Phyllis Bird on the authority of historical testimony

Read time: 5 minutes

Earlier in the week I was in Billingham on Teesside where I gave a talk on narrative-historical theology to the super Galilee Network and friends. In a typically overloaded (when will I learn?) introduction I used this image—one which I have used before on this blog—to make the point that what we are dealing with essentially is the story of the historical community of God’s people:

I said that the community is best thought of as a “priestly people” called to serve the interests of the creator God in the world under changing internal and external conditions, riding the roller coaster of history (cf. Exod. 19:5-6; Is. 61:5-6; 1 Pet. 2:4-6). What scripture gives us is the story that this community told about itself—how it interpreted its experiences—in a formative period.

To be on the safe side, we should probably say that the Bible is principally the witness of that community from the exilic period through to the first century AD. This is not to deny that there is earlier material in the Old Testament, but 1) it recognises the importance of the exile for the redaction and consolidation of the Jewish scriptures; 2) it gives us a less speculative historical community to work with; and 3) it helps us to focus on the period of Israel’s clash with pagan empire, which is critical for understanding the place of Jesus in the historical narrative.

At a service station at Grantham on the way back I started reading Phyllis Bird’s chapter “The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (ed. David Balch, 2000).

Before getting down to exegesis of the relevant Old Testament texts, Bird sets out her understanding of the “nature and authority of Scripture” (144-45), at the heart of which is this paragraph:

What holds the Scriptures together is the community that created, preserved, and transmitted the writings, Israel and its daughter, the church. United in canonical form, the Scriptures present an overarching story that moves from the beginning of creation to a vision of new creation and, with that framework, the conversation of the community about the implications of that story for its life. That conversation spans a millennium in its recorded memory, but it does not end with the last canonical writing; it continues today, as the story itself continues.

There are two things in particular that I like about this statement. First, it puts the emphasis not on the texts as the significant vehicle of authority but on the community which explains itself through the texts. Secondly, it gives full weight to the fact that the story—or the “conversation” that generates the story—does not stop with Jesus and the foundation of the church. My argument has been that if a narrative-historical method works for the New Testament, it may also help us to address the quandary that the modern church faces—the “Eeek!” moment on the diagram). It was a choice between “Eeek!” and “Extinction”.

The strength of the hermeneutic is brought out by the manner in which Bird deals with the absence of women’s voices from the biblical record: scripture is the product of a male elite.

Negatively, she takes this to mean that “the testimony of Scripture may not be absolutized, or viewed as final revelation”. But the point can also be made more positively. The patriarchal “bias” alerts us to the fact that “the authority of Scripture is the authority of historical witness”. The scriptures “point beyond time, but always and only as a product of the cultures out of which they speak”. I wouldn’t have said that the scriptures “point beyond time”—they tell their story for the sake of the continuing historical existence of the priestly community. But I fully agree that we cannot talk about the authority of the Bible without talking about its historical contingency and point of view.

There are, however, two details that I would quibble over.

First, if we frame the “overarching story” as one that moves from creation to new creation, we obscure the persistently political character of the story that is being told. It seems to me too vague to say that the scriptures record the conversation about the implications of the creation-level story for its life. Yes, Abraham was called to be a new creation in microcosm, but very quickly this vocation was overwhelmed by harsh political realities, so the controlling story becomes the one about how God governs his priestly new creation people under extremely difficult geopolitical conditions. This is why I emphasise the importance of the clash-with-empire period, from the Babylonian invasion to the fall of “Babylon the great”, which is Rome. The real story of the Bible is a kingdom story, culminating in the rule of YHWH over formerly hostile nations.

The second quibble is related. Bird says that the centre of the two-part canon is “the witness to Christ as the new revelation of the God made known to Israel”. That amounts to a theological reconstruction of the historical significance of Jesus. It’s understandable in light of the disproportionate weight that the early church attached to John’s Gospel, but it misrepresents—or simply misses—the role that Jesus played in the kingdom narrative. The centre of the canon, I would say, is rather the resurrection of Jesus and his elevation to a position of supreme authority at the right hand of God to judge and rule over Israel and the nations.

(And happy thanksgiving to American readers!)

Philip Ledgerwood | Thu, 11/23/2017 - 18:48 | Permalink

Happy Thanksgiving back atcha, and thanks for the fine discussion of these resources.

In larger strokes, I’m thankful for this site. The influence of your writings on my own post-evangelical (or para-evangelical) journey cannot be overstated.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 11/24/2017 - 10:06 | Permalink

I concur with Phil’s comment (as a Brit), and am glad you pulled into the Grantham service station before reading Phyllis Bird.

I’m still wondering if you will comment on an earlier thought I supplied, which was that the kingdom ‘paradigm’ was based on a rejection of God (1 Samuel 8:6). Jesus redefined what ‘kingdom’ meant henceforward, in his teaching and practice. The one was a kingdom of empire and violence, the other of servanthood and love. The two are not to be confused. Israel failed most conspicuously when she trusted through her kings in the former. Her outstanding deliverances were when she trusted in God alone.

Your thoughts?