Monday, June 25, 2018

Perspicuity 4: Suspended Reading and Wilful Misunderstanding

I once tried to dignify my typical reaction to reading the Old Testament as “The Spiritual Discipline of Bewilderment.” If I were called upon to teach or preach regularly from the Old Testament, the time and effort expended in careful study would doubtless clarify much of what at first seems confusing. I will gladly grant that specialists in Jeremiah might regard this Old Testament book as more understandable than Romans. But while no real discipline is required to be baffled by an initial encounter with an unfamiliar text, I was trying to get at something important about the posture of faithful reading.

A belief in the “verbal plenary” clarity of Scripture may generate an unhelpful anxiety that leads readers to move too quickly from questions to a premature conclusion about the one definitive right answer. After all, if the whole text is clear, I am at fault for not understanding, right?

I am not denying that correct interpretation is a valid goal and that better understanding is, in most cases, possible. I know from experience that puzzling out difficult texts is both arduous and richly rewarding. Still, there is something to be said for practicing a kind of reading that remains suspended between the question and the answer.

According to Augustine, this is the place to begin:
“In all these books those who fear God and are of a meek and pious disposition seek the will of God. And in pursuing this search the first rule to be observed is, as I said, to know these books, if not yet with the understanding, still to read them so as to commit them to memory, or at least so as not to remain wholly ignorant of them.” - Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 2.9.14
What I am calling “suspended reading,” N.T. Wright refers to as living uncomfortably with the text:
“I take it as a method in my biblical studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, ‘Well, in that case, that verse is wrong’ that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But this does not mean that I impose what I think is right on to that bit of the Bible. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with that text uncomfortably, sometimes literally for years . . ., until suddenly I come round a different corner and that verse makes a lot of sense.” - N.T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” 30
Scripture is a multi-faceted splendour that, as Gregory the Great said, is a river where a lamb may wade, and an elephant swim. The pressure to understand may, paradoxically, impoverish reading by leaving no place for wonder, and by making of interpretation an individual pursuit when, to comprehend the text more fully, we need each other’s varied perspectives.

But while it is okay not to understand, and it is important not to rush to easy answers, complaints about the Bible’s complexity are not always innocent. According to Erasmus,
“This doctrine [i.e., the teaching of Scripture] in an equal degree accommodates itself to all . . . . not only does it serve the lowliest, but it is also an object of wonder to those at the top. . . . It keeps no one at a distance, unless a person, begrudging himself, keeps himself away.” - Erasmus, Paraclesis, 96. 

No one put the danger of willful misunderstanding as forcefully as Søren Kierkegaard, and with these two quotes I conclude:
“[I]t is regarded in the world as definitely settled that people would like to know the truth if only they had the capacity and the time for it and if it could be made clear to them. What a superfluous concern, what an ingeniously fabricated evasion! Every human being truly has capacity enough to know the truth …. The one who has any knowledge of himself at all knows from his own experience that it is rather that one has in one’s innermost being a secret anxiety about and wariness of the truth, a fear of getting to know too much.” – Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses, 170 in Westerholm & Westerholm, 340-1.
“Suppose that it was said in the New Testament – we can surely suppose it – that it is God’s will that every man should have 100,000 dollars: do you think there would be any question of a commentary? … But what is found in the New Testament (about the narrow way, dying to the world, and so on) is not at all more difficult to understand than this matter of the 100,000 dollars. The difficulty lies elsewhere, in that it does not please us – and so we must have commentaries and professors and commentaries. … We really wish it to be doubtful, and we have a tiny hope that the commentaries may make it so. … We have invented learning in order to escape from God’s will.” - Kierkegaard, The Last Years: Journals 1853-1855, 334-35 in Westerholm & Westerholm, 347.
Other Posts in This Series:
Perspicuity 1: Is the Bible Understandable?
Perspicuity 2: The NET Bible on Old Testament Obscurities
Perspicuity 3: Limited Clarity, Perspicuous Theology and the Importance of Historical Context 

Works Cited
Augustine, Saint. On Christian Doctrine. Translated by D. W. Robertson. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Erasmus. “The Paraclesis.” Pages 97–108 in Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus with the Life of Erasmus by Beatus Rhenanus. Translated by John C. Olin. 3rd ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1987.

Naselli, Andy.  “On Swimming Elephants.” (For the Gregory the Great citation and the photo of a swimming elephant.)
Westerholm, Stephen, and Martin Westerholm. Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Wright, Nicholas Thomas. “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 7–32.

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