy once again assumes its pride of place.

This dynamic can be seen in the 16th century Anglican reformation. The task of liturgical revision was thrust into the hands of people who found the preceding Latin liturgy dogmatically indefensible, and the Book of Common Prayer was born. But immediately the BCP became the doctrinal standard of the church. The private opinions of Cranmer are irrelevant; the Books of Homilies quickly fell into disuse, and the XXXIX Articles began to be judged in the terms of the BCP rather than the other way around.

We may still follow the course of Barthian dogmatics, even if we refuse to grant it its pretended status as the judge of what is (for us) primary theology—it can still function well as an explanation of that theology, even if such was not its intent.

I find then that I agree with Barth's explanations of the relationship of theology to conceptions of science, which can be summed up, I think, as saying that theology is a science in that we will not cede that term away, but neither we will allow the importation of a foreign conception of what a science must do or how it must proceed.

Under his second heading Barth explores the presuppositions necessary for dogmatics. It then will not be the task of dogmatics to defend these presuppositions; we simply note them and the cautions they entail. The task of defense is reserved, presumably, to apologetics. The first presupposition is that it is possible to understand the true content of Christian talk about God; the second is that it is necessary. Strictly speaking, only the possibility is a necessary presupposition for dogmatics (that is, if it were impossible to understand the talk about God, then dogmatics would be impossible; but if it were merely optional to understand it, dogmatics could still proceed). So there is more lurking here under the surface.

The possibility is found in the faith that Jesus Christ is the "revealing and reconciling address of God to man". This statements helps to understand what Barth meant by the "true content" of Christian talk about God. There must be something, in philosophical terms, to "fix the reference" of the talk about God, and only in faith in the reconciling and revealing presence of Christ can we understand what our talk means or what it is about. We may thus misunderstand what we are saying, we may think we are talking about God when we are, in fact, talking about an idol of our own creation: this would fail to be "true content".

The necessity of understanding is thus clearer. Because dogmatics (for Barth) has the primary role of standing in judgment upon other talk of God, as being the way in which the Church takes seriously the need to speak responsibly about God, it cannot proceed without the presupposition that the true content Church's talk about God can be known, both because it must be known to be judged, and because it can only be judged insofar as the truth can potentially be seen.

Barth is not here claiming any kind of infallibility for dogmatics, of course, merely that this is the direction the arrows go, as it were. From an Anglican perspective, then, it seems to me that we can of course accept the presuppositional status of the possibility of knowing the true content of the Church's speech, but the necessity is not so clear.

And what undergirds this necessity, for Barth, is also a polemic against a Roman Catholic way of proceeding, in which dogmatics exists only to "combine, repeat, and transcribe a number of truths of revelation which are already to hand, which have been expressed once and for all, and the wording and meaning of which are authentically defined." All must be, for Barth, perpetually up for grabs, so that while the creeds may be "venerable" and can be guidance, they cannot control.

Now the problem is that the role of the creeds can be simultaneously authoritation and the task of dogmatics can be more than repetition, for the simple reason that the creeds do not exaust the topic. We can allow the creeds an irreplaceable status and require a theologian not to transgress outside their bounds, without thereby saying that the task of dogmatics is mere repetition.

I can only say that, at this point, Barth has not fairly represented what a truly catholic dogmatics looks like. He nods that dogmatics also cannot simply repeat what the Scriptures say, but we know what is coming: the creeds are up for grabs, and the Scriptures are not. And we will be brought back to this page when we are told that the creeds are up for grabs (because dogmatics is not just repetition, etc., etc.) and we will not be told why the Scriptures are not also up for grabs for the same reasons.

The third heading of this section addresses dogmatics "as an act of faith." All I can say here is that this is a beautiful exposition of the role of faith in the life of a theologian, that dogmatics is necessarily humble and must trust in God for any success it can have, always needing to approach God trembling and in prayer.

Index of Comments on Karl Barth