This blog has been pretty quiet over the last couple of months (probably the least constructive months that I have had for well over a year). This is no one’s fault but my own. I lost much of my steam after a tiring January and have taken things very easy as regards my studies recently. Whilst I am keeping up to date with university work, I haven’t devoted much time or effort to anything beyond that which is immediately expected of me. Hopefully the next few months will see more material of substance being posted here.
Over the last day or so I have been thinking a little about the question of the ontology of the ‘Bible’ (or better, ‘Scripture’). This is something that I have pondered a lot in the past, but have never written that much about. All too often we use the word ‘Bible’ as if its meaning were plain, when its meaning is far more ambiguous than we originally might think.
Suppose that you asked different people to define ‘Shakespearian play’. The answer that you would receive from a high school English class might be quite different from the answer given by a troupe of Shakespearian actors. For the English student, the Shakespearian play is a text to be analyzed within the setting of the classroom. It is printed on paper and bound between two covers. For the Shakespearian actor, whilst there is undoubtedly a script, the play is understood primarily in terms of its performance.
The ontology of the play within the two different settings will powerfully inform the manner in which it will be engaged with. For the English student, the interpretation of the play will take the form of literary analysis and criticism. For the Shakespearian actor the interpretation of the play will take the form of a performance. The Shakespearian actor has to ‘inhabit’ the play; he has to live and breathe his character. The English student analyzes the play as an object from outside.
For the actor the Shakespearian play is not a closed text, but is an embodied and animated performance, always open to newer and richer interpretations. Indeed, the play has no existence independent of its many interpretations. These interpretations are not timeless and unchanging. Many possible routes of interpretation may present themselves, by which Shakespeare’s play speaks to people from various cultures and places in history. For the English student, interpretation of Shakespeare will look quite different and will (generally) be far less creative in character. It is far easier for the English student, faced with his Penguin edition of the Shakespearian play, to believe that the play has an existence independent of its interpreters. The play is an independent object to be analyzed and is autonomous in relationship to its interpreters.
Both Shakespearian actors and the English student may claim to love Shakespearian plays. However, we must be aware that they might not mean quite the same thing as each other by such a claim. The ontology of the Shakespearian play differs between their two interpretative communities.
I believe that much the same thing can be observed within the Christian world today. When we speak of the centrality of the ‘Bible’, we do not all mean the same thing. The ‘Bible’ in one community may differ quite significantly from the ‘Bible’ in another community. This is not a matter of the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Apocrypha, or anything like that. Rather it has to do with the manner in which the text is conceived of and engaged with. What many churches identify and seek to defend as the ‘Bible’ bears little relationship to that which Christians throughout most of the Church’s history would have thought of as ‘Scripture’ or the ‘Bible’. Unfortunately, few people seem to pay much attention to this and the profound influence that different conceptions of the Bible have upon the way that we engage with Scripture.
The ‘Bible’ that most Christians think in terms of is a very different kind of entity from the ‘Bible’ that the Church originally received. When one speaks of the ‘Bible’ today, most people have in mind a privately-owned, mass-produced, printed book, which contains 66 smaller books, neatly divided into chapters and verses, with notes and cross-references in the margins, a title page, a contents page and concordance, bound between two covers. Most Christians have more than one copy of this book and are accustomed to relating to it primarily through the act of silent reading off the printed page. Such an entity would have been alien to the experience of most Christians throughout history. A while back Joel Garver wrote a very thought-provoking post on the subject of the Bible in the Middle Ages, which articulated (far more clearly than I ever could) many of issues that I had been thinking about concerning the manner in which we encounter the Scriptures. Within the post he observed just how different the Bible that the Christian in the Middle Ages had was from the Bible as we have it in our churches.
The fact that our ‘Bible’ is the type of entity that it is encourages certain forms of engagement with it. The ease with which our Bibles are produced and transported shapes the manner in which we use them. The fact that our Bibles are privately owned can make the idea that the Bible has been given to the Church, rather than to the world in general, strange to us. A mass-produced printed text simply does not have the same character as a manuscript.
The fact that the text is bound between two covers also seems to establish a greater degree of closure to the text. This closure stands in contrast to the openness of the medieval Bible, which consisted of many volumes or separate books. Complete Bibles were very rare as multi-volume sets, let alone as single volumes.
It also stands in contrast to the openness of the text that is encountered primarily through the ear, as it is read aloud in the liturgy, for example. The heard word involves passage in time, successive sounds dying on the air; the written word is mapped onto unchanging space. The written word has a form of immediacy and presence that is denied to the spoken word. It is already there, rather than something that arrives gradually over the course of time. The written word (and far more so the printed word) lends itself to the downplaying of the significance of time. I wonder how this has played into, for example, understandings of the covenant as an abstract theological construct, rather than as a developing historical entity. Print may have encouraged people’s minds to become primarily spatially organized, leaving far less of a role for temporal categories. The role of anticipation and remembrance in our engagement with Scripture may be downplayed as a result.
It is far easier to treat the printed text as an object than either the written or the spoken word. Each written manuscript is individually produced by a particular agent at a particular moment in history and, as such, is more like an ‘occurrence in the course of conversation’ or an ‘utterance’ (to use Walter Ong’s expressions — in Orality and Literacy) than the printed text is. Ong observes the manner in which print encouraged the idea of the book as an object ‘containing’ information, rather than as a form of utterance. In the age of print title pages for books became more and more common. The fact that every single book in an edition was physically identical to every other invited people to regard them as objects needing labels, rather than as forms of personal utterance. Print encourages us to think in terms of the autonomy of the text. The printed text exists independently of an ongoing conversation.
The idea of the Bible as an impersonal object containing information is encouraged by the printed, bound form in which we encounter it. Were we to encounter the Bible primarily in the context of the heavenly ‘conversation’ of the spoken liturgy the personal character of the Word might be more apparent to us.
The authority of the printed text (thought of as an object ‘containing’ information) will most likely be conceived of very differently from the authority of the written or spoken word. The authority of the printed text is the authority of the rule book, the encyclopaedia or the how-to manual. The authority of the spoken or written word is far more personal in character. I have remarked at length on the contrast between the Word encountered through the eye as printed text and the Word encountered as sound through the ear in the past, so I won’t repeat those thoughts here. I will just remark that the manner in which we understand the authority of the Word will most likely be affected by whether our encounter with the Word is primarily with the Word as spoken in the Church’s liturgy or as printed text.
I could say a lot more regarding the manner in which technology shapes the manner in which we have grown accustomed to engaging with the text. I could comment on the huge effect that chapters and verses, concordances and other Bible helps have on our consciousness. I could also raise concerns about the way in which recent and forthcoming technological developments (electronic books, online Bibles, search functions, etc.) change the character of the biblical text even further. However, a complete analysis of technology’s shaping of the Bible is not the goal of this post.
The primary point of this post is to argue that the ‘Bible’ that we have come to think in terms of has blinded us to a number of important things. The purpose of the above comments is to make the technology that so shapes our engagement with Scripture ‘strange’ to us once again. We need to contemplate what bringing the Bible into a print culture (and also into the ‘information culture’ of the computer age) does to the text and our understanding of it. My intention is to counteract what Neil Postman has termed the tendency for technology to become ‘mythic’. The ‘technology’ of the modern Bible is something that we tend to regard as part of the natural order of things. We need to be alerted to its presence once more. The more that we are alerted to its presence, the more I believe that we will appreciate that it has shaped, and in many respects distorted, our understanding of the Scripture.
There are a few key things that I wish to draw out for particular attention in conclusion.
1. The importance of the relationship between our world and the world of the text. The technology that shapes the Scriptures will powerfully influence our understanding of the relationship between our world and that of the text. It is my firm conviction that the Bible presents us with a narrative that we are called to ‘inhabit’. The narrative of Scripture is not some closed entity. Rather, the narrative of Scripture establishes a world in which we are called to participate. The movement beyond such ‘pre-critical’ exegesis was probably empowered by the invention of the printing press more than anything else. As soon as the Bible comes to be regarded primarily as an object containing true propositions the pre-critical appropriation of the text will seem bizarre. A printed and bound text is far harder to ‘inhabit’ than Scriptures read out in the context of the Church’s ongoing liturgy.
2. Notions of the Bible’s authority. I have already remarked that the technology of our Bible tends to depersonalize the concept of authority. It also tends to make the concept of authority far more static. Rather than the authority of God being dynamically enacted through the Scriptures, the Scriptures come to be regarded as a static repository of timeless truth.
3. The relationship between the Bible and the Church. I have already observed that the modern Bible attenuates the connection between the Bible and the Church. A Bible printed with many thousands of copies in a single edition by a multinational corporation, independent of the authority of the Church, and privately owned by people within and without the Church will not be regarded in the same way as the Bible was prior to the invention of the printing press.
In Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Stanley Hauerwas has argued that no more important task faces the Church than that of taking the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in America. Amidst Hauerwas’ characteristic overstatement, there is a very important point. As Hauerwas points out, the printing press and the mass production of the biblical text has led to the impression that people can interpret the Bible ‘for themselves’ without moral transformation or any need to stand under the authority of a ‘truthful community’ in order to learn how to read (the exaltation of private and individual spirituality over public faith has roots here also).
If the Bible was given to be encountered primarily as a printed or written text the Church is not that necessary. However, I believe that the Bible was given to be ‘performed’ (much as the Shakespearian play). The chief ‘performance’ of the Bible is that which occurs in the Church’s liturgy. It is read aloud in the lectionary. It is prayed, sung, meditated upon, memorized and recited. Its story is retold in various forms. It is our conversation partner and our guide.
Our lives are incorporated into the story of Scripture throughout the liturgy. We are taught to remember the story of God’s saving acts in the old and new testaments as our story. We are taught to speak of and see the world in a Christian way as we learn liturgical responses and are instructed through preaching. Our world is gradually translated into biblical categories. As Peter Leithart has observed, the use of the Bible in worship also trains us psychologically: ‘Singing the Psalms makes the biblical story and biblical language part of us, knits it into the fabric of our flesh.’ The Bible (in stark contrast to contemporary worship choruses) gives us the vocabulary with which to respond to the difficulties and the joys of life.
The narrative of Scripture also serves to structure the Church’s life on a larger scale, through the Church calendar. In A Community of Character, Hauerwas writes:—
…[T]he shape of the liturgy over a whole year prevents any one part of scripture from being given undue emphasis in relation to the narrative line of scripture. The liturgy, in every performance and over a whole year, rightly contextualizes individual passages when we cannot read the whole.
Unfortunately, in many churches that pay little attention to the shape of the liturgy, it is the shape of the confession of faith or the systematic theologians that the pastor read in seminary that are most clearly apparent. Pet doctrines take on a prominence that bears no relationship to the place that they are given in the story of Scripture. I sometimes wonder what the Reformed doctrine of election, for example, would look like had the Church’s reflection on election been more firmly situated within the context of an overarching narrative which structured the Church year. The Reformed tradition has all too often lost sight of the centrality of the Story as people’s encounter with Scripture has increasingly been dominated by a the text understood non-liturgically.
The Bible also gives all sorts of ‘stage directions’. The institution of the various biblical rites (e.g. the Eucharist) can be read as such. Like all stage directions, the point is to be found in their performance. Those who believe that the meaning of the Lord’s Supper can be wholly ascertained from Scripture are like people who believe that the recipe makes the cake superfluous.
Throughout the liturgy the Word is central. However, the Word is never mere letters on a page, which is what it has been reduced to by many Protestants. The Word in the liturgy is living and active. He works upon us and transforms us. He comforts us and rebukes us; He encourages us and exhorts us. The written text is the score from which the symphony of liturgy is performed. The true revelation takes place in the performance, not primarily in the score. This is where I must take my stand with those who refuse to speak of the mass-produced, privately-owned, printed and bound text as the Word of God in an unqualified sense.
4. The impact upon our doctrine of Scripture and the discipline of theology. The set of ‘ideas’ contained in the technology of the modern Bible has profound ramifications for our doctrine of Scripture. I am continually amazed at how little attention theologians give to this issue. It seems to be widely taken for granted that what we call the ‘Bible’ bears a one-to-one relationship with that which Christ originally gave to His Church.
If one believes that the Bible is primarily encountered in the course of the liturgy, a far closer relationship between Bibliology, Theology proper and Ecclesiology begins to emerge. The Bible that most modern Christians think in terms of is an object; what we encounter in the liturgy is nothing less than the personal Word of God, Jesus Christ Himself.
God breathes out His Word in the Spirit into the Church, speaking the Church into existence as the body of Christ. This act occurs chiefly in the context of the liturgy of the Church’s gathered worship. God’s gift of His Word should not be first sought in what we have come to understand as the ‘Bible’. ‘Performing’ the Bible involves learning how to inhabit the Word (which means nothing less than learning how to be ‘in Christ’). The process of ‘learning’ how to be in Christ is not predominantly a matter of cognitive processing. Rather, it is a training of character.
The Word was made flesh and Protestants have all too often tended to make Him mere ‘word’ again. Bibliolatry is perhaps one of the greatest errors within Protestantism today. The Bible has been transformed into an object to be used and the idea that it is primarily designed to do things to us in the course of the liturgy has been forgotten. In the process it has become akin to an idol. The Bible that God gave to the Church is to be understood as something to be incarnated — embodied in the life and worship of the community. We have tended to neglect the performance of the symphony in favour of reflecting on the score. Whilst reflection on the score has its place, it can never take the place of performance.
By ‘embodied’ I am not primarily referring to the need to obey biblical commands. Rather, I am referring to the need to ‘put on’ the narrative of Scripture, to ‘inhabit’ it, to relate to the text more as actors than as academics. Interpretation of the Scripture is not chiefly something that the Church is to do; the Church is called to be the interpretation of Scripture. From a slightly different angle, using N.T. Wright’s classic analogy, we are called to improvise the fifth act of the biblical narrative.
If we were informed by such considerations I believe that our doctrine of Scripture would take a radically different shape.
5. The relationship between the Bible, liturgy and hermeneutics. Unfortunately, the whole theological endeavour has also been shaped by the modern understanding of the Bible. Hauerwas makes an important point when he writes:
It is important not only that theologians know text, but it is equally important how and where they learn the text. It is my hunch that part of the reason for the misuse of the scripture in matters dealing with morality is that the text was isolated from a liturgical context. There is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with individuals reading and studying scripture, but such reading must be guided by the use of the scripture through the liturgies of the church… Aidan Kavanagh has recently observed, “the liturgy is scripture’s home rather than its stepchild, and the Hebrew and Christian bibles were the church’s first liturgical books.”
For many theologians, however, the kind of entity that the text is is determined more by the context of the academy than by the context of the Church’s liturgy.
Picking up on some earlier points, the written and the spoken Word partake more of the character of actions than the printed text can. Written and spoken words more clearly do things. Printed words are easier to regard as passive things to be acted upon. The primary engagement with the printed text is one of analysis as we act upon the text using our rational faculties. However, when we are faced with the spoken Word it becomes far more apparent that the purpose of the engagement is primarily for the Word to act upon us, rather than vice versa. A theology that refuses to objectify the Bible will differ markedly from other forms of theology.
Emphasis on the printed word has also encouraged the development of highly rationalistic ways of thinking about Scripture and has deeply infected our theology in the process. The Bible is conceived of as a collection of propositions. However, much of the Bible consists of ‘phatic’ speech. Its purpose is not that of conveying information. Rather, it is designed to strengthen and mould relationship. The Word, considered this way, is more concerned with modifying a life situation than with conveying information in a more detached fashion. Our interaction with the Word in the liturgy brings us to a knowledge of God, not merely a knowledge about God.
Walter Ong writes:—
The condition of words in a text is quite different from their condition in spoken discourse. Although they refer to sounds and are meaningless unless they can be related — externally or in the imagination — to the sounds or, more precisely, the phonemes they encode, written words are isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come into being. The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real, existential present. Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person or real, living persons, at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words.
Yet words are alone in a text…. [Orality and Literacy, 100]
By taking the Bible out of the context of the liturgy, the Bible has been put into a context where its words are alone and detached from a particular life situation. It addresses no one in particular from a position of detachment. The text becomes autonomous in a way that it never could if it were regard as a liturgical text.
It seems to me that the displacing of typological and liturgical ways of reading Scripture and the rise of pure grammatical historical exegesis owes much (for numerous reasons) to the invention of the printing press. Whilst Protestants are used to singing the praises of the printing press as that which led to people having the Bible, I want to argue that, in some very important senses, the printing press led to the people of God being robbed of the Bible.
The ubiquity of the printed text makes it very difficult for us to recover a more Christian engagement with the Scripture. Even within the gathered worship of the people of God, people are incessantly reading their printed Bibles. This is akin to someone attending a production of Hamlet and paying little attention to what is taking place on the stage because he is too busy reading along in the text.
Liturgy provides us with a hermeneutical context for reading the Word of God. The rise of the printed word has led, I believe to a reshaping and restructuring of liturgy. Biblical liturgy has been displaced by liturgical minimalism. Merely grammatical historical exegesis is, I believe, intrinsically bound up with minimalistic forms of liturgy (I have already commented on this). Both are encouraged by an engagement with Scripture that is primarily engagement with a printed text.
The medieval manuscript was far more likely to be physically beautiful than the modern Bible. The printing press brought with it a certain form of austerity. The complex and decorative characters of older scripts were simplified down to basic and constant forms. The colourful illustrations, flourishes and artistic binding of older manuscripts were discarded for functional purposes. The Bible gradually ceased to be regarded as, among other things, a work of art and came to take on the character of a purely functional object.
When your chief contact with the Bible is with printed letters surrounded by white space, you will be far less likely to appreciate the role of incense, symbols, images, song, architecture, bread and wine, posture, gesture and vesture in our relationship with God. Seeing is the sense that makes the least immediate physical impression on us (seeing very bright light being a notable exception). The printed text makes far less demands on the senses than the written text does. Our engagement with God in His Word becomes primarily a matter of the mind, the body being largely bypassed.
To a large measure, the austerity and rationalism of much Reformed worship may grow out of such a typographic consciousness. The unadorned simplicity of the printed page has been imposed as the model for biblical worship, in general disregard of all the traditional and biblical forms of worship (take, for example, the worship of the book of Revelation). When you have been trained in such a consciousness the various elements of high liturgy will tend to be regarded as fripperies that complicate what should be a simple engagement with God’s Word (i.e. engagement with that which is found in the printed text). In a typographic culture it is easily forgotten that engagement with God’s Word is something that involves the whole of our beings, body and mind.
There is a relationship between the way that we worship and the way that we will read God’s Word. Our liturgies are, in many respects, the embodiment of our hermeneutics. Typological readings of God’s Word will be encouraged by those whose form of engagement with God’s Word in worship go far beyond that of reading off a page and instruction directed primarily at the mind. Typological readings of God’s Word are more a matter of a sanctified form of aesthetics than a scientific technique. Austere worship has little place for the development of a Christian aesthetics and will consequently give rise to hermeneutics that consistently fail to grasp the musical, symbolic and literary character of the biblical text.
Richly liturgical worship trains the person at every level of their being. It does not merely consist of truths to be mentally digested. Such training of character is absolutely essential if we are to be the sort of people who read the Bible correctly.
I could say much, much more on these issues but I have rambled on quite long enough. Despite the amount that I have written above, I really haven’t begun to scrape the surface of the matters that could be raised surrounding the question of the ontology of the Bible. I haven’t even addressed many of the issues that I originally intended to (e.g. the relationship between Scripture and tradition). Perhaps I will return to some of the loose threads in the above arguments sometime in the future. In the meantime, please feel welcome to comment.