Saturday, March 12, 2011

Evangelicals and the Recovery of a Sacramental Ontology

Timothy George has a wonderful essay in First Things on biblical interpretation entitled: "Reading the Bible with the Reformers." It is far too long, complex and rich to summarize in a blog post, but I would just like to highlight a couple of what were for me high points because they confirm the direction in which my own thought has been going recently.

First, George sees linkage between Evangelical pietistic reading of the Bible and the "participatory exegesis" of the Church Fathers as recovered in current theology by Matthew Levering, Hans Boersma and the Ressourcement theologians of the first half of the 20th century.
"The post-Enlightenment split between the study of the Bible as an academic discipline and the reading of the Bible as spiritual nurture was as foreign to the reformers as it was to theologians and Christian scholars in prior centuries. They all repudiated the idea that the Bible could be studied and understood with dispassionate objectivity, as a cold artifact from antiquity. The Cambridge scholar Thomas Bilney discovered the meaning of salvation while reading Erasmus’ new Latin translation of 1 Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” He did not remember the moment as one of scholarly insight; instead, he reported that “immediately I felt a marvelous comfort and quietness insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy.”

The reformers practiced what Matthew Levering has called “participatory biblical exegesis” in which the intimate “vertical” presence of the Trinity’s creative and redemptive action suffuses the “linear” or “horizontal” succession of moments. According to Levering, “To enter into the realities taught in the biblical text requires not only linear-historical tools (archeology, philology, and so forth), but also, and indeed primarily, participatory tools—doctrines and practices—by which the exegete enters fully into the biblical world.” Bilney’s experience led to his becoming an evangelist and eventually one of the first martyrs of the English Reformation."
This brief reference to Levering (whose book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame Press, 2008) is very important) only hints at the growing movement of Ressourcement in Catholic and now in Evangelical circles. Two excellent books by Hans Boersma, an evangelical teaching at Regent College, are of importance here. First there is his study of the Nouvelle Theologie, Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford, 2009) and Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Eerdmans, 2011).

The reason these books are so important is that they are challenging the entire modern worldview; that is, they are recovering the common Christian tradition of the first 1500 years of the Church in which the biblical doctrine of God generated a distinctively Christian metaphysics. The Bible itself demands to be read in the context of this distinctively Christian metaphysics and when it is read in the modern, materialistic, secularized metaphysics it becomes a dead letter. Read in the context of what Boersma helpfully terms a "sacramental ontology," it becomes alive and life transforming.

Yes Virginia, piety and metaphysics do have something to do with one another and the fruitful interaction between Evangelical and Catholic scholars who have rejected liberal theology as dead and useless is increasingly exciting.

One other snippet from George's excellent article deserves highlighting:
Postmodern hermeneutics, left to itself, devolves into relativism, fragmentation, and subjective perspectivism, a trajectory that challenges the historic Christian understanding of language as a reliable medium of truth. Yet postmodernism unmasks the pretentions of an exaggerated individualism and the overweening confidence in reason that has shaped the historical-critical method of studying the Bible. It has also emphasized the relational character of knowledge and the role of the community (for Christians, the Church) in interpretation, as well as the situatedness (language, gender, culture, and historical particularity) of every interpreter. A reader cannot presume to possess authoritative and fail-safe methods to deliver impersonal truths. In this sense, postmodernism calls for us to recognize our limitations, our finitude.

As it turns out, many of the habits of reading suggested by postmodernism are already deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, not least in the hermeneutical legacy of the Protestant Reformation. In a bold and important study, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, Jens Zimmermann has argued that the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment was anticipated by major themes in the biblical and theological work of the reformers. Three themes stand out.

The first concerns the interrelated and existentially involving reality of truth. The famous opening lines of Calvin’s Institutes declares that “nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” These two kinds of knowledge are simultaneous and correlative. It is not as though one could gain a thorough knowledge of the self by earning a Ph.D., say, in psychology, and then transfer to a divinity school to pursue the knowledge of God. No, at every step of the way, and in every area of life, we are confronted by a seeming contradiction: genuine knowledge of ourselves drives us to look at God, and at the same time any real grasp of ourselves presupposes that we have already contemplated Him.

In this respect Calvin anticipates later postmodern theorists. As a pre-Cartesian thinker he did not presume that the act of knowledge involves a singular thinking subject that surveys an external world of extended stuff. Calvin knew that the human mind, left to itself, would become a “factory of idols” producing self-made gods of darkness and delusion, which is why a true interpretation of the Bible required the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. There is no independent epistemological platform on which we may stand and objectively survey our theological options. In every act of understanding, as in every moment of life, we all have “business with God” ( negotium cum Deo). As Zimmermann notes, for Calvin, “the whole purpose of reading Scripture is the restoration of our humanity to the fullness of the image of God in us as individuals and in society as a whole.” To know is to participate.
What is so exciting about this passage is the way in which George understands postmodernism to be merely the dead end of modernity. It is not the beginning of something new and better, just the death rattles of an old and tired rebellion against the Christian worldview. Whatever postmodernism has (finally) admitted to be necessary and right in interpretation was there in classical Christian biblical interpretation all along, although it had been rejected by modernity in its fatal turn to the autonomous subject.

The difference between postmodern hermeneutics and classical Christian hermeneutics (participatory biblical exegesis) is that the latter generated and embedded itself in a sacramental ontology, that is, a distinctively Christian metaphysics that grew out of the Christian doctrine of God that arose in the first five centuries of the Christian era as the Fathers struggled to express the Biblical Gospel faithfully in their Greco-Roman context.

This is why classical Christian interpretation has a future and postmodern hermeneutics is a dead end. Modernity has had a good run; George dates it from the collapse of the Bastille in 1789 to the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. But despite its mammoth technological achievements, this culture of modernity has failed. Radical Islamists sense the weakness and are inspired to dream of conquest. The signs of the culture of death are omnipresent in the West. Materialism has destroyed the spirit. The New Atheists are anything but avant garde; the real question is not "Can we any longer believe in God?" but rather "Can we any longer believe in man?" God is dead, man is dead and only the last men remain as some rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem.

Evangelicals and Catholics need to join hands in order to plumb the rich treasures of classical Christian theology and philosophy in order to build a new culture in which the Bible can be read as a living, breathing Word from God and which the beautiful sacramental ontology of the first millennium can be recovered as the basis of a worldview in which God permeates culture, nature and the human imagination once again.

Timothy George's magnificent article is a step in that direction.

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