Friday, October 20, 2006

Liturgical Exegesis

Alastair has an interesting post up about the idea of Double Resurrection and Double Justification taught by James Jordan. If I had nothing but time this would be the sort of stuff I would like respond to at great length. However, I do have a job, so I will just respond to one paragraph that stuck out.

Most contemporary Christians would believe that such a passage is far too obscure to play any role in our doctrine of justification and that Paul’s theology never could have been informed by such a thing. This is the natural response for Protestants, who have very little time for liturgy. The assumption is that the ‘Bible’ is the only place where God’s revelation of saving truths is to be found. There are a number of problems with this notion. Chief among them is the fact that what we call the ‘Bible’ is a relatively recent creation. The people of God of previous ages encountered the Scriptures in the form of liturgical performance not as we do, by reading words off the pages of our mass-produced, privately-owned Bibles. It should not surprise us that, approaching the Scriptures as they do, most modern Christians make little sense out of it.


Alastair is advocating here the fact that the Scriptures should primarily (or at least equally) be revealed in the liturgy of the church rather than a book in the hand. The context is about why an ‘obscure’ passage (his words not mine) like Numbers 19 might actually be essential in understanding justification. His argument is that through the liturgy such passages would have received the proper emphasis and that through the liturgy it would be lived out in the life of the believer. Alastair explains further in another post.

If the Bible was given to be encountered primarily as a printed or written text the Church is not that necessary. However, I believe that the Bible was given to be ‘performed’ (much as the Shakespearian play). The chief ‘performance’ of the Bible is that which occurs in the Church’s liturgy. It is read aloud in the lectionary. It is prayed, sung, meditated upon, memorized and recited. Its story is retold in various forms. It is our conversation partner and our guide.


While, I certainly agree that we should read the Bible, pray the words of Scripture, and sing psalms during worship that misses the point. Was the Bible primarily written to be encountered and performed? Is a Sunday liturgy to be the main way that people get the Word of God? Does having a Bible in every believer’s home that they read daily make the Church unnecessary as Alastair claims? I do not believe so, but first let us see the other implications of this idea as put forth by Alastair himself.

The Bible that most modern Christians think in terms of is an object; what we encounter in the liturgy is nothing less than the personal Word of God, Jesus Christ Himself.


This is not only a denial of the power of the Spirit in reading the word of God (at least a significant downplaying of it), but it sets the stage for a sacerdotalism where the Church is necessary to dispense the benefits of Christ. There can be no way to encounter Christ with out the minister/priest. There can be no way to receive forgiveness without the church service and perhaps specific points in the service. Without ‘inhabiting’ or becoming part of the liturgy then we are separated from Christ. This paves the way for the necessity of the words of absolution from the minister, and the sacraments and other elements of the worship service. Salvation occurs weekly as we live out the story again and again in the worship service. Subtly here the definition or purpose of worship has changed from glory we give to God to salvation we receive from God.

Secondly and just as important is this point:

It seems to me that the displacing of typological and liturgical ways of reading Scripture and the rise of pure grammatical historical exegesis owes much (for numerous reasons) to the invention of the printing press. . . Liturgy provides us with a hermeneutical context for reading the Word of God.


The liturgy is not just something we do as a we to encounter and participate in Jesus Christ, but it is a way to read the Bible. This debate over John 6 is a good example of a practical debate about the subject. It is not as important as what Jesus meant when he spoke of eating his flesh, but it is more important of how the readers of John’s gospel would have read that phrase with regard to their worship service. It also is the point of the original post by Alastair. For Alastair, we do not get our understanding of justification primarily by reading the Scripture and trying understand what it says. Instead we should get our understanding from the Liturgical Word and it supposed forerunner in Israel. This is what he means by using the liturgy as a hermeneutical tool. This point is nothing more than a complete reversal of the Reformational Sola Scritptura. How do we interpret Scripture? Alastair’s answer is through the tradition of liturgical worship. In fact, he is arguing that the liturgy is the way for believers to encounter Scripture. There is nothing wrong with your leather bound Bible per se, but you should read it through what the Church says about it via the liturgy.

I do have a few objections to Alastair’s view. The first is Acts 17:10-13. The Bereans appear to do just the opposite of what Alastair advocates. They go to the service, listen attentively and then read the service through the light of the Scripture, not the Scripture through the light of the liturgy/service. And the Spirit calls them ‘more noble’ for doing so. II Timothy 2:15 seems to counter his understanding as well. ‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’ This sound much more like the grammatical parsing and rational thinking through the Word that Alastair seems to eschew rather than the ‘inhabiting’ the word through the liturgy advocated in the posts.

A second point is with the historical understanding that underlies his position. The Scriptures were originally written down before they were used in the liturgy. They existed as books and epistles long before the existed in a liturgy. While it is true that before the printing press not everyone had a nice bound copy to stick in their pocket and church may have been the way many heard the word, it does not change the fact that they were originally written. Let us not forget that we see the Bible existing as we have it now quite early on. Athanasius in the 4th century gives a list of the books that stand in our bible, meaning that churches and people were collecting the inspired books into one canon by that time. The Muratorian Fragment suggests is was by the 2nd century and the collection of Marcion suggest even in the 1st century people were gathering it all into one book rather than keeping it only in the liturgy. They are not originally a play as his Shakespeare analogy would suggest, but rather they are originally a novel turned into a play, and when it was turned into a play is up for some debate. We have far earlier evidence of men using the Scriptures as we would use a modern English bible than we have of early liturgies. In fact, the Roman liturgy seems to be no earlier than 451, which is different than the Liturgy of St. James and the Eastern liturgies (5th Century), and they differ still from the Gallican liturgy (494), which is different than the Alexandrian liturgy (late 4th century), and still it differs quite radically from the heretical liturgies (5th Century) of Nestorius. In fact, we have several confessions of faith that pre-date these liturgies.

The high liturgical service of the Middle Ages was not necessarily the worship service of the early church.
In fact this a great example of the problem of using liturgy to encounter the Word and as our hermeneutical guide. The idea that the Lord’s Supper was anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation was rejected by the church at least through 9th century. Yet, it changed and the bread became the body and John 6 was used a proof text. Christians before the 10th century would have understood John 6 in a completely different way than those after. This makes the ever changing liturgy a very shaky guide to finding truth in the Scripture. Instead of the liturgy being a way to find typological meaning it seems to be a way for meaning to be created and/or lost. For the record the grammatical historical method of exegesis existed at least since Theodoret (5th century).

It should also be remembered that letting the Church interpret Scripture did not lead to a greater understanding of the Word, it led to no one understanding the word. There was mass ignorance of what the Bible actually taught until the printing press. This is one of the points of the Reformation, everyone should be a Berean.

2 Comments:

Andrew Duggan said...

Thanks for that great defense of Sola Scriptura; well said.

Alastair said...

I have posted a response on my blog.