Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reflections on New Testament Ethics: On Luke Timothy Johnson's Canonical Theses

In his book Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), Luke Timothy Johnson sets out to address the challenge of the church’s ability to read the biblical text in all its diversity and integrity, for the sake of obeying the will of God as a community of faith, in response to new and unforeseen moral and practical challenges that arise over time. The work is therefore “an exercise in practical theology” (p. 9). Specifically, Johnson sees, and consequently wants to present, “decision making in the church” as “a theological process,” grounded in an explicit bias: “when the church makes decisions, the Bible ought somehow to be involved” (p. 10).

Part One, the first third of the book, is devoted to “Theory,” and that is where I will focus my engagement of Johnson’s argument. In particular I want to take up the concise content of Chapter 2, “Debates: The Authority of the New Testament in the Church,” and offer questions for, challenges to, and extensions of the case Johnson makes there. The chapter is split up into three sections: theses proffered for a right conception of the shape and function of the canon; a proposed model for reading the canon; and a brief display of the modes of the canon’s authority. In the following I will largely focus on the theses, with forays into the following sections when appropriate.

Johnson’s first thesis is wonderful, calling the biblical canon “the church’s working bibliography” (p. 35; this phrase recalls Brian McLaren’s suggested image for the Bible as a “portable library”). The second thesis is similarly exemplary, though worth spelling out in a bit more detail. Johnson makes the claim that the canon “is more than the residuum of a historical process” (p. 35). How so? “It is a faith decision for the church to make in every age and place.” This decision takes place “not by council but in liturgical use” and is just so “the most fundamental identity decision the church makes” (p. 36). It seems clear what Johnson has in his sights to be speaking against: a sheerly contingent historical process devoid of meaning or normative import, as a correlative of the notion that the canon is just there devoid of any ongoing personal agency on the part of the church. A salutary corrective to traditional ecclesial diversions to the left and to the right.

The subsequent three theses raise important questions—though not, it should be noted, in necessary disagreement with Johnson’s conclusions, but only for further thinking and clarification. Within these theses Johnson makes the related claims that “canon and . . . church are . . . correlative concepts,” that “the nature of a canon [is] to be closed,” and that the canon “can be catholic, that is, have universal and enduring pertinence” precisely because it is “closed and exclusive” (p. 36). My first question is terminological: Does not using the very language of “canon” from the outset predetermine certain claims in these theses? For example, what if Johnson had called them “scriptural” theses, and “Scripture” had replaced every use of “canon”? It is not necessarily the case that the nature of religious scripture is to be closed; nor would scriptural universality necessarily be based on its closed nature, for perhaps such universality might be predicated exactly upon temporal catholicity, a kind of ongoing gathering up of resources and authorities determined by subsequent generations to be wise and useful (as, say, the Hebrew Bible developed leading up to the first century). Such a Scripture really would be the church’s working bibliography, in the strictest sense of the term!

Of course, this may merely seem a semantic quibble, but it is an important point (with which Johnson would likely agree): because the biblical texts as we have them are both a product and a collection of the church, they are just so radically contingent and subject to the church’s determination of what they are, how they will be seen, and how they will be used. My only point is that “canon” is not the sole term, historical or theological, by which to understand and conceive of the Bible; and to restrict oneself to it may, at times, rig the deck in terms of what one can, cannot, and will be led to say about what it is or is not.

Theses 6 and 7 are alike commendable and unexceptionable. Theses 8 and 9, on the other hand, raise further questions about biblical authority. I am interested here in Johnson’s precise formulation regarding Scripture’s divine inspiration (thesis 9), which is “one of the ways of expressing” (moving back to thesis 8) “the acknowledgement that [the canonical writings] not only speak in the voice of their human authors but also speak for an Other” (p. 37). Further elaborated: “Within [the texts’] time-conditioned words and symbols . . . there speaks as well the singular Word of God” (p. 37; my emphasis). I want to connect this phrasing both backward and forward to claims Johnson makes about the way he is approaching the Bible. Earlier in the chapter, Johnson states that he is “considering only the question of the New Testament’s authority as read text” (p. 35; my emphasis). In this way “we cannot mean something [authoritative] that simply inheres in the book as book; we must mean a quality that is ascribed to the act of reading the text” (p. 35).

What might it mean to say that the biblical text is authoritative only insofar as and when it is read by and in the community, and yet to say also that “within” the particular texts of the one canon “there speaks as well the singular Word of God”? Immediately prior, Johnson says something similar: “the critical questions posed to the texts by a reader are far less significant than the critical questions the texts pose to the reader” (p. 37). Is the text of Scripture as such the Word of God and/or inspired? Or is the Word of God a present and living event whenever and wherever the text is read? Or, even further, is the inspiration of which Johnson speaks something inherent to the actual “time-conditioned words and symbols”—in that case, in the original languages, in the translations, or something else—or something that happens in the space and time of a community’s reading and hearing the text in the power of the Holy Spirit?

Looking now toward the end of the chapter, Johnson offers a helpfully forthright account of when and how the community may disagree with particular biblical texts: “To be faithful to the Scripture, we cannot suppress its reading; we must be able to say why we do not live in accord with its clear directive” (p. 43). This is a coherent position in itself. But how does it relate to the claim that, as a whole, Scripture is the Word of God, inspired by God’s own Spirit? Does not at least the former denotation (if not the latter ascription) logically entail a more cautious weariness in “not living in accord with its clear directive”?

To take a most controversial subject of moral discernment (one which Johnson addresses later in the book), homosexuality would seem to be in a perilous position in the confluence of Johnson’s expressed views. For if the texts are somehow together the Word of God, somehow inspired by God, somehow even an agent in the community’s life pressing it into shape and asking it questions—by what means would someone come to read Romans 1 in a light that would explicitly reject its view of same-sex relations? It seems as if one side must give: either the canon cannot as a whole be called the inspired Word of God, or (sans significant tension internal to the texts) the rule of reasoned and intentional disagreement with the text cannot be a viable option for the church. Perhaps a more robust, less constrictive definition might be offered for “Word of God” or “inspiration,” but that only raises a larger question: On what grounds should we identity Scripture as or with God’s Word at all? It seems to me that Johnson has the resources to articulate why an alternative definition might be beneficial both to the integrity of the Bible and to the life and faith of the church—rooted, for example, in the fact that the texts are a product of the church, chosen by the church, read by the church, and kept by the church for their catholicity, apostolicity, and usefulness as faithful witnesses, rather than taken to be a kind of supernatural ruler (!) by which to order timelessly every minute detail of the church in any context.

Thesis 10, on the irreducible diversity of the New Testament, is a happy corrective to abstractions from and alien impositions onto the text, and thesis 11’s proposal of a properly ecclesial hermeneutic for reading the Bible in its “primary function, which is to mediate the identity of the church as church,” is no less welcome in its insistence on the rightful place and purpose of Scripture: the gathered worship and communal life of Christ’s disciples.

To conclude, I want to reflect on the connections between this ecclesial hermeneutic and Johnson’s suggested “midrashic model” for its practice (p. 38-39). My question relates to division and judgment: In the “public context” of “discussion, debate, disagreement, and decision,” in which the church comes together to perform its discernment in the light of Scripture, how are we to judge the community’s final decision? What if two communities come together and, in good faith, argue the issue out both textually and Spiritually (capital-S intentional), taking members’ experiences and arguments into account along with the tradition’s witness—and yet come out with diametrically opposed conclusions? That is, how are we to make moral, biblical, or theological sense out of congregations’ radically different stances on (to stay with our issue so far) homosexual orientation and practice? Do we have at our disposal, or within the biblical texts, the means by which to judge or determine right process or right decision? Can a community “do it right” and still “come out wrong”? What then? If a church claims “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” and yet the same claim comes from another church with an opposite determination—are we left, finally, with mere silence between incommensurate and untranslatable options?

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