Monday, July 12, 2010

welcome to BIBL 5203

[This is a slightly modified re-posting from July, 2008 (the original post is available here).]

I'd like to welcome all the students enrolled in my online course, The History of New Testament Interpretation. Students can find posts specifically relevant for this course by clicking on the label, BIBL 5203, available below.

In the previous version of this course, students found the following comment regarding the concomitant dangers of biblical interpretation:
Bernard Ramm reminds us that biblical interpretation is a demanding task, since our approach and procedures must be made explicit. Quite simply, we must avoid the error of making interpretations on the basis of speculation and we must avoid making them arbitrarily and dogmatically. Proper interpretation requires allowing the text to challenge and modify our prior assumptions about its meaning. Interpretation requires a courageous commitment to pursue the truth wherever it may lead.

I would like to take a moment to make this point a bit more forcefully.

For the last few years I have been thinking on-and-off about the idea that the Bible is a "dangerous," or even "offensive" text. I don't mean "offensive" in the same sense that Don Imus or Jesse Jackson are offensive; I mean "offensive" in the way Peyton Manning or LeBron James are offensive. The biblical text moves forward; it advances; it makes claims on the lives of those who read it, and if we're not careful (and especially if we are!), we will find the text calling us into question. Though I hesitate to cite Tolkien here, Frodo's recollection of Bilbo's caution seems apt here:
Remember what Bilbo used to say: "It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Reading the Bible is similarly dangerous; studying the Bible only compounds the risk. For those of us who define ourselves in terms of our reading of biblical texts and who believe that problems attend not only to the wide world around us but also the hidden world inside us, the voice of God we strive to hear from the inscribed page continually threatens the safe and stable identities and identifications we have made for ourselves. Though "Protestant" does not define my attachment to Christianity (except to the extent that I am not "Catholic")—still less does the label "Reformed"—I have strong sympathies with the Reformation cry Reformata Semper Reformanda ("reformed yet always reforming" [in this context I intentionally elide Ecclesia, though I do not espouse an individualistic conception of Christianity]). I have been transformed/reformed, yes; but that transformation has not neutered the Bible or rendered me any less prone to its discipline, rebuke, and chastisement.

Surrendering to this offensive movement of the biblical text is (or ought to be) at the heart of what it means to be a confessing Christian, and especially (if not uniquely) an evangelical Christian. In this vein I was pleased to read Donna Freitas's observation, in a vastly different context, regarding students at evangelical institutions of higher education [nb: Freitas herself does not self-identify as an evangelical]:
When I tell friends and colleagues about the different groups of students who participated in this study, antievangelical prejudices surface over and over. Many people believe that evangelical Christians are not intellectual, that there is little nuance to their beliefs, and that they are not capable of sustaining a well-reasoned argument. But there is nearly as much diversity inside evangelical culture as there is outside of it. And time after time during my interviews, these stereotypes were shattered. [Two female students] epitomize the complexity of personal and religious identities common among the evangelical students I interviewed — perfect examples of the committed Christian who grows intellectually and learns to push boundaries and think hard about her place in the world because of her own and her college's intense faith commitments, not in spite of them. Although, to be sure, I met stereotypical Religious Right types, I also encountered a wide range of political persuasions. (Freitas, Sex and the Soul, 62–63; original emphasis)

Freitas may be focusing on political or ideological diversity among evangelicals, but I would like to draw attention to her comment about "the committed Christian who grows . . . because of her" faith. This is, of course, a romantic and backward-looking description of evangelical Christians, told from the perspective of their ultimate (if still ongoing) success in negotiating their identity and location within the wider world.

But from the forward-looking perspective at the beginning of biblical research (remember, this is only the beginning of the semester!) we need to realize that things look very different indeed. Researching and (hopefully) understanding the biblical text with greater clarity and sophistication does not bring comfort and succor. Rather, it augments the intensity with which the text calls us to account, highlights the situatedness of ourselves at the center of our lives as God looks on from outside, and warns ever more clearly that all that is chaff will be burned in his purifying judgment. Certainly the Bible comforts us, but the Bible's comfort is precisely that all this discomfort comes from the hands of a loving and merciful God.

As we examine how the church has read and utilized the NT texts throughout the last two millennia, we ought to be prepared to find ourselves in the highs and lows of the church's history. This finding, I hope, will add depth to our readings of the texts and resonance to the voice we hear speaking from the page and summoning us to incline our ear to his counsel.

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