I’m doing some reading for a short piece on the doctrine of Scripture. One of the issues pressing many revolves around the unity of the Bible — is it Scripture or is it scriptures? — which provokes the question also about the nature of Scripture: What is it? Well, we’ve got a good book to help us along in such an inquiry: Justin S. Holcomb’s Christian Theologies of Scripture. Holcomb is the editor for a multi-authored volume of essays.
Underneath how each of us reads the Bible is a theory of Scripture. What is yours? This series might help each of us consider again howe we view Scripture. Many of us are used to the debate between Protestant liberalism and evangelicalism, not to mention a similar view (with appropriate differences) in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: that debate concerns terms like infallibility and inerrancy. I am suggesting in this series that how we read Scripture tells us what we believe about such terms. In fact, how we read Scripture is our theory of Scripture.
I begin today with the Patristic theory of Scripture, and Holcomb’s book looks at Origen (Russ Reno) and St. Augustine (Pamela Bright). How did they read Scripture?
The Bible is from God: “If anyone ponders over [the scriptures] with all the attention and reverence they deserve, it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them his mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and he will recognize that the words he is reading are not utterances of man by the language of God” (1st Principles 4.1.6).
The “hypothesis” (overall general direction) of Scripture: “the single hypothesis that all things are recapitulated or summed up in Christ” (Reno, 27).
Interpretation is designed to get us moving in the right direction, and the difficulties of Scripture are a challenge to meet our match: we go through the ascetic challenges of the “dry deserts of incomprehension” and they lead us to divine wisdom.
Even more than with Origen, for Augustine the lodestar is Christ: Scripture is about Christ. The central categories “are not so much systematized into a cogent theory as ordered in a consistent pattern of thought directed toward the contemplation of the Incarnate Word” (Bright, 41).
The goal of Scripture is to build up love … and Augustine is famous for this in his On Christian Doctrine. If the interpretive result does not produce love of God and love of neighbor, the interpreter has not understood Scripture.
This love, however, does not reach its goal if it does not lead to Christ.
Scripture is divine authority, founded in God’s own truthfulness, but this does not mean that words of Scripture are not fragile.
What strikes me about Origen and Augustine is that each follows the intuitions of Scripture to witness to Christ: the Word, they were convinced, was about the Word. Both, I suspect, could have dealt with the historical-critical or narrative approach to the Bible, but at some point they’d raise their hands in the classroom and ask if this stuff has any permanent, and truth-bearing, significance. Until that question was asked, they’d not think the method was anywhere near the mark.