A Critic of my Understanding of Liturgical Exegesis

Lee, from Two-Edged Sword, posts a critique of my understanding of liturgy and the ontology of Scripture, as articulated in the following posts — ‘How Gutenberg Took the Bible From Us’ and ‘James Jordan, N.T. Wright, and Double Resurrection’. Lee also refers to my ‘Eating and Drinking in John 6’ post and the following discussion as a good example of differences that arise from my approach to Scripture.

His post is representative of a few of the negative responses that I have had to my thoughts on the character of Scripture. I am not sure how exactly to go about responding to such a post as there are a number of serious misunderstandings of my position within it.

For the record, I firmly believe that every Christian who can read should have at least one Bible in their home, preferrably a number of different versions, ideally a number of texts in the original languages. I would also encourage Christians to spend time reading biblical commentaries and to learn how to use Bible helps. I am convinced that reading the Bible at least once daily is good practice for the Christian and that lack of interest in reading the Bible for oneself is more often than not a sign of weak spiritual health.

None of this contradicts my fundamental point, which was that the primary form of the Scriptures is not what we call ‘the Bible’. The chief way in which the people of God are to encounter the Scriptures is in their performance within the context of the Church and its liturgy. It is undoubtedly a privilege to be able to read the text of our Bibles, but we must not presume that God gave the Church the Scriptures as ‘the Bible’. The Scriptures that God gave His people were not principally designed to be read privately as a book. Private Bible reading is a valid engagement with Scripture, but it should never be the form of engagement with Scripture that takes priority in our lives. Engagement with Scripture in the context of the Church’s life, liturgy and lectionary must always come first.

The Scriptures are addressed to the people of God. Whilst the Scriptures address each of us personally, they do not address us as detached individuals, abstracted from the body of which we are members. The Scriptures were certainly given in written form, but they were not given in the form of the modern Bible. They were not bound together in one volume, nor were they given for private ownership. The Scriptures were not even given so that everyone could read them. The chief way that the people of God are called to engage with the Scriptures is by hearing the Scriptures read aloud and expounded, rather than by reading it for themselves. There is a difference. Reading for ourselves is good, but the emphasis must remain on the hearing of the Word, something that occurs in the context of the assembly of the Church.

Furthermore, we must recognize that there are many parts of the Scriptures that were given principally as what I have in the past referred to as ‘stage directions’. The book of Leviticus, for example, is mostly concerned with stage directions. Whilst the book was to be read aloud and studied, it was more like a recipe book than a story. The meaning of Leviticus is not first and foremost to be found in the study of the text itself, but in the extra-textual rituals that it establishes.

I have used this fact to argue that relatively minor portions of Scripture, which may seem relatively insignificant to us, given the fact that so little words are devoted to them, may actually be far more significant than many lengthy passages. There are those who argue that our emphasis upon particular truths should correspond with the amount of attention that they are given within the Bible, ‘attention’ here referring to the number of words expended on the subject in the biblical text. I have come to regard such a position as deeply flawed.

A good example of the differences created by different ways of approaching the Scriptures can be seen in attitudes to the Eucharist, for example. If we engage with the Scriptures chiefly in the form of biblical text to be studied and read we will recognize that very few verses are devoted to the subject of the Eucharist. We might draw from this that the Eucharist is a relatively secondary truth of the Christian faith and that the great focus upon the subject is an unwelcome byproduct of certain false turns in the Church’s history. On the other hand, if we engage with the Scriptures primarily as a text to be embodied in the life, liturgy and lectionary of the Church, the Eucharist will be seen to be far more important.

The Eucharist is given to the Church to be done, rather than chiefly to be meditated on. It is a simple rite and few words are needed to institute its proper practice. However, given that the Eucharist is to form a regular and central role in the Church’s liturgy it has a greater significance for our Christian faith than truths to which dozens of chapters of Scripture are devoted. We interpret the Scriptures through the lenses given to us by the Eucharist. We see allusions to the Eucharist throughout the Scriptures. In so doing we are not exalting the Eucharist above its proper station, but are engaging with the Scriptures as more than mere text.

To what shall I compare the Scriptures? It is like some texts that a great king wrote and entrusted to his servants, in preparation for a great feast. Amongst the texts there were the scores for the musicians at the feast, the recipes for the cooks, the instructions for those preparing and decorating the banqueting hall and table, the poems to be read by the poets, the tales to be told by the storytellers, the speeches to be given by the speechmakers, and the invitations to be sent to the guests.

Once we have appreciated the complex and multifaceted character of the Scriptures we will read them quite differently. Neglected books like Leviticus will receive far more attention. The sacrificial rituals and annual feasts of Leviticus would have profoundly shaped the way that Israelites would have read the whole of the Scriptures. It would also have powerfully moulded the authors of Scripture and we should read their writings recognizing the degree to which the practices of Leviticus formed the fabric of their lives. The same can be said of those who do not read the NT as belonging to the context of the celebration of the Eucharist.

Lee argues that I am setting the stage for sacerdotalism, that I am teaching that there is no way to encounter Christ apart from the priest. In response to this claim I want to make clear that when I talk about engaging with the Scriptures primarily in the form of their performance within the Church and its liturgy I do not refer to the ‘Church’ as a mere institutional hierarchy, but as a community with a shared life and practice. There is no ordinary way to encounter Christ apart from His Church. It is through the operations of the body that the Head makes Himself known. However, the body is not just composed of members of a clerical hierarchy.

Outside of the context of the Church the Scriptures are not ordinarily a means of grace. Those who interpret the Scriptures apart from the Church often end up falling into gross error. Countless cults started life with people seeking to understand the Scriptures apart from the Church. We are only equipped to understand the Scriptures as we life within the context of the Church. To the Christian who faithfully participates in the life of the Church (which is nothing other than the life of the Holy Spirit) the Scriptures are a means of blessing. They read their Bibles as members of the Church, not as people abstracted from the Church.

As regards the Church’s ‘dispensing’ of salvation, the Church does nothing of the kind. The Church does not ‘dispense’ salvation; it is rather the form that God’s salvation takes. Tim Gallant puts this far better than I could:

And that is why it is the wrong question to ask whether “the Church saves.” That’s kind of like asking whether having lots of money brings wealth. No, the Church does not save. Jesus saves. And His salvation comes in the shape of the Church. Being the dwelling-place of God – that is salvation. Being built together as a community of love – that is salvation. Being a member of the Body of Christ – that is salvation.

The Church does not save. The Church is salvation, because the Church is God’s goal in Jesus Christ.

Lee goes on to argue that I am undermining Sola Scriptura. I strongly dispute this claim. My problem is not with the Scripture. Far from it! My concern is for the Scriptures to play a far fuller role in the Church’s life than they do in much contemporary evangelicalism. My problem is with the way in which the Scriptures have been reduced from what they once were into the privately-owned, mass-produced Bible of the modern Church. The simplistic opposition that Lee posits between Scripture and liturgy is a good example of this.

Lee writes:

I do have a few objections to Alastair’s view. The first is Acts 17:10-13. The Bereans appear to do just the opposite of what Alastair advocates. They go to the service, listen attentively and then read the service through the light of the Scripture, not the Scripture through the light of the liturgy/service. And the Spirit calls them ‘more noble’ for doing so. II Timothy 2:15 seems to counter his understanding as well. ‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’ This sound much more like the grammatical parsing and rational thinking through the Word that Alastair seems to eschew rather than the ‘inhabiting’ the word through the liturgy advocated in the posts.

Both of these points miss the point. I really don’t see why I should have a problem with either of these passages. Some brief remarks on the Bereans might help here. Paul calls forth the OT as witness to the truth of his gospel (cf. Acts 17:2-3). The Bereans are fair and carefully examine this witness, unlike those from Thessalonica, who presumably just dismissed the testimony that Paul brought forward. All the evidence points towards this examination of the Scriptures taking a very different shape from what most ‘Bereans’ do today. The examination was a public examination of the OT Scriptures in the context of the synagogue, not a private reading of the Bible outside of the context of the people of God. Those who were leading the examination of the OT Scriptures were most likely synagogue leaders (although there were likely a number of others present). This was not a private Bible study. Most people who use this passage to justify their practice today misuse it.

The Berean’s study of the Scripture took place in the broader context of the liturgy and the sacrifices and worship practices of Israel. These were lenses that they would bring to their reading of the text. Whether these discussions took place within the immediate context of the synagogue’s liturgy is besides the point. Lee seems to read the passage to suggest that Paul was leading a synagogue service and that the Bereans then went to examine the liturgy of the service from the Scriptures. There is nothing wrong with examining liturgy from the Scriptures — the text illuminates the liturgy and the liturgy illuminates the text — but it strikes me as a strange reading of the passage in question. There is no reason to believe that Paul was presenting the Bereans with some new liturgy. He brought a new teaching, which the Bereans fairly and publicly cross-examined.

What about II Timothy 2:15? Once again I don’t see what the issue is here. Paul is teaching that a minister of the gospel should be concerned to gain all the skills necessary for him to perform his task of ensuring that the Church acts according to the authority of God, exercised in the Scriptures, effectively. It is important to recognize that Timothy is not primarily being addressed as a private person here. Rather he is being addressed as one who must lead a church in its engagement with the Scriptures. He is the one who has the greatest responsbility in this area. He must guide the flock as a faithful shepherd. He must ensure that quarrels about words do not take over (v.14) and that the dangerous teachings of men like Hymenaeus and Philetus do not spread (vv.16-17).

Lee claims that ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ sounds ‘much more like the grammatical parsing and rational thinking through the Word that Alastair seems to eschew rather than the ‘inhabiting’ the word through the liturgy advocated in the posts.’ Once again, let me clear up misunderstanding. There is no problem with grammatical historical exegesis and other similar approaches to Scripture in principle. I am convinced that they have an important role to play and that pastors in particular should be skilled in such areas. However, my point is that grammatical historical exegesis is not the primary way in which we are to engage with the Scripture. Grammatical historical exegesis is a gift that serves far greater forms of engagement with the Scripture that occur within the life of the Church. I have no problem with grammatical historical exegesis; my problem is with merely grammatical historical exegesis — exegetical approaches that bypass typological, liturgical and creative forms of Scripture reading.

What about ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’? Is this really a reference to grammatical parsing? I think that N.T. Wright’s reading in his For Everyone commentary is an example of a more likely reading (and one that he is certainly not alone in arguing for), although I believe that he is stretching it if he believes that Paul had the illustration that he uses in mind:

In particular, he wants preachers and teachers to ‘carve out a straight path for the word of truth’. Some translations say things like ‘rightly dividing the word’, and it’s possible Paul means something like that (in other words, ‘being able to show how the sentences work, what each part means, and how they all relate to each other’). But it’s more likely that the picture he has in mind is of a pioneer hacking out a path through the jungle so that people can walk safely through. Part of the job of the teacher is to do what Paul himself is doing in this passage: to see where there are brambles, creepers and dead trees blocking the path where the word should be following to people’s hearts and minds, and to shift them out of the way.

Lee’s next point, that the Scriptures were originally written down and were only incorporated into liturgies later, is still besides the point. It could be pointed out that most of the stories narrated in the NT Scriptures (on which Lee seems to be focusing his point) would probably already have been shared within churches before the gospel accounts were written. The story of Christ already affected the life and liturgy of the Church before the inspired gospel accounts were written. The gospel accounts incorporate elements that had already been incorporated in the life and liturgy of the Church and most likely drew upon the existing liturgy of the Church as a source to some degree (e.g. the words of institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Prayer). The NT texts would also be read out of the context provided by the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist and practice of Christian Baptism.

I do not believe that we need to argue that the NT documents were written as liturgical documents. The fact is that, if they are Scripture, they are liturgical documents. The text is not an entity that has an autonomous existence. For Scripture to be Scripture is for it to have a particular relationship to the Church as an interpretative community, to be part of the Church’s liturgy, life and lectionary.

Lee goes on to write: ‘Let us not forget that we see the Bible existing as we have it now quite early on. Athanasius in the 4th century gives a list of the books that stand in our bible, meaning that churches and people were collecting the inspired books into one canon by that time.’ Once again, he seems to be seriously missing my point. Gathering a list of scriptures that belong to the Church’s canon is very different to having what we call a ‘Bible’ (Lee seems to have missed much of the point of my Gutenberg post).

Lee seems to have a very limited understanding of what I mean by ‘liturgy’. By ‘liturgy’ I refer to the form of public worship. This ‘form’ need not be written down, nor need it be fixed. ‘Liturgy’ includes such things as the readings in worship, the Church calendar, the prayers and the celebration of the sacraments. I am arguing that the liturgy, defined in such a manner, and contextualized by the broader life and fellowship of the Church, is the primary context in which the Scriptures were given to be encountered.

In the course of making some of his final criticisms, Lee makes this point:

The idea that the Lord’s Supper was anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation was rejected by the church at least through 9th century. Yet, it changed and the bread became the body and John 6 was used a proof text. Christians before the 10th century would have understood John 6 in a completely different way than those after.

There are a number of places in the Church Fathers where John 6 is read as a reference to the Eucharist. Furthermore, the idea that they didn’t see the Eucharist as ‘anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation’ is simply without foundation. I would love to see Lee try to prove this case. It seems to me that his confusion may arise from the fact that the Church Fathers did not oppose symbol to reality as moderns do.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, The Blogosphere, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Critic of my Understanding of Liturgical Exegesis

  1. Tim Enloe says:

    The irony of Lee’s position is that all who hold to it have been influenced to read the Bible in a certain way–namely, the way of Modernity with its unreflective trust in privatized religion. The “liturgy” of Modernity teaches us to read the Scriptures in the way that Lee discusses. His way is not some “timeless,” “objective,” non-liturgical way. It is a corrupted liturgical way, which entirely vitiates all his dichotomies and objections.

  2. Lee says:


    There is much in your post to be commended. I can agree with a lot of what you have said. I wish you would provide some examples of people who neglect passages because of their ‘obscureness’. I do not know if this is as big a problem as you make it out to be. I do not know of anyone who neglects the Lord’s Supper because it is not mentioned very much or views it as a secondary thing. That would be the same as claiming there are more OT books than NT books, thus Christ is not as important because the majority of the bible is prior to his incarnation. No one makes that argument (at least I hope not), and I no of no one who makes that same argument with regards to the sacraments of the Lord. There are a few places of disagreement left, and perhaps it would be helpful if I can enumerate them.

    1. That there is an ontological difference between reading and hearing the Scriptures. You seem to state in your Guttenburg Post that there is an ontological difference in the printing press produced Bible and hearing the Scripture during church. I disagree. I concede they are in different mediums, but I am not convinced that the ‘medium is the message’ or so changes the message that we must recognize a different ontology or nature. Perhaps we are defining ontology differently.
    2. Exegetical methods. You state, “my problem is with merely grammatical historical exegesis — exegetical approaches that bypass typological, liturgical and creative forms of Scripture reading.” I am not sure why you think that a grammatical-historical method neglects typology. One can do grammatical-historical exegesis and still respect typology. However, I do not know what you mean by ‘creative’. A definition and example would be interesting to me. And I suppose you mean by liturgical the idea of ‘stage directions’. I do disagree with you on this one and John 6 remains a good example. Claiming that the readers of John would have understood this to be about the Supper when Jesus was speaking the words long before the Supper was instituted is hard for me to follow. Why is the meaning based on the readers of John and not the hearers of Jesus?
    3. The Church is salvation. This is a statement that I believe needs to be qualified or defined better before I could sign on to it. Does this mean church membership equates to salvation? I doubt you are arguing for that. Does this mean that salvation is mediated rather than immediate? Is the church where the saved gather, or is one part of the church to be saved? Too many questions in this broad statement with some potential divisive ideas for me to agree to this statement.

    I hope that this narrows my somewhat rambling post to a few areas of difference. I would like to see an example of ‘creative exegesis’. As for your last paragraph, I will try to prove my point or at least defend my statement on my own blog, as it could get lengthy.

  3. Al says:


    With regard to the neglect of passages due to their obscureness, Numbers 19 is a very good example. There are many people who would dismiss this passage as one that might have significance for our doctrine of justification because it is obscure and because rituals are not generally employed as sources for doctrinal reflection. On a larger level, the neglect of Numbers 19 is a fate that is shared by much of the books of Leviticus and Numbers. Leviticus is possibly one of the most significant books in the OT, but it is regarded by many as obscure and is theological marginalized. If we took seriously the degree to which the life and thought of Israel was shaped by the rituals, ceremonies and calendar of Leviticus, we would probably see the book as possessing a far greater significance than many others.

    As regards the sacraments, I have encountered a number of thinking people who have put forward the idea that our treatment of particular subjects must be representative of the attention that they receive in the biblical text itself. Most of the people I have encountered who have presented this position would be thinking about the NT in particular. When they include the OT, they argue that the OT needs to be read as a witness to Christ, which I have absolutely no problem with. This position need not involve a denial of the centrality of Christ.

    I have also heard people use this argument to downplay the importance of the Eucharist. These people do not neglect the Eucharist altogether at all. Rather, they argue that the Eucharist cannot be as central as most Christians have historically regarded it to be, given the fact that it is not explicitly spoken of in many places in Scripture.

    In response to your particular points:

    1. My argument is that the printed, bound, mass-produced and privately-owned Bible is a different sort of thing from the Scriptures encountered in the liturgy of the Church. Does this mean that there is no common ‘information content’? No (in passing, I do not believe that the ‘medium is the message’ expression that you use is being used in the original sense in which McLuhan used it). My argument is that the Scripture affects us in very different ways, depending on the form in which we encounter the text, and that these differences are not necessarily something that is theologically indifferent.

    God has not merely chosen to deliver His truth to us as a certain information content, but has chosen certain forms of communication as well. This does not rule out all other forms of communication, but there are certain forms of communication that must always be kept central. No matter how much technology develops, for example, we cannot dispense with encountering the Scriptures in the form of the preached Word.

    2. I have no problem with grammatical-historical exegesis per se. I have tried to make this clear. I don’t believe that grammatical-historical exegesis is necessarily incompatible with typology or liturgical exegesis. These approaches are complementary and all have a role to play. My problem has always been with merely grammatical-historcal exegesis.

    I have commented on what I mean by creative exegesis here. Creative interpretation is similar to the sort of thing that actors do when ‘interpreting’ a play. Good actors do not merely slavishly reproduce some supposed original meaning of the play, but explore the hermeneutical potential that the play opens up and create new meaning, which is both faithful to the original work and a genuine work of their own. Apostolic exegesis gives us a number of examples of creative exegesis, which goes beyond the original meaning of the OT text.

    As regards John 6, I have yet to see you address the fact that, in John’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly talks about issues that His original audience couldn’t and didn’t understand. The idea that the original meaning must be something that the original audience would have understood seems to be problematic for many of Jesus’ statements in the gospels, which were quite opaque until after His death and resurrection and Pentecost. Jesus’ statements about the destruction and raising up of the temple (of His body) and of being lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness are, if anything, even more opaque than anything that He says in John 6 (taken to refer to the Eucharist).

    I also don’t believe that meaning needs to be regarded as static and unchanging. I believe that there was a level on which a wise and believing hearer might have been able to understand what Jesus was saying, without knowing anything about the Eucharist. However, John wants us to see the full meaning of Jesus’ statements as something that exceeds all that His original hearers could have known.

    The idea of developing meaning is not that strange. This is the way that any work of art, or recounting of history, works. The meaning of the past is not contained in the past, but is seen in the relationship that the past bears with other times. For example, the meaning of a particular part of a piece of music may only be fully understood once one has listened to the whole work. Likewise, the meaning of John 6 exceeds what it may have meant in the original context of Jesus’ message. By the time John writes John 6 it has been brought into a context where the sacramental meaning of Jesus’ message has been more fully revealed. The day will come, I believe, when we will see even deeper levels of meaning in this passage, when we are brought into the new heavens and the new earth in their fullness.

    The meaning of the note in a symphony is not self-contained. So it is with the various parts of Scripture. The meaning of John 6 is drawn from its relationship to texts and contexts that reveal the contours of the text to be wombs of deeper meaning. In a related manner, Christians are quite justified in reading the OT to be about Christ and the Church, but we should also recognize that OT believers would have been justified in seeing other meanings in passages that we see to speak of Christ and His Church.

    3. Does Church membership equate to salvation? Yes and no. There is an objectivity to Church membership, but not all are members of the Church in the same sense. All members of the Church are ‘saved’ in some senses of the word and their salvation is nothing other than their being united to the body of Christ. To be ‘saved’ is to enjoy the relationship with God that is made possible in the Temple of the Holy Spirit, which is the Church. Not all who have been baptized into priestly ministry in this Temple actually enjoy or avail themselves of the relationship/salvation that they have been brought into. Some resist it and will be cast out. However, received properly, Church membership is salvation.

    I also believe that salvation is mediated. God gives His presence and His grace to us through the congregation of the saints, through the preaching of the Word, through bread and wine and the washing of water in Baptism. Salvation restores the fabric of creation and does not dispense with it for an immediate relationship with God that dispenses with all such things.

    As human beings our relationships with one another are mediated by signs and symbols. A man’s relationship with his wife is exhaustively maintained by signs and symbols — words, gifts, gestures, meaningful actions, etc. Apart from such things there would be no relationship. However, such a relationship can be so strong that it effects the man’s whole self-understanding.

    Mediated relationships are not necessarily weak relationships, nor is that which mediates designed to keep us at a distance from the other person. Quite the opposite: it is the means by which the other person communicates themself to us. The presence of the other does not render sign and symbols superfluous, for signs and symbols are the means of self-communication. Even when Christ was on earth during His ministry He communicated Himself by performing signs. The signs were not rendered unnecessary by His physical presence.

    Is the Church where the saved gather, or is one part of the church to be saved? This question of yours presupposes a distinction between salvation and Church that I am not prepared to draw and cannot be answered satisfactorily for that reason. The Church is salvation. The saved are those who participate in the life of the Church and are those who will be saved on the last day.

  4. Lee says:

    Thanks for the response. You have given me much to chew on.

  5. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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