PAGE 3 of our interview with theologian Ephraim Radner…
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2016
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ERB: That is probably a really new idea for many people, because we’re so used to the questions of historicity and historical-critical studies. We have a whole host of biblical studies scholars, and in the United States at least, many pastors tend to preach in a very historical-critical way so that we can get as close as possible to the “original meaning.” Is there a role for historical-critical studies (or biblical studies), a role that is complementary to figural interpretation?
ER: I think there’s a role. I see historical-critical thinking as a discipline. And what is it for? In terms of reading the Bible, it’s a discipline that can be usefully applied as a kind of disorientating discipline. It’s supposed to, at its best, shake up our assumptions about what something means. As soon as it confirms our assumptions about what something means, it’s useless. In the case of the Bible, it’s particularly useful when it shakes up our assumptions because it opens us to the reality that the Word is not ours. So it should be disorienting. Historical criticism has a role, but it’s not exhaustive, it can’t be exhaustive, and once it claims to determine the meaning of the biblical text, it has transgressed its ascetic purposes. So I find it an ascesis. It has a moral value for the reader of Scripture, in the same way that prayer and fasting do.
ERB: One of the typical criticisms of figural reading is that you can make the text say anything you want, because there are no controls. I have not personally found that to be the case when reading figural readers: Augustine has many rules about what makes for a good and a bad spiritual reading. But I know that is a concern for many people. So how do you deal with that?
ER: There are lots of ways of dealing with it. Maybe it’s Augustine’s rule of charity, maybe it’s the church, and so on. There are different ways Christians have indeed ordered their lives such that the reading of Scripture finds certain resting places, a certain container, such that it doesn’t go all over the place.
One thing I would say, though, is that there is a large, very simple criterion. The moment your interpretation forces you to excise, practically speaking, something from elsewhere in the Scripture, you can be pretty sure you are going off the rails. That may seem a pretty broad latitude, but actually I think in practice it’s more rigorous than we might imagine. Most of our criteria for reading Scripture tend to follow schemata of our doctrinal or philosophical views. This becomes the case the more and more we get into contemporary times, but it was also the case for the early church that we get our systematic criteria largely by shutting the door, closing the pages on whole parts of Scripture.
When you start excising whole parts of Scripture—you know, never reading Leviticus—once you start doing things like that, you actually create a place where you are no longer part of Scripture, but only certain parts of Scripture. And therefore certain parts of Scripture are no longer yours. If you get to a place where you have to excise certain parts of Scripture to keep your criteria in place—practically speaking—you’re probably going off the rails.
ERB: In the book, you included four figural sermons in the book. If pastors, or even lay people, want to learn to read figurally or at least experience that, what kind of resources are out there?
ER: That’s a really great question, and a tough question to answer. It probably won’t surprise you to know that I have students who are eager to preach figurally. And it may not surprise you to know that also they don’t do a very good job. It gets intellectually dense and often very abstract and convoluted, and even if it’s not all that in theory, for people who are not used to it who are listening, they can’t follow it. So how do we learn to do this? On the one hand, there is this issue of practice and learning—I think you go slowly. A lot of non-Western preaching is actually quite figural—African, and otherwise. Not just the Pentecostal churches, but mainline churches. So one could actually listen to sermons.
One way to practice is to personalize Scripture. You read a text—Jeremiah thrown into the pit, and the eunuch saves him—and you ask, “How is that me?” If you can actually think that one through and articulate it, then I’m not saying that’s what one preaches about, but then that can be the basis of talking about our lives within Scripture. One then is able to take that personalizing engagement and move to Jesus. Of course, that’s the easiest one—how is Jesus Jeremiah? And that’s the earliest church’s way of doing it. It’s embedded in the New Testament text itself—“This was to fulfill what the prophets said.”
The other side is prayer. One can pray the Scriptures. To pray the Psalms is the best place to start. “Who am I there?” I’ve heard it said that there are always three voices in the Psalms, and one of our exercises is to hear all three of them. One is the psalmist, one is myself, and one is Jesus Christ. To work your way through each psalm according to those three voices is a kind of discipline to try to open the Scriptures up. You can actually go further. You have the speaker who is Israel, who is the church. You can multiply voices. Who is the person in Indonesia? You can try to have various voices take up each of the psalms, and you realize that actually the voices are in the psalm. They’re not extremist. And the exercise becomes increasingly non-artificial. The word actually becomes enlivened in its creative reach.
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