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The Transforming Word

In a cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker, a clerk – tapping on his keyboard and peering at the screen – says to his customer, “The Bible?...that would be under self-help.” [1]

Ellen Davis and Richard Hays argue that this cartoon sums up a prevalent attitude that our culture holds in its approach to the Bible: the Bible is simply another consumer product that can be used in our quest for self-improvement.[2] These modern hermeneutical approaches to the Bible overlook the theological element in reading Scripture. This article will make the case that reading Scripture within the context of the church is a theological event whereby God is forming his people. As we engage conversationally with Scripture and one another, we must adopt a posture of obedience to the one who makes himself known through the witness of the Bible.

The Bible as divine self-disclosure

William Stacy Johnson argues that some modern portraits of God attempt to reduce God to “an accessible basis.”[3] God is attainable through thorough study and understanding the Bible correctly. The Bible becomes something that can be “explicated and then applied.”[4] If the right tools and methodologies are used, the meaning of the text can be ascertained and our knowledge of God is furthered. Johnson argues that within this modern frame of mind, exegetes sought to create revelation through thorough historical-critical investigations.[5] Many modernistic hermeneutics gave primacy to authorial intention and its historical references based on an assumption that getting back to the original understanding of a biblical passage will uncover the proper meaning of a text.[6] I do not wish to reject modernistic hermeneutics as the church has undoubtedly benefitted from its input. Rather, I wish to highlight that such literary theories do not account for the Christian idea that God is the one who primarily encounters human beings and discloses himself through the event of reading Scripture.[7] Moreover, such literary assumptions reinforce the idea that only academic biblical scholars have access to meaning in the Bible.[8]

In the preface to his second edition of The Epistle to the Romans, Karl Barth wrote that the point of interpreting the Bible is to “see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit.”[9] For Barth, the Bible is a witness to what God has done in the world.[10] But this is not a once-and-for all revelation of who God is. According to Barth, God continues to use the past witness of the Prophets and Apostles to speak again. He takes up the words written in Scripture and makes himself known to the reader or the hearer.[11] This is a free act of the Holy Spirit who makes Christ known. God is not a passive object in the Bible to be studied and dissected. He is the subject of the biblical text who speaks back to the reader.[12]

Barth’s argument, and in fact his entire theology, rests upon the assertion that “God speaks”.[13] God has spoken in the past through the Prophets and the Apostles and continues to speak through those words today. As Sandra Schneiders points out, the Bible is “a privileged mediator of the encounter between God and humanity.”[14] To read Scripture Christianly is to put ourselves in a situation where God encounters us through the words of the Bible.

Reading the Bible Theologically

The Bible as God’s self-revelation is a theological statement that finds its home within the context of the Christian church. The Bible is the narrative of God separating a people to be his own, and that narrative continues to find its place within the life of the ecclesia. That community is the response of human beings to the call of God, and that same community reads the Bible with the disposition that God is the divine author of the text. If God is the author of Scripture and desires to speak to us through it, then to read the Bible as a sacred Christian text is primarily to read it theologically.[15] The subject matter of the text is theological as it gives witness to the God who reveals himself in Christ. One can read the Bible for historical or literary reasons – and such a reading can be beneficial to the church’s understanding of the Bible – but that is not reading the Bible as Scripture.[16] To read the Bible as the people of God is to read Scripture knowing that it aims to tell us about God and our identity in this world.[17]

The Bible has been written by a number of different authors each with their own style and written to a particular people at a particular point in time. Thus, the words and information that are represented in the Bible clearly come through human authorship. However, Christians – even if in different ways – also acknowledge divine authorship. Gene Greene uses the term "relevance theory" to refer to how contexts and people collaborate, intentionally or not, in the communication of meaning. [18] A communicator seeks to communicate something, and a hearer seeks to understand what that person is communicating. As this process takes place the hearer makes assumptions as to what is being communicated based on what she sees as relevant. Relevance theory helps make sense of the divine authorship of God, and so makes sense of theological interpretation. If God is the divine author who speaks through human agency then those two voices are interrelated within Scripture. What Luke wrote in his gospel and in Acts is both his words and the words of the divine author. Moreover, there is a continuous redemptive theological strand that is being developed throughout the canonical text. Thus, each book has a deeper and wider message if taken in the context of the whole. Further, the church now understands and interprets Scripture in the light of developing theological beliefs and 2,000 years of Christian tradition. For example, Gene Greene notes it is doubtful that Trinitarian formulations were in the mind of the Biblical writers when they penned Genesis 1:26, “Let us make humankind in our image" (NRSV).[19] However, as church history has progressed, Trinitarian understandings of God have become orthodox. Also, what was most relevant to the original hearers is different to what is relevant today because of the long theological tradition that stands between it. So contemporary Christians readily understand this passage in a Trinitarian perspective, and do so rightfully. This reading of Scripture is not being unfaithful to the biblical text. Rather, it takes the canonical text and subsequent growing and expanding theological tradition and through the lens they provide make sense of both the intent of the human authorships and the divine authorship.[20] Therefore, the current Christian interpretive community can make a communicative representation of what the human author is indicating and what the divine author is also communicating. This becomes a “God-centred reading that hears a fuller voice that is not limited to the historical particularities of the original communicative event.”[21]

This argument is congruent with Schneider’s argument that written texts transcend themselves.[22] She argues this happens in two ways. First, by virtue of semantic autonomy and different renderings in different contexts, a written text takes on slightly different meanings and interacts differently within the scope of different interpretive communities. Secondly, written texts transcend themselves by virtue of how interpretive history is developed and how that meaning is transformed through time. To demonstrate this, Schneiders puts forth an example from the American Declaration of Independence.[23] Part of that text reads “all men are created equal”. In its original context, this would have meant only white, property owning men. However, in contemporary America that understanding has developed to include people of all ethnicities and socio-economic status. Furthermore, the word “men” has the semantic autonomy to mean male and female as it relates to a general description of humans. In this way, all written texts have a “surplus of meaning”.[24]

In terms of biblical studies, the surplus of meaning within the biblical text interacts with contemporary Christian theological and biblical consciousness. Contemporary Christians turn to the text with questions regarding it and have a conversational interaction between the contemporary world, church history and the biblical text as they seek to understand the questions behind the text. This does not lead to a static principle mined from Scripture, but as the Bible is interpreted in different contexts, so the content of Scripture will interact with those communities in different ways. As Schnieders asserts, “Transformative interpretation…is not blind submission to the text as answer but an in-depth engagement of the text’s subject matter, of its truth claims, in terms of the developed Christian consciousness of the contemporary believer within the contemporary community of faith.”[25] This does not mean every interpretation is right or legitimate, but it does build the case that some interpretations can be complementary or at least continue to develop our consciousness about the depth and width of Scripture.[26]

To demonstrate what I’ve been arguing, I wish to point to Martin Luther’s exegesis of the righteousness of God in Romans 1:17. This was a breakthrough text for Luther as it changed his perspective from God’s righteousness being a frightening characteristic to a gift of righteous status before God.[27] His interpretation is probably exegetically questionable today as it seems this passage is not so much speaking about righteousness from God but righteousness as a truth about God.[28] Thus, in a way Luther’s exegesis of Romans 1:17 could be "wrong" at a certain level of detail. And yet Luther’s understanding of the righteousness of God has become a forerunner for many contemporary perspectives of God’s righteousness and contributed to the re-shaping of Luther’s theology.[29] While Luther’s exegesis is not perfect, God was at work helping the church understand him in deeper and wider ways. Thus, theological exegesis is able to transcend the historical reality of the biblical text in search of the theological dimension—or what the divine author is saying. This is made possible by the surplus of meaning that is associated with written text and how that interacts with developing Christian consciousness. Furthermore, through the lens of relevance theory, we can see that God as the divine author standing behind Scripture gives legitimate rise to the theological dimension within Scripture which shifts and changes as the historical reality of the Christian church shifts and changes.

Reading the Bible as God’s self-disclosure has implications for the Christian community. It requires that a disposition of trust in the divine author of Scripture – and his ongoing work in the church – be adopted when reading the Bible.[30] Or, as Johnson argues, reading Scripture is to adopt an interpretive framework from which we see that God is at work for us, with us and among us.[31] First, he is for us in that he reveals himself to the church in a way that goes beyond any human epistemic understanding. Secondly, God is with us through the concreteness of his incarnation. Thirdly, God is among us by the work of the Holy Spirit which beckons us into relationship with him. Reading Scripture within this framework indicates that the work of theological interpretation is a lively and conversational one as the God who has revealed himself in the witness of the Prophets and Apostles continues to do so in the church today.

The Forming Word

It is helpful to note two forms of “meaning”: conception and formation.[32] Conception is seen as the accruing of information. The Bible is an historical document that is compiled from a corpus of writing written by a number of authors. Scholars can seek to find its historical truthfulness or what the author’s world was like through deep cultural study and research which helps us understand what the first hearers understood in these written texts. An exegete looking for information comes to the text and, from the syntactical and literary clues found within it, can find data which informs meaning.[33] Formation, on the other hand, pertains to the way that a text influences or transforms the reader. This sense of meaning moves beyond informational content. In reading for transformation, the reader seeks to understand what the text means for her life and the life of her community. It is a conversation between the reader and the text. While these two – conception and formation – are interrelated,[34] here we are concerned with meaning coming from Scripture as it relates to God sculpting his covenanted community.[35]

The Bible makes audacious claims. Genesis says that God is the Creator and Redeemer of all things.[36] Scripture makes claims about humanity, the way things were, the way they are and the way they will be. It speaks of the cruciform love of God, and his redemptive plan to draw the cosmos to himself. This demands a response by those held captive by this divine Word. Mark Bowald observes, “God’s presence penetrates the fullness of what it is to be a creature, deconstructing human assumptions and presumptions, demanding responses, actions, changes: calling humanity and all creation back to the harmony and goodness for which they are created.”[37] Scripture captures the hearts and minds of a people and orients their lives around the claim of a creating, loving and redeeming God. Barth states:

[The Bible] is a witness, and as such it demands attention, respect and obedience – the obedience of the heart, the free and only genuine obedience. What it wants from the Church, what it impels the Church towards – and it is the Holy Spirit moving in it who does this – is agreement with the direction in which it looks itself. And the direction in which it looks is to the living Jesus Christ.[38]

Reading the Bible theologically orients us to see our contemporary world how God intends us to see it. The Bible is read with a submissive disposition toward being transformed by the divine author of the biblical text. Or as Daniel Treier asserts, Scripture “deals with becoming a particular kind of person.”[39] The reader seeks to discern particular patterns of behaviour in Scripture.[40] Joel Green speaks of this as shaping the imagination of the reader.[41] The reader goes to the text, not to “find” interpretive keys in the text, or even in an attempt to discern how the original hearers would have heard this Word, but to discern the patterns of living the Bible is underscoring. This is not mere understanding and application to life, but the reader’s habits of heart and mind being formed and transformed. Truth in this context is therefore no longer deemed as right proposition but a way of living – of being – in the contemporary world as we respond faithfully to the living, breathing Christ who is revealed and continues to speak through Scripture.

Bowald observes that for something to be transformed, something must be presented.[42] If Scripture is to have a formative role in the life of the church, then the whole of a human life must be submitted under its purview.[43] Christians – individually and corporately – must submit their whole selves to be explicated and exegeted by Scripture. This is in contrast to much modern biblical scholarship which seeks to deal objectively and impartially with the text. Instead of distancing oneself, to read the Bible Christianly is to be answerable to the text and its claims – to stand under it and allow it to transform imagination and practice.[44] In this sense, meaning in Scripture is dynamic. Meaning is something that is accomplished in the transformation of the life of the church and individual believers. In other words, the Christian community embodies the meaning or interpretation of Scripture.[45] However, this neither eliminates the need for interpretive methods, nor does it make reading the Bible arbitrary. Rather, it serves to highlight that reading the Bible as Christian Scripture is to read it, above all, relationally and with a self-involving disposition – that Christians and the Christian community choose to be shaped by the Word of God as they engage with it. Or perhaps we can rightfully say as the Word of God engages with us as we read Scripture. As Stephen Fowl comments, “Our study of Scripture both in the seminary classroom and in the congregations and communities where we love and worship should lead us to delight in the discovery of God’s truth, especially when that truth deepens our knowledge and love of God and even more when that truth leads us to repent.”[46]

United Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder states, “[I]t is much easier to argue about evolution and creation than it is to live as though this is God’s world. Or, debating whether a ‘great fish’ really swallowed Jonah is far less costly and risky than acknowledging that God loves our enemies as much as God loves us.”[47] L. Gregory Jones suggests that as he seeks to embody the meaning of the Jonah story with respect to his attitudes, he simultaneously discovers his preference to debate its historicity. He says, “Such debates do not put my own character at risk, whereas the force of the story is to challenge my refusal to be personally open to God’s work of transformation.”[48] Of course these historic debates are not unimportant. But what is most important is that reading the Bible well requires involving ourselves in understanding who God reveals himself to be and what kind of people and community he calls us to be. This self-involving disposition takes seriously God’s ongoing work of forming and transforming his people through his Spirit.

To read Scripture theologically is to read the Bible with an ever-deepening sense of relationship between individual and God or community and God. It is this conversation between the reading community and the living Word of God that keeps theological methods of reading Scripture fresh and dynamic. The people of God must cultivate a community that can draw from the deep wells of phrōnēsis (practical wisdom or practical reason) and deep engagement in the common ecclesial life.[49] This includes engagement with brothers and sisters spanning time and distance. That is, we not only engage with our immediate church setting, but also engage with our brothers and sisters across the world and with confessional statements other than our own. Moreover, we must draw deeply from the reservoirs built by those who have gone before us and have contended faithfully for the faith in their day and age. In doing so we engage in Scripture theologically, and hear how the divine author has spoken to his people throughout time and across the world as his Spirit engages, convicts and shapes us. In this way, we submit ourselves to the biblical text, draw deeply from the richness of our Christian tradition, and allow ourselves and our church community to be transformed by the incarnate Christ who lovingly encounters us through his Word. Transformation, however, is not an end in itself. The church is transformed as the living Word of God indwells the ecclesial community so it may live faithfully and reach out to a world afflicted by sin and brokenness and in deep need of the redemptive love of God.

Sebastian Murrihy is an intern based at East Tairei Church in Mosgiel training for National Ordained Ministry in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand through the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. He holds a Master of Theology from Laidlaw College. Seb is married to Jess and they have two sons. 

[1] Cartoon by Peter Steiner, New Yorker, 6 July 1998, 33.

[2] Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, “Introduction” in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), xiv.

[3] William Stacy Johnson, “Reading the Scriptures Faithfully in a Postmodern Age” in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 114.

[4] Ibid, 119.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Daniel Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] A.K.M Adam, “Poaching on Zion: Biblical Theology as Signifying Practice” in A.K.M. Adam, et al. Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 22.

[9] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 1.

[10] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 457-472.

[11] Ibid, 527.

[12] Anthony C. Thisetlon, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer and Wittgenstein (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), 87.

[13] Karl Barth, The Gӧttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 14

[14] Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 177-178.

[15] Darren Sarisky, “What is Theological Interpretation? The Example of Robert W. Jenson,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no.2 (April 1, 2010): 205.

[16] Robert W. Jenson, “Scripture’s Authority in the Church” in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 30.

[17] Ellen F. Davis, “Reading the Bible Confessionally in the Church,” Anglican Theological Review 84, no. 1 (December 1, 2002), 27.

[18] Relevance theory is “a general theory of cognition and communication that provides a model for understanding how texts and contexts, authors and readers, collaborate in the communication of meaning” (see Gene L. Greene, “Relevance Theory and Theological Interpretation: Thoughts on Metarepresentation,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 4.1 [2010]: 75-90). This model understands that in communication both explicit and implicit signals are implied and received. Through the event of communication, it is assumed that something is being communicated. A communicator encodes via communication and a hearer decodes. As this process happens, relevancy is assumed – that is the hearer assumes what is being communicated based on what is understood as relevant. Moreover, as time, distance and contexts change the relevant meaning for what is decoded in communication shifts.

[19] Ibid, 89-90.

[20] This interpretive lens is often called “The Rule of Faith” by theological interpreters. See for example John J. O’Keefe and Russell R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005).

[21] Green, “Relevance Theory,” 90.

[22] Schneiders, The Revelatory Text, 175-176.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, 175.

[25] Ibid, 177.

[26] Treier, Theological Interpretation, 203

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, 204.

[30] Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 11.

[31] The following is from Johnson, “Reading the Scriptures,” 124.

[32] Christopher D. Spinks, The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning: Debates on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 185.

[33] This topic is significantly debated among interpreters of Scripture and other general literary theorists. Particularly in question is where the location of meaning is to be found. Within proponents of theological interpretation of Scripture, three main positions are considered. First, Kevin Vanhoozer argues that meaning should be found first and foremost in authorial intention. What the original author or authorial community understood is most pertinent to how we understand the text (see especially Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998]). Secondly, characterised by Stephen Fowl, the contemporary community of interpreters and how they understand the text in their contemporary world is where meaning is located. This must be nuanced given the fact that Fowl does not particularly use the language of meaning. He is more concerned with the interpretive methods and practices that an interpretive community uses (see, for example, Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation [Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998]). Finally, Christopher Spinks argues for a triadic understanding. Authorial intention, the interpretive community and the text come together dialogically in the event of making meaning. Thus, he primarily uses the metaphor of conversation (see especially Spinks, The Bible). A full discussion on this, however, is beyond the scope of this article.

[34] Schneiders, The Revelatory Text, 13-17.

[35] Green, Seized by Truth, 24.

[36] Mark Alan Bowald, “The Character of Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 2 (April 2010), 171.

[37] Ibid, 173.

[38] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 723.

[39] Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 150.

[40] Adam, “Poaching on Zion”, 33.

[41] Green, Seized by Truth, 19-20.

[42] Bowald, “The Character”, 176.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Richard B. Hays, “Reading the Bible with Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1 (2007): 12.

[45] Davis, “Reading the Bible”, 30.

[46] Stephen Fowl, “The Importance of a Multivoiced Literal Sense of Scripture: The Example of Thomas Aquinas” in A.K.M. Adam, et al., Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 50.

[47] Bishop Kenneth L. Carder, “Bible’s True Authority Lies in Power to Change,” (United Methodist News Service commentary, 2 June 1999).

[48] L. Gregory Jones, “Embodying Scripture in the Community of Faith,” in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 145.

[49] S.A. Cummins, “The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recent Contributions by Stephen E. Fowl, Christopher R. Seitz and Francis Watson,” Currents in Biblical Research 2, no. 2 (April, 2004): 191.