Is the Bible a collection of historical texts stuck in the past? Is it a sacred text that transcends and overrules its historical origins? Or do we somehow have to hold these two perspectives in tension?
By and large, historical-critical approaches to biblical interpretation assume the first perspective; popular faith-motivated approaches assume the second. Modern evangelical scholarship, meanwhile, generally wants to have its cake and eat it, holding out for some version of the third position: first, we establish what the text once meant; then we consider what it now means. But this is a rather unstable and perhaps even spurious compromise, and the Bible remains at the centre of a strenuous tug-of-war between the historians and the theologians.
One of those pulling hard for the theologians is Joel Green. In Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture he observes that, following the postmodern shift, we have come to regard all knowledge as “historically grounded”, and he asks how this recognition impinges upon biblical studies.
It has led to the assumption that the only viable history within which to construe the meaning of biblical texts is the history within which those texts were generated—or the history to which those texts give witness. The results for Christian theology and preaching have often been disastrous, since it is difficult to construe the meaning for contemporary times of a biblical text whose meaning properly belongs to an ancient time. 1
This is the central problem posed by a historical hermeneutic: if biblical meaning properly belongs to an ancient past, of what use is it for us today? Biblical truth becomes nothing more than an assortment of corroded artefacts—primitive tools, crude items of jewellery, roughly shaped dishes—dug from an ancient site. We might display them in a museum, with explanatory notices for the benefit of visitors. They are remarkable items. But we would not dream of making everyday use of them.
This is rightly intolerable to evangelicals—indeed, to anyone who wants to believe that the Bible is formative for the people of God today.
Green’s solution will be to prioritize theology over history, to construe the historical texts theologically as transcendent scripture—that much can be inferred from the title of the book. The problem with this approach is that inevitably the historical voice will be distorted or suppressed, and the Bible will be made to say things that it does not want to say. The ancient artefacts will be discreetly replaced with cheap shiny replicas which won’t look out of place in the modern household—the sort of stuff that you buy in the gift shop on the way out of the museum.
I think this is a mistake and ultimately a betrayal of the Bible as scripture. My view is that we do not need to wrap the Bible in a modern user-friendly “theology” in order for it to have practical value for the church. What makes the Bible meaningful for us, what makes it scripture, is not that universally applicable moral and religious truths can be extracted from it—though undoubtedly some can—but that it establishes a narrative trajectory. It points in a certain direction.
The New Testament points the early redeemed church in the direction of vindication—first with respect to apostate Judaism, secondly with respect to European paganism. If we step back a bit, I think we then see how the Bible as a whole points the people of God always towards the prospect of new creation, of which it is both a concrete embodiment and a prophetic sign.
But this narrative trajectory—this pointing—can be thoroughly described without introducing a ‘disastrous’ schism between theology and history. In scripture theology is grounded historically; history is interpreted theologically. This is why prophecy is such a critical component in biblical discourse—it is the realistic theological interpretation of historical events, past, present, and future.
- 1. Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture, Abingdon Press, 2007, 14-15.