Posted by: Dan | November 6, 2007

Reading Scripture: Scholars, Clergy & Laity

Chris Tilling recently wrote a post in response to my reflections (and the ensuing comments) on the form of hermeneutics espoused by Piper and Co. (cf. http://christilling.de/blog/ctblog.html). It is worth reading what he has to say, and it has prompted me to further explain my approach to reading, understanding, and applying scripture (especially as that reading relates to the laity, as per one of the comments on my original post).

1. Scripture, as a witness to the Word of God that is for all people, should be available to all people.

2. Furthermore, precisely because scripture is a witness to the Word of God, all people should be encouraged to read scripture.

3. Therefore, all Christians — be they scholars, clergy, or laity — should both have access to scripture, and be encouraged to immerse themselves therein.

4. However, scripture also exists as a text, or rather, as a large collection of texts written at various times, by various authors, in various genres, to various audiences, with various purposes in mind.

5. Consequently, we must recognise that scripture, as a whole, is a rather complicated thing and, having made this recognition, we must approach scripture with a great deal of caution.

6. Such caution is also necessary because we ourselves exist within a particular place, time, culture, and moment in history and we have all, to some degree, been conditioned by this context.

7. However, this context is one that is foreign to scripture and so we must be careful that, in our reading of scripture, we do not import foreign concepts, values, paradigms and presuppositions into the text.

8. Indeed, when we become aware of the issues involved in reading, understanding, and applying scripture, may seem so complex that we leave scripture strictly within the hands of the professionals.

9. But this would be a mistake, not only because the scripture is a witness to the Word of God that has been given for all people (see points 1-3), but also because scripture is a witness to other scripture.

10. When I say that scripture is a “witness to other scripture,” I mean that scripture, acting as a witness to the Word of God within a particular text found within the canon, also acts a witness to the Word of God in other texts found within the canon.

11. This means that there is a certain coherence to scripture, a certain storyline that runs from Genesis to Revelation, and certain characters, events, motifs, and injunctions that appear (and develop) throughout the whole.

12. Consequently, by continually relating the parts to one another, and by reading the particular in light of the whole, one is able to comprehend the gist of scripture (even if one does not comprehend every particular or all the details).

13. This understanding could be said to be the understanding that comes from the ‘plain reading’ of scripture.

14. This also reveals that the sort of reading that is required, in order to achieve this sort of understanding, is quite a bit more vigourous and sustained than the type of reading that is practiced by much of the contemporary Christian laity in the West (indeed, it is questionable as to how much of the laity actually reads the scripture with any regularity — although the same critique could, and should, be made of the clergy, and Christian scholars).

15. However, assuming that we actually are reading the scriptures with some regularity, one cannot simply read a chapter per day, or a verse per day (or a random selection of verses found within a daily devotional) and hope to get much that is meaningful or transformative out of scripture (instead, using this method, one will probably discover what one wants to discover, or what one has been culturally-conditioned to discover).

16. Unless, that is, the clergy have provided the sort of foundation that allows such a reading (of, at the very minimum, a chapter per day) to be meaningful.

17. That is to say, the clergy should be the ones providing the laity with the ‘big picture’, with the leitmotifs, and with the paradigm(s) that one finds in scripture. Thus, when I read about Pentecost in my devotions, I should be trained to automatically think of Babel and the call of Abraham, when I read about resurrection I should automatically think of the return from exile, and so on and so forth.

18. Consequently, ‘Sunday School’ (by which I mean the education of both children and adults in church), rather than providing us with a seemingly random sample of stories, should provide us with the story. Thus, when we read one particular part of that story — say the story of the exile of Israel — we will automatically remember earlier parts (the exile of the nations, and the exile imposed upon humanity and the cosmos) and anticipate later parts (the godforsakenness of Jesus on the cross, and to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead coupled with the outpouring of the Spirit).

19. In this way, new light will be shed upon our daily readings of select parts, and our consumption of each bit becomes, in actuality, a re-consumption of the whole. It is precisely this sort of reading that becomes both meaningful and transformative (just as the continual consumption of the body and blood of Christ found in the Eucharist is both meaningful and transformative).

20. It also means that our reading of scripture should be more sustained than it is. We should read daily, we should read sustained units of the story, and we should read in a way that genuinely engages the text at hand. Such a reading, with the requisite foundation, should make the ‘plain reading’ of scripture clear.

21. This, then, raises the question of the role of biblical scholars (and theologians) as they relate to the reading, understanding, and application of scripture within the church.

22. By and large, the role of the scholar is to inform the clergy (who then inform the laity).

23. By making this assertion, I am not seeking to create a hierarchy, or suggest that the scholar is superior to the priest (or the lay person). The scholar may be the minister of the (written) word, but the clergy member is the minister of the sacraments, and the lay person is a minister of the koinonia of those in Christ.

24. No one — scholar, clergy member, or lay person — is greater than the other, but each has his or her own role, and each should defer to the other in their respective areas of ‘expertise’. That means that, when Christian scholars tell the clergy (and the laity) to interpret a particular passage in a particular way, it is the responsibility of the clergy (and the laity) to do so. Or, conversely, when the clergy (and the laity) tell the Christian scholars that their lives need to reflect the content of their studies, it is the responsibility of the scholars to make the necessary changes.

25. Of course, such thinking relies, to a certain extent, upon a consensus within Christian scholarship. Yet, such a consensus is rarely found.

26. In the absence of consensus, it is the responsibility of both the scholar and the clergy member to inform themselves, as best they can, of the various sides of the argument at hand, before making a decision.

27. When debates get technical, as they often do, the scholar is better equipped for engagement than the clergy member. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the scholar to summarize the various positions, and their strengths and weaknesses, for the clergy member.

28. Therefore, when confronted with a controversial issue, the clergy member, like the scholar, must practice a great deal of patience before presenting a position to the laity and should not succumb to the temptation to give a hasty answer to seemingly urgent questions (hence, the laity must learn to practice patience as well).

29. After all, one cannot simply go with the majority of scholars (majorities are sometimes wrong), nor can one ignore solitary ‘radical’ voices on the fringes of the discussion (such voices are sometimes prophetic), nor can one simply go with the majority of scholars who are affiliated with one’s particular denomination (all denominations are flawed, and hold wrong views on some things), and so negotiating these waters can be extremely difficult.

30. Consequently, in areas that are especially controversial, the best a clergy member can do is to present the range of options to the laity and ask the church, as a congregation, to either: (a) prayerfully and carefully come to a consensus for how they, as a local body, will choose to act (while remaining aware that other local bodies have selected other options); or (b) refuse a consensus and allow for the whole range of options to be visible within one local body.

31. Of course, both (a) and (b) will likely lead to some members leaving the church but a local church cannot make this sort of decision based upon how many members, or which members, choose to stay or leave.

32. In all of this the clergy member, like the scholar, must be careful that he or she is not simply imposing his or her own personal preference upon the church.

33. That said, exercising caution, and recognising the plurality of options available to Christians on some issues, is not the same thing as cheerfully tolerating all positions.

34. Consequently, there are times when Christians must strongly disagree with, and refuse to accept, the positions held by other Christians on some issues (indeed, such disagreements have always been a part of the history of the people of God as the prophetic material in the OT shows us, and the Gospels and the letters of Paul in the NT remind us).

35. However, to refuse to accept a position that is held by another Christian, is not the same thing as refusing to accept that other Christian as a Christian, or as a fellow member of the body of Christ.

36. In extremis, such disagreement may even need to be voiced in the act of excommunication. However, even the act of excommunication does not say that a person is ‘damned’ or has ‘lost their salvation’ or whatever. Rather, it simply asserts that, at the present moment, the excommunicated person’s actions prevent that person from participating in the body and blood of Christ (and it makes no assertion whatsoever about the status that person might attain to after death).

37. Unfortunately, none of this has addressed how one is to discern which issues are the ones that require a person to take this sort of stand… but I have gone on long enough for now.

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