++Rowan on Scripture (Theology Class #2)

Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology,  “The Discipline of Scripture” (ch5)

In this chapter Rowan Williams argues that the discipline required by the Church in order to read Scripture aright is the discipline of time spent with the text of Scripture in the context of the church’s liturgical practice, its lectionary which is connected to the festal cycle of the Church, supremely the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. Patiently waiting upon Scripture, with all its internal conflicts and challenges, is necessary for the church in general, but it has never been more urgent than today, when we (the church) find ourselves struggling deeply with the same conflicts which are plaguing the world around us.

The key word here is “time.” What Rowan is trying to do in this article is in many ways to show how our (the Church’s) reading of Scripture is like, is analogous to, Scripture itself: it is a diachronic process, much to the chagrin, perhaps, of recent reactions to the higher criticism of the previous generation of high modernity, reactions which, even if quite close to Rowan’s own orthodox views (one thinks of canonical criticism a la Brevard Childs), have tended to eclipse the time-bound nature of the narrative in favor of a synchronic reading of the text in which the only “time” acknowledged is the “eternal present” of the reader. Synchronic readings “spatialize” something which is intended to flow through time; they spatialize the narrative of redemptive history.

It is somewhat ironic that Rowan in this article is defending the more explicitly modern ways of reading Scripture such as source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, as well as their modern, positivistic “kissing cousin,” fundamentalism, with its would be “univocal descriptions and exact representation of particular sequences of ‘fact.’” (48)  And yet, at least these approaches (the nonfundamentalist ones, that is) maintain that readers must be attentive to the difficulties and struggles within the text. Unlike the tendencies of some types of canonical and literary approaches, these hermeneutic strategies refuse any easy unity or harmony of the text.

And yet, all of the above modern approaches fail to appropriate and develop the medieval hermeneutic which we see in the sensus litteralis of, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas. It is true that for Thomas this literal sense is primary, but for him the literal sense includes not just the record of the events wrought by God in history, but along with that all kinds of complex human workings such as metaphor and perspective. So where the higher critics of modernity (and the positivistic fundamentalists) fall short of Thomas is in their reduction of historiography down to the something positivistic, but where the literary types (in reaction to the former) err is at the deeper level of the priority of the historical or temporal nature of the text, its “messy” duration through time. For Thomas as well as for Rowan, this must be primary, in a nonreductionistic way.

One way in which we see the fecundity of this medieval approach is that it posits an analogy between the development of the text of Scripture itself though and my (or our) own development through time in our faith journeys. As Rowan puts it, “The time of the text is recognizably continuous with my time.” (49) Synchronic readings, again however, tend to overlook this.
If the Bible’s movement through time mirrors our own movement through-time, then we can also pattern our own reading of the Bible on its movement through time. Hence the festal lectionary of the Church. There is an “analogy of duration between us and the text.” (50)

The use of a scriptural lectionary bound to the festal cycle is “a major mediation of the sensus litteralis,” since the latter includes not just a dramatic mode of exegesis but also a public performance, a “taking of time now for the presentation of the time of the text.” (51)

As we live the Passion narrative(s) during Holy Week, it is as if we don’t know the ending. We enter into the thick of risk and open-endedness. And we have been doing this before the advent of modern criticism: the church has always had, read, and celebrated the confrontational discussion going on between the four Gospels, for example.

Now, modern critical scholars may be correct to emphasize the ideological disputes between, say J, D, and P in the Hebrew Bible. However, as Rowan has already suggested, the pre-modern community of believers had long before modernity accepted and canonized such diversity of voices and agendas Ruth versus Ezra on the issue of cross-cultural marriage; Chronicles versus Kings on the presentation of various kings (or even kingship itself), to take just two examples.  So this cacophony of voices which leads us into discussion and group struggle, has already been embraced by the community of faith. If anything, higher criticism only underlines a point which has already been made.

And if this is so, if this kind of “diachronic” conflict is built into Scripture, then our (individual and corporate) reading of the same ought to be shaped in analogy to this pattern. This means that we can only discern the “inner reality” of Scripture through time spent hearing, considering, and interacting with all the voices in the text over time: seeing and meditating upon the issues, the connections, the questions raised. So, again, our reading of the text takes place diachronically, over or through time. Reading deeply and faithfully takes time.

Where, then, does the unity and coherence of Scripture come from? It comes from its community of readers: not so much that this community simply invents its own meaning, but rather the meaning comes from the connection, or the analogy, that exists between this diachronic narrative we have been considering and the self-identifying practices of the church which it precisely does and did not invent. We are talking about the central things which give this community its identity: baptism and eucharist, which point to the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ, is the hermeneutic key to Scripture, and not some abstract Jesus, but the Jesus who is embodied, and whose life is reenacted, in the church.

In order not to lose this meaning and this identity, we must participate in this same diachronic struggle which we see in Scripture, even as we read it together. It is in the difficulty of the struggle, the risk, the cost, the disappointment, that we open ourselves as the church to Christ, and grasp the possibility of speaking Christ into the world. Far from a cheap pluralism (and the advocates of cheap pluralism do abound), however, we all must remain open to the judgment of the Paschal mystery.


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Nice post, Matt. I’ve added Williams’ book to my Amazon wishlist!

[…] Conversations take time. This fits perfectly with my Vosian understanding of Pauline eschatology. Conservatives look at this posture within Anglicanism and call it “neverending indeterminacy” because they want something given, something spatialized, something fixed, static and stable, some kind of original autographa. Over and against that, what liturgical traditions are really showing is that our life (which is liturgical), that is, our reading of Scripture, takes place in a temporality which is analogous to the temporality of the biblical narrative (as Rowan Williams argues here). […]

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