Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Oliver O'Donovan on the Indeterminacy of Understanding Scripture

"The distance between the text and ourselves can never be, and should never be supposed to be, swallowed up by our understanding of it. Whatever it may be that I have concluded from reading the Scriptures, that conclusion must be open to fresh interrogation, since the Scriptures themselves will be its judge. If, after reading the Bible faithfully, I am confident enough to make some ringing declaration, this does not mean that my declaration is as good as contained within the Bible. In a faithful dogmatic formulation there is, of course, a proper authority. There are times and places where that authority allows for, or requires, a ringing declaration. Yet the question of whether the dogmatic formulation has in fact faithfully expressed the Scriptures' emphasis is always worth discussing, even if the outcome of the discussion is affirmative every time. The question 'What does the Bible mean, and how does it affect us?' can never be out of order in the church, as though the giving of well-founded answers in the past could make the whole question of merely antiquarian interest. We must not, then, in the supposed interest of a 'biblical' ethic, try to close down moral issues prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and guarding against wrong answers by forbidding further examination. The church's leading institutions may, of course, properly resolve that it is inappropriate for them to invest further time and effort in study of a matter that may be considered closed for all practical purposes. But what the leading institutions may quite properly resolve not to undertake, the Spirit in the church may prompt other believers to undertake, for the word authority means, quite simply, that we have to go on looking back to this source if we are to keep on the right track.

"Why should we find this difficult to accept? The truth is that we resist admitting indeterminacy in our understanding of the text. Once such an admission is made, we fear, 'anything goes.' A host of false prophets will take advantage of our respectful distance; they will rush forward to wrest Scripture out of its plain sense, force it into authorizing what cannot be authorized. And of course in the short run, at least, this fear is likely to prove all too well grounded. False prophets are, and always will be, legion. We must simply expect to hear abominations and absurdities put forward in the confident claim that such are compatible with or authorized by Scripture. To this intense annoyance we, like generation of faithful believers before us, are called. The question is this: What sacrifice of our faith would we make if, to avoid the annoyance for ourselves and the disturbance for the church, we closed down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, declared that there was nothing to discuss? To our fears we have to put the question in return of whether the Spirit of the living God is a match for the perversity of humankind, whether Jesus' promise about the gates of hell being unable to prevail is seriously enough meant to be trusted."

--Oliver O'Donovan, "The Moral Authority of Scripture," in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics, ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 174-75

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