How does scripture speak to the world?

The Bible is a formative text for the people of God. I have argued that it is formative primarily in a narrative or diachronic sense—that is, it speaks to the church today by narrating a critical period, a determinative trajectory, in the historical development of the people. It begins with the calling of Abraham from a classic place of empire to be the beginning of an alternative humanity, a new creation; and it culminates eschatologically in the conversion of empire to the worship of the God of Israel. The New Testament certainly looks beyond that event to a final establishment of justice and life and a final renewal of all things, but the target of the formative narrative is the victory of Christ over Rome through the faithful, self-sacrificing witness of his disciples. This is the moment at which—within the narrative constraints of the biblical outlook—the nations bow the knee and confess that YHWH, the God who has redeemed and established his people, has publicly and politically demonstrated his righteousness and has shown himself to be sovereign amongst all the gods of the pagan world (cf. Is. 45:14-25).

But if scripture is the historically constrained story of the people of God and if theology is so tightly the interpretation of that experience, in what way might scripture speak now to the world outside the church? Can it still function as “Word of God” not for the church only but also for the world? Can it be, as Paul Fromont puts it, ”an invitation to life in all its fullness for the wider world and local contexts within which churched and de-churched find themselves”?

If the Bible is to be good news for the world today, it has to be (in some fundamental sense) because it tells the story of the people that made this audacious and tumultuous journey in relationship with the Creator God. To skirt round this conclusion in order to avoid its historical particularity would be to contradict the essential character of scripture.

Before we consider the implications of this assertion, however, we need to note that the story did not end with the conversion of the empire. The story continued beyond the historical horizons of the New Testament and now includes the reversal of the victory of YHWH over European paganism: in broad sociological terms Christianity defeated paganism but over the last two hundred years has been displaced by an unholy alliance of secular rationalism, cultural pluralism, and technologically sustained materialism. In other words, we are again a people in crisis, unsure of ourselves; and as Paul rightly notes, this has consequences for the reception of the text in the world:

Perhaps it is the scripture/church relationship that is the biggest obstacle to willingness to offer genuine space for the religious/spiritual perspective on the big challenges and opportunities that face us as humanity – whether internationally, nationally, or locally…?

Before any attempt is made to redefine the public relevance of scripture, we should probably make sure that we have grasped just how problematic this “scripture/church relationship” is. So I have some rather disorderly questions…

Staying within the Western narrative, we might ask, first, what prospect there is that scripture might speak directly to a world that has largely disowned its Christian heritage. What would it take for a post-Christian society to hear the Word as though for the first time? Or more to the point, perhaps, how much does the church have to get out of the way before anyone will be surprised by the text?

What burden of transparency and integrity does the narrative-historical reading impose on the church? What are the implications for the church of asserting this particular account of our identity and mission? However we define the critical moment of personal salvation, this is subordinated in the New Testament to a narrative of corporate transformation. If scripture is an “invitation to life”, it is an invitation to the life of the community. Salvation is participation in the community of the people of God.

Does the church have the spiritual, moral and intellectual resources to respond to—or even to resist—the combined forces of secular rationalism, cultural pluralism, and technologically sustained materialism? Is the church able to draw from the narrative of its formation the strength and clarity of purpose, the wisdom and insight, to demonstrate to the post-Christian world that this text still has the power to define an alternative existence?

What could be said concerning what God is currently doing with regard to his people in the world that could possibly be counted as good news? The narrative-historical reading of scripture thrusts the historical community of YHWH into the bright lights at front of stage. But are we prepared to own up to our history? Are we willing to be subjected to scrutiny? We cannot push Jesus forward—because we know that everyone thinks that Jesus is wonderful—and hope to hide in the shadows. Second temple Judaism found itself subjected to the wrath of God, as Paul puts it in Romans, because it failed to provide a benchmark of righteousness. Can the church today claim to provide a benchmark of righteousness for the world?

The point is that scripture is not an autonomous sacred text or free-floating Word of God for the world, merely entrusted to the church for translation and dissemination. Its witness and legitimacy are intimately bound up with the life of the community that claims descent by faith from Abraham. We cannot disown its problems; we cannot escape its censure; we are the medium of its message.

paulf | Mon, 11/15/2010 - 19:32 | Permalink

Andrew, you speak of "scripture" as if it wrote itself. Scripture isn't a story. There exists a collection of works written over many years by a diverse group of people. It is only a unified "story" to the extent that it is spun that way by individuals. The "New Testament" doesn't look ahead to anything or have any opinions, but individual authors do.

I understand you are trying to look back and be reflective, but maybe the fact that it is difficult to do that if you speak precisely and truthfully says something about how to answer the question.

And how can Paul have discussed the judgement on Second Temple Judiasm in Romans? Wasn't he dead before the temple was destroyed by the Romans?

To answer your question, though, no, the church can't provide a benchmark of righteousness because only the smallest handful of people have any clue about faith as you define it.

Paul, I’ve only got time for a quick response to clarify.

Of course, scripture is diverse and reflects a multiplicity of outlooks. To a large degree it is the modern reader who imposes coherence, and to a degree that coherence falsifies the text. Agreed. But i) that does not in itself invalidate the instinctive search for coherence by a community that claims scripture as a formative text—that is merely part of the particularity of the text’s existence, written under particular circumstances, appropriated and read under particular circumstances; and ii) scripture is in complex ways routinely self-interpreting, it retells its own stories—I am thinking, for example, of numerous recapitulations in the Psalms and prophets, of Jesus’ parabolic retellings of Israel’s story, and of Stephen’s heavily loaded, highly polemical “history” in Acts 7. The search for narrative coherence is integral to the text. It can be done well or badly, in the interests of competing groups, and so on, but it is difficult to escape the need to supply the sort of “meta-narrative” or organizing story that will make sense of the whole and, most importantly, guide the response of the church today to the text.

I really don’t see the problem with Paul discussing judgment on second temple Judaism prior to AD 70. I believe the Old Testament prophets foresaw similar historical catastrophes. I believe Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. I don’t even think there was anything very remarkable about these prophetic insights given the political realities of Jewish existence in the ancient world. Scripture retells its story forwards as well as backwards.

I’m not sure what you’re getting at with your last comment. I am not suggesting a narrow definition of righteousness. My view is that the people of God are called into existence by the Creator to bear concrete, embodied, communal, and comprehensive witness to the possibility of a just, loving, God-centred creation or humanity. This is not simply a matter of faith. It is the entirety of life lived rightly in the presence of God. Of course, there is no possibility of succeeding in this, but I still think there is something of critical importance in, say, images of the people as a priesthood for the nations or a light to the world.

The problem with Paul discussing the second temple judgement (as if it had already happened) is that none of his readers would have had any idea what he was talking about.

Imagine if I casually discussed the significance of the destruction of the New York City subway system by a terrorist attack. You would say "what terrorist attack? The subways are still there." I would have to explain why I thought there was going to be such an attack, when it would happen and who was going to do it. In normal human interaction, presuming an event that has not happened without explaining to your audience what you are doing would be puzzling, and there is no indication that Paul in these letters is making predictions about future events. And no indication that Paul thought of himself in the same role as the Hebrew prophets.

As for the rest of my comment, I don't think there is any chance that more than a tiny minority of christians are ever going to understand the message the way you do. Your narrative belief is too nuanced, too generous to the world, too tolerant of competing ideas. Most people come to religion for easy certainty, so they can look down on others.

Hey Andrew, thanks for being willing to take my question seriously. I appreciate your response. 

Take care


Or more to the point, perhaps, how much does the church have to get out of the way before anyone will be surprised by the text?

Truly and very pointed question.

One thing I would love to hear your answer over is this: A lot of what you write on has to deal with how the church maintains a testimony within the western world (and specifically post-Christian Europe). But how do you see your message relating in to the more 'ground-breaking' or 'pioneering' work of the Asiatics, Africa, middle-east, etc? It's almost like a carbon copy of the book of Acts with what is happening in China, India, and other places.