Why when Christians each have a copy of the Scriptures, do they need each other? Why are they still members of the Church? It is not only Scripture, but also the Church, that is God’s witness to us. Scripture serves the Church, understood as God’s own work of self-witness. Only in the Church are we exposed to that discipline and work of sanctification by which we are transformed into those who can read Scripture. Even those recent discussions of biblical hermeneutics that set out to be theological cannot make the bible anymore than a book until they are ready to talk about sanctification and the Church.
Why are the Christians so interested in this book? Why when they each have a copy of this book, do they continue to need each other, why they are still members of the Church? In this paper I suggest that recent discussions of Scripture do not make Scripture anything more than a book, and therefore they do not take seriously enough that Scripture creates and serves the Church, understood as God’s own work of self-witness. Even recent theological treatments of Scripture do not get trinitarian enough, do not allow the triunity to penetrate far enough into their grammar to escape the modern logic that identifies a subject
and an object, and there to stop. Modern hermeneutics allows that there is a book and there is the mind that reads it, two objects, one of which must be subject. Because they understand it as a book, an object, it is still part
of the subject-object thing in which we are reader, it is the object of our reading. We must at least put this the other way around, making the Scriptures the reader and we the read, it the writer, we the written. Recent discussion has rightly insisted that Scripture is not our action, but the action of someone who acts on us. We suffer Scripture, it is the actor, we the
patients of its action. But I don’t think recent discussion has not allowed itself the conceptual apparatus to realise Scripture as action and process that creates plurality, the assembly of the people of God, a community of particular
people raised and brought into the assembly that stands before God. Can we come up with a better hermeneutics of Scripture by avoiding thinking of the bible as a book? I will suggest three other ways in which to see it.
Many now agree that Scripture does not stand alone as a separate locus or preamble to doctrine. We have to connect Scripture to the doctrine of God so it receives its rationale from the wider Christological, Pneumatological and
ecclesiological dimensions. It must start from the doctrine that God speaks, and not only speaks, but hears and replies and enacts. To say that God speaks is obviously basic to a theological hermeneutic, but it leaves hanging the issue of the reception of and obedience to his Word. To say that God also hears, and replies, and enacts will need a little expansion in the shape of a
pneumatology that allows that God is competent to make himself known. We can do this just by playing variations on the word testament. God is testifier, testator, and God is testimony and testament. He is witness and he is who that witness witnesses too – and he is the statement made by that witness. He has made talkative witnesses to himself, the prophets and saints made known to us by the Old and New Testaments, but they are nothing without him, those witnesses are properly themselves when they are most perfectly servants of the Holy Spirit’s witness to the Son and the Father. Then we must link these many witnesses, and thus the ecclesiological aspect of this hermeneutic of Scripture, to the liturgy and worship, lectionary and the Christian year,
preaching, prayer and other practices, which sponsor the faithful reception and performance of the Gospel. We must set the issue of Scripture into the issue of the assembly that God calls and makes, and all to life and practices of that
1. The modern critical hermeneutic – Scripture as information, bible as dumb object
In my first section I am quickly going to characterise by caricature the modern hermeneutic. This starts with an independent observer who is not touched or changed by anything that happens in the world outside him. It assumes that we
could know God without experiencing a convulsion and metamorphosis, that even in front of him we could remain an unchanged detached observer – a second god. The Cartesian picture is of the subject as eyeball that gazes down on in this
case the book of the bible, the vicious subject controlling and dissecting the victimised object into successively smaller and more motionless units. Modern readers assume that that they have been left as individuals, perhaps even orphans, in front of the open page. This makes it either a wall of dumb and inert text or an object that they believe they can look straight at; and
see it for what it is. But they can no more receive the knowledge of God via the text of Scripture than they can safely gaze directly at Sinai. For our sake Sinai keeps us well-veiled by copious protective wrapping. The text of Scripture is not open, and does not intend readers to harm themselves by attempting to see past it.
So let us not start with two objects, object and subject, in an empty field. The world is not a flat and featureless empty space. We do not come to a blank page or clean starting place, for this is no virgin world: lots of people have
been here before us and have made us the people we are. We are patients and products of their action. The world is composed entirely of the clutter of previous generations, but this is not only outside us, there to view. It is inside us as the intellectual tools by which we navigate our way in the world. We are ourselves that clutter, a welter of competing tools and templates.
The modern hermeneutic, and critical studies, is intellectualist. It is the idiom of a head that is responsible for no body. So modern biblical studies is not in service to the Christian community. It is not even in conversation with it. It does not see itself as the Christian community itself testing its performance in order to maintain its performance of witness to the world. The
cerebral and autonomous hermeneutic feels no obligation to the common reader of Scripture. To play the analytic critical idiom and never any other idiom is to speak over the heads of the crowd, and so to keep above the fray the head
separated from the body. All scriptural hermeneutic that does not reject the dominant assumption of the autonomous mind is party to it. For this hermeneutic, Scripture is information. The autonomous subject is enthroned, and Scripture is his kingdom and like all other information has to lobby to receive his attention. In the hermeneutic in which the reader is the detached observer,
there is no trauma of conversion and metanoia.
Pneumatological hermeneutic (1) Gospel as unlocking
The first supposition to be questioned I think is that the gospel is directed to us. The gospel is not in the first place information,
but the action of God to unlock and release us. The Holy Spirit unlocks creation. Engaged by a remote control device of which we have no knowledge, the locks spring up. This action is directed over our heads. Only secondarily is the gospel information directed to us to tell us that the locks are open and we are now free. But it does not merely bid us take up our mat and
walk. This would be a new law for we cannot walk away unaided. By close and patient support will we be nursed and taught how to grow up into that freedom.
Scripture is read and so proclaimed publicly to the world. The gospel is the blast of a trumpet. It is the signal that summons the assembly. It is the warning given by the watchman that wakes the city to danger, and the signal to advance into battle, in which all wicked masters and forces are opposed and overcome. And it is the signal to retire, cease work, put our load down, and to
be restored and recreated by the Sabbath and jubilee.
Scripture is not first information but action. It does not refer itself to our head. It detaches us from the rebellious autonomous mind and joins us to our new head. It separates and joins, opens and closes, binds and looses. It not only reconciles and unites and makes the two one, but it distinguishes and separates what has been falsely combined. It frees us from our old masters and
joins us to Christ. It separates us from one head, the autonomous mind, and joins us to another, Christ.
But creation is not all unlocked all at once. We are kept locked out of the greater part of it. There are plenty of things that it is not good for us to know or to have unsupervised access to. We cannot break into the safe and take the keys to all parts of creation. We have no access to the knowledge of good and evil, that is to knowledge that is good, but which is not good for us.
Modern epistemology of course works on the assumption that we already have complete access to all areas, are unsupervised and free to play with all the powerful forces. But creation is God’s custodial act of hospitality to us, so we are also accompanied and supervised.
The gospel (Christ) also comes to us as law, that is as restraint and harness. We suffer Scripture: it is the action of God we suffer and receive. We are the object of the act of the whole people of God visible to us as the people of Israel who record themselves for us in the Scriptures. Information about God is not all there open before us, instantly visible as we open the pages. The knowledge of God is dosed to us by Scripture. Scripture is a screen, that shows us some things by filtering and holding back from us others, until one day we are perhaps ready to receive more. We could not be given allinformation about God at once. Scripture itself calls information glory, and understands that it is simply much more than we can possibly digest or respond
to. We do not really want to be terrified and overwhelmed. God does not give us vastly more than we can bear, but gives himself to us slowly, and not straight, but as new action, gifts, talents. He gives information about himself only as that information serves to free us from this or that form of false imprisonment. Piece by piece the Son distributes to his body the relationship he has with Father, and does so by training it in the action he is given by the Father. Only when we have something of his action and holiness
will he come to us in person. So the Church is not left to read the Word unaccompanied, but given the teachers to develop the mature instincts and criteria by which we can distinguish between the voices, and know which way to read the text on each occasion. We have Scripture accompanied by an apostle and teachers to open it to us as a programme of recovery and development by which we are unlocked, and brought up into the skills of Scripture reading and Christ-reception.
Pneumatological hermeneutic (2) Scripture as company of witnesses. Scripture forms a community, and threads us into this community.
The scriptural hermeneutic I am offering starts from assumption that the Holy Spirit, the actor of Scripture, makes many actors of Scripture. God creates many witnesses. The Scriptures are the speech and act of the patriarchs, prophets and saints. We are accompanied by a crowd. The witnesses of the old and new testaments form two choruses of prophets and saints that, standing
across from one another, cheer us on. The road on which we now travel after the Son is lined by them, shouting warning and advice. This crowd fills us and lifts us with its breath, and wills us on, their whoops and roars, rousing us and driving us down the track, his Word become their many words. They warn us when our navigation goes awry. They urge us not to give ourselves away to those who manipulate and prey on us, and they tell us to pass their shouted warning and encouragement on. They are conveyors and amplifiers of prayers who make the requests we do not yet know how to make for ourselves. The Holy Spirit utters these patriarchs, prophets and saints and bears their voices to us, and so they bear and utter the Son, and are made holy in the process.
Scripture is a screen by which the Spirit works. We are not exposed directly to the intensity of him. By it we can see the Son at work, while secured within his protection. This means Scripture does not allow us to see God at work now,in the events of our own history; indeed it is a safeguard precisely against that. It means that we can only see God at work –then, in that time, a time now
closed and removed from us. We can see these witnesses, but only in static form, so we can see them, but they cannot be touched by us. They are separated from us as by a mirrored window, so they are able to see us in real time, but we only see them as static images, and receive their voices only in the form of the liturgy. They hand the deposit and rule of faith to us, and we must hand on this whole tradition without loss. God receives his witness and recognise andaffirms what the prophets and apostles say about himself.
Now we can say that theology is commentary on the action of the earthly community, the Church, that is learning to understand itself as the work of the company of heaven. If we concede that the plurality represented by the Christian community is inaugurated by heavenly company and assembly – then it can treat this sociality and community as its proper object, and it will be a science obedient to the self-revelation of the trinitarian and social God.
The Father and the Son, two witnesses who agree, send the Spirit to providemany witnesses to themselves. God is not only one witness but many witnesses. What makes this account different then is that it does not make unity prior to
sociality. Manyness and oneness are equally fundamental. By putting plurality co-equal with unity we make the bible not one object, but many objects, and not ones that are objects only, but subjects. These subjects are witnesses and therefore persons, so persons are fundamental in this account. This means that we avoid the problem created from the first with two objects, the bible and the reader, only one of which can be subject.
Pneumatological hermeneutic (3) Scripture is physical-spiritual.
Next we must fit our put Scripture hermeneutic into a theological theory of development, or sanctification, by which we are made holy, that is that we are made receptive, responsive, thankful creatures, created for participation in conversation with God. The knowledge of God is holy. It is a holy spirit, a field of high-pressure, a slow moving shock-wave, a radiation that
alters whatever it encounters. Even a small dose will burn and sting. It isspiritual, but it is not spiritual in the sense that it is not physical. It is physical in the same way that radiation is physical. We can’t see it and are not made aware of it through any other organ of perception – but it will harm or benefit according to the rate of our exposure to it.
As the gospel writes Scripture, the knowledge of God writes us. It re-inscribes, it re-scripturates, us. It circumcises, controls, constrains, drives, directs and enlivens us. We are ourselves written into the people of God. Each lesson of Scripture is a cookie, a little programme that downloads and installs itself in us, new circuitry that upgrades the old circuitry, raising the functionality of a simple system by installing a more complex one underneath it. We can therefore say that scripture has a physical outworking.
It alters our metabolism, giving us a more sophisticated plumbing. The Church has long had a concept for this idea that we are being internally re-engineered by stream of external packets of new circuitry. It calls these packets, sacraments. The scriptural hermeneutic I am offering you is a hermeneutic of sacrament, that understands that we are made God-compatible by holiness
instalments. This physical outworking is spiritually constructed and spiritually discerned.
This is not far-fetched. This is the conceptuality of sacrament. We are being made holy. We are being upgraded, our functionality is being raised to make our conversational creatures, creatures who receive from God and make a thankful response to God. Scripture sanctifies us, makes us responding units of sacrament, living sacrifices, competent at the skills intrinsic to the life
that God intends we participate in. The Holy Spirit, the actor of Scripture, brings into being a whole company of actors subordinated to him and driven by him.
The modern hermeneutic that operates only by distinguishing subject and object cannot show that over the middle term words become acts, and that over the long term acts become bodies. The conceptuality of sacrament though can show that acts sediment one on another to create bodies, that things are laid down one on another, words forming new actions, practices and the mind-set of a new community. Scripture as self-activating Instalments of Scripture – we can now call them sacraments – activate themselves on impact. So the Scriptures are a set of instructions the second instalment of which does not become visible until the first instalment has been executed. We are therefore not the first reader of the bible. Each instalment of Scripture therefore is reader and executor of each subsequent instalment, every such set of instructions combining and integrating with all others to bring into being the body of the reading and responding community. The instalments of Scripture are not deposited with the autonomous mind, but together accrete a new mind, that conduct the body through from simpler to more complex action and dimensions in increasing servanthood and holiness. These instalments of the word and logic of God allow this body to enter and move through more complex dimensions of space. With them we can move through eschatological, that is real, complete space, rather than the truncated version of space that passes for space in this world.
5. Gospel and Scripture are liturgical
Scripture is liturgical. Scripture comes to us as a series of lessons. A lesson is read from Scripture to the Church each week, opened by the preaching, received by the hymns and thanksgiving of the people. This proclamation animates the Christian body, firing it into movement, action and labour. The gospel makes itself audible and visible, unfolds itself in the form
of someone opening it out for us. Now we can say that reading and studying Scripture is just practice for its loud public reading and proclamation. The active form of Scripture is the form it is given by the lectionary. This sets out our ordered progression through the record of the people of Israel, telling us where in the wilderness, represented by the Church year, we are. It
puts us in a procession, and drives us through the world – it makes us restless, so we are never able to sit down and declare that we have arrived.
Scripture is commentary on the liturgy of the whole people of God, and understands the liturgy the act first of God that brings the Christian community into being and sets it to work. The liturgy is also that act of compassion for the world; that propels this community members to its service, and to speak for them their thanks to God.
Theology is the servant of the Scriptures which encounter and confront the world. Theology is in dialogue both with Scripture and with the whole history of Scripture-reading and of the communities brought into being by, and determined by, the readings they have given Scripture and have received from Scripture. Scripture is commentary on the public and political confession of
the liturgy of the whole people of God that takes recognition away from every intermediary authority and returns it to God. Theology serves the ministry and liturgy of the witnesses of God, who are themselves the work and speech of God.
Theology is the liturgy’s own self-maintenance service. It comments on our singing and serving and teaches us how to stay in tune and drop every inhibiting habit, so to become progressively freer and more informed by the words of God.
6. Scripture reads the world
The Scriptures encounter and confront the world. Scripture is exegesis. It is exegesis of the world. It demythologises all the forms various forms of writing and institution-building that make up the world. It re-directs them to the formation of the community of God’s witness in the world. Scripture is therefore not first the object of exegesis but its subject. Exegesis of scripture serves and so is subsidiary to Scripture’s own work of reading the world. This work of world-reading is not merely a looking at the world, but bringing various worlds and world-views into confrontation. It makes explicit the
various pagan gospels and scriptures, their grammar and forms of life. Our competing tools and templates do not care to make themselves explicit to us. But the gospel digs up all our metaphysics and ontologies, names and displays them. It is the disciplining or exorcising of the patterns and powers which otherwise determine who we are. This brings us back to what we said about
I have taken a quick look at the critical and contemporary theological approaches to discussion of Scripture. I argued that both give too much away tothe deep instincts of the Western tradition to assume that our minds are competent to know whatever is presented to them without aid. I do not intend that we should replace the critical approach, but that we go on to include in
our basket three more approaches. These are:
1. Scripture is unlocking, releasing and joining. We are released from the autonomous mind, that of the detached and disdainful observer, and we are connected to our Creator, and thus given another head and new mind. Scripture is a sub-set of the gospel’s action of opening and closing of creation to us in order to make us the increasingly free and responsive creatures of God.
2. Scripture is an assembly and chorus of witnesses, the company of patriarchs, prophets and apostles. This hermeneutic make plurality and particularity as essential as unity, and thus is more properly trinitarian.
3. Scripture is the liturgy, that is an assembly in procession, given life, movement and the work of returning thanks to God.
Now a word about this paper as a whole. Did you perhaps find it too metaphorical, too colourfully religious and not sufficiently academic and analytic in idiom? Have I been speaking in metaphors? Well, I have been speaking about metaphors because I have been speaking about ontologies. I have drawn your attention to the deep patterns that order our life and our
thought about it. Underneath all we can be scientific about there is a deep set of things are fundamentally controversial and unsupported. Beneath all we are able to rationalise there is a level of story-like interpretations. We can call
these metaphors, as long as realise that they are the inherited schemas and matrices of our very own action. Together they make up our metaphysic or ontology, and that constitute the deep structure that informs and determines the life and thought of our society, our own as much as any other. We think we may ‘use’ metaphors, as we may use tools – that is that we may use them or not, as we like. But this is not quite right, for two reasons. The first is that we do always employ tools, and cannot not do so. We do not interact with the world raw. We are only able to some small degree to choose which tools. The second point is that the world itself is not raw surface, but is itself nothing but assemblage of tools which compete to put themselves into our hands and to hold on to us. Each tool or metaphor intends not only that we should use it but it become our dominant and then our only metaphor. It tends to expand to become a matrix and our whole world. The world is a slowly-shifting accretion of metaphors that act as templates for our action and perception. The central template that it is necessary to challenge when talking about Scripture is the Cartesian story about the world as an empty field, in which an object is viewed and dominated – the one way mirror again – by an autonomous mind. That the world is a blank sheet is the metaphor adopted by Descartes which has become
the container within which we now live. Any metaphor not challenged and balanced by others serves only to reduce the moral space we think is available to us. The world is a palimpsest, not a blank sheet. As we act, we write on the crust of an old world, on the surface of the mud made up of all previous things. By all that we do we make new marks in it re-arranging and partially
effacing earlier things, in a restless process of cannibalising and re-utilising. With my downloads-and-upgrades logic I have indicated an alternative to the sole employment of the logic in which God and man tussle to decide who is to be subject and who is to be object, who speaker and who the hearer who can justify that speaker. To make man the first hearer and object of the word of God is insufficiently trinitarian. The Son is the first hearer of the word of the Father – so God does not rely on us for his vindication. I said this apparently new metaphor is actually the old hermeneutic of sacrament, that is it refers to God’s action of making us holy, that is God’s action of making us actors, responsive, articulate and grateful. I have not given you a Scriptural
hermeneutic without indicating where it conflicts with the actual modern hermeneutic and ontology – which is just as it should be.