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The Scripture Project: Nine Theses

In The Art of Reading Scripture, Ellen Davis and Richard Hays bring together a superb collection of scholars who offer some great essays on the theological interpretation of Scripture. The book is the result of the studies of a group known as “The Scripture Project” and includes nine theses on the interpretation of Scripture:

  1. Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.
  2. Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.
  3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.
  4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.
  5. The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.
  6. Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action–the church.
  7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.
  8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.
  9. We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

A few thoughts:

First, we need to be careful about what we mean by construing Scripture as a “coherent dramatic narrative” informed by the rule of faith. The rule of faith must not be understood as an unquestioned rule in our interpretation of Scripture if we are to avoid falling into ideology and theological imperialism.

Second, 3 and 8 seem to be in tension. If it is an article of faith that we cannot understand and the Old Testament apart from the New its going to be hard for us to read the Old Testament in dialogue with Jews.

Third, the meaning of “continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world” seems illusive. How exactly is this sort of discernment supposed to function hermeneutically?

Fourth, these theses would be better served by explicit mention of the God as Triune, and Jesus as the center of the biblical narrative in speaking about Scripture telling the story of “God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.”

9 Comments

  1. Andy Rowell wrote:

    There is also a Christian Century article available online related to the book:
    Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, “Beyond criticism: Learning to read the Bible again,” ChrCent 121 (2004): 23-27. Online: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3047

    Here is the reference to the book:
    Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

    Friday, February 13, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  2. I’ve encountered #4 in various formulations, and am always troubled by it. It seems to allow virtually any interpretation one can dream up, under the theory that one has found what God “really meant,” or what God “really means” for the modern reader.

    What exactly does it mean to say that a text can have multiple complex senses? Is there any limit to the number of senses a text can possess? How complex can it get?

    I’ve long endorsed a simple rule: if an interpretation would have been incomprehensible to the original audience, it’s wrong.

    Friday, February 13, 2009 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  3. swissel wrote:

    Rodney it’s the early christians’ method of reading the Scriptures as all about Jesus. That pretty much locked us in to the “incomprehensible to the original audience” hermeneutic. Now extend the practice from Joshua and Ezekiel to Paul and embrace the polemical arbitrariness. I recommend reading secondary authors that just cite numerical chapter and verse as support for preconceived arguments. It all begins to feel much more legitimate when done that way.

    Friday, February 13, 2009 at 9:44 pm | Permalink
  4. parishioner wrote:

    Halden, I agree with your diagnosis of illusiveness for #9. It’s been my observation that this kind of discernment functions messily. People who say that kind of thing tend to assume that their listeners understand exactly what they mean by it. When they find out how their statement is being applied, they get a real shock. It’s similar to Rodney’s critique of #4.

    Our capacity for deception is almost boundless. Our deceitful hearts can find a way to use Scripture to justify just about anything. It’s wonderful that He’s faithful when we’re faithless, and that he uses the body to try to help us when our discernment is off. Will we listen?

    Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  5. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Halden: Your third question came to my mind as I was reading thesis #9. I thought immediately of Yoder. And I also thought was struck by the peculiarity of referring to “the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world” apart from the reference to Jesus. Here is where your trinitarian question comes in.

    Also, as regards Rodney’s concerns with #4, in affirming the “multiple complex senses” of Scripture should we not also explicitly confirm the way in which these complex senses are guided by the “literal sense,” in the tradition of interpretation. The appeal to the “rule of faith” in #2 without appeal to the sensus literalis in #4 is also peculiar to me.

    Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Permalink
  6. kim fabricius wrote:

    #3 and #8 are in tension – and that’s the point. Indeed the tension speaks to Halden’s query about #2, and acts as a brake on ecclesial imperialism. In conversation with George Lindbeck (and alluding to Bonhoeffer), Rowan Williams speaks about the importance of “the process of ‘playing away from home’, conversing with … potential allies” (and, I would add, even real enemies), which requires what Keats called “negative capability”, and the “need to know when to be silent, when to wait.”

    And, hey, what’s wrong with messiness? As Wittgenstein said, “What’s ragged should be left ragged.”

    Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 6:48 am | Permalink
  7. parishioner wrote:

    Nothing wrong with messiness until someone loses an eye.

    Or their brother to a church led by some clodpate with dangerous theology who fancies himself a comedian. Or their sister to a denomination who baptizes in the name of Wants, Needs, and Feelings, that unholy tolerant trinity.

    “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:14) Maturity is what precedes the tremendous “Then” in the above. The immature are the ones preyed upon.

    Sometimes brakes are applied. Sometimes the brake lines are cut. And sometimes those behind the wheel are so busy fiddling with the tuner in an attempt to find a station to tickle their ears that they drive the bus off the cliff without ever even touching the brakes, oblivious to the screams behind them.

    Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  8. N. Dan Smith wrote:

    Concerning #4, if we believe in the divine inspiration of scriptures, then all meanings are indeed rooted in the intent of the Author. Those multiple complex senses have to be communicated somehow. The main means of doing that seems to be later prophetic revelation (e.g. “fulfillment” language in the NT). The risk of #4 as phrased is that it could lead to subjectivism.

    Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  9. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    In my opinion, Childs has written two classic articles on this issue. One is a response to Rendtorff and is called “Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?” There he goes into the hermeneutical stages involved in a multi-level reading. In another earlier essay, “The Prob Sensus Literalis of Scripture,” Childs talks about the function of the literal sense, as Narte mentioned, and parallels between medieval allegory and historical criticism. I summarized these here.

    Monday, February 16, 2009 at 8:37 am | Permalink

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