Saturday, June 23, 2012

Bobby's Developing Bible Study: "Jesus is the Key"

I have been seeking a hermeneutic, or a way beyond the impasse created by my move to what Gibson and Muller have called a principial & intensive method of biblical interpretation  (in reference to Barth on their part, no less). I have become disenchanted, over the past few years, with the hermeneutical framework (but not all of the ways) that I was trained in through both Bible College and Seminary; that is, the Literal, Grammatical, Historical method. Certainly, though, I cannot, nor do I want to fully abandon the Grammatical, Historical, and Canonical realities that make up the shaping of what we call the Bible. So in other words, I have been in some personal conflict when it comes to my theory of hermeneutic; wanting to affirm a methodologically and principled way of reading scripture, in Christ. And on the other hand, not also wanting to reject the historical and canonical aspects of scripture that repose in it its Christic shape; so I want to continue to use the grammar, the syntax, the lexical, and the canonical markers of scripture that serve instrumentally to point beyond themselves to the deep reality they signify, in Christ.

The 'Young', Martin Luther
In this seeking of mine, I have been reading Jens Zimmerman’s Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation. And unlike T. F. Torrance’s book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics (which I thoroughly benefited from, of course, especially in serving the purpose in providing a general theory of hermeneutics that, indeed seeks to present a truly principled christocentric hermeneutic); Zimmerman’s book, and brief development of Luther (thus far in my reading of his chapter on Luther’s hermeneutic) has help to affirm the way that I want to proceed by being principially Christic in my biblical exegesis, and at the same time understanding that within this theoretical hermeneutical framework; that there is a viable way to employ all of the philological tools that one ought to employ when engaging the text of scripture, which is special literature.

The following two quotes from Zimmerman on Luther’s approach to biblical interpretation are the ones thus far that I have benefited from the most in my pursuit to provide some denouement to my, as of late, hermeneutical angst.

[I]t follows that the subject matter of the Bible, the good news of God’s love for humanity shown in the incarnation, cannot be understood through historical research alone. Nor in contrast to the historical school of the nineteenth century is historical distance a problem. The historical distance is nullified (not bridged) by the Word, which first created history and then was spoken into history. Luther concludes that it is the role of the Holy Spirit to make the incarnate Word present to the reader. Thus for Luther; a hermeneutics adequate to interpret the subject matter of the Bible is based on the unity of “Christ, Word, and Spirit” (EE, 365). Luther’s theory differed from a theory of verbal inspiration, for he insisted on a word behind the word that requires from the reader constant revisions in interpreting the written letter. . . . [59]
 In light of this, it is no surprise that someone like my friend, Matt, a Lutheran, is also a Barthian; for the above sketch of Luther’s hermeneutic sounds very much so like Barth’s (and T.F. Torrance’s, no less) approach to understanding the written word as it continually, and ever anew proximate the Living Word in whom the written and proclaimed word find their reality and orientation. As Karl Barth (I believe in his CD I/1) describes this, there is both the ‘outer-logic’ and ‘inner-logic’ of Scripture (playing off the Reformer’s perspicuity ‘outer/inner’ clarity dialectic); such that the written letter (outer logic) remains stable, our understanding of that is provisional and ever changing as we understand more and more the One, the Word, to whom this written word points (this is the ‘inner-logic’ according to Barth … and the reason that ‘theological exegesis’ should be understood as the norm for biblical interpretation).

The, Karl Barth
Here is the second quote that again helps assuage and also confirm me in my own movement forward as a theological/Christological exegete of Holy Scripture; Zimmerman summarizes:

To sum up, for Luther, “the Word of God in the cosmic sense was the eternal Christ, and as the Word of God in the New Testament was essentially the historical Christ. Given his doctrine of the Word, it was logical for Luther to see Christ and the cross as the central theme of God’s redemptive word”…. Luther’s systematic Christological hermeneutic principle does not mean, however, that he simply read his opinion into the text; the assiduous use of all philological aids available at his time in his sermon and lecture preparation demonstrates Luther’s desire to develop theology from the text. That is not to say, of course, that sometimes his vivid imagination saw Christ in the text where modern scholarship does not. However, respected strands of contemporary scholarship have come to agree in principle with Luther’s reading of Paul and the plausibility of the Pauline assertion that Jesus the Christ is the fulfillment of Torah and the messianic promises in Isaiah pertain to his redemption and vindication of humanity … [Jens Zimmerman, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, 59-60]

 As Zimmerman developed in an earlier iteration of his chapter on Luther; for Luther there is no understanding the historical word of scripture without the Word of Faith breathing life into the history as it is conjoined in Christ as he is the point and purpose of creation and creation’s history unfolded toward and in Christ. If this is the case, the words of scripture cannot have meaning or signification if they are abstracted from their reason for being as they are taken up in Christ. And yet, more constructively, this is exactly how higher-critical and historist approaches to biblical interpretation (some of which I have been discussing in previous posts, whether on the ‘Liberal’ side or the ‘Fundamentalist/Evangelical’ side) have colluded in their adumbration of the text of scripture (adumbrated because these ‘critics’ have place scripture into a pretext of their own construction, one that doesn’t have eyes to see and ears to hear, because if it did, these critics would understand that they can’t understand the text without understanding that it’s all about Jesus).

And so, since this post is now just over the reported attention span of blog readers (which is a 1,000 words, max.); I will close this post. Maybe you can appreciate a little better, then, where I am at in my own development; and maybe you can see why I have jettisoned my beloved LGH and even Dispensational hermeneutical theory.

PS. I am, at the end of the day, really quite pragmatic when it comes to all of this stuff; meaning that I have one principle that guides the way I proceed: "Jesus is the Key". So, if it is Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, John Calvin, my child-hood Sunday school teacher, or whoever else; if anyone or anyway serves my principle that 'Jesus is the key,' then I am willing to at least listen and test whether what one particular or another teacher communicates actually contributes to this principle or, instead, whether they quench this principle. Luther, and Zimmerman's constructive reading of Luther is helpful towards my principle. That said, the only way we can really know if someone is helpful towards affirming my principle is to truly understand what said teachers really taught and thought; for this is the only way we can potentially benefit from their stated christocentrism. 


  1. The joy of Luther, for me, is the sheer insistent freedom of his intentional investigation of the text for how it means, and therefore what it means. He is not bound by his faith to an interpretation of the text; he is bound by his faith to interpret the text. And so he goes about developing hermeneutical principles that are closer to what he finds there than what the church is using and insisting on. And he chooses to live with what he finds that the text says, rather than to twist the "wax nose" of the scriptures to make it say something more agreeable. But he insists that it say something relevant to faith—the faith in the pews rather than the faith of the church.

    There's so much of Barth that is like Luther—except that he remains very clearly a Calvinist in his exegetical priorities, which you can see especially with the OT. But his dogmatic method is very much like Luther's exegetical method. Honestly, as a Lutheran, it's too easy for me to see the Luther in Barth and then run smack into the moments when he owes his basic priorities to Calvin and the Reformed tradition. Torrance is easier; for all my sympathy with his methods in religion and science, the man is an all-out flaming Calvinist, and no mistake.

    And yet: Christ is the key. The Christ found in scripture, the scripture read in terms of that same Christ, the scripture read so as to point the believer however indirectly always to Christ. But the scripture read so that it always says what it says, in the moment when we come to it again and fresh. Because we don't have to protect the meaning of scripture as though it might get lost, or as though the Bible were a fragile thing that had to be carefully used lest someone break it. No method of reading the text will erase its witness to God.

    1. Matt,

      Barth, seems very amenable to both the Luther and Calvin ways. I have read as much Luther, directly, as Calvin; which is quite a bit (and/or about Luther, of course). One of my former profs, really really like Luther a lot (and I was this profs TA etc). Randall Zachman has an awesome book on Luther and Calvin, as I recall entitled 'Assurance'. In it, Luther and Barth, once again seem very close in many ways.

      Yes, I agree, Torrance is a flaming Evangelical ;-) Calvinist; not even a doubt about that! As of late, I have been tempted more and more to be a bit more Barthian than I have been; we'll see what happens :-).

      I still want to read Kathryn Tanner's book Christ the Key. What did you think of it (assuming you've read it)?

      Your last paragraph above is spot on, Matt! Nice!

    2. Yes, I should have made the clarification. :) Perhaps it helps that he's Scots and not English, much as it helps that Barth is Swiss and not German.

      I should have read Tanner by now, but she's still down the list. What I've seen of people using Christ the Key is encouraging, but I haven't got firsthand experience to tell.

    3. Yeah, Scots is better than English when it comes to Calvinism for sure; IMHO. ;). And Swiss is better than German when it comes to Theology, in general, no doubt.

      I've only seen people referring to Tanner's book as well; and it has made me want to read it. The title alone makes me want to read it :).

  2. And, because I didn't say it, awesome. :) Reading about Luther is second only to reading the man himself. And discovering what Luther said and did about scriptural interpretation is one of the constant reforming forces in the life of the church. Go, Bobby, go!

  3. The devil is in the details, or maybe in the heart of the detailer. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America may be inclined to embrace Barth, depending if his hermeneutic allows for the blessing of homosexual unions, and how his hermeneutic would fall out on the slaughter of the innocents. On the other extreme, Luther himself toward the end of his life seemed to forsake His Christo-centric evangel for one which was centered on a pogrom of Jews living in Bavaria.
    REGARDLESS of our hermeneutic, it would seem we are always tempted between extremes of legalism and libertine.

    1. Duane,

      I am not fully embracing Barth, just appropriating some of his drift in a certain way.


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