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The Law and the Prophets

Even scriptures that are adhered to by the most rigid of conservatives do not fully dictate their own application. There is always an ‘excess’ in application: decisions made on grounds other than unyielding continuity – pragmatic grounds, aesthetic grounds. That is not simply a failure of continuity, though, or a force that fights against continuity: this possibility of excess is also what makes faithfulness to a text possible in history.

(It is, by the way, easy to slip between talking about texts and talking about power-structures in this context, even though they are not quite the same thing. But what I have said about scriptures is true of ‘power-structures’: they are perpetuated, but always perpetuated differently. Power always evolves – though not necessarily in ways you’d like…)

The relationship between law and prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures is, perhaps, analogous on to this relationship between continuity and excess. Prophecy is the arrival of the word of God at the edges of our current obedience, showing where our obedience is no such thing and calling us to change. You could see it as the excess which makes continuity possible – which calls to new construals of the existing text, a new grasp (pragmatic, aesthetic) of what is central and what peripheral, that is needed in order to carry on. It is not that without prophecy, continued application of the text would involve no excess. No, it would still necessarily evolve over time and space. But prophecy, as it were, authorises evolution in a particular direction – or calls readers back from the direction they thought was the way forward and sets them on another. Prophecy makes obedience to the law possible as obedience – precisely at the same time as, in fact precisely because, it attacks existing obedience to the law, existing construals of the law. Without prophecy there is no faithfulness, only arbitrariness.

And, yes, to those looking back, the claimed ‘authorisation’ will in part be judged by what it made possible – by what happened, or can happen, next.

When John the Baptist is described, he is wrapped in the words of the Hebrew Bible. He is presented as a continuation, a form of faithfulness to the text. But that means (whether we think about John the actual human being, standing in the desert, or “John” the character in the gospel texts) that John will be a new way of reading the text: he will of necessity be excessive – and this is necessarily true before we have noticed the explicit liminality that marks his portrait. But when we go on to look at the details – the desert setting, the raw food, the strange clothing, the asceticism – we can see that John stands explicity for divinely authorised liminality: for that prophetic call to faithfulness which disrupts present obedience. He stands for, announces, represents a call to continuity that explicitly recognises that continuity must be excessive, and therefore must involve us in decision and repsonsibility – and precisely in doing this he stands in the prophetic tradition that has always announced this message, but of necessity stands in it differently (as all the prophets do).

So, yes, John’s liminality is the form that ‘as it is written’ takes.

And, no, I don’t know what to make of the leather belt.


The last two posts, and Rachel’s comments, prompt an aside.

This is one of those times when an apparently clear path turns out to lead into a thicket. And trying impatiently to pull one bramble out of the way pulls several others into view. Several issues are mixed in together; it’s not quite clear that we have hit upon the distinctions or the vocabulary to sort them out; and the point of what we’re saying has become elusive.

It is at this kind of point that it actually becomes necessary to think. To work, to labour at untangling without oversimplifying. I find that my life (the life of an academic theologian!) doesn’t actually involve that many occasions when I am required, in this sense, to think. Most of the time (when I’m not absorbed in those activities in which thinking would be a dangerous distraction – like driving, or attending committee meetings…) my life involves putting myself in places where I might be called upon to think – and then waiting, listening for the call.

It’s not that we’re obviously tussling with big, dramatic profundities. Playing with big, dramatic profundities doesn’t often involve a real labour of thinking, in my experience. We’re simply trying to work out whether anything can be saved from a platitude that seemed like an obvious thing to say about a particular passage. But the labour of thought is set of by small incongruities, small rucks in the carpet.

All this is one reason for reading the Bible slowly, of course: putting oneself on a path that leads into thickets.

Named and caught

In the comments to the last post, Rachel wrote:

Though at the same time John fits into certain patterns and expectations – patterns of what an ascetic/world-renouncing lifestyle should look like. I suppose he couldn’t do otherwise, as soon as he’s described.

and I then speculated that

the liminal position occupied by John [might be]… a socially functional necessity: one of the safety valves that allows the functioning of ‘ordinary life’ … John would then be an ‘interruption’ that, as it were, ordinary life used to perpetuate itself – a ruse of power, perhaps.

I went on to say something about how we might say that John escapes this suspicious reading:

The claim that something else, something other, was becoming visible even in this process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates, is fragile…

But thinking about Rachel’s point makes me realise that my response is facile. John, after all, performs his function in the Gospels in part because he ‘fits into certain patterns and expectations’, because he can be ‘described’ (‘as it is written’…). And yet clearly John is not in any straightforward sense simply the expression of that which is written: he exceeds it, simply by virtue of having concrete existence. I have that itch on the back of my neck that you get when creeping through a deserted mine, realising that one should have bought some decent social theory with you… The contrast between the activity of ‘describing in existing categories’ which perpetuates the existing symbolic order, and the eruption of the decisively new that re-makes that order, is clearly too blunt: ‘existing symbolic orders’ are always changing, always being deployed in new ways, always being inhabited differently. The contrast between the ‘process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates’ and ‘something else, something other…becoming visible’ is a childish one – all too closely related to other contrasts between inwardness and externality that I’ve been taught to eschew. I’m on the wrong track. Ho hum.

John the interruption

John was liminal, uncivilized. When people went to him, they went out: ἐξεπορεύετο . He eats wild, raw food; he is dressed as if fresh from Eden. Cooking, weaving, urban habitation – all the trappings of someone who is part of the world of ordinary, civilized, organized life are missing. John is a surd; he defies categorization. He is a disruptive element, and is to be found in the only place he could belong: in the desert. He is an interruption.

This interruption is what the continuity, the ongoing stability suggested by Mark’s “as it is written” looks like.

Literal and Spiritual (still more)

Okay, so here’s how I see it. Now that I’ve thought about it, I realise that all I’m doing is re-phrasing Hans Frei’s work on the sensus literalis – and, indeed, stuff I’ve said about him already – but, hey, originality is overrated.

Let’s say that the Bible is read within some weave of ecclesial practices, habits, institutions, worldview, ethos. Within that, over time, for readers thoroughly woven in to that context, there will be an ‘obvious’ way of approaching biblical texts – a sensus communis or ‘plain sense’.

Note that this ‘obvious way’

  • will almost certainly be slowly evolving;
  • won’t necessarily cover all biblical texts – simply those which feel most familiar and usable to this group;
  • won’t necessarily lead to consensus about meaning: it might, instead, simply be a consensus about the kind of argument it makes sense to have about the meaning of a particular passage in this group;
  • will shade off into other plain senses at the edges as this group is messily mixed in with other groups in a wider social setting; and
  • may, in fact, not be a single ‘plain sense’ at all, but a set of differing approaches to the Bible which manage, at least temporarily in this setting, to reinforce one another – to be held in some kind of stable equilibrium.

Now, it is only within such a practice that we can talk about ‘spiritual’ and ‘literal’ readings – because the practices by which the Bible is approached in this ‘obvious way’/’plain sense’ will be such that the Bible is both made grist for the group’s mill, sustaining and supporting its existing shape, and also in some ways (perhaps only vestigial) allowed a certain objectivity over against the needs, desires and projects of the group. And so we’re back to ‘use’ and ‘resistance to use’, and so to my earlier discussion. The term ‘literal sense’ can be used to mean either ‘plain sense’ simpliciter, or ‘that side of the plain sense that stands in objectivity over against the readers’.

Literal and spiritual (yet again)

Okay, slight wobble:

What I seem to have ended up doing is, roughly speaking, aligning ‘spiritual’ with ‘sensus communis’, both over against ‘literal’. And yet I learnt my hermeneutics from a theologian who insisted upon the connection between ‘sensus literalis’ and ‘sensus communis’. I don’t want to give up on the latter, so I think a bit more precision may be called for. Which means I may have to think, rather than simply pontificate. Damn.

Literal and spiritual (again)

Here’s the relevant extract from the Cross-Currents article:

One way of attempting to pinpoint [the distinction between literal and spiritual] is to say that ‘spiritual’ interpretation is precisely that kind of interpretation which has to find the Bible useful, or tie it into the framework of already-known truth, whereas literal interpretation is precisely that kind of interpretation which pays attention to the ways in which the Bible resists use – the ways in which it is awkward, diverse, and difficult.

Classically, spiritual interpretation arises precisely when the reader encounters something awkward in the literal sense – paradigmatically, something that is not edifying. By following strange strands of subterranean connection that link this awkward text to others, the spiritual interpreter discovers multiple ways in which the text can be woven back into edification. The text’s strangeness, registered by literal reading, becomes a doorway to the questioning and recovery of what is already known, but it will be a recovery which drives the already-known more deeply into the reader – or the reader more deeply into the already-known. Rather than aligning contemplation simply with spiritual reading per se – which might seem the obvious way to go – we might more properly say that contemplation arises within this whole literal–spiritual process: that it is driven by literal reading’s discovery of strangeness, and explored by spiritual reading’s determination to wait until that strangeness speaks edification.

An instrumentalized Church, however, lives in a broken version of this economy, in which two things have changed. On the one hand the meaning of ‘edifying’ has shifted towards ‘useful’; and on the other the spiritual reading it pursues when faced by texts which do not feed this usefulness is not a form of patience, waiting on the awkwardness discovered by the literal sense, but a form of impatience: a desire to find forms of reading which will not allow this awkwardness to intrude or distract. If literal reading is that kind of reading specifically designed to register and highlight those places where the text is awkward, where it is problematic, where it stands in the way of the uses we would made of it, then we might say that the instrumentalized Church suffers most of all from a refusal of the literal sense.

The kind of literal reading that such a Church needs to learn in order to be saved from itself is one that pays serious attention to the strangeness of the text; it is that reading which ‘resist[s] the premature unities and harmonies of non-literal reading’. Serious attention to textual questions, to grammar, to lexicography, to genre, to redaction, to historical context, to the various hermeneutics of suspicion – all the forms of questing attention which the University encourages – can serve precisely this purpose, and so make true spiritual reading (one which wrestles with the awkwardness uncovered until dawn) possible.

(The quote in the final paragraph is from Rowan Williams, ‘The discipline of Scripture’ in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp.44–59: 47, earlier printed as ‘The literal sense of Scripture’, Modern Theology 7 (January 1991), pp. 121–134