Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Oliver O'Donovan on the Indeterminacy of Understanding Scripture

"The distance between the text and ourselves can never be, and should never be supposed to be, swallowed up by our understanding of it. Whatever it may be that I have concluded from reading the Scriptures, that conclusion must be open to fresh interrogation, since the Scriptures themselves will be its judge. If, after reading the Bible faithfully, I am confident enough to make some ringing declaration, this does not mean that my declaration is as good as contained within the Bible. In a faithful dogmatic formulation there is, of course, a proper authority. There are times and places where that authority allows for, or requires, a ringing declaration. Yet the question of whether the dogmatic formulation has in fact faithfully expressed the Scriptures' emphasis is always worth discussing, even if the outcome of the discussion is affirmative every time. The question 'What does the Bible mean, and how does it affect us?' can never be out of order in the church, as though the giving of well-founded answers in the past could make the whole question of merely antiquarian interest. We must not, then, in the supposed interest of a 'biblical' ethic, try to close down moral issues prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and guarding against wrong answers by forbidding further examination. The church's leading institutions may, of course, properly resolve that it is inappropriate for them to invest further time and effort in study of a matter that may be considered closed for all practical purposes. But what the leading institutions may quite properly resolve not to undertake, the Spirit in the church may prompt other believers to undertake, for the word authority means, quite simply, that we have to go on looking back to this source if we are to keep on the right track.

"Why should we find this difficult to accept? The truth is that we resist admitting indeterminacy in our understanding of the text. Once such an admission is made, we fear, 'anything goes.' A host of false prophets will take advantage of our respectful distance; they will rush forward to wrest Scripture out of its plain sense, force it into authorizing what cannot be authorized. And of course in the short run, at least, this fear is likely to prove all too well grounded. False prophets are, and always will be, legion. We must simply expect to hear abominations and absurdities put forward in the confident claim that such are compatible with or authorized by Scripture. To this intense annoyance we, like generation of faithful believers before us, are called. The question is this: What sacrifice of our faith would we make if, to avoid the annoyance for ourselves and the disturbance for the church, we closed down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, declared that there was nothing to discuss? To our fears we have to put the question in return of whether the Spirit of the living God is a match for the perversity of humankind, whether Jesus' promise about the gates of hell being unable to prevail is seriously enough meant to be trusted."

--Oliver O'Donovan, "The Moral Authority of Scripture," in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics, ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 174-75

5 comments:

  1. "for the word authority means, quite simply, that we have to go on looking back to this source if we are to keep on the right track."

    I like a lot of what he says throughout. My one quibble is that it is Word-centric to a fault. Word and Spirit must come together. The need to come back to the source lies precisely in the fact that the Word is the normative place to meet the Spirit of Christ.

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  2. "Yet the question of whether the dogmatic formulation has in fact faithfully expressed the Scriptures' emphasis is always worth discussing, even if the outcome of the discussion is affirmative every time."

    I take it that for O'Donovan, any one of these discussions has the potential to unseat dogmatic formulation, declaring it unfaithful (though in fact none may do so). But why do our discussions need to be so powerful, so potentially unsettling, to avoid a "sacrifice of our faith" that closes down our "reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture"? Why must each reading of Scripture have the potential to revise the creeds in order for Scripture to have power for us? Why, in short, are fixed dogmatic formulations seen as impediments to authentic, personal engagement with the text?

    Frankly, I don't see the point of having any dogmatic formulations unless they are seen as enriching rather than closing down our reading and interpretation of Scripture. It is precisely because the doctrine of the Trinity, e.g., opens up the Scriptures to us as readers that it is fittingly mandated for the Church. And if in discussion we find the doctrine unscriptural, our engagement with the biblical text will be richer if we take that finding as a judgment upon ourselves and not upon the dogma of the Trinity. But that seems to require a higher degree of authority in dogmatic formulation than O'Donovan is willing to grant.

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  3. Ross,

    I don't think O'Donovan is saying that "each reading of Scripture [must have the potential to revise the creeds in order for Scripture to have power for us." Nor do I think he sees dogmas "as impediments" to reading the text.

    Instead, all I think he's saying is that there are no questions that are off limits when we come to the text. If that is what dogma becomes, then magisterial teaching serves merely to act as a slowly tightening grip that squeezes out once acceptable, now settled questions that need not (cannot) be asked anymore.

    A great example is whether the Nicene Creed faithfully tells the broad story of Scripture. I would answer in the clear affirmative and with a ringing endorsement -- and yet I would also note that the last two centuries have led us to realize the Creed's deficiency regarding Israel and the proclamation of God's kingdom. That doesn't mean Nicaea has been proved "wrong," only that we've seen that it has gaps in what might once have been perceived to be an "all inclusive" telling of the salvific biblical narrative.

    I hear your critique, and of course these things usually get sorted out by ecclesial commitments, but in this case I don't think O'Donovan is up to what you're worried about.

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  4. That "must" should have a second bracket enclosing it.

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  5. "All I think he's saying is that there are no questions that are off limits when we come to the text."

    I'm trying to get at what this sort of questioning amounts to, especially if certain conclusions are taken as normative (dogmatic) beforehand. Your example of the Nicene Creed helps, though if that's how O'D means things, why doesn't he say that in allaying the 'anything goes' fear? Surely, using the creed as you suggest, certain things just don't go - like denying the trinity. Why does he even worry about 'anything goes' if he's holding onto the high authority of dogmatic formulas?

    I should say, I am attracted to the spirit of O'Donovan's passage. Perhaps coming upon it in context would not have generated the same concern...

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