For a long time I have pondered blogging about Scripture. Of late I have been thinking this question: “What constitutes the unity of Scripture?” Let me provide, in this post, a brief taxonomy of the options and in so doing offer a purple exploration of the unity of Scripture.
The first option for the unity of Scripture is theological and systematic. It goes like this: God is behind the Bible in that God inspired it; everything God inspires is true; the truth of God is written into every page of Scripture, and since God cannot contradict himself, the whole of Scripture can be put together with confidence in a logically consistent way. The result of this approach to the unity of Scripture is a systematic theology. (And I’m not picking on Calvinism here, though I’d like to — it is the case with every systematic theology I’ve read, and I’ve read plenty of them.)
Here’s the rub for this view: the systematic theology that results is (1) constructed by human theologians who are not infallible; (2) the systematic theology that results is not held by anyone in the Bible in particular but by God who is behind it all; (3) the systematic theology held to constitute the unity of Scripture therefore becomes a belief in a system that is constructed by humans but nearly equated with Scripture itself; (4) adherence too closely to a systematic theology renders God’s own choice of an ongoing story nearly mute, for it flattens the story into a set of doctrines too often; and most importantly, (5) the essence of God’s revelatory work is a Person, namely, Jesus Christ. God’s Truth is a Person who lives and breathes and dies and is raised again and sits at the right hand of the Father. These two elements of story and person can sometimes escape the systematic shuffle.
[In spite of all the wrangling we Protestants have done with respect to Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox about the place they give to tradition, the role given to systematic theology in some circles is not all that different from the role of tradition in the circles they most oppose. I know, I know it is not the same, but the role is similar.]
As second option is entirely experiential, or in the terms of an older day, entirely experimental. That is, the unity of Scripture can be found in the spirituality or the life or the experience or the reverence — lots of terms have been used — it evokes in the reader. This reader is transformed by contact with the Scripture.
The rub here is entirely different: it is not an easy thing to run around telling people the Scripture is inspired when one means by that that it is inspiring. Most won’t buy the ticket to such a performance, even if some who advocate such a view are not without powerful charismatic influence on the Church. Even if the postmoderns among us like to emphasize experience and the like, and even they tend to argue that “truth ain’t what it used to be,” most don’t want to surrender Scripture entirely to the hands of experience. I find this option to be as interesting as a cheap golf course with unmowed greens and grubby sand traps.
A third option, for want of a better term, may be called “content criticism,” in its more original form, Sachkritik. Unity is perhaps a bad term for this crowd, for the unity of Scripture is switched rather cleverly from the whole the Bible to only parts of the Bible, those parts that are judged (in a variety of ways by differing theologians) to be the center or core of it all. I’m thinking here of the more critical scholarship. What they find is perhaps what JÃ¼licher found in the parables of Jesus: they all speak of the love of the Father.
For many this won’t do because it rubs against the grain of what is meant by “unity” after all.
A fourth option, which stands in contrast to the systematic approach, is what I am calling the unity of soundings. That is, the unity of Scripture can be found by sounding Scripture: that is, by reading it and listening attentively to its message in its specific canonical context. The sounding approach to the unity of Scripture recognizes different times, different places, different authors, different articulations. Without sacrificing the truth of the varied and variable biblical articulations, it privileges none. Well, yes, it does: it has to for there is no other way but to be limited in our knowledge claims.
All sounding approaches to the Scripture’s unity argue that we have to begin somewhere. And it will say that the systematic approach begins somewhere — and it knows rather instinctively that the systematic approaches tend to being with either Paul or Jesus (never Hebrews, never James, never Peter). The difference between the sounding approach and the systematic approach is that the sounding approach systematically criticizes itself for it knows what it is doing, and recognizes the limitations of its own task. The systematic approach, unfortunately, fails far too often to recognize the diversity of the canonical articulations and therefore privileges the place it begins.
What a soundings approach may have in its favor is that it accepts the limitation of every language game played, or every articulation we find, in Scripture: it knows that Jesus’ message of the Kingdom is not the only category, that Paul’s soteriology is not the only category, that Hebrews’ priestly vision is not the only category, et al. A systematic approach tends to flatten the variety and homogenize the variety, and I see no biblical warrant for such flattening or homogenizing.
The sounding approach knows that each witness is one divine articulation of the grand redemption of God; it knows that the attempt to draw these diverse threads together strains each (how do we, after all, unite Jesus’ message of the Kingdom and Paul’s choice of terms like church or justification? it is not that easy); and it lives with the inevitable limitation of our knowledge and our articulations of the message of the Bible.
Purple theology does not deny truth (that is a lark too many are chasing); but it knows that the human theologian can only touch the ineffable with words that never carry the whole. That, my friends, is a thorough acceptance that humans are fallen and limited, even in their theology. I wish to God that more theologians would admit it. Purple theologians do and will.