Reading the Bible Properly: John Behr, Stanley Hauerwas, and the Historical-Critical Method

How was it that the disciples came to know Jesus as Lord and Son of God? They did not acquire this knowledge by merely accompanying him on his travels around Galilee—the gospels make this point clearly enough. Nor did they come to this knowledge by seeing Jesus nailed to a cross by the Romans. By the time of the crucifixion, Peter had denied him three times, Judas was either dead or preparing to hang himself, and most of the others were in hiding. Nor did they acquire this knowledge by the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning: an empty tomb can be explained in various ways. Even the encounters with the risen Christ were ambiguous. Recall the story of St Cleopas and his unnamed companion (St Luke?). As they were walking to Emmaus,  a stranger takes up with them. He proceeds to exposit the Scriptures and demonstrate how the sacred writings foretold of the Messiah’s suffering, death, and vindication. Even then they did not recognize him. The two compan­ions prevail upon the stranger to stay for supper. He offers the blessing and breaks the bread. At that moment their eyes are opened. They recognize him as  Jesus, raised from death by the Father in accordance with the Scriptures. The risen Lord then disappears from their sight. In amazement Cleopas and his companion cry out, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). Fr John Behr elaborates:

Rather, the disciples came to recognize the Lord as the one whose Passion is spoken of by the scriptures and encountered him in the breaking of bread. It is these two complementary ways, the engagement with the scriptures and sharing in the Lord’s meal, “proclaiming his death until he comes” (1 Cor 11.26), that Paul specifies he had received (from the Lord himself in the case of the eucharistic meal) and then handed down, or “traditioned,” to later generations (cf. 1 Cor 11.23, 15.3). These constitute, as it were, the matrix and sustenance of the Christian tradition. From this vantage point, we can now look back to the Cross, the last publicly visible image (the tomb, after all, was empty and seen only by a few, and the risen Christ disappears from our sight when he is recognized), as the sign of victory, as we await the return of the Lord; as the apostle Paul said, he would preach nothing else but Christ and him crucified. The images throughout the early Christian period depicting the Crucifixion constitute, such as that in the Rabbula Gospels [pictured above], consistently depict the crucified Christ with an upright body and eyes wide open, not because of an inability to depict a dead corpse, but precisely because the crucified one is the triumphant Lord: the Cross itself is taken simultaneously as a reference to the Crucifixion and to the risen Christ. The Christ that Christians are concerned with is always the crucified and exalted one, the one who has now entered into his glory. (The Mystery of Christ, pp. 27-28).

The confession of the Crucified as Son and Lord is thus dependent upon the fresh interpretation of the Scriptures that was generated by the mysterious events of Easter. We must posit the appearances of the risen Lord as logically preceding the paschal interpre­tation. The disciples did not become convinced that Jesus had been raised from death by just reading the sacred writings. The gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, as well as the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 15), point to the appearances as  the principal cause of Easter faith (see N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God). Yet as the Emmaus story suggests, the resurrection appearances, faith, and the apostolic hermeneutic are inseparably intertwined, as we would expect for such a dramatic paradigm shift. “All data are theory-laden,” N. R. Hanson declared back in the late ’50s. Ian Barbour later rephrased the dictum: “There are no bare uninterpreted data.” Philosophers debate the validity of Hanson’s thesis, but it certainly seems to obtain when evaluating the formulation of the Church’s paschal conviction. What we believe informs what we see; what we see informs what we believe.

The crucifixion should have demonstrated the falsity of Jesus’ messianic claims. As the Emmaus travelers told Jesus: “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). But then something remarkable happens. The disciples re-group and begin proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as alive and the subject of Holy Scripture.

The disciples did not simply come to understand Christ in light of the Passion. Rather, only when turned again (or were turned by the risen Christ) to the scriptures (meaning what we now call the “Old Testament”) did they begin to see there all sorts of references to Christ, and specifically to the necessity that he should suffer before entering his glory (cf. Lk 24.27), which they then used in their proclamation of Christ. In other words, they were not used merely as a narrative of the past, but rather as a thesaurus, a teasing of imagery, for entering into the mystery of Christ, the starting point for which is the historical event of the Passion. In this it is not so much scripture that is being exegeted, but rather Christ who is being interpreted by recourse of the scriptures. Not that they denied that God had been work in the past, but their account of this “salvation history” is one which is told from the perspective of their encounter with the risen Lord, seeing him as providentially arranging the whole economy, the plan of salvation,” such that it culminates in him. (p. 17)

The entirety of the Bible is about the crucified Nazarene. He is found on every page, if one has eyes to see. When Moses in the wilderness strikes the rock and water gushes out (Num 20:11), that rock, the Apostle Paul says, was Christ himself (1 Cor 10:4).

Consider the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Philip finds him sitting in his chariot reading the hymn of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. The eunuch does not ask of him the question “we would ask today—‘What is the meaning of this passage?”—as if the ‘meaning’ were located in the text itself, and so in the past, and our task is to uncover it, what the text ‘meant,’ and then perhaps to find ‘meaning’ for ourselves in the present by some kind of analogy. Instead the eunuch asked, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ (Acts 8.34)” (pp. 49-50). Philip explains to him that the prophecy refers to Jesus of Nazareth and has been fulfilled in his passion. “‘Meaning’ resides in the person of whom the text speaks, and our task is to know this person by understanding how the text speaks of him” (p. 50). As Christ states in the Gospel of John: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). Only by understanding that Jesus is the true text of Scripture can we “understand why for the authors of the writings of the New Testament, and those whose work resulted in these writings being collected together, the expression ‘the Word of God’ did not refer to scripture, as it is often assumed today, but to Jesus Christ himself and the gospel proclaiming him, the crucified and exalted one, as Lord” (p. 50). Jesus is the Word made flesh. The exegetical task of preacher and theologian, writes Behr, is not “to retrieve the original, pristine and pure, meaning of the authors of scripture by removing the obscuring sediment of later theological reflection” (p. 47). If such historical meaning exists and can be recovered, it is of only minor interest to the Church, given that it requires us to interpret the biblical text as historical artifact rather than as Holy Scripture. The task of the Church is to proclaim Christ crucified and declare the good news of his salvation.

Behr quotes an illuminating passage from St Irenaeus:

If anyone, therefore, reads the Scriptures this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the “treasure which was hidden in the field” [Matt 13:44], that is, in this world – for “the field is the world” [Matt 13:38] – [a treasure] hidden in the Scriptures, for he was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by men prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet, “Shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things” [Dan 12:4, 7]. And Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things” [Jer 23:20]. For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is nothing but an enigma and ambiguity to men; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition (ἐξήγησις). And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth, for they do not possess the explanation (ἐξήγησις) of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God; but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known his dispensations with regard to man, and prefiguring the kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the man who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear his Word, and be glorified, from hearing his speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behold his glorious countenance [cf. 2 Cor 3:7], as was said by Daniel, “Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever” [Dan 12:3]. In this manner, then, I have shown it to be, if anyone read the Scriptures. (Against the Heresies 4.26.1)

Christ is hidden in the Old Testament. Apart from a noetic apprehension of the risen One, it remains a closed book, a collection of disjointed myths, stories, prophesies and commandments. But once the Messiah is raised from the dead and the Spirit is poured out, the Old Testament becomes a luminous testimony to the Savior and Creator of the universe. As Fr Andrew Greeley once remarked: “Christ turned the world upside down; and when the world was viewed from such a remarkable perspective, it suddenly made sense.”

Contemporary theology and biblical studies, with its privileging of the historical-critical method, inevitably finds the apostolic hermeneutic an embarrassment. Neither the Apostles nor the Church Fathers treated the biblical writings as documents whose meaning lies exclusively in the text itself. If they had, there would have been neither gospel nor Church. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the canon of faith.

Decades ago I attended a conference at Princeton Seminary. The conference was dedicated to the theme of biblical authority and interpretation. Among the distinguished speakers, two in particular caught my attention—the renowned New Testament scholar Jack Dean Kingsbury and the great theologian-provocateur Stanley Hauerwas. At one point in his lecture, Hauerwas announced that if God were ever to put him in charge of the seminaries in the country, his first order of business would be to fire en masse all the biblical scholars. I remember looking over at Kingsbury, sitting not too far away from me. He did not look pleased. Hauerwas would later write a little book, Unleashing the Scripture, in which he vigorously attacked the Protestant principle of sola scriptura and the privileging of the historical-critical method in the Church. He takes up the claim of Stanley Fish that texts do not have meaning in themselves but only emerge as texts through the interpretive process. Needless to say, Hauerwas does not think very highly of the principle of sola scriptura: “When sola scriptura is used to underwrite the distinction between text and interpretation, then it seems clear to me that sola scriptura is a heresy rather than a help in the Church. When this distinction persists, sola scriptura becomes the seedbed of fundamentalism, as well as biblical criticism. It assumes that the text of the Scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense” (p. 27). The Dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary would agree wholeheartedly.

(Go to “God Creates the World from the Cross”)

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33 Responses to Reading the Bible Properly: John Behr, Stanley Hauerwas, and the Historical-Critical Method

  1. brian says:

    Well, I recently made the case for “no bare uninterpreted data” in a previous comments section. Rather confused back-and-forth ensued with a fella named Thomas in which it finally dawned on me that somehow I had stumbled into a conflation with Behr and Bultmann. Needless to say, I don’t think an assertion of ineliminable interpretation necessitates Bultmann or a rejection of an intrinsic connection between historical event and interpretation. It’s been decades since I perused Stanley Fish, but my recollection is one could bring to his theory the objection an “originalist” might bring to an American jurisprudence that treats the Constitution as a “living document.” The latter can be used as a means to introduce any contemporary ideological consensus, ultimately preventing the Constitution from providing any kind of “objective check” on the enthusiasms of the moment. Likewise, for Fish, the author’s text can become a mere occasion for exercises that have no respect for the “authority” of an “author.”

    Analogously, one might understand “originalists” as either “law bound” fundamentalists or as steadfast defenders of Tradition against a subtle sophistry that knows how to allegorize any text to get to the place it desires. Hence, it is not a simple case of black hats and white hats. Fundamentalism does objectify in a manner that is a dead letter, but the need to discern the difference between authentic and spurious interpretation, what is the creativity of the Living Spirit and what is individual license points to the dangers of an “untethered interpretive community.”

    These are complex matters, but I would want to emphasize beyond questions of “data” and “interpretation” that the advent of Christ and Pascha introduces an ontological change that is “prior” to “enlightenment.” A change in mind is not so much first a deliberative choice as a transformation of being that makes possible the vision of faith. This, of course, militates against theologies voluntarist in nature.

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  2. Mike H says:

    It seems well established that 2nd Temple Judaism was not bound by a historical-critical methodology. Nor do the pages of the NT itself give any indication of being bound by a historical-critical hermeneutic at the expense of all else. “Objective history” doesn’t seem to be a (primary) concern – rather, the focus is on meaning and usage for and within the present moment. Neither, however, is history itself dismissed in favor of timeless principles or allegory.

    Certainly a fundamentalist biblicism is problematic (a gentle understatement) and will eventually suffocate a Christocentric hermeneutic. But I don’t think that a Christocentric hermeneutic and a historical-critical method are necessarily opposed to one another. Rather, it’s the presupposition of a flat text that makes creates that appearance – a flat text that creates either a wacky, incoherent, and faith destroying dispensationalism or necessarily allegorizes away any change, surprise, or newness revealed in the Gospel.

    How, for example, do we read Jesus’s rebuke of his disciples desire to “call down fire from heaven” on their enemies without a hermeneutical framework that is permitted to acknowledge the presence of such retribution within Israel’s story and self-understanding? Etc.

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  3. it is a growing problem. john shelby spong once distinguished between a “religion of lay people” and a “religion of bible scholars” in giving his assessment of the resurrection (or in his theology, a lack thereof). i think the problem with this historical critical reading being fused with the protestant understanding of sola scriptura not only detracts from the gospel but also adds and takes away from the gospel until there is nothing left of it.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I just realized that in the transition from draft to final document, I omitted a paragraph. I have now added it, as well as corrected a copy of typos.


  5. John burnett says:

    If we take the scholarship seriously (and i do), all the gospel accounts of appearances of Jesus were added later, and we ought to ask why. It wasn’t because they were “historical”; the gospel writers weren’t really interested in “history”, as we think of it— and in any case, Mark, the first gospel, has no account of such an appearance, so even if it was “historical”, that was not apparently very important to him. But Mark’s entire theology is *precisely* and *only*— “this vantage point [from which] we can now look back to the Cross”.

    That is to say that for Mark especially, “the last publicly visible image” was indeed the cross, but above all in Mark the cross is very particularly “the sign of victory”— and i will not add to this, “as we await the return of the Lord”, because Mark speaks neither of an ascension nor of a return: rather, Jesus, the risen and therefore triumphant one, “goes before you in Galilee: there you will see him, as he told you” (16.7). This is *because* the crucifixion was, for Mark, nothing other than the very enthronement of the Son of Man *as* the Son of God, just as Jesus solemnly announced it would be, three times, earlier in the story. For Mark, not only was the tomb empty, but the empty tomb was seen indeed only by a few— which few even fled “and said nothing to anyone, for they were terrified” (Mk 16.8)!

    So, just like Paul, Mark proclaims nothing but Christ and him crucified.

    But— and here’s the thing— if we pay attention to the way Mark writes his story, and especially to the way it echoes the Old Testament at every turn (RB Hays’ *Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels* is excellent on this topic)— we find, over and over, that Mark is saying, We never knew or understood it, but this Jesus— he was Yhwh himself, the God of Israel, walking among us. And on the cross he took his seat at the right hand of God the Most High, El Elyon, the Father (cf 5.7). Mark’s christology is as high and as trinitarian as that of Chalcedon— but that is another topic!

    Many people from the earliest days of the church have not been satisfied with Mark’s ending. Or rather, it’s one thing when that ending is read on the night of Pascha, and another when you read it in the quiet of your own closet. So, early (but not the earliest) manuscripts add 16.9-20 or something like it— there are different versions because none of them was original (and none have Mark’s characteristic style)— because, out of context, it feels very unsatisfactory to read only that the women “fled and said nothing to anyone, for they were terrified”.

    But we have forgotten that the Church reads Mark during Lent, and that Lent culminates in the baptismal liturgy of Great Saturday— when immediately, having just heard of the women who fled the empty tomb, the newly baptized come forth like the young man in the tomb— he of the shining “white garment” (16.5)— to meet the risen Lord in the Breaking of the Bread, just as Luke would later interpret and make explicit.

    And what is seen then is that this eucharist is in fact the culmination of all that Mark has understood about the Old Testament— it is the reading and the context of his entire understanding of Israel’s history with God, as told in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, to which he has been alluding throughout his whole story.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I particularly like your joining of the Gospel of Mark with the Eucharist. No other ending was needed because the Holy Mysteries is that ending.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Shaine says:

      Greetings Fr Aidan and everyone else. First-time poster, long-time lurker here.

      John, just curious but what is your take on the Resurrection of Christ according to St Mark’s Gospel? I mean, was Christ literally, physically raised from the dead? The reason for my asking is because I’m trying to read in between the lines of your comment, which for me is very informative. However, I am struggling with it in that I am interpreting what you are saying as St Mark did not view Christ’s Resurrection as a literal, historical event. Am I missing something here? Are you saying that for St Mark, the Risen Christ was only to be found in the breaking of the Bread? Sorry if I am misunderstanding anything. Thanks in advance.


      • John burnett says:

        Shaine, what i was trying to say was that since Mark, the first gospel written, on which the others are based, has no account of any appearance of the risen Christ, even if the resurrection was “historical” (and i do believe it was, but see below)— neither historical proof nor even historicity itself seem to have been important to Mark (or the other writers), and that is not where they take you with their stories. So in a way, even though yours is maybe a natural question, it seems to be the wrong question, and the kind of question that only we moderns regard as primary.

        I think the relationship of Mark, and indeed of the Gospels, and indeed of the narrative parts of Scripture generally, to history, is probably most analogous within our modern experience to something like the relationship of a historical novel to history. You can ask whether such-and-such an event portrayed in the novel ever happened, and you might show that it did indeed. But that would not lead you to what the novel was about. Of course, i hesitate to draw such an analogy, because you might think i am saying that the Gospels are merely “historical novels”!— but no, i am only saying that history is not the Gospel writers’ main interest, and they manifestly and quite freely arrange and rearrange details and episodes to suit their interests. Since we, for our part, imagine photographic accuracy to be the only guarantee of “historical truth”, we don’t know how to handle the Gospels, which provide varying and even conflicting accounts.

        The problem with calling Christ’s Resurrection a “literal, historical event”, though, is that we call only those events historical which are describable in physical ways and above all by historical causes. Something happened to Christ and to his body specifically, and we would like to explain it. However, both the cause and its result lie outside time, and the event is not itself describable other than by saying, “he was raised” or “he arose”. The empty tomb is the sign of this resurrection, but notice that, apart from the story of the guard and the bribe in Mt 27.62-66, 28.11-15 the writers take no interest in anyone’s reaction to the empty tomb. But even more importantly, after his crucifixion, only his disciples ever see Jesus in his risen glory— even the appearance to “more than 500 of the brethren” that St Paul mentions in 1Co 15.6 is an appearance to “the brethren”. So it seems that faith is an *essential* part of affirming his resurrection— you cannot say it occurred apart from faith somehow. (Although NT Wright i think has done a stellar job of assembling all the evidence!) But all those “Evidence That Demands a Verdict”–type books always fall flat somehow, and fail to be as convincing as their writers are confident they will be, precisely because they are trying to prove something that’s outside of proof; to show logical something beyond logic. So i am saying that, not just for St Mark, but for us, the Risen Christ is only to be found in the breaking of the Bread (and of course in the rest of the Christian life which sharing in that Bread assumes and culminates). Or at least that Mark isn’t at all interested in any *other* way of appropriating the Resurrection, and our attempts to do so are going to run up against the same troubles he deals with in the way he does.

        Now, i’m aware that that might sound like i’m saying that Christ did not “really” arise “historically”, or at least that i’m hedging about it. Not at all, but I *am* reflecting on the nature of what Mark saw and said, what we saw and and say, and how both he and we see and say.

        We have to take seriously the fact that for all the gospels, the “last publicly visible image” was indeed the cross. And my main point is that »this goes to the *essence* of what Mark is driving at in his Gospel«; that for him (and for the other writers), the empty tomb is about the cross! But already with the empty tomb (something seen in Matthew even by unbelieving guards) we’re on the border between this age and the oncoming Age, and that Age is most definitely not a mere continuation of present history, not the future of one particular stream of events, while other events in other places (and particularly, in other religions) might have other futures. The cross of Christ is the essence of this age, and the resurrection of Christ is the future of the entire world, of all time and history everywhere. So, can we speak of something like that as “historical” in the same way that we say the destruction of the Temple was historical?

        Although for Mark, Luke, and John the tomb is already open and Christ already gone when the women arrive, for Matthew the tomb is still closed when the women arrive, and an angel opens it before them, sits on the stone, informs them that Jesus is not there, and instructs them as to what the tomb’s emptiness means. Matthew is midrashing Mark as he always does; he’s drawing the moment out so that he can have the angel make his speech. But each in his own way, all four of the gospel writers are dealing with what the tomb’s emptiness means for us who live in the history where the cross is the “last visible reality”. In this sense, the resurrection is not a historical event like the cross was, but the kind of event that we can for now experience *only* in the Breaking of the Bread and all that surrounds it. History is always inherently a history of death— but here is someone who overcame death.

        I hope this is helpful; my purpose is to think about the nature of the gospel message and what it deeply conveys. I do affirm that Jesus “was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and on the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures”, as the Creed puts it— and that nails *all* of it down to a date certain, as a lawyer would say. And yet, “according to the Scriptures” points to an event that is more than what someone like Josephus, for example, can write about. When it comes to Josephus-type history, which is the only kind we accept in our schools, and perhaps rightly so— the “last publicly visible image” of Jesus was indeed the cross, and the cross is precisely the first thing a believer needs to understand. We affirm the cross as a historical event— “under Pontius Pilate”!— but for Jesus, and for us, it was the enthronement of the Son of Man as the Son of God (Mk 14.62; Mt 26.64; Lk 22.69— and be sure to read the latter two in Greek!). So, what exactly is a “historical event”? Is it something that Caesar could even notice? But if our view of history is the same as Caesar’s, have we missed something?

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        • brian says:

          Excellent exegetical insights. Thank you.

          The “meta-historical” simply transcends the limits of the historical. Moderns cannot think formal and final causality well. They think efficient and material causality is exhaustive. As a result, the tendency is to “hear” the kind of argument you are making as a kind of “subjective, non-rational, psychological” experience without ontological weight. I would link this to Galileo’s separation of primary and secondary qualities and the reductionist criteria of truth in the wake of a positivist science. The manner in which narrative and art might point to truths inaccessible to genres and modes of thought amenable to a “univocal” grasp of being are not thought or reconfigured as a kind of fideist belief.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          Ages ago someone made the point to me about understanding the resurrection as a straightforward historical event, by considering this question: “Jesus was crucified naked as all crucifixion victims were, then wrapped in grave clothes, which were left behind in the tomb: what was then wearing when he rose from the dead? Did he have to wander around hiding behind bushes until he could nick a cloak from the gardener?” He pointed out to me that the fact that asking this kind of question seems to be entirely missing the point clearly demonstrates the difficulty of pedantic “what exactly happened?” literalism.


          • John burnett says:

            Well, to be fair, Iain, part of the whole thought-world of which the resurrection is part, is that in the resurrection, humans will be clothed once again in the garment of light which Adam lost. This is a common trope in intertestamental and later Jewish and Christian mystical literature, even though, as far as i’m aware, it isn’t directly mentioned in Scripture— although Gn 3.21 seems to be making an implicit pun on it, when it says God clothed Adam in כָּתְנ֥וֹת ע֖וֹר (koṯnôṯ `ôr), “garments of skin”— the expression, “garments of light” would be כָּתְנ֥וֹת אוֹר (koṯnôṯ ôr), which sounds nearly identical.

            So Jesus was buried in Adam’s post-lapsarian nakedness, but raised with his pre-lapsarian vestment of light, and he bestows it on us. That’s why, in traditional baptismal practice, the baptized have always been clothed in a white garment.

            For his part, Mark makes some really evocative connections, via the figure of the young man clothed in a “winding-sheet” (sindon, Mk 14.51-52— *not!* just in a ‘linen garment’, as various translations have it!), who fled naked from the Garden, and the young man clothed in a white garment inside the tomb (stolēn leukēn, Mk 16.5), and thus between Adam and Christ, cross and resurrection, and baptism.

            But of course a “garment of light”, whether that of Jesus or the one we receive at baptism, is hardly a historical, this-worldly kind of garment itself, so there ya go again— ‘the difficulty of pedantic “what exactly happened?” literalism’— it misses the story whole!

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  6. Tom says:

    Challenging and informative post, Fr Aidan. Thanks!

    With Brian, I’m hoping there is a way to read Scripture in light of the benefits which historical-critical resources provide without reducing the Bible’s ‘meaning’ to a presupposed objective set of propositions I can recover, examine, and file away.

    On the one hand, it’s because of historical-critical studies that we know what we know about the players in the narrative – The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots; where synagogues came from, what Gnosticism is and how it fits into the NT docs, where John comes up with the ‘Logos’ idea, whether 1Cor 11.2-16 is about head-coverings or hair-styles, and lots of other stuff. I can’t imagine only proponents of sola scriptura being interested in such things.

    I know you agree that it’s wonderful to have access to this knowledge. So on that score, thank God for historical-critical studies. And as I read John’s comments above about what Mark is up to in his gospel, I thought to myself – What nice historical-critical work! But I agree completely that once we’ve identified who the Pharisees are, what Gnosticism is, how the Logos doctrine functioned contemporary to John, etc., we haven’t “read” the Bible. At best we’re only ready to read it at that point. Until we’ve “heard” God speak in the Scriptures, we haven’t “read” them (James 1.22-25).

    That’s the point for me at least. We come to the Bible to be read, to hear, to be parsed and exegeted, to have the text expose our meaning for examination, and that I agree requires the Church/Tradition on top of knowing what is going on historically-culturally in the OT/NT docs.

    I have to say, though, that we should be thankful God did not put Hauerwas in charge of all the seminaries in the country (depending on what he thinks a “biblical theologian” is of course). I can’t imagine him having fired Robert Jenson.


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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You’re right, Tom. I certainly do not advocate throwing out the historical study and reading of the Bible; but I haven’t figured out yet how to coordinate the critical-historical reading with what me might call the churchly reading. The former treats the Bible as ancient text and the latter as Scripture. It’s also unclear to me how Behr coordinates these two readings. Clearly, though, the latter must have primacy, particularly in preaching. When the risen Christ taught his disciples how to properly read the Scriptures, he did not make them into historical critics. 😉

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      • John burnett says:

        I think part of the issue is that we think reading the Bible with the “spiritual” presuppositions of our highly privileged position here at the center of the Empire is somehow supposed to be satisfying— and in fact it really isn’t, but we don’t know how else to read it.

        Historical-critical readings don’t go deep enough and do go nowhere if they fail to bring us to a critical consciousness regarding the political and economic dimensions of our own political-economic situation. That is why we have the sense that, while they’re sometimes interesting, historical-critical studies are generally spiritually useless. But at the same time, most of what passes for “churchly readings” in our culture— i.e., most sermonizing and most “spiritual” literature— floats off up into the air and spaces out about getting to “heaven when you die”, which is something that Jesus never, ever talked about, even once!

        What’s the point of knowing about who the Pharisees and who the Herodians were, when reading Jesus’ admonition, “Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod!” (Mk 8.15), if we don’t really consider how some men in our own society (including, truth told, we ourselves, even if only secretly) are interested only in money and power, or if we don’t consider how others self-righteously (and exploitatively) use religious truth? Aren’t we pretty much in the condition of the rich man of Mk 10.22?— it’s hard for “landlords” to hear what the Jesus or even Moses is about because of our “many properties” (κτήματα).

        I can really seriously recommend Ched Myers’ classic “Binding of the Strong Man” as an exceptional foray into Mark (my specialty these days, have you guessed?) that unites historical-critical and spiritual readings. But the spiritual part is going to cost you! Maybe it would be better just to stick with the pat answers and complain that people don’t read the Bible “properly” enough!

        Liked by 2 people

    • brian says:

      I have literally been google seaching David Bentley Hart New Testament Translation for years. Since I heard Yale Univ. Press had the text, nearly once a week. I’m rather disappointed in Amazon, given the tremendous portions of my discretionary, and sometimes not so discretionary income that they have taken from me, that I was not given super secret early word on this. Ahem, thanks for the find, Mike H.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Young and Rested says:

      Έπαινος του Θεού


  7. Young and Rested says:

    Would it be fair to characterize the Protestant adoption of Sola Scriptura as an attempt to safeguard biblical interpretation from becoming too individualized once the church was no longer viewed as the authority?

    It seems clear to me that with allegorical methods, a Christocentric approach is not fully sufficient to ensure the legitimacy of different interpretations. The teachings and traditions of the historic church would appear to offer the necessary checks and balances. But once the authority of the church is discredited then what is left to keep people from allegorizing the text to reach virtually any conclusion? It would seem then, that once you leave the interpretive community of the historic church, adopting a more flat view of scripture becomes a virtual necessity if you wish to have anything resembling a definitive faith. Since individuals are now the centers of interpretation, you need a method that can (at least prima facie) yield incontrovertible results.

    What I think the Protestant impulse gets right is that things aren’t right simply by virtue of existing within tradition or the teaching of the church. Just as the church protects against runaway interpretations of scripture, the Bible is also a check on the practices of the church. I don’t think you can (or should) ever separate the two.

    Growing up in a Fundamentalist church, I must admit that I was often perplexed and embarrassed by how the New Testament authors treated the Old Testament. They were clearly not using the literal, historical-grammatical method that we were supposed to defend until our dying breath. So-called “spiritual” methods of interpretation were one of the ways the devil was pulling people from the true faith. But if Paul was doing it, then what gives? As you might expect, the ‘answer’ was somewhat less than satisfying. We were told that NT authors were correct in speaking spiritually of the OT only because they did so through direct word-for-word inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We were allowed to trust their inspired re-reading of specific OT passages, but not use it as a model for how a Christian ought to approach scripture. God can break proper hermeneutics if he pleases, but we may not.


    • brian says:

      The practical result of Sola Scriptura is an exercise in eisegesis whereby individuals tacitly adopt an implicit communal interpretation whilst assuming the interpretation is simply given by Scripture. Hence, to disagree with a Fundamentalist is not to disagree with a potentially fallible interpretation, but to dispute the Word of God, etc. This is all complicated by the coincidence of the Reformation and the advent of modernity. Thus, the tendency towards a univocal metaphysics and forms of positivist objectivity led to a treatment of Scripture as a kind of “objective” repository of truth increasingly understood as a collection of stable “facts,” rather than an aspect of the mysterious Body of Christ. Whilst in theory, one might have expected a wild flourishing of “prophetic” biblical interpretation freed from the supposed restrictive scrutiny of Tradition, the opposite largely happened. Historically, Sola Scriptura opened the floodgates to individualism, while at the same time ultimately resulting in a very flat, conformist hermeneutic without mystical depth or historical breadth.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Young and Rested,

      It the protestant doctrine of the perspecuity of scripture, not sola scriptura that functions as the safeguard to errant hermeneutics.

      I don’t think the Bible as check on Tradition is a tenable position – it assumes that it is an independent suppository of truth that can be accessed at will. I understand the impulse though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Young and Rested says:

        Sola Scriptura does appear useless without the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture. It would make the bible an infallible yet opaque guidebook.

        I’m not quite sure why the Bible couldn’t act as a check on tradition, at least in principle. Maybe we have something different in mind when we reference tradition, but I’m thinking in terms of things like the selling of indulgences for the absolution of sins. Seems like a practice like that could be ruled out on the basis of scripture.


        • Robert Fortuin says:

          The short answer is that text does not interpret itself, and furthermore it exists as a product of a tradition which is its context. It is written, read, understood, and appropriated by people.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            To add to this – appropriating the Bible (to act as a check) is to appropriate (a) tradition. There is no way to use to Bible without (some form of) interpretative tradition, notwithstanding claims to the contrary.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Young and Rested says:

            I understand that it’s not possible to simply “lift timeless truths” from the pages of the bible. To read is to interpret. Are you saying, essentially, that the bible cannot act as a check on tradition because it is itself part of tradition? I think that makes some sense. My question would then become, how does one determine if the church has gone awry or if (a) tradition is in error? Is not some recourse to the “biblical data” inevitable? Is it invalid to critique a church practice on the basis that, let’s say, Paul explicitly spoke against it and so to claim that the Bible is against it?

            I get that you can’t separate scripture and tradition in practice, but much of the tradition purports to be derived from scripture, so there must be a way to judge whether or not it lives up to that claim without using the traditional interpretive setting as its own measuring stick. I’m not trying to be argumentative, so I hope I’m not coming across that way. I’m just trying to think this through. Life’s tough for the philosophical-theological-autodidact.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I get your questions and they are fair; my ridiculously brief answers are to blame. These are good and important questions touching on ecclesiology and pneumatology.

            I do not think that ‘biblical data’ is an accurate description of what the Scriptures constitute and how they function in and for the Church. Appeals to the Bible are equally misleading. Categories popularized by the Reformation served to shift appeals to authority, obfuscating matters greatly. That is to say that the Bible is not itself the source of truth, the indubitable measure and standard. The ability for Holy Tradition to be right, true and life-giving (and to be corrected) is ultimately situated in the Head of the Church, Who alone is the Truth by which all other truth-claims are measured. There’s no extra-ecclesial text to which an appeal can be made – an appeal to the Bible is an appeal to the community of the faithful, the Church. So yes, we can look to Paul’s writings (as we should), but if we believe him to be right, whose mouthpiece do we believe the apostle to be? Christ’s! We believe him to be the voice of God, the Church, and Tradition. The notion of independent ‘data’, removed from the ecclesia, the people of God, is in my estimation a fiction and should be thrown out never to be seen again (back to the non-hypostatic non-being from which it came, LOL).

            Liked by 2 people

          • Young and Rested says:

            Supposing someone were attempting to determine which Christian tradition is the ‘truest’ one, how might they go about it with a degree of objectivity? Most seem to claim to be the church founded by Christ and the apostles, and most claim to be the church of the bible (whatever you may make of that). Is there any sense in which we can judge tradition based on the bible while acknowledging that the bible cannot function completely on its own?

            What I’m trying to get at is how one tradition can be justified in claiming that it is superior to another and how the scriptures factor into that. Also, are there any legitimate grounds on which someone within, say, the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, might oppose aspects of it? If so, could the bible play a role in that?

            Once the canon was created, didn’t that create some kind of outer limits on what could justifiably be called Christian? Even if those limits are determined by what methods are used to interpret the bible, doesn’t the text itself make up at least a few posts in the fence albeit not the whole thing?

            I’m at a juncture in my life where I’m not sure what to call myself or where to go. This is all part of trying to find a home. Every Christian influence in my life to this point (blogs and book reading aside) has been fundamentalist/conservative evangelical. I’m in an odd position of rejecting much of the theology that I know, but still carrying around many of the impulses, intuitions and gut-feelings of that tradition. I feel a pull towards Orthodoxy, but I don’t know what to do with it. It’s hard to imagine submitting to an ecclesial authority right now. It seems like to be a good Christian I need to climb aboard one ship or another eventually though.

            Thanks for your thoughts.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Hi Young and Rested,

            It is not a simple choice to make – but a general guiding principle I would suggest is to look for a church which is faithful in principle, practice and doctrine to the faith of the undivided Church (which of course includes Scripture). I don’t know how much you have already explored this, but I would suggest exploring Orthodoxy by going to various services, be sure to immerse yourself whatever you do. It wouldn’t hurt to compare and contrast by attending Catholic, Anglican (or other) churches/services. There are great variations in parishes within each tradition (particularly pronounced in Orthodoxy due the frequent ethnic overtones), so that too would be worthwhile to consider and to explore.

            The Scriptures are, or should be, integral to the life of any community that claims to be Christian, so I think it is a very important part in the decision making. It was for me. As to opposing certain parts of Orthodoxy whilst still remaining faithful to the tradition – I would say yes, not everything is non-negotiable dogma, nor is every practice and belief deemed of equal importance and authority. Approaching the parish priest with your concerns is a good way to sort things out, don’t look merely for theological answers, but the character of the person.

            Take your time, you are on a journey – may the Lord guide you.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

            Hi Robert,

            Thanks for the encouragement and advice. The task of finding my church home seems a bit daunting, but I’m sure that it will be a valuable process for me. It used to seem so easy to find a church; just look up the nearest gathering of fundamentalists and you’re good to go. Now I have to actually do some homework and even attempt to discern the Spirit’s leading *gasp*.

            Oh, and even though it’s probably obvious, this is Young and Rested. I’ve finally decided to stop posting under a pseudonym online. For a long time I was afraid of people in my church happening upon my comments and giving me flack for them, but I’ve recently discovered how freeing it is to just lay those concerns down. Plus, I don’t feel so young anymore (though I’m sure to most people on these blogs 27 ain’t that old)!

            Looking forward to engaging in more conversations!

            Liked by 1 person

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