Blogging has been sparse of late, just too much going on but the scribbler’s itch is back so here goes ….
I spent 4 days of last week teaching a block week Masters module in Evangelical Identity, History and Theology at IBI. Lots of good discussion and interaction – which kickstarted this post, and a few more loosely related, on evangelicalism.
An article I went back to read as part of prep, partly in light of previous musings, was Kevin Vanhoozer’s ‘The Voice and the Actor: A Dramatic Proposal about the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology’, in John G. Stackhouse Jr (ed.), Evangelical Futures, (Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 61-106. [A forerunner to his 2005 The Drama of Doctrine]
Some angst about diverse interpretations of the Bible among evangelicals derives from the assumption that it should not (in theory) exist. The assumption is that the Bible itself speaks systematically and univocally and that this meaning can be uncovered by the attentive interpreter.
What Vanhoozer said back in 2000 was important and perhaps even more relevant in light of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible.
Vanhoozer talks about God being in discourse with us through Scripture and the living Word Jesus Christ. Discourse here is a living dynamic process of communication rather than a more static set of propositions. In addition, the triune God is in discourse with himself through the inter-relationality of Father, Son and Spirit.
A consequence for Vanhoozer is that Scripture has a certain inbuilt plurality. This is seen most obviously in the fact that there are 4 gospels telling the one gospel of Jesus Christ. There can be more than one ‘normative’ point of view that can disclose aspects of the truth.
Taking this more widely, Vanhoozer suggested that this plurality extends to different interpretative traditions within the church. If no single voice can capture all the truth of a text then the different voices need each other.
But this also means something else. ‘Final’ or absolutely complete interpretations of Scripture are (to coin an apt phrase) in the end only possible eschatologically. In the meantime, our interpretations are provisional, incomplete and culture-bound.
This does not mean for Vanhoozer that meaning is endlessly open and subjective. He uses the term ‘canonicity’ to emphasise the dual nature of Scripture. It is fixed and final and authoritative yet simultaneously it contains a multiplicity of genres, contexts, languages, theologies and authors.
The challenge for evangelical theology is to enter the ‘drama’ of the script, keeping within its intent while accepting that different ‘stagings’ of the play in different contexts can be complementary. The test of an interpretation’s authenticity will to a large extent be revealed through time and in dialogue with other interpretations. Without this creative hermeneutical dialogue, truth is reduced to a unitary concept. A richer alternative is a collaborative and complementary understanding of truth.
Some years ago I was part of a theology working group of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland who worked on a basis of faith for the organisation. It was deliberately diverse, across the evangelical spectrum. And it was a deeply enjoyable and rewarding experience as a group of us worked together to agree a document that captured a sense of our pan-evangelical unity. It was enriched by that diversity rather than weakened.
And it is here that us individualist Westerners can learn so much from other Christians who have a much more communal sense of identity and truth.
Comments, as ever, welcome.