Monday, January 18, 2010

Regarding the Text

Over the course of my life I have experienced tremendous transformation. I suppose the one constant in humans in general, is change. But the kind of transformation I have experienced is distinctly rooted in the teachings of the Christian community. Specifically, my change is the product of the impact of the activity of the Holy Spirit as He has graciously and efficaciously illumined my mind to the content of Sacred Scripture. I was regenerated at the age of 14. The outward conversion of this regeneration initially expressed itself at the Crawley Creek Church of God in Crawley Creek, W.V. For a time my beliefs were closely aligned with Classic Pentecostal theology. Very early on I was instructed to make God’s word my only standard against which I should measure my understanding of the biblical text. As I engaged in this practice, I slowly drifted away from one Pentecostal distinctive after another until I no longer held enough in common with that theological system to continue referring to myself as distinctly Pentecostal.

But my transformation wasn’t complete. I was still a staunch Arminian. The transformation from Arminianism to Calvinism took much longer to complete. But gradually it came just as my move out of Classical Pentecostalism. The common thread that produced this change is best articulated by Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s book: Is There a Meaning in This Text? Dr. Vanhoozer talks about interpretive virtues. Outside of the core virtues of faith, hope, and love, he distinguishes the virtues of honesty, openness, attention, and obedience as the four necessary virtues for ethical treatment of the biblical text. I think it right in his proposition.

The word ‘regard’ has a range of meaning in the English language. Here I wish to use it in the sense of respect and affection or esteem. As I look back at my transformational experiences (which are continuing to this day), I attribute them to the activity of the Holy Spirit by which He created within me a desire for truth and a willingness to surrender my most cherished beliefs in exchange for complete and total submission to the biblical text (and no, I am not there yet). I first had to accept the fact that normative thinking and living were defined by the sacred text alone. Moreover, if one is to order their life according to that which is really true, then admitting that neither you, nor your understanding is the actual standard from which truth emanates is essential. Hence a fresh appreciation for the nature of the biblical text was called for in my case. I had to be honest about my biases that I brought to the text when I was in it. I had to admit that I could be wrong and this required a new level of openness. This required that I return to paying strict attention to the biblical text as I engaged it. This was a “starting over” for me in terms of my theological views. I have since learned that good interpreters of the biblical text start over every time they enter it. Finally, I had to learn to read the text the way the author actually intended. By learning how to approach the text in this manner, I became more sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit in my mind and heart and as a result, transformation has become a way of life for me ever since. In fact, transformation is the Christian way of life.

It is my conviction that the Bible as a text is the text of God Himself. It has God as its ultimate author and creator and man as the agent through which He brought it into existence. By using man in this way, God intended to communicate to us in various genres, using a variety of literary styles and devices along the way that we are capable of adequately apprehend. But this variety requires that we pay due attention as we interact with the text. And paying attention requires mental discipline, something our culture terribly lacks. Perhaps this is why I am commanded to love the Lord my God with my whole mind.

There is a laxity around hermeneutics in the Christian community in modern times. A casual attitude with regard to how we approach the sacred text of God that would almost lead one to believe that people really don’t view the text as sacred, but common. I think this is partially attributable to the cultural prevalence of the idea that we should not take anything too seriously, and partly to an abuse of grace that permeates the church. The former can be attributed to the autonomous desires at the bottom of post-modern thought, while the later is mostly attributable to a deficient anthropology brought on by misguided Pelagian thinking and compounded by the idea of libertarian free-will in Arminian theology. Somehow we have adopted the view that grace equates laxity. Since God is so loving and merciful, kind, longsuffering and filled with grace, it matters not how badly we behave, He will dismiss it, understanding that we are just fallen, broken sinners. Hence the love of God displaces the justice of God. Much of this has to do with intellectual apathy. Our culture is a lazy culture when it comes to the discipline of critical thinking. It is my opinion that one of the reasons people reject the abstract and criticize those who do exercise their intellectual gift is because they are lazy. I hear it almost every time I teach. Knowledge for knowledge sake is bad. Or, the Bible has to get to your heart, not just your head. And while these statements are true, the fact that I hear them so often causes me to pause, if for no other reason than that we are living in an age when biblical ineptness is at historic highs. We interact with the biblical text in an effort to arrive at its meaning, that meaning intended by its author. This is, after all, the hermeneutical imperative. And once we understand the meaning of the text (illocution), we appropriate it to our hearts and lives (perlocution). It is in appropriation of the meaning of the text that Scripture transforms the reader. But without an adequate understanding of what the text says, transformation is impossible. Hence a right understanding of the biblical text is a fundamental prerequisite to experiencing biblical transformation in life. Knowledge is indispensible to wisdom. Moreover, without a healthy regard for the biblical text, our approach to it will not yield the kind of understanding adequate to produce profound transformation. In this sense, regard for the biblical text is the starting point for what, in the final analysis, is a radically transformed life. We need radical transformation in order to understand the text that radically transforms. Yes, this is circular reasoning, but the circle is not vicious. And in the end, all human reason is circular.

In the end, one must decide who is master and who is servant. Is the biblical text, God’s self-disclosed revelation, Master over your reading? Or are you, the reader, Master over the biblical text. Is the text there to serve the reader? Does the reader have the ethical “right” to find whatever meaning in the text they wish to find? In this sense meaning is no longer discovered, but created. But creating belongs to God. I submit that the reader is to serve the text, to respect it and regard it for what it is. The aim of the reader is to humbly approach the text for the other that it is. The text is God’s truth and as such is there to transform lives by imparting a living knowledge that is to be lived! Unless the text is handled with great regard, we run the risk of not only violating the sacred other, but of also nullifying its transformative intent. We invalidate the word of God through our interpretive autonomy (Matt. 15:6).

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