Edward W.H. Vick: Interpreting Scripture
by Dr. Edward W. H. Vick, author of From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully, Philosophy for Believers, Creation: The Christian Doctrine and more!
Being Faithful to the Text
Since the Scriptures are in some sense fundamental for the Christian theologian, how is he to be faithful to them in constructing theology? What does it mean for him to claim that what he says is in accordance with the Scriptures?
Is he simply to repeat what the Scriptures say? But that would not be to interpret. To repeat is not to bring us any closer to understanding, but only restates our problem, when we have difficulties with the text. But of course the theologian does not begin from scratch. He does not start on his own. He stands within a tradition of interpretation to which he is indebted both positively and negatively. He affirms and he criticises what that tradition says. If he is at all constructive he follows and he departs from the guidance it gives him.
The writer lived a long time ago. Is the temporal gap between him and us important or not? It may be. Time separates. I may be able to understand his meaning, and without any difficulty make it my meaning (whether I agree or disagree with it). But suppose his circumstances are very different from mine and what he said was closely related to his very different circumstances? Suppose indeed that what he took for granted can no longer be taken for granted since his culture no longer exists. How shall I interpret what he meant so that it has meaning for me? His words may well have a different meaning for me than they had for him. If that is the case, can we speak about being faithful to his meaning? How shall we know whether we are ‘taking’ his words correctly in our different situation? Note that the situation is different from one in which we want to know what the writer meant and could not (for various reasons) get him to pronounce on it (e.g. he was silent or he was dead). We are now asking whether there is a relation between his meaning and ours such that we may say that our meaning is a faithful interpretation of his.
‘Faithful’ here may mean: (1) that there is some common meaning or intention which we can specify between his meaning and ours; (2) that a generalization can be made to cover both meanings; (3) that our meaning is a possible derivative from his, that he may well have meant and understood what we understand by it if he were in our circumstances. In each case we have considered all the evidence available, historical, linguistic, literary, and theological. (4) that we in our time share the intention which the Biblical writer and in particular the writer of the New Testament shared and that we attempt to execute it in our context. The task is to interpret the revelation of God in Jesus Christ which takes place here and now. This involves presenting its meaning for us and its application to the situations which we now encounter. The continuity of the task is thus rooted in the continuity of God’s revelation in the past with his revelation in the present. This involves moving beyond strict ‘biblical’ theology to constructive or systematic theology.
Langdon Gilkey addresses himself to the question ‘how the theologian is “faithful” to the scriptural source and how he or she shows a continuity with the spirit of major elements of tradition.’4 He writes, ‘Does this mean the theologian copies or repeats the words, the categories, the propositions of Scripture and tradition; that he or she makes a précis of Scripture or writes a commentary on accepted dogma? If copying or repeating is futile because anachronistic, what is it that the theologian “draws” from this source and this resource?’5
He explains that the Christian tradition has a set of central symbols, through which it interprets the meaning of beliefs, values and goals.
‘In the Christian tradition these symbols find their normative expression, and for theology their source, in the Scriptures, since their primary reference is to the events of revelation to which the Scriptures witness. It is these symbols that are reinterpreted in various ways in tradition; and it is they that the theologian must reinterpret, re-present, in a manner intelligible to us and yet “appropriate” or faithful to their sense in their original locus.’6
The symbols to which Gilkey refers are such as the following: God as Lord, as judge, as electing, choosing, covenanting; God as giver of the Law, God as redeemer, God as faithful; the covenant, the elected people, the Messiah, the new age to come. These symbols familiar in the Old Testament reappear in a new pattern in the New Testament where they are centred around Jesus Christ. In turn, new symbols emerge: incarnation, atonement, resurrection, trinity, second advent.
He then explains the task of theology in reference to these symbols.
‘“Biblical theology” is the attempt to give a unified account of these symbols as they appear in the Old and New Testaments; historical theology is the story of these symbols as they have been reinterpreted in the tradition. Theology as a whole, then, concerns itself with these symbols and with their power to illumine our existence. The awesome and risky task of “constructive” or “systematic” theology is to provide or propose a unified contemporary understanding of that same complex of symbols, an understanding that is (a) faithful to their original sense in Scripture and tradition, (b) adequate to our own general experience, and (c) intelligible in our time.’7
Doctrine does not simply repeat or summarize the Scripture. For one thing, it uses language not found in Scripture. For another thing it is selective. How then does doctrine, theology, interpret Scripture? The task of systematic theology is to present the meaning for today of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. In doing so it uses language which the Bible does not use. The Christian Church has done that from the beginning. Such theology is constructive in that it does for us today what the writers of the New Testament were doing in their time: interpreting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What we are in our turn interpreting in expounding the New Testament writings is itself a series of interpretations of this fundamental event. That event is Jesus Christ. As history proceeds each particular church community reflects upon the meaning of Jesus Christ for itself, and relates that meaning to the special circumstances of its own history. It will also take account of, and select from, the long history of Christian tradition that which it finds amenable and suggestive for its doctrinal construction.
So what does it mean for a doctrine or a theology to be in harmony with, to be faithful to Scripture? Let us look at alternative answers to the question:
(1) repeating the original words of Scripture;
(2) repeating the original meaning of Scripture;
(3) making a direct application (where possible) of the original meaning of Scripture;
(4) making an indirect application of the original meaning of Scripture;
(5) providing meaning not contradicted by passages of Scripture, where there are such passages as treat of the same subject;
(6) providing meaning not contradicted by Scripture, for the reason that Scripture does not speak about the same subject;
(7) doing today in our way what the writers of Scripture did in their way, namely to interpret the meaning of God’s action in Jesus Christ as we have experienced it, and in meaningful contemporary language, addressing men and women who live in our world and in no other.
The right place to begin is with the last of these suggestions (7). We shall understand Scripture only if we know the reality they were proclaiming: the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ and the faith which has responded to it. That happens now and the light from that continuing event illuminates the whole of life in our world: a very complex world. It is our task to show now how that event, that experience, casts light on our problems, for instance on our self-understanding or our understanding of our social relationships and on what we have learnt about it from the psychologist and the sociologist. How does the Gospel illuminate our world in which barbarity and oppression, affluence and abject poverty, hatred between human beings and totally inadequate social and political measures to cope with world problematic etc. etc., are so evident? It is this world of advanced knowledge scientific and technological that has made our outlook so different from ancient peoples in which we understand and present the Gospel of Jesus Christ as best we can. It is in this world that we address ourselves ever anew to the questions of humanity, Who is God? What is man? Why is there evil? Can there be hope? Who am I?
We shall as we do so construct our answers in different ways. Sometimes Scripture language will seem appropriate. At other times the language of Scripture will be very remote from the problems with which we wrestle. That is only to be expected. They did not live in our scientific, bureaucratic, technological and international world. But that to which they witness is that to which we witness. We are bound together in a common witness and in a common task.
To attempt to fulfil this task will obviously take us beyond the text of Scripture . It will involve us in construction of language and ideas, in the use of words and concepts from secular and non-theological spheres. But in being faithful to Jesus Christ, we are in our turn and in our way being faithful to the Bible.