How Scripture Reveals God - An Excerpt From I (Still) Believe
Can serious academic study of the Bible become threatening to one’s faith? I (Still) Believe answers this question with a resounding "Far from it!" Faith enhances study of the Bible and, reciprocally, such study enriches a person’s faith. With this in mind, this book asks prominent Bible teachers and scholars to tell their story reflecting on their own experiences at the intersection of faith and serious academic study of the Bible.
In today's excerpt, R. W. L. (Walter) Moberly (Professor of Theology and Biblical Interpretation, Durham University) shares how his faith journey is intertwined with his work as a biblical scholar.
My professional life as a biblical scholar at Durham has been a continuing process of learning, trying to find categories and frames of reference that would help me genuinely unite head and heart, i.e. unite rigorous scholarly work with the priorities of faith in the study of the Bible.
One fairly early step in this learning relates to the basic issue of the relationship between biblical texts and reality. I came over time to realize an oddity in myself, an oddity that is perhaps also more widespread. My assumption when I first came to a living faith was that, if I were to trust the Bible and recognize its authority for faith and life, there should be, as it were, some direct and obvious correlation between text and reality. I had no difficulty in, say, taking parables as parables and poetry as poetry; in other words, a certain basic literary competence was not the issue. However, the parables of Jesus are universally identified as parables, and in modern Bibles, not only English translations but also editions of the Hebrew and the Greek, poetry is generally set out as poetry; so in neither case is there any problem over identification. The problem lay with material that has no clear indication of genre, whose genre must therefore be inferred. My initial assumption was that if a narrative were “history-like” then it should be considered to be “history.”
However, I had no difficulty in recognizing that, in contemporary culture, story, whether on the page or on the screen, and reality may and do relate in countless different ways, and the relationship is not usually a troublesome issue. We acquire a sense of genre by regular reading and viewing, and usually know what kind of material we are dealing with — though it is not always clear, and sometimes story-tellers play with our working assumptions (e.g. our default assumption that a narrator is reliable can be deliberately encouraged only to be overturned by a final display of the narrator’s unreliability; I remember first encountering this in Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the narrator turns out to be the murderer). But there is no in-principle difficulty with finding depth, and recognizing truth, in material whose “fictional” nature may be readily apparent. The oddity, or so it came to seem to me, is to combine a flexible understanding of the nature and purpose of genre in contemporary material with a rather inflexible understanding of the nature and purpose of genre in biblical material.
As I reflected on the fact that literature may validly portray reality through a wide variety of genres, I came to ask myself: If a literary genre — say, myth or legend — is widely attested in the pre-modern world and was meaningful to those who used it, why should it not be present in Scripture? Or, more theologically, why should not God be able to make use of such a meaningful genre as part of inspired Scripture? To be sure, it still matters to consider and argue, case by case, how best the genre of Old Testament narratives should be understood. However, a more nuanced understanding of the possible relationships between literary text and reality has released me from undue anxiety over issues of historicity, and has thereby redirected me towards spending more time trying to understand the subject matter of the biblical texts. For it is the biblical subject matter — those enduring realities about God and humanity, life and death, of which the biblical writers speak — which has been and is the reason why Scripture matters.
My learning process has also centered on my enduring interest in spirituality, the dynamics of living the life of faith…. This long-standing interest in criteria for spiritual authenticity led in due course to my book Prophecy and Discernment, which explores how Scripture handles the question of criteria for knowing when one should, and should not, credit those who claim to speak for God…
On the one hand, my use of Scripture seeks to be “critical,” in that it is informed by the disciplines of modern scholarship, but it also aims to embody, in Paul Ricoeur’s suggestive terminology, a “second naiveté,” which takes account of, but is located downstream from, modernity’s complex analytical challenges. Issues of Hebrew and Greek philology always matter; and I am happy to say that if it can be shown by recognized canons of exegesis that the text could not mean what I argue it to mean, then I will withdraw my interpretation. I work with the biblical text in its received form, and seek to read it with “full imaginative seriousness,” which has become probably my favoured way of posing a central interpretative challenge in lectures and addresses; though I sometimes say to my hearers, in more provocative mode, “Take the biblical scenario at least as seriously as you take your favourite soap operas!”
On the other hand, my real critical concern is the critical concern of the biblical writers themselves: how can one appropriately evaluate claims to speak for God, especially when these are contested, in such a way as to diminish the likelihood of being deceived and led astray? In particular, I try to counter the common tendency in much modern biblical scholarship either to dismiss this issue as a pseudo-issue that is unresolvable (other than by mud-slinging or as convenient wisdom after the event), or to transpose it into categories more congenial to the secular mind: psychological accounts of mental disturbance, sociological accounts of public pressures and expectations, socio-political accounts of conflict between differing religious groupings... Rather, I seek to articulate the intrinsically moral and theological dimensions of discernment in its biblical presentation. The basic point is that those who would speak for God should embody and display the qualities of God in themselves, and have a concern that others too should genuinely engage with the life-changing truth of God; although recognition of people with such qualities is not self-evident but requires existential openness. At root, I argue that the discernment of claims to speak for God is a particular form of one of the most fundamental and enduring issues of all human life: how can we know whom to trust? (Pgs 206-209)
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