How does God speak to us through an ancient text?

This quotation from a book by J. Todd Billings called The Word of God for the People of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of scripture rather effectively gets to the heart of the dilemma created by readings of the New Testament that insist on the historical contextualization of the texts:

Another misuse of historical reconstruction is when it leaves readers with a sense that the ancient text does not address them, but only addresses the ancient community. On this issue, Christian interpreters need to be clear that we read as part of the one people of God; we are not reading “other people’s mail.” … When Christians analyze the text, its history, and background, we should not assume that the historical gap between our contemporary horizon and the ancient one is a great canyon to be bridged by clever analogies or parallels. In a very real sense, this gap is bridged by the Spirit—the same Spirit who unites together God’s people culture and time. The books of the Bible are not just “addressed to” ancient Israel or the early church. Through Scripture, the Spirit addresses all of God’s people, not just the original hearers.

I agree that there is a problem if the modern reader is left with the sense that he or she is not addressed by the text. But I’m not sure about Billings’ solution and I am not convinced that historical readings really have so little to say to the believing community? I have a few quick thoughts. I would be delighted to hear what others think.

1. Does the bridging function of the Spirit really constitute a reliable hermeneutical principle? What checks, if any, do we have on interpretations inspired or guided by the Spirit? We might refer to interpretive tradition, and I suspect that Billings has this confidence in the power of the Spirit to speak directly to the church through the scripture because he trusts the Reformed-evangelical tradition of which he is part. But then ‘Spirit’ has just become another word for ‘interpretive tradition’. Otherwise, we are likely to resort to something like historical-criticism to check the subjective readings generated by the Spirit, in which case we are back at square one.

2. This sort of reaction creates an unnecessary and unhealthy fear of historical distance – and indeed of history. We have a deep cultural need for contemporaneity and immediacy, and I suspect that this is reflected in our insistence on a contemporary and immediate and personally relevant text. I would suggest that in order to recover scripture as a resource for the future of the people of God, we need to gain a new respect for its historicality.

3. A good part of the meaning of scripture lies in the fact that it tells and interprets a historically contextualized story. We lose a great deal if we sacrifice the diachronic – that is, the historical or temporal – dimension of scripture for the sake of its direct synchronic applicability. More seriously, we risk distorting the meaning of the text, and that cannot be a good thing.

4. If we are going to talk of the Spirit interpreting scripture for us today, I think we need to ensure that the narrative structure of biblical thought, its thorough-going engagement with history, is pushed firmly into the foreground. This will not be easy to do, for as soon as we suggest that God speaks directly through scripture by means of the Spirit, or some such formulation, we default to a piecemeal, fragmented, and selective approach to the text. That is how we are conditioned to read, and if I may be so bold as to put it this way, I blame the ‘Spirit’.

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