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Scripture makes itself vulnerable to my failures of understanding

by
03 July 2020

Jessica Martin finds reading the Bible to be a conversation underpinned by love and, ultimately, trust

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EVERY day, several times a day, within my own Christian community, I read or hear passages of scripture: from the Old Testament (the sacred writings of Judaism which were Jesus’s inheritance) and from the New (the writings clustering around Jesus himself and his earliest followers). In certain ritual contexts, I will respond by affirming that I have heard God’s voice speak. I do this in good faith.

This, even though the Bible I receive is made up from a wider range of potentially sacred writings, and its selection fixed through debate and discussion running between the second and the fourth century AD. This, even though I know that the writings themselves are edited together from other, often lost, texts, with multiple authors and a complex history of transmission and reception; that the names attached to particular books and sections are not stably identified with one named author, but may have multiple or anonymous hands; and that the “scriptures” to which New Testament documents refer do not include any of the New Testament itself. How can I think God speaks in all this? To what am I assenting?

Yet I do assent. I assent because I think that the texts speak and live authoritatively within the Now of my engagement with them. I assent because my acceptance of the scriptures as holy is not individual, but collective and trans-historical.

I accept the authority that requires me to take that selection and that reception history on trust. I will treat the letters of Paul and the other letters of the early Christian communities included in the New Testament on a different footing from the collection of early teachings we call the Didache. I will treat the four canonical Gospels on a different footing from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.

As a Christian, I will take “I know that my Redeemer lives,” enigmatic words written in one of the oldest and most textually corrupt sections of the book of Job, to be a prophetic declaration of the redeeming power of Jesus Christ; I will be reading the Jewish scriptures from a very particular Christian angle. Textual history is not the last word for meaning.

 

I BELIEVE that this is a necessary foundation for faith. It is deeply related to the part of me which believes that stable communication is possible at all.

Trusting the scriptures is not wilful blindness, but a speaking act of love. Because of love, I believe that the power of a medieval anonymous lyric to move me to tears signals an authentic rather than an historically naïf response. Because of love, I believe that a paradisal early memory of playing with my brother on a carpet of cherry blossom is a present earnest of the joys of heaven, not a corrupted image of a lost event. The fount of all these is the same as the belief which turns me towards my spouse trustfully rather than in suspicion.

As with my spouse, I pursue my relationship with scripture assuming that the process of becoming which led to this communicative moment will, in the end, fulfil and not betray my trust — not because it is a history of perfection (that’s true neither of writing nor of people), but because love underpins the conversation; love makes it possible.

Like all relationships, it will have appalling, jagged gaps, breakdowns that seem insuperable. I will sometimes argue with it, sometimes be angry, sometimes disagree. That is how conversation is. For scripture, its crucible of meaning is the receiving intelligence, history, body, and affections of the reader. Scripture makes itself vulnerable to my flaws and to my failures of understanding; the trust goes both ways. I am not expected to be “mute and spiritless” before its holy voice. (John Milton said this of silent wives in 1642.)

But I must know how to listen; for the basis of my scriptural encounter, like the basis of my marriage, is not the disagreement, or the failures, but the trust. When I accept the Bible’s unfolding identity, I am saying that God acts in the accidental patterns of history, in its conflicts and mistakes, as well as in its deliberate achievements.

I don’t need to know for sure that the author of the Letter to the Colossians was Paul, only that he was listening to God. I am already reading by faith and not merely by sight. I am also assuming that the very mixed history of biblical interpretation is part of the raw material that God transforms in redemptive power.

This faith is like the faith that the mess that I have made of some of my own relationships is transformed for good, somehow, by God’s quick intervention. It is just on a much larger scale.

 

IN THE Anglican Churches, we have another division of outlook. We worship with scripture using poetic, symbolic ways of understanding, derived from interpretative work done by influential church Fathers in the first few centuries after Christ. But we reason with it in a very different way, derived from arguments made by theologians at the Reformation, who saw the biblical text as much more linear and transparent.

So, we have a huge communication gap between our worship and our reasoning. In worship, we don’t talk much about how to believe in poetic connections. And we divorce our reasoning from our corporate worshipping life, and so from our communal heart.

When we reason at arm’s length with inert lumps of text, we cannot recognise how they and we communicate. But scripture in worship comes into the unfolding history of Now, binding together those who take part and making it more likely that they will take care with fragile shared meanings. Worship is recognised as a form of encounter. Enacted words are pregnant with change.

Often, discussions of the Bible’s authority seem to make distinctions between an atemporal, anti-historical vision, which believes the Bible to be revelatory, and a historical one, which is much more doubtful. It is, I think, the other way round. Reading the Bible as a completely transparent single document refuses to trust God’s readiness to act through the strange accidents of history. To stay faithful, such readers must fend history off: they are stuck at that early point in a marriage when any acceptance of flaw or finitude in a spouse will bring the whole edifice crashing down — a very vulnerable state.

But it is a position of faith to read God’s redemptive presence into the shifting patterns and disruptions of chance, violence, and sin. Truth, by God’s mercy, can be the miraculous daughter of Time. Meaning unfolds; it discloses itself through what has been and grows into what will arise, illuminated by the Christ who submitted himself to the depredations of time and yet is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.

 

THROUGH the words of the scriptures, God helps us to understand his will and meaning across time and culture and human limitation; but the mediating filters of time, culture, and human limitation, translatory though they are, are not God.

The problem with scriptural authority is not whether there is enough God in the text. It is not that way round. The problem is, instead, how possible it has been for the immensity of God’s self to have been shoehorned within the narrow limits of human understanding across the centuries. The scriptures bulge and creak with the effort of holding God.

It is even more absurd to say that God speaks through the scriptures than it is to say that God confined and emptied himself into becoming a human being during a particular period of time. Yet, without the speaking, without the body, how can we know God’s majesty?

It is no accident that Jesus is called the Word. To believe the Bible to be authoritative, you must believe that the human and the divine are deeply intimate — that partial seeing has something true to say.

With Jesus, and with the scriptures, we are seeing eternity finding a way to say something that time might understand. In the Word, God opens a conversation where both partners — God and humanity — have a place to speak.

 

The Revd Dr Jessica Martin is a Canon Residentiary of Ely Cathedral.


This is an edited extract from her new book,
Holiness and Desire: What makes us who we are?, published by Canterbury Press at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.30).

 

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