Living and Active: Renewing Evangelical Theologies of Scripture in the 21st-Century

By: Amos Yong
Thursday, August 1st, 2013

biblical scholarsThere are at least two sides to this question about the relationship between evangelicalism and the modern study of scripture. On the one hand, how to navigate the fine line between historical-grammatical approaches and historical-critical perspectives? Most evangelicals are comfortable with the former while some are concerned about the latter because it leads to skepticism and presumes to undermine the authority of scripture. The posture of faith suggests that Christian readers and interpreters, no matter how learned, ought to approach the Bible in a submissive rather than critical stance. The historical-grammatical study of scripture is helpful for such servant-readings of the Bible since it helps the community of faith understand the world behind the text better, which in turn illuminates the world of the text by providing assistance in discerning an original intent of the scriptural authors. Thereby, readers are edified when they understand the biblical text in its original context.

For me, the motivation of the critical approach is the key. If not from the standpoint of faith, then criticism persists for its own sake. On the other hand, believers ought to, in faith, pursue questions as they might appear. Truth is truth, wherever it may be found, and scholars and researchers ought to pursue such within their various communities of inquiry. Many such matters will be contested, and it is part of the life of faith, and of the scholarly vocation, to engage with these issues. Will there be casualties? Yes! Can these be minimized if evangelical scholarship is nurtured in part within faithful communities of inquiry? Absolutely. The end result is a more robust, world-engaging, insightful, and fruitful Christianity that probes deeply, analyzes critically, self-corrects over time, and increases community understanding and spiritual growth.

I am more interested, however, in another line of questions related to evangelicalism and the historical study of scripture: that which relativizes such study or at least suggests that it ought to be complemented by other more contemporary options. Coming from the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition, I am partial to pietistic approaches to the Bible which minimized concerns about the world behind the text in favor of taking up matters related to the world of the reader in front of the text. As is well known, pietist reactions have perennially questioned historical-grammatical-criticism for its own sake; on the other hand, pietist hermeneutical practices have also been criticized for their subjectivist tendencies. This opens up to the major question regarding objectivity and subjectivity bequeathed by modernity to contemporary discussions in epistemology.

I think that there are at least two trends in contemporary scholarship which invite a fresh reconsideration of elements of the pietistic model. First, there is a growing realization that a presuppositionless exegesis is well-nigh impossible; put positively, the lines between biblical and theological interpretation are difficult to draw. This means, at least in part, that scriptural exegesis is influenced by other factors than just historical-grammatical considerations. The horizons of the text and of readers and interpreters converge to some degree in every act of interpretation. Faithful interpretation of scripture therefore occurs in light of the reception history of the Christian theological, doctrinal, and dogmatic traditions. What scripture meant, and what scripture means, while distinguishable at one level, is interrelated at another level.

Second, recent trends in biblical hermeneutics include narrative and literary approaches that have emerged in the wake of the legacy of Karl Barth, Hans Frei, and other renowned theologians and scholars. The narrative quality of the scriptural tradition invites readers to “live in” the biblical text in ways anathema to strictly historical-grammatical approaches. Hence the modernist paradigm which posits an impassable chasm (Lessing’s “ugly ditch”) between the world of the text and the world in front of the text is giving way to a plethora of interpretive strategies which suggest that these are not mutually exclusive. Contemporary dramatic approaches to scripture (e.g., promulgated by Kevin Vanhoozer among other evangelicals) also presume that the Bible is not just a set of propositions about past facts (although it certainly is that) but also a set of speech-acts where ongoing readings are performative modes of bringing about God’s intentions (i.e., of saving the world). In these senses, what scripture meant and means cannot be divorced from what it was designed to achieve; reading and praxis, hence, are intertwined, as is meaning and application, to use more traditional notions.

My pentecostal-charismatic perspective resonates with these developments. As helpful as have been modern historical approaches, Christian faith invites inhabitation of the living reality of Christ in the present. The Word of God hence tells us about what happened in the past not for its own sake but for the sake of God’s ongoing and eschatological salvation plan. Scripture hence always has the capacity to speak to each person and each generation, no matter how far removed from the original or even in translation, because “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12, NRSV). The words of scripture thus derive from and function not on their own but through the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul also said, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).

To be sure, this interrelationship between Word and Spirit means that interpretation assuredly involves the human element: the living word of God comes alive to historical, embodied, and needy creatures and addresses them in the fullness and messiness of their situation. Sometimes, the latter overwhelms the work of the Spirit and a rampant subjectivism distorts God’s intentions. Herein lies the fine line then between a kind of prophetic insistence that this is the way of the Lord, and one that is willing to be corrected by the wider community of faith. If it were not for courageous prophets who were willing to say, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” important reforms and correctives may not have taken place; yet this can also open it up to a multiplicity of such “prophetic words” that end up dividing the one body of Christ into many factions (rather than members) and the one fellowship of the Spirit into dis-united segregation.

People filled with the Spirit of Christ will no doubt continue to proclaim the living word of God in contemporary times and places. However, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Cor. 14:29), so each interpretation of scripture ought to be subjected also to the discerning judgment of the interpretive community, perhaps even the guild of scholars, in order to discern if and how the retrieved word is the living word of God for any time and place. The work of the Spirit through the biblical text is not necessarily thereby subjected to the whims of the community (or communities) since there will also be occasions when the latter is corrected by the enspirited word of God. Such is the unavoidably dynamic character of life in the Spirit as it informs the life of the mind and the scholarly study of Scripture as the very Word of God.

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Amos Yong
This entry was posted by on Thursday, August 1st, 2013 at 5:47 am and is filed under Does Evangelicalism Have a Future, Faith & Culture, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Living and Active: Renewing Evangelical Theologies of Scripture in the 21st-Century”

  1. Jeremy S. Crenshaw says:

    I love this post Dr. Yong; it gives great food for thought!