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Listening to the Bible

April 4, 2014 — 9 Comments


Christopher Bryan has produced an excellent book, published by Oxford University Press, called Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation.

I have scanned numerous books on reading the Bible, but this one distills so much of what I have learned into easily chewable chapters.

The Division

Bryan begins with “the division.” The division, or the problem with biblical interpretation is the divorce between the academy and the church. The academy has adopted the historical critical model and if biblical scholarship has effected the preaching of the Word at all, “it seems chiefly to have been that is has engendered a reluctance to engage the great central tenets of the Christian faith.”

Although Bryan notes that are exceptions, the divorce between the academy and the church is clear, yet the the true setting in life of the Bible has and should always be the community of faith.

How Did We Get Here?

Bryan then moves to answering the question of how we got to this divorce. He begins with Schleiermacher who said that the primary task of the interpreter was to avoid misunderstanding and to discover the author’s intent. Benjamin Jowett then in 1860 said that the first principle of interpretation is

that Scripture has but one meaning –the meaning which it had to the mind of the Prophet of Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it. We need to abandon the attempt to adapt truths of Scripture to the doctrines of creeds and the adaptation to the precepts and maxims of Scripture to the language of our own age.

Pay attention to this paragraph, for in essence, the entire book is an overturning it.

This in turn led to readers not being so much concerned with what the texts had to say to us, but rather a tool for dissecting them for some hypothetical source or situation or information that might lie behind them. Historical criticism had high hopes. Precise questions were to be asked, and then followed through with scientific precision so as to deliver clear answers.

Why Jowett’s Project Was Impossible

However Jowett’s project was impossible, because he thought he was carving a way to objectively look at a text, “but in a century and a half after Jowett the situation had not changed, for historical critical method was no more able to protect its practitioners from writing under the influence of their own prejudices and interests than were the methods that preceded it.” As Marilynne Robinson puts it, “that mysterious presence, the Observer, can never wholly stand apart from the object of inquiry.”

A second problem was that the hermeneutical process as Schleiermacher and others had conceived it was vastly oversimplified and underestimated what is actually involved in any act of communication between past and present.

The whole thing is too big, too complex, and too swiftly changing for any group of precise questions to be devised that could look for precise answers. This is not to despair of interpreting ancient texts: it is simply to concede that every language act has a temporal determinant, that that the range of possibilities that might actually be explored –semantic, cultural, historical, personal–in order to assure full comprehension of almost any statement by anyone at all approaches infinity. Biblical interpretation like all other interpretation, will be aided by research–by asking many precise questions as possible: but it must in the end be a matter of art and imagination, not science (19).

This hermeneutical viewpoint led to the hermeneutic of suspicion, where everything was looked at and deconstructed.

So What Do We Do?

Bryan begins answering the question of ‘what do we do’ in chapters five through nine.He suggests we start with the fact that the Bible is a thing written. It is literature.

What then are we supposed to do with literature? This is where Schleiermacher and Jowett were right. Any critique or discussion of a written text that is not concerned with listening to the text for what it is trying to say is beside the point. Therefore we need to listen to the authors individually.

But second we need to listen to the “Bible” and its voices considered together.

There is surely a third thing we need to do. If there is in this body of material a “matter,” a shared concern, what does that “matter” have to do with us? We need to ask what the individual voices, and the whole of Scripture relates to the continuing life and witness of the Church up to and including our own day.

In short, Jowett and Schleiermacher got off on the right foot, but did not go far enough.

Listening to the Individual Voices

Jowett’s first principle was that Scripture has but one meaning-the meaning which it has to the mind of the Prophet or Evangelist. There are elements of this assertion which prove valid, and elements which are mistaken. What is valid about this statement is that it acknowledges that ancients are not simply the same was we are, and that we will understand them better if we try to hear them in the context of their own times and assumptions.

But where Jowett is mistaken is that Jowett and the rest of us cannot possibly know that the “meanings” intended by the prophets and evangelists and the “meanings” understood by those who heard them were always the same. From the way in which Paul himself argues with his converts it is perfectly clear that sometimes they were not. Words in fact do not have a single meaning, and still less their meaning is not limited to authorial intent.

This does not mean texts can mean anything, for whatever meaning we attribute to the text we must be able to point to a rationale for it within the text itself. Authorial intent is not the only element in what a text means, but it certainly is an element.

Relating the Parts to the Whole

The second task of a biblical scholar is to consider the individual voices in relation to the whole of Scripture. The task of biblical scholarship according to Jowett was to interpret the biblical text without reference to creeds and controversies that were “of other times.”

However this is where Jowett is again mistaken. For the gospel, the narrative, and the creeds have always stood together. They evolved together. Historical questions are important, but the eye of faith is always more than just the “facts.”

The fundamentalist reader of the Bible is scandalized by this, and insists that faith’s reality must have been clear and identical with what could be seen and measured. The well-informed skeptic smiles in superiority of a fuller knowledge and since what could be seen and measured was evidently so much more ordinary than what is claimed by faith, dismisses faith’s claims as fantasy. Fundamentalist and skeptic alike are making the same mistake. The creature is not merely what it is made of. The creature is indeed dust, but beloved dust.

And history–what “really” happened–is always more than what scientific discipline would regard as “facts.” Of course Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” That is a fact. But the meaning of the fact will only be apparent to prophetic and apostolic imagination and the eye of faith (75-76).

So What Now?

“How does the Bible relate to the life of the church up to and including today?” (88). Bryan asserts that looking back on Jowett’s project reveals that Jowett was right in what he affirmed and wrong in what he denied.

Jowett was right to suggest that we need to approach the Bible as any other book, and he was also right about the perils of looking for answers to our own questions that were written without any conception of such questions.

But Jowett was wrong because the meaning a text has for us is always effected by what we bring to it, by our personal inner “texts,” conscious or unconscious.

Since every person who comes to these texts is unique and has a particular history, there is always the possibility for new meaning. This is true of all great texts, and is therefore true of biblical texts. Some Christians seem to find this threatening, but it seems to me entirely appropriate that God’s revelation much always be capable of unfolding for us new meaning. For the fact that our knowledge of God is as yet incomplete does not mean that we have not knowledge, or that there is no God to be known, or that the effort to know more is not proper (89).

My “text” as an individual and our “texts” as a community do engage with the biblical writers’ “texts” at numerous points, both personally and theologically. As I have said, their “today” is by its very nature bound up with my own “today.” Our “texts” interweave (95).


Evangelicals may complain that the division between the academy and the church does not apply to us in the same force as it does to broader biblical scholarship. I would generally agree. We have been more apt to keep the wall from being built.

But maybe the division for us is something different, the division between principle and practice, the fragmentation of disciplines. Largely we teach the historical-critical method, but then stand up on Sunday morning and do something different. We explain this by saying something like “seminary teaches the ground work, then you need to just apply it to your people.

So we still, more or less, have co-opted Jowett’s thesis in our teaching, but not in our practice (while staying away from historical critical conclusions, and adding the cherry of application on top).

I still regularly hear people say, “all you need to do is read the text and wrestle with it yourself,” or “interpretation is all about figuring out what the author is saying to his hearers” or “to be a biblical scholar all you need to have is a lexicon in your right hand and the Bible in your left” or “I just teach the Bible.

But isn’t this just Jowett’s proposal? And do we find the early church arguing anything like this?

What I loved about Bryan’s book is that his proposal was eminently simple.

  1. Read the Bible, listening to the voice of individuals.
  2. Read the Bible, listening to the voices as a whole.
  3. Read the Bible, listening for a word for us today.

And although most would read those three points and agree with them, Bryan’s book provides a nuanced discussion of each point which shows that interpretation is more than Jowett imagined.



Table of Contents
I. The Division
II How Did We Get Here?
III. Why Jowett’s Project was Impossible
IV. The Hermeneutic of Suspicion
V. So What Do We Do?
VI. The First Task: Listening to the Individual Voices
VII. A Digression: “Great Literature?”
VI. The Second Task: Relating the Parts to the Whole
1. The Rule of Faith and the Question of History.
2. The Different Voices and Their Different Accounts of the History
VII. The Third Task: So What Now?
1. Why We Must Ask the Question
2. The Scriptures as Interpretative Narrative
3. The Exercise of Christian Imagination
VIII. The Drama of the Word
Appendix (by David Landon): Speaking the Word: A Guide to Liturgical Reading
Selected Bibliography


Sense-and-Stigma-in-the-Gospels-Depictions-of-Sensory-disabled-Characters-Paperback-P9780199590094How are we to perceive the ‘disabled’ in the Gospel narratives? Are they flat characters? Are they simply beneficiaries of divine healing?

Louise Lawrence in her OUP book Sense and Stigma in the Gospels: Depictions of Sensory-Disabled Characters seeks to reconceive the ‘sensory-disabled’ characters and avoid the binary and strict divisions of ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ in the contemporary world.

In short, she aims to get rid of the stigma and allow these characters to take center stage rather than being a ‘condition’ that needs to be healed. As she aptly states in the introduction:

In the pages of the gospels, characters with sensory ‘disabilities’ are curiously ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere.’ ‘Everywhere’ in the sense that those who are deaf, blind, and untouchable…form numerous stock props in tales of messianic healings; but ‘nowhere’ in that no meaningful identity, agency, or complexity is attributed to them beyond formulaic and flat character traits. (1)

Biblical commentators have utilized either a Western medical model or they have objectified the beneficiaries of divine healing. In both cases, the characters are not important in themselves, but only in the the larger theological schema.

Lawrence employs embodiment and performance, disability studies, and sensory anthropology in order to refigure these various characters.


She examines a number of Gospel narratives including the following: blindness, deaf-mute, the stigma of untouchability, and the epileptic boy.

In chapter 2 she looks at ‘blindness’ as a metaphor both in the biblical text and outside the biblical text arguing it is a tool of social rejection, inner darkness, and transgression. But interpreters themselves have ‘blind spots’ where sight-centric norms have lead to damaging misunderstandings and prejudices concerning sightlessness. She argues that when the biblical texts define individuals solely by a dominant trait such as blindness, it is like defining individuals exclusively on the basis of skin colour, sexuality, or gender.

But using ‘transgressive re-appropriation’ attends to the subversive potential or hyperbolic meanings invested in disabled figures. In this sense disability is conceived as a confrontational challenge to ‘ableist’ ideologies. The biblical text also uses ‘touch’ as a central to a number of the ‘blindness’ stories in the gospels, possibly trying to break out ‘ableist’ blind spots.

In chapter 3 she examines Mark 7:31-37 and the deaf-mute. In this narrative audio-centric channels of communication were reordered and vision, touch, space, vibration, and inaudibility of speech is adopted by Jesus. The performance underscored the point that ‘sense’ does not equate exclusively with hearing and spoken words.

In chapter 4 she takes the leper, legion, and the leaky woman as her subjects. All of these had been marked as untouchable. While most commentators focus on what Jesus did to them, Lawrence looks at what they characters do. “The leper jarringly reversed ‘untouchability’ to reveal how much it made the religious elite, imaged here in Jesus, themselves untouchable. Jesus when prompted however opts to share the polluted space of the leper.” Jesus’ exorcism of Legion normalizes this character and renders him politically ineffective because before he was protesting against the imperial powers. The leaky woman herself approached Jesus, which leads to Jesus’ involuntary bodily seepage displaying the false binary between ‘disability’ and ‘ability.’

In chapter 5 she re-conceives the story of the boy with seizures. Both the western medical and spirit possession models elude the story of the person as the centre of them. This ‘chaos narrative’ is turned into a ‘quest narrative’ by Jesus. Quest narratives do not evoke a cure but rather propose alternative meanings for conditions. Lawrence argues that seizure signifiers were leaked onto other characters (Jesus and the crowd) to challenge the notion that only ‘disabled’ epileptics are exclusive receptacles of such phenomena.

What We Can Learn

Lawrence helpfully pushed me through a few categories that plague modern readers concerning healing stories.

First, she is right to note that many times these characters are objectified and they need refiguration. These characters are not just ‘disabilities’ or ‘conditions’ in need of healing, but themselves characters in the story. Jesus is not the only character in these passages, and interpreters would do well to consider the role these characters have in the narrative.

Second, she had some perceptive comments on the biblical text concerning Jesus’ method of healing. I especially enjoyed chapter 3 where she notes the non audio-centric healing of the deaf and mute person. I think she may be onto something here with the mode of healing by Jesus in this passage. She also had some interesting insights concerning seizure signifiers being leaked onto other characters.

Third, she is right to break us out of the ‘tyranny of normality’ which prejudices ‘able-bodied’ in cultural discourses. Isn’t this just a way to love our neighbor as ourselves and treat the ‘disabled’ as we would want to be treated?

Lingering Questions

There are a number of things about Lawrence’s book that made me uncomfortable as well. (I have done very little work with disability studies, and therefore these thoughts may be fine tuned as I discuss these issues with those who have thought longer and harder about this issue.)

First, she so raised the level of importance and meaning of the sensory disabled characters in the book that many times they overtook the clear main character in the stories, Jesus himself. I am all for examining these characters, but if you focus on them and make Jesus a pawn in the scheme of the story then the story becomes inverted. These are healing stories! For example in chapter 4 on the untouchables, she says:

I will argue that Jesus’ actions are not an abrogation of purity laws, for even when touch ‘utouchables’, his purity status could be reinstated through appropriate means. Rather it is the untouchables themselves who constructively manipulate conventions surrounding their ‘polluted’ conditions and make political points through their bodily performances. It is worth noting that Jesus does not directly approach the leper, Legion, or the leaky woman, but rather the initiative for each contact is audaciously taken by the characters themselves…All three characters are ironically empowered by their ‘pollution.’ (78 and 97)

Although there are some perceptive comments in the paragraph above, Lawrence has the general tendency in her book to downplay Jesus’ healing in these episodes. This is probably because of goal of the book. However her argument would have been more convincing if she had not over-stated her case.

Second, she tried so hard to emphasize the ‘normalcy’ of these disabilities and not assign anything negative to them that at times she insinuated that the characters were not healed at all, or that they should not have been healed. In the story of Legion, she thinks Jesus takes away the power of this character who was protesting the imperial power by his embodied performance (93). But these type of readings turn the Scripture on its head. Shouldn’t we carefully emphasize that these healings are transformances where the persons identity is constituted anew. It is not that they had no identity before, but that Jesus comes and brings them back into social life in a new way. Of course, Lawrence would argue this is not what they need, but I find it hard to escape the desire to be ‘healed’ by these subjects, no matter how politically incorrect that sounds.

Third, and related to the last point, she pushes too hard against any sort of labels. One is left with very few terms to describe what a person is going through. Every term is suddenly loaded with politically incorrect meanings and language is emptied of its power. Many times in her narrative, Lawrence either implicitly or explicitly critiqued the biblical narrative or Jesus for their categorization of these characters. But Matthew and Jesus are simply utilizing the categories that are employed in their culture. If we follow the narrative, Jesus is full of compassion, no matter what labels he uses, so we should not expect them to use language that modern ears will necessarily be tickled by.


Overall, despite its weaknesses, this book provides a new angle into some of the gospel narratives which helps readers not view the ‘disabled’ as simply conditions to be healed. Although Lawrence over-argued her case, and sometimes turned the narrative on its head, I was appreciative of the insights she brought to the text. I will now be asking new questions of the text in my personal reading for which I am thankful.

9780800699123.jpghIn the introduction to Paul in the Grip of the Philosophers: The Apostle and Contemporary Continental Philosophy (Fortress Press), Peter Frick notes there has been a great hermeneutical shift.

The shift is that from the beginning to about the end of the modern period, theological thinking was predicated on a specific hermeneutical assumption, namely, that philosophical thinking will clarify and make more coherent theology’s own self-understanding. As Frick says, “theology was the queen of the interpretive undertaking and philosophy the handmaid.”

But the shift is that now philosophers interested in Pauline thought do not begin with Paul and his texts. “They have their own ideological structures and therefore employ Paul in the service of those structures. They also do not substantially use theology to clarify their philosophy; the former is hardly every the handmaid of the latter.”

Frick and others write this book to clarify for people what to make of this reversal.

Their main critique of Continental philosophy’s appropriation of Paul is that they deconstruct Paul as the “other.” Continental philosophy uses the voice of Paul, but does not always give him his own voice. Paul has thereby suffered “the death of an author.”

The rest of the book goes through a variety of Continental philosophers, Nietzche, Heidegger, Agamben, Taubes, Derrida, Vattimo, Badiou, and Žižek, explaining how these philosophers use Paul, what we can learn from them, and how Paul contradicts them.

This looks like a helpful volume that philosophers and students of Paul should be aware of.


Table of Contents

  1. Neitzche: The Archetype of Pauline Deconstruction | Peter Frick
  2. Heidegger and the Apostle Paul | Benjamin Crowe
  3. Paul of the Gaps: Agamben, Benjamin and the Puppet Player | Roland Boer
  4. Jacob Taubes–Paulinist, Messianist | Larry Welborn
  5. Circumcising the Word: Derrida as a Reader of Paul | Hans Ruin
  6. Gianni Vattimo and Saint Paul: Ontological Weakening, Kenosis, and Secularity | Anthony Sciglitano Jr.
  7. Baidou’s Paul: Founder of Unversalism and Theoritician of the Militant | Frederiek Depoortere
  8. Agamben’s Paul: Thinker of the Messianic | Alan Gignac
  9. Mad with the Love of Undead Life: Understanding Paul and Žižek | Ward Blanton
  10. The Philosophers’ Paul and the Churches | Neil Elliott


6a00e54fc7cbdb883401a51172620a970c-800wiOver on Books at a Glance, I reviewed Karen Jobes new commentary (ECNT) on 1, 2, 3 John. It is a new website which features weekly book summaries which helps you select the right books for you.

One thing I don’t mention in the review is what a natural writer she is. The commentary did not read like most commentaries and I can hardly remember a time when I thought about the writing, because she simply got out of the way.

Read the full review here.



9781451413694_p0_v1_s260x420Although published in 1998, Mark Allan Powell’s Fortress Introduction to the Gospels stands the test of time.

It is a slim book, 138 pages, but Powell includes an amazing amount of material in this short introduction. The lucid brevity of the book will cause it to continue to be a great textbook and introduction. Powell stays away from speculations and for the most part Gospel scholarship fads. He simplifies things by presenting the narrative and emphases of each Gospel. This only comes after years of teaching and synthesis.

Powell himself is a literary critic, and therefore the bulk of the material is on the distinctive themes of each gospel. Unlike most other introductions, I was happy to see descriptions of the Gospels come first, and then at the end of the chapter he goes over the when, why, and who of the Gospel. Each chapter on the four Gospels is divided into three sections:

  1. Characteristics
  2. Historical Context
  3. Major Themes

But Powell is also able to cover in the introduction the world of the Gospels, the genre, the stages of transmission, historical Jesus issues, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, the preservation of manuscripts, some translation theory material, and reception.

Maybe the best part of the book are some of the charts he provides. I imagine he created these for classroom lectures and they are valuable resources.

This is a great little introduction that I will be recommending to everyone. Below I have pasted some examples of the charts he uses.

Powell 1: Four Pictures of JesusPowell 2Powell 3


I have his expanded book published by Baker Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey but I have not been able to piece through it to compare the two.

Horizons-in-Hermeneutics-A-Festschrift-in-Honor-of-Anthony-C.-Thiselton-Paperback-P9780802869272In the most recent additions to RBL Donald Hagner reviewed the book Horizons in Hermeneutics: A Festschrift in Honor of Anthony C. Thiselton

He has the following summary paragraph of Stanley Porter’s chapter which is a critique of TIS. I have not read the chapter, but I wonder if it relates to the post just previous to this one by Roger Scruton.

Stanley E. Porter contributes the third essay in this section, under the title “What Exactly Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Is It Hermeneutically Robust Enough for the Task to Which It Has Been Appointed?” Porter makes his way through the subject by means of the comparison of four authors who have recently written on theological interpretation: Joel B. Green, Daniel J. Treier, Stephen E. Fowl, and J. Todd Billings. After a section in which he examines how these authors define theological interpretation, he provides a preliminary evaluation, then proceeds to the question of whether theological interpretation is a hermeneutic. This involves discussions of the relation to historical criticism, premodern interpretation and the rule of faith, the role of the interpretive community, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the relation between general and special hermeneutics. Porter’s answers to the questions in the title: there is no agreement about what theological interpretation is, other than “an undefined and varying set of tendencies or interests”; it is not hermeneutically robust enough to accomplish its task.