Years ago I was a research assistant for Dr. Scott Jones at SMU. He was serving in the evangelism chair at Perkins, and he kept me plenty busy tracking down references and scouring books on the Wesleys. Our work together gave us some time to chat and get acquainted. One of the things the future United Methodist bishop would impress upon me as an aspiring scholar was the importance of scholarship in service to the Church. Yes, there are plenty of people who study Christian theology, history, Bible, ethics, and other such fields, but not all of them actually see their work as a service they may offer the Church. Whenever I have the opportunity to counsel young scholars these days, I encourage them to see their work in this light.
An excellent contribution of scholarship in service to the Church comes from Christopher Bryan, C. K. Benedict Professor of New Testament, emeritus, at Sewanee. In Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation, Bryan takes on the divide between the academic field of Biblical Studies and the uses of the Bible within the life of the church. He spends considerable time discussing the historical-critical project, beginning with Schleiermacher in the early 1800’s and moving into the present day. While he is critical of this project because of its overstatement of the autonomy of the biblical scholar and the false notion of objectivity it presupposes, he does recognize considerable value in the historical-critical method. He points out that a liability of the historical-critical method is that it at times involves an inflated hermeneutic of suspicion. We think we can reconstruct what was actually happening behind a text better than the first Israelite or Christian people who gave us the text to begin with (think Jesus Seminar). “We shall find nothing of value in any text, including Holy Scripture, unless we try to listen to it on its own terms; and this, to be fair to Schleiermacher, was what he asked for” (32). Historical-critical study, at its best, helps us to do this.
Moving from critique to constructive proposals, Brian argues,
[T]here emerge three tasks for the interpreter of Scripture:
to listen so far as possible to the individual voices of Scripture and try to understand them;
to consider the individual voices in relation to the whole of Scripture, asking how far an overall witness, a consensus, arises from Scripture, and if so what it is;
and finally to ask how all that relates to the continuing life and witness of the Church up to and including our own day (45).
The subsequent three chapters respectively cover these three tasks. We must indeed recover as much as possible the individual voices of Scripture. This remains a large part of the historical-critical project, undertaken properly, though other exegetical methods help us with this as well. We must consider how these individual voices relate to the whole of Scripture. This is the goal of that very rich field we call canonical criticism. Those who compiled the Bible did not simply put together a collection of unrelated writings. Rather, they brought together a group of writings that take God as their subject and guide us through the story of salvation. And we must ask how the discoveries of the first two tasks relate to the life and witness of the church. Scripture was written by people of faith for people of faith, for the purpose of reading within the community of faith. Therefore to detach Scripture from the believing community is to remove it from its intended setting and purpose.
Finally, Bryan discusses the importance of acknowledging the oral/aural nature of Scripture. The writings of the Bible were meant to be spoken and heard, rather than simply read silently, or read without feeling, as we often see in worship services. We should take seriously the fact that, when we read a text aloud, this in itself is another form of interpretation of the text, one that was quite important in the original contexts of the writings of Scripture. To illuminate this matter further, David Landon, Professor of Theatre Arts at Sewanee, provides an appendix called, “Speaking the Word: A Guide to Ligurgical Reading.” “There is,” says Landon, “an art to reading Scripture in the liturgy: the art of returning the word on the page to the world of spoken discourse, what Walter Ong—echoing Martin Buber—calls the ‘I-Thou’ world.”
I have long admired Bryan as a scholar, and all the more so after having read this book. This is, indeed, very fine scholarship in service to the Church. I commend it to your reading and careful consideration.