Monday, November 3, 2008

John Goldingay on Evangelicals and Scripture

I was preparing a rant--a, uh, pep talk--to deliver to my Gospels students as feedback on their first essays, when I read this, which says it for me:
If there are no aspects of scripture that they do not like and do not have to wrestle with, then they are kidding themselves. It means that they have bracketed them out or reinterpreted them. That is what as evangelicals we have to do. We know we have to accept all of scripture, so we make it mean something else so we can accept it. As a Bible teacher one of my basic concerns has become simply to get people to read the Bible with open eyes. Some people learn to, others do not. I want people to read the Bible, to be open to finding there things that they had not realized were there, to be enthralled and dazzled and appalled and infuriated and puzzled and worried and stimulated and kept awake at night by these extraordinary words from God, to let their mind and heart and imagination and will be provoked and astonished by them.
- John Goldingay, To the Usual Suspects: One Word Questions (Paternoster, 1998), 153-4.


Phil Sumpter said...

Once he's shocked his students, does he offer some kind of resolution at a higher level, or does he just leave them hanging?

d. miller said...

Hi Phil: I don't know about his students, but In this case he leaves his readers hanging. I agree that some kind of resolution is a good idea.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your response, David. I'm all for the kind of "existential shock" that Goldingay wants to cultivate, but I sometimes get the feeling that deconstruction of this kind develops a dynamic of its own. It's as if those who administer it get a kick out it. In the Gospel, however, deconstruction is always a means to reconstruction, something so many Biblical scholars shy away from.

Bill Erlenbach said...

I'm a little late reading this post, but it is worth commenting on. There is little I can say to Goldingay but to add a hearty "amen." Personally, I am increasingly convinced that not all scripture is meant to be resolved. If for no other reason, it is the dissonance that keeps us intellectually engaged. Were it all resolvable, we would write the definitive book and move on to something else. Scripture compels us to remain engaged precisely because we have to wrestle with it. At least that's how I see it.

d. miller said...


On reading this again it seems to me that the difference between Goldingay's approach and the shock-and-awe tactics of the other Biblical scholars you mention is Goldingay's basic assumption that these are words from God.

Phil Sumpter said...


it is the dissonance that keeps us intellectually engaged.

Is it the dissonance, or the hope that through the dissonance we will arive at a resolution? Without hope in resolution there seems little point in attempting to deal with the dissonance in the first place: you already know your attempts will fail. My problem with, e.g. Brueggemann, is that by aestheticizing dissonance he actually dissolves it. You can only have true dissonance if there is a unity which is supposed to undergird it.

Were it all resolvable, we would write the definitive book and move on to something else.

I agree with your concerns. I just think we still need to posit resolution as the telos of our exegesis, and that by constantly deffering it one is not faithfully using scripture within the church. We should be tentative about our claims, to be sure, and the Bible is rich enough to keep us on our toes. But we shouldn't absolutize diversity into an irresolvable mess at the outset.

One example is the tension between texts where God is presented as absent and those where he isn't. Brueggemann seems content to leave the contradiction: God is both. I would say that the former is subordinated to the latter: God is present. He is never ontologically absent, regardless of what the text says. This reality provides the context for interpreting texts of dispair (and the ground for genuine hope today!). This is confirmed by the way that the canon as a whole constantly reaffirms God's presence. The Psalter, for example, moves from lament to praise. In a similar move, regardless of Qohelet's cynicism, it is subordinated theologically by means of an editorial addition about the value of the law of Moses.

In this sense, I find Brueggemann's unresolvable dialectic between core affirmations and counter affirmations false both theologically and Biblically.

D. Miller,

thanks for getting back on this!

I was indeed thinking of Goldingay. Believing that the Bible is holy scripture doesn't automatically lead one to seek to do constructive theology. Brueggemann would seem to be another example.