You’re Included – Theology and the Bible

The following program is a presentation of
Grace Communion International and Grace Communion Seminary and is made possible by generous
donations from viewers like you. On this episode of You’re Included, Rev. Dr. Elmer Colyer, discusses the Bible and how the church has wrestled with the impact of theology on our interpretations. Our host is Dr. Michael Morrison. Elmer, thanks for being with us again.
It’s delightful to be with you. I wanted to talk with you today a little bit
about the relationship between the Bible and theology. I teach Bible at a seminary, you
teach theology. One question that some students have: Is theology based on the Bible, or is
our understanding of the Bible based on theology? Which needs to come first in our understanding?
That’s a great question, and might I say I’m glad they have this on tape. A biblical
scholar and a theologian sitting down at the same table and having a conversation about
it! This is unusual in and of itself. You have to have both. You have to have a
theology to rightly interpret the Bible, but it can’t be any theology. It has to be a
theology that arises out of Scripture. So we’re faced with the age-old dilemma of
“the hermeneutical circle.” How you enter the hermeneutical circle if Scripture generates
the appropriate theology, but you can’t rightly understand Scripture unless you have
the appropriate theology. It’s important to realize that we all begin
in communities, and we’re not the first Christians that started reading the Bible.
Everybody already reads Scripture out of a community, and for you and for me, we’re
doing it as Christians who believe in the Triune God. That provides us an initial frame
of reference, a theological frame of reference that allows us to read Scripture in a certain
way. We ought to hold that theology, in a sense, loosely, in that we always allow our
theology to be checked by Scripture, but it will also illuminate Scripture and enable
us to interpret it in a way that we couldn’t if we didn’t have it. So we have to sort
of hold our theology critically, and allow Scripture to challenge it, while at the same
time we use that theology in order to interpret it. It’s a messy process. The church has
had all kinds of heresy trials and everything else as it has debated the relationship between
theology and Scripture. So there’s this little back-and-forth relationship
of each speaking to the other. Historically, how has that relationship developed? It changed
quite a bit during the Enlightenment, for example. Has that been good? Has that helped
us understand? In some respects it has been. There have been
some good things and some bad things. You’re right. The Enlightenment forever changed how
we approach the Bible. One of the first pieces written in the Enlightenment
was Benedict Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, and he was one of the first persons
to interpret the Bible as a historical text purposefully to undermine its authority, because
Spinoza lived through the 30 Years War, when Protestant Catholics were bloodying Europe
with the religious battles, and both doing what? Appealing to the Bible and its theological
perspective to legitimate their warring against one another.
Spinoza, being an enlightened Jew, realized there’s something funky about Christians
appealing to a crucified messiah who called them to love one another and love the world
and then bloodying Europe. He was concerned that, with both sides appealing to the authority
of Scripture, that one of the ways that he could undermine it would be to simply interpret
the Bible as a historical text. That started a trajectory that developed in the Enlightenment,
and early Enlightenment exegesis of Scripture, the historical-critical approach to Scripture,
like the early history of historical theology. Both started out negative toward the church’s
theological way of reading Scripture. So, the first critical histories of dogma were
designed to undermine it. Their goal was to take interpretation away
from the church. Yes, to set it free from the prejudice, so
that Scripture could be interpreted without any kind of theological prejudices. This is
precisely what the problem is, though. Can anybody ever interpret the Bible without some
kind of theoretical framework? The answer is no, because the Bible is already there,
and you have to have certain presuppositions about what it is.
Part of the fundamental divide in the church and outside the church when it comes to interpreting
the Bible is that we don’t all agree on what Scripture is, and therefore we have a
multitude of different ways of approaching it. In the Enlightenment, the historical-critical
approach was first designed to treat Scripture not as a privileged sacred text, but like
any other historical text, subject to the same rigors of historical criticism that we
would subject Plato or Aristotle or anything else in history to.
So instead of looking at the Bible as a word from God, they were viewing it as words from
men about God. Yes. It was simply the religious theological
perspective of Jews in the Old Testament and of Christians in the New Testament. There
was an ongoing hope that if you could get back behind the dogma of the early church,
this is where the critical dogmas, critiquing Nicea and Chalcedon as a writing out of Christianity’s
influence coming into contact with Greco-Roman philosophy, and that led to this high theology
of the Trinity and the Incarnation. It was hoped that if you could get back, if you got
back to the New Testament, apart from this dogmatic tradition of the church, that Jesus
still might have something hopeful to say to modern humanity.
The problem was that scholars began to critically go back first through the early centuries
of the church and cut away the theology, they began to look at the New Testament, and guess
what? They found that even the Gospels are already theological texts. Being a New Testament
scholar, you’ll remember that great long-standing “quest for the historical Jesus” throughout
the 19th century, where scholar after scholar went back, particularly to the Synoptic Gospels,
tried to cut away the theology of the redactors and others that manipulated the text, to get
back behind the texts as they stand to the data, the raw historical Jesus apart from
any kind of theological presupposition. When they would finally get back to the historical
Jesus, cut away from the theology, they’d reconstruct the historical Jesus, every one
different than the previous one, until Albert Schweitzer came along and went back and reviewed
that whole history in his Quest for the Historical Jesus, and demonstrated the uncanny absolute
miracle that every one of those scholars which he likened to looking down deep in a well,
cutting away the theology of the church until it finally saw the picture of Jesus. And in
every case it turned out to be a self-portrait of the scholar who did the study. Schweitzer’s
book put an end to the quest of the historical Jesus for a while. Now, if you remember what
Schweitzer’s conclusion — what was Jesus? Jesus was mistaken; Schweitzer’s view was
not like himself. Yeah, that he is a first-century apocalyptic
Jew and he has nothing to say to modern humanity. Now you know the rest of the story? He was
one of the most outstanding biblical scholars and theologians in the world at this time,
but if Jesus is simply a first-century apocalyptic Jew who has nothing to say to modern humanity,
this sort of puts us out of business in a hurry, doesn’t it? You know what Schweitzer
did? He gave up his position as a New Testament scholar and theologian, went back to medical
school to do something worthwhile in his life. To be a missionary.
To be a missionary where he would go and meet people’s real needs in Africa, serving as
a medical missionary. So that whole quest for the historical Jesus had all kinds of
ramifications. It led Schweitzer completely out of New Testament study and theology and
into a different vocation. If Jesus is simply a first-century apocalyptic Jew and has nothing
to say to us, we might as well close our book and do something else.
Do something good for humanity. Exactly.
You said earlier that this historical method did have some good effects, in taking theology
away from the private domain of the church, perhaps?
Yes. One of the good effects is that it helped the church begin to face the fact that it
did have, sometimes, a tyrannical theology that it was imposing upon the text. You cannot
understand the ecumenical movement and the desire of Christians to re-unify one another,
apart from the Enlightenment critique of the warring character of Protestants and Catholics.
The ecumenical movement didn’t arise because Christians decided one day, “Jesus said
we should love one another and we should clean up our act and stop having wars against one
another — not only that, stop treating one another badly.”
The reason that the ecumenical movement began was because our disunity was such a scandal
to the world, to modern Western culture — that there’s something fundamentally wrong with
this kind of Christianity that leads to this kind of in-fighting in the name of a Messiah
who proclaimed the love of God in Christ. So it enabled the church to begin to be self-critical
about its own practices and its own interpretation, in a way, that it had internal feuds, you
could say, within Christian faith. It was the external feud of the Enlightenment and
the critique from the world on the church that really forced the church to face its
disunity and generated the ecumenical movement. The other side of the thing is, the Enlightenment
was always a movement toward universality. Science was hoped to be the unifying rationality
that could unify all various cultures. There’s a kind of a movement toward universality in
the Enlightenment and the rise of modernity. That led to that in Christian faith, and began
to focus on the things we hold in common. In post-modernity, where the Enlightenment
itself is now being critiqued, and its so-called universal rationality has proved to be historically
located and therefore culturally conditioned as any other, we no longer hope for a universal
rationality, and so now we tend to focus on what we call local realities or local communities.
Ecumenicity doesn’t fare well in that kind of environment. So in our post-modern world,
the ecumenical movement has begun to wane. Christians, in attempting to identify what
makes them distinctive, as over against the world and over against other Christians, are
beginning to focus on their individual traditions again, which in some respects is tragic, that
we’re forgetting the ecumenical movement. That’s something that Christians ought to
work for — more unity. You mentioned post-modernity. Maybe you could
explain briefly what that is, and has that had a good effect on the church and our understanding
of the Bible? The church always has to take into consideration
the context in which it finds itself, so we have to do that. One of the things that post-modernity
has done that’s been good for the church is helped the church realize that it doesn’t,
it can’t, and it doesn’t have to measure up to somebody else’s standard of rationality.
There’s a sense in which…and here I find it somewhat ironic that those on the theological
left and those on the theological right, despite all the things they think are wrong about
one another, share some characteristics in the modern period that I think are illuminating,
and one of them is that both of them want to somehow speak to the universal rationality
of the world and demonstrate that Christian faith is credible in light of that universal
rationality. Conservatives and liberals have both been very concerned about apologetics
and how we answer objections. In post-modernity, when there’s no longer
a universal human rationality to appeal to, it makes apologetics a little bit difficult.
Because no longer are we appealing to a single rationality and so apologetics, you could
say, is suffering a little bit. It’s less avant-garde than it used to be, and now Christians
are again attempting to go back and learn its own rationality, its own discourse. The
radical orthodoxy movement is an example of this in theology. The emerging church movement
is an example of this, of a post-modern movement that is attempting to restate Christian faith,
to live it well, and thinking that it will attract “cultured despisers of religion”
without having to go and prove it to them on their grounds.
Not arguing, they’re showing an example. Yes. Throughout the modern period, the Holy
Grail in philosophy and theology and science has been what we call foundationalism. It’s
the attempt to render indubitable knowledge entirely explicit. We want a method in science
and philosophy and theology that will allow us to arrive at absolutely true truth. So
we’re going to render the conditions of arriving at indubitable knowledge entirely
explicit. The problem is that most philosophers, most
natural sciences, and many theologians now think that foundationalism is impossible.
The reason is that you always have to account for one fundamental problem in the equation
— a human knower who is finite and historical. How can a finite, historical human being ever
render the conditions of an indubitable knowledge entirely explicit? What seems to take place
is when we try to render the conditions of indubitable knowledge entirely explicit, we
end in skepticism — that we finally cannot know truth with a capital T.
Right. Some philosophers reach that point, yes.
So the radical orthodoxy movement manifests some of that. The emerging church movement
manifests some of that, and has impacted Christian faith in some helpful ways, in that it’s
gotten us to the point where we’re not as embarrassed about talking about our ultimate
beliefs, and feeling like we always have to defend the doctrine of the Trinity or the
incarnation or the atonement against cultured despisers of religion who want to critique
it for one reason or another. Each person has somewhat a different background…they’re
bringing their different context when they read Scripture, so they’re going to understand
it in a little different way. How are we to adjudicate between these different readings?
Let’s say straight up that it isn’t simply that Christians with the Bible and theology
have this problem; all human beings have this problem in whatever area of discourse they’re
in. Scientists have this problem. Not all scientists agree. It’s a messy process by
which scientific theories come to be accepted by the scientific community. When Albert Einstein
posited his theory of general and special relativity, the scientific community thought
he was crazy. There were only probably five or six people in the entire world that could
even understand him. Many, many people contended that he was wrong. It was a long messy process
over a number of years before Einstein’s theories finally became accepted within the
community of science, because they operated with a different set of presuppositions, different
standards, different background, different community.
There’s nobody that comes to the Bible any different. If there’s anybody, no matter
how critical the scholar is, who claims that he or she has a privileged “neutral” position,
don’t believe them, because everybody comes with presuppositions. We always start, then,
already within the knowing relation, and we have to adjust our knowledge gradually, whether
in any field or discipline, as we go along. You used the word messy. This process of reading
the Bible and trying to figure out what’s right is messy. But we don’t have time for
that. We have to live right now. That’s another interesting thing. The wonderful
thing — this is the wonderful thing about being a human being — that we cannot exempt
ourselves from making fundamental decisions about our ultimate beliefs upon which we stake
our lives, even though we don’t have that absolute certainty that was the quest in the
modern period of foundationalism. We apply different standards to ourselves.
When we talk about faith and religion, it’s like we want to have a higher level of certainty
than we do in normal life. But anybody that’s been married knows that even when you go through
the process of courting and finally coming to the point where you agree to get married,
do you have an absolute certainty that your marriage is going to turn out the way you
hope it is going to be? You don’t! And yet you stake your whole life on it. That’s
part of the condition of being a human being. People like Thomas F. Torrance and Alister
McGrath have begun to try to sort out all these questions of how we know God, of what
we call epistemology, theory of knowledge, how we approach Scripture after the collapse
of foundationalism, without falling into postmodern relativism. That’s a helpful conversation.
T.F. Torrance and Alister McGrath are two scholars inside a Christian faith that have
gone a long way to help us, as Christians, get beyond being ashamed that we have fundamental
ultimate beliefs about God, about Christ and the gospel on which we’re willing to stake
our life, even if we can’t prove them with the kind of proof that we wanted throughout
the modern period. Because everybody else has beliefs of one
sort or another. Yes.
We’ve been socialized to have certain things. Can we escape that? Are we socialized to be
Bible-believers? There are some scholars that think we should
simply get over the idea that we can ever arrive at any kind of even approximate objectivity,
and we should simply read the Bible in light of our own wish-fulfilling fantasies. If you’re
a hyper-postmodern, why simply do that with one sacred text? Why not the more the merrier?
Read the Bible one day, the Koran another day, and there’s something about that, that
doesn’t work very well. One of the interesting things I’ve noticed
that even though scholars who claim to be the most absolute relativist, who say that
we never can get beyond our social/cultural horizon and therefore the best we can do is
deconstruct any of those that presume to make any kind of objective claims. I have watched
them after they come out of their lectures, like in the AAR/SPL meetings, and I’ve noticed
that when they go up to the street before they cross, they look carefully left and right.
They do it several times, because no matter how subjective they view reality, they view
drivers in cities like Los Angeles as having objective reality, and not only are they realists,
they’re critical realists. They realize they might be mistaken, and so they look twice,
because they know if they’re mistaken and step out, they’ll probably be dead.
And when they give their lecture, they hope that people understand what they’ve intended.
That’s an astute observation. If they really believe that, they should stop lecturing.
So it seems that we’re caught in this dilemma, that we can’t have this absolute certainty
that has been the paradigm in modernity, and yet human life, by its very core character,
forces us to stake our lives on our ultimate beliefs. Even in something as mundane and
coming up and looking at a street, we’re forced to be critical realists and say, what
are the best options that are available? As Christians, when it comes to Scripture,
we’re not the first ones that read the Bible. We stand in a long tradition of the church.
I don’t know how you came to faith, but I came to faith because people in the church…
I didn’t know hardly anything about the Bible. They led me to Christ and into a relationship
with God, and they told me that Scripture was a text by which we learn and grow as Christians,
and I started reading the Bible with probably a very inadequate understanding of the theological
framework, but nonetheless I did it within a community that already had some ultimate
beliefs. I don’t think we should be apologetic about that — that we stand in the great
tradition of the church, and that we read the Bible from a theological perspective.
We don’t think the Bible is a collection of sacred texts that simply reflect human
perspective. We believe that the hand of God was involved in the shaping of that Scripture.
Those are ultimate beliefs, and we stake our lives on it, you’ve staked your life on
it, I’m willing to continue to do that, and up to this point it’s enabled me to
live fairly well. I have no reason to turn my back on that. But you’re right in calling
attention to the fact that we have different theological perspectives that influence how
we read the Bible. That’s the reason why, in the history of
the church, whenever there’s been a theological debate about a major point, it’s virtually
never been solved by an appeal to the Bible, because each community appeals to certain
texts over other texts and therefore they simply retrench into defensive positions,
and they’re not able to get beyond those because of their theological framework that
they bring to the table. So the church overall is a community that
has grown up with Scripture and theology side by side influencing one another and then we
can be socialized in that community, read the Scripture, find congruence in terms of
what it tells us about ourselves and about life. That gives us an internal experiential
validation of its accuracy, at least its usefulness for us. And it describes to us a God, not
necessarily the one that we were looking for, but one that’s better.
That’s a good way to say it. In the post-modern period we spend a lot of our time apologizing
about the fact that we have a theological perspective, and that we have all these different
perspectives. The other side of the coin is also true. We need a perspective to be able
to rightly see reality. You can’t avoid this. Let me give you some examples of the
way in which the human mind always has categories that it uses in seeing anything. You’re
familiar with Magic Eyes? They are wonderful pictures that have a maddening plurality of
little detail and you look at it and you just think it’s a bunch of detail.
Other people say there’s something in there. Yeah, they say there’s a 3-D image in there.
If you hold the Magic Eye picture close to your face and you gradually move it away without
focusing on anything, all of a sudden you’ll see a 3-D picture that the creators of the
Magic Eye have hidden in the picture in the relations between the detail. What the Magic
Eye shows us is that we don’t simply see things with our eyes, we see them with our
mind. Because two people can look at it just with their eyes and one person sees the Magic
Eye and the other person doesn’t. The brain has to interpret.
It isn’t till the brain integrates, due to the subliminal clues, integrates the pattern
in the images, that we see the 3-D image. There already is form and being. There is
a pattern in the Magic Eye, but there has to be an integration of form in our knowing
— and one that’s not innate. The mind has to create it in order for us to see it.
You could say that the Bible, if you think of the Bible as a massive Magic Eye, is a
huge mass of detail written over thousands of years, inspired by God, for us to be able
to behold the reality, the verities of the gospel, the Triune God. But I don’t think
you can perceive the theological verities unless you indwell all of Scripture and assimilate
the form that’s already in Scripture and have an integration of form and knowing. The
same way that you can’t see the Magic Eye without some way integrating the form that’s
there in your mind, you can’t see the Magic Eye, I don’t think you can rightly understand
Scripture until you have the right theological perspective. I think that’s why God developed
the Scripture to begin with. Think for a moment, if we had nothing of the
Bible. You don’t know anything about Israel, nothing about the Passover, the Lamb of God
that takes away the sin of the world, and we know none of the Old Testament whatsoever,
we don’t have the New Testament, Jesus all of a sudden beams down into the middle of
New York City, stands out on the street corner, and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes
away the sin of the world.” What do you think we would do with him? We would lock
him up. We would think he’s crazy. We would not have a clue of what he’s talking about.
Our general human experience wouldn’t help us very well. If we looked at what lambs are,
fleecy white creatures that hop along the shore of a stream and eat grass and drink
water, we wouldn’t know what the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world is.
Nothing to do with sin. We wouldn’t know anything at all. The question
becomes, if we human beings do not have… We only know things through the categories
of the mind. If to rightly know God in Christ we have to have theological categories, and
we don’t possess them, how is God ever going to reveal God’s self to us? God has to start
somewhere and take the categories that we already have and gradually mold and shape
them, which is a long painful process in our lives. Just for you and me to begin to study
Scripture, we spend years learning the theology of the church, learning all about biblical
studies to be able to interpret the text. Think about if we had none of that background
and God was starting with us as blank tablets. All we have is a bunch of sinful people with
their individual culture that know nothing accurately about God. What would God do? Wouldn’t
you expect that God would elect one people from all the people and begin to subject them
to a molding and shaping process through history to prepare for God’s final revelation in
Christ so that Christ will be intelligible? Tell me a single image in the New Testament
that interprets the significance of Christ that isn’t partly rooted for its meaning
in the Old Testament, like the Lamb of God. When John says of Jesus, “He’s the Lamb
of God that takes away the sin of the world,” what holds that in place, that enables us
to understand something that he’s pointing towards the cross as an atonement for sin.
It goes back to the entire dealing of God with the Old Testament — the election of
Israel, the circumcision, to the spreading of blood over the doorposts of the house when
the angel of death passes over and the Israelites are rescued from Egypt. It has to do with
the temple worship and the sacrificing of lambs there every year for the sins of Israel.
That provides a religious-moral theological framework that God built into the Israelites,
gradually, over thousands of years. That is the presupposition of the New Testament and
the coming of Christ. Without the Old Testament, we wouldn’t have understood who Jesus is.
As Christians, we can’t rightly understand the Old Testament apart from the New Testament.
That’s why you all in Grace Communion International stopped practicing many of the feasts in the
Old Testament that you used to practice, because you believe now that you’re under the new
covenant and those things no longer hold. The Lamb of God has come! At my United Methodist
Church and Grace Communion International, we don’t sacrifice lambs anymore. If conservative
Jews could get the temple rebuilt on the place where it was meant to be in Jerusalem, what
would they do? They’d restart sacrificing again, because conservative Jews don’t think
that that dispensation has passed away. But we as Christians think that all points forward
to Christ, and that we can’t accurately understand the Old Testament apart from Christ,
in the same way we can’t understand the New Testament apart from the Old Testament.
I’ve already given you a huge set of ultimate beliefs that Christian faith through history
has said is extraordinarily important if you’re ever going to begin to read the Bible. In
biblical studies today, when people do not want to allow any kind of theological unity
between the Old Testament and the New Testament (they don’t even call it the Old Testament
anymore, they call it the Hebrew Bible), they go back and they interpret it very differently
than even Jesus in the New Testament interprets it. Jesus wasn’t a very good historical-critical
biblical scholar in the way he interpreted the Old Testament, was he?
Well, we are out of time. It’s been a real pleasure to talk with you. You’ve been watching You’re Included,
a production of Grace Communion International.

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