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Do we need any more Bible Commentaries?

LECTURE 3 how have we been situated to experience scripture?


In this final lecture, we discuss beginning in the middle: how have we been thrown into the world, so as to experience scripture when we read it.  And the bulk of the lecture this evening will address that modern discipline, Hermeneutics.  This, after all, is the discipline we are all engaged in – and when it’s taught in a Bible College, anyone writing a Bible Commentary can be placed into some category of hermeneutics.




If you’ve ever been accused of telling stories, you probably weren’t being congratulated on your ability to communicate truth.  If Christianity is true, if the bible is reliable – then we have to say that it is based upon fact, not upon myths and stories and fiction.  So, on the surface – it can seem very much as though fiction and scripture are different truths.


If truth is something concrete, solid and unshakeable, then fiction is not a particularly helpful category of truth, if we want to get inside the dynamics of Scripture.  I suppose you could take this topic in any number of directions.  Narrative theology seems like the most frequently trodden path from this kind of question, so I thought we would try to take a different one.


I thought it best to proceed with question of hermeneutics: which in current usage is pretty much just a Greek word for reading.  But no sense in using a short word when a long one will do.  Although the word for Hermeneutics is not without its problems.  It’s become a pretty trendy subject at the moment, so there’s endless literature on the field.  But if we could just dwell for a few moments on the meaning of the word:


Biblical hermeneutics, we generally take to mean Biblical interpretation.  I think we referred to this briefly in question and answers on Monday: that Hermeneutics is a Greek method, assuming the assistance of the demi-god Hermes: a messenger from the gods and, at times, a  messenger from the dead.  Now, in the twenty first century, distanced as we are from the authors of scripture by twenty centuries of unbridgeable chasm, we need Hermes to help us leap the gap.  How can we get our heads around what these Greek and Hebrew people thought and felt and believed?  By studying the language, getting to grips with the historical context, and doing our very best to unearth whatever truth we might discover in Scripture. Then seek to apply that truth to our contemporary life.  It would seem impossible to access these ancient cultures and their beliefs.  


Three cheers for hermeneutics: because in Hermes we have a messenger from the dead.


The trouble is: if you believe in the resurrection, Hermes is left redundant!  If you believe that the Holy Spirit is active in the process of reading Scripture, why on earth would we need the assistance of a Greek demi-god.  Now, I don’t think that this is quite so picky as it might sound, because we are not simply playing with words here.


Hermeneutics as a whole, is still – by and large – preoccupied with only one, single problem: the gap!  The gap that stretches out across the centuries between first century authors, and twenty first century readers of Scripture.  When we allow Hermes to shape our interpretation of Scripture, we adopt a worldview in which the absence of the Trinitarian god is assumed.  Almost invariably, hermeneutics assumes the all-encompassing dominance of something called ‘Historicisim’.




Historicism, in brief, is belief in a linear view of time, the world in a state of constant flux, with the result that people separated from one another by time are thereby rendered mutually incomprehensible.  ‘This stuff happened so long ago, there is no chance of us ever understanding who these people were and what they meant.’  Whenever I read about this false historical humility, I think of my grandmothers.  Being in the same room as the person with whom you are communicating is no guarantee of hearing another person.


But hermeneutics in its present usage, has tended to assume that if only we could bridge the gap of the centuries, we would then be in a position to hear the Authors of Scripture properly.  And for this reason, until recently, the uncovering of Scriptural truth has tended to focus upon digging around in the text to unearth the correct meaning, by which it was assumed we were unearthing the true – meaning.


One of the key turning points in this modern form of hermeneutics, was a 1960 book called Truth and Method by H.G.Gadamer.  He wanted to broaden the practice of hermeneutics from exclusively addressing textual interpretation, to incorporate wider extra-textual considerations embracing the life of the reader more generally. But even for Gadamer, hermeneutics is a discipline that attempts to bridge the historical distance between modern readers and ancient writers.


Of course we want to recognise that historical distance demands humility from the interpreter, but it is not the only, or even the most important problem to be addressed by the reader of scripture.  Other issues are important for biblical interpreters, such as the manner in which the text is enfleshed in the lives of believers.  When historicism dominates hermeneutics, these questions are regarded as a secondary concern.


We all know the logic:  the text contains something called truth or meaning – so, the modern interpreter must strain away in their study, using all available tools, to unearth that truth or meaning – to extract it from the text as though we were mining for gold.  And then, once you have extracted the truth from the context that actually made it true, you can set about making it true for contemporary people!  It was the kind of approach Rudolf Bultmann received a lot of criticism for, and it’s the same approach that tends to dominate contemporary patterns of preaching.




So, to look for alternative patterns of grappling with truth, it seems helpful to go back through Gadamer to Gadamer’s teacher, Martin Heidegger.  Heidegger recognised that there are various different ways of encountering truth:  


There is the correspondence theory of truth.  Does a description match with the evidence?  Truth corresponds to facts.  Therefore, if you are a sound Christian and you offer your assent to all the correct facts of the Christian faith: the truth will set you free!  All you need to do is unload the Christian facts in someone’s general direction, and you have preached the gospel.  


Then there is Pragmatic truth – one that is prevalent among Baptists and increasing numbers of other traditions.  That is, William James is the name most frequently associated with Pragmatism – saying that truth is proven by its results.  If it works, it’s true – the Alpha Course is successful, therefore it is blessed by God.  Pragmatic truth.


There is the relativity theory of truth: this is my truth, tell me yours.  Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty. Everyone has access to their own version of truth.  You may have gone to the trouble of learning the biblical languages, you may have been studying the historical context, learning the text itself by heart and worked it into your prayer life.  But I just read it in English for the first time, and my view is no less valid than yours.  


Of course the caricatures are wildly unfair to the philosophies of truth, but to some extent they are manifestations of these different theories.  Heidegger however, adopted a rather different approach to truth.  He goes back to the original Greek words for truth.


You may know the Greek word, Aletheia.  But – before Plato, Heidegger argues, it was a word that came in two parts.  Letheia refers to that which is concealed, and the alpha served as a privative.  So A-letheia is an event, an occurrence.  I suppose in English the nearest equivalent would be un-veiling.  In essence, that is as far from a concrete notion of truth as it is able to get.  That is the kind of truth that you can actually imagine being liberating – Truth, for Heidegger is active and dynamic, there is a reverberation, something that you grasp with both hands so the electric shock runs through you.  Truth is a shaking, a disturbing event.  And it presupposes confrontation – not in the sense that you exchange fisticuffs in order to discover it – but in the sense that there is mutual coming together that has an impact upon who you are: truth, is self involving – and requires an encounter with another.


But – at the same time, Heidegger also had diagnosed modern western society with a kind of ontological amnesia.  We have forgotten what it is to be – to consider the world beyond the immediate, the pragmatic, the familiar.  And to let that world and all the otherness it represents to have any kind of impact upon us.  In this sense, our capacity for disruption is minimised.  


We view other people, other nations and cultures, as resources to use for our immediate purposes.  And we do this, whilst maintaining the genuine belief that we are open, that we do experience other cultures.  I’m not racist!  I am open-minded.  I am culturally aware because I have travelled widely.  I suppose the best example is a television advert on one of my kids’ dvds – for Disneyland:  “Experience the culture and cuisine of fifty different countries.”  In Disneyland – as part of your fanstastic Disneyland experience…  Now, that says a lot!  


If we were created to use things and love people, the era we now live in, says Heidegger, expects us to love things and use people.  The word he used to describe this era, was Technology!  We want to use everything and everyone at our disposal – we treat everything as a resource.  In fact, we unashamedly use the language now of Human Resources.  But think of how people born in the technological era are likely to use Scripture: well that’s it – scripture is something to be used: like everything else it becomes a resource.  Something for us to use, for some other purpose.


But we never consider what that purpose is.  I think this is the brilliance of the super-computer in Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy: as it calculated the ultimate meaning, to life, the universe and everything – the answer – as you know – is 42!


The technological world is one we are stuck inside, says Heidegger.  We are imprisoned within it.  We may like to think we use technology, but technology shapes us – we have become resources.  The aeroplane sits on the tarmac, he says, apparently awaiting our use.  But really – we have allowed the world to shape us to the extent that we cannot see how the aeroplane is using us… the tail is wagging the dog.


In this technological prison, says Heidegger, Aletheia – this active reverberation of truth, grinds to a halt. There is no un-veiling.  We cannot be confronted with otherness.  Cultural, spiritual, even relational.  Aletheia loses its dynamism.  Truth abandons us, and we are left only with truth that serves us as a resource.


If Heidegger is onto something with this description of our culture, then how would biblical interpretation be understood?  It will be understood as Hermeneutics – where we employ the services of Hermes to provide us with technically correct readings of Scripture.  


When I was studying theology at Oxford, I used to read commentary after commentary on the different books of the bible.  


When I’d finished the Bible Speaks Today series, I moved onto other things – critical commentaries on Scripture, which focused in so much detail upon the individual words and meanings of Scripture – I was convinced it would be great for my spiritual life.  I read the whole of Sanday and Headlam’s International Critical Commentary, Driver on Genesis, Vincent Taylor on Mark.  And I was astonished that, having read these books so earnestly – there was no great out-of-this-world spiritual experience.  After all, I jolly well felt I’d earned it!  But commentary after commentary simply re-inforced the presumed Christian values of the day, and gave nothing I didn’t already know.  Jesus became tedious, predictable – and despite the best efforts of the Alpha course, he became boring.  


Going back to Heidegger’s diagnosis of modern western society: we being stuck in a technological world where we love things and use people, this world in which we forget any ultimate purpose beyond the practicalities of life, this technological era from which there was no escape.  Heidegger, the virtual atheist, threw his hands up in despair and said ‘only a god can save us’.  And if a god were to save us, how would it be?  Through Poetry!  Through Poesis, in the Greek.  Now somebody mentioned this yesterday – and you probably saw the cogs of my brain trying to process it: if art is something that disturbs, shouldn’t a bible commentary be a work of art.  Heidegger would say three cheers to that because art is a form of poesis.


Art – in whatever form it comes to us, be it through literature, poetry, dance, music and so on, has the capacity to confront.  In Greek, poesis is constructive – in English we might think of the word ‘creative’.  And what art does, according to Heidegger, is confront us.  It forces us to realise that there are other ways of seeing the world – and as such, it confronts us with ‘otherness’.  Art is not simply something we observe, but something that impacts upon the way that we observe and encounter and engage.  Not something that looks pretty in an otherwise ugly world – but something that changes the way that you see the whole world.


For Heidegger – in the first instance, the confrontation with ‘otherness’ – places a question mark against the universal validity of your own worldview.  Something from beyond that disturbs, discomforts us, questions us – when this happens, it reveals at the very least – that there might just be other ways of understanding ourselves and our place in the world.  There might just be other ways to be.  Until I was in my mid twenties, I was convinced that Radio 1 was the only Radio channel that existed.  But becoming aware of the fact that you are actually tuned in, alerts you to the fact that you could be listening to Radio 2 (which was where Radio 1 DJ’s went to work after they die).  The awareness that we are attuned, says Heidegger, alerts us to the fact that we could be attuned to other ways of being and seeing and acting and relating and believing.


And poetry is the word he used to describe this salvation from technological imprisonment.  






So – if we pause for breath here and scan back briefly at the ground we have covered so far…


Truth was originally a verb – Saint Paul uses it this way!  Truth is an active, dynamic, relational encounter.  But, when the technological worldview dominates – truth becomes something static, lifeless, and dull.  However – the purpose of poetry and art and literature – is to awaken again the dynamic quality of truth, by exposing us to genuine otherness.


So – if truth is something that we expect to experience in Scripture, we would hope that it is not simply the correspondence version of truth: where we can equate words that are written with events in the real world.  But truth as genuine Aletheia – unveiling, rug-pulling, penny-dropping, gob-smacking truth.


And that kind of truth hurts – and Hermes isn’t much help in bearing that kind of truth.  But, if the Holy Spirit is active in the reading process, then it may involve more than quietly ensuring that our grammar grinding and etymological efficiency is maximised.  If poetry is concerned with confrontation with absolute otherness, then who embodies such genuine Wholly Otherness and the Holy Spirit?


Or – translated into God-talk – the Holy Spirit is a poet, an artist.  In Heidegger’s sense, confronting us with holiness, with otherness, and leaving our understanding of ourselves and the world, forever changed.  That otherness may come to us from the words of someone who’s been dead for a generation, or for two millennia.  That otherness may fail to come to us from someone in the same room as us – thinking back to my grandmothers.  But, in engaging with the truth that we encounter in Scripture, we are engaging with Holy Scripture.


And if Holy Scripture confronts us with otherness, in all its glorious disturbance and disruption – then it entails death and resurrection as part of the hermeneutic process.  And resurrection is an act of the Holy Spirit.  This is made clear in one of Barth’s earliest pieces on Biblical interpretation.  Barth spoke about the strange new world of the Bible – seeing the bible not as a resource – but as an undiscovered territory.  The further in you enter, the stranger it gets, and before long – instead of being the one asking the questions, you find yourself being questioned at the deepest level by your experience of what you find in this strange new world.




So, it’s time now to re-enter that strange new world, and hopefully to encounter it as strange.  In New Testament studies, probably one of the most exciting areas of research at present (apart from synagogue research) is on the notion of grace – and in particular, the work of Professor John Barclay.  I also mention grace, because it is a concept taken up by some of the philosophers to whom we have been referring this week.  Derrida was obsessed with the notion.  His work on grace, was based largely upon that of Emile Benveniste who I mentioned yesterday.  And the postmodern writers love grace precisely because of its disruptive element – it’s capacity to disturb, to shake us out of our interpretive assumptions.  


Now, the postmodernists, for all their genius, have concluded that ultimately – there is no such thing as grace, or gift.  Because, we have all been taught that grace has to be selfless, that there can be no hope of a return.  That if you act graciously, you get nothing back.  An investment, in which you know there is no return.  And the problem with grace / gift giving is perfectly summarised in that TV show, Big Bang Theory – in which the autistic character Sheldon hates receiving gifts.  Because on receiving a Christmas present from his friend, he says,


'Sheldon: Oh, Penny. I know you think you're being generous, but the foundation of gift-giving is reciprocity. You haven't given me a gift, you've given me an obligation.


Penny: Now, honey, it's okay. You don't have to get me anything in return.


Sheldon: Of course I do. The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you've given me. It's no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year.'


This is how the postmodernists criticise grace / gift.  They say that on the one hand it is supposed to be selfless, incommensurate, one-sided.  But always and invariably, at some level – the giver expects something in return.  Even if it is a later reward from God or a sense of self-satisfaction.  


Now Barclay, who’s read all these postmodern philosophers, comes along and says NO!  Never in Scripture is there a gift without a return at some level.  And the return you expect from a gift, is some kind of relationship with the recipient.  By offering grace, you are inviting someone to relate with you in a particular way.  And what really stands out about grace – is that you are indiscriminate with it.  Grace is not a completely selfless act, because you always expect some return.  But… grace is completely indiscriminating – cutting right through social conventions.


You give grace regardless of the recipient’s worthiness.  That, he says, is the New Testament notion of grace.  


So, let us turn to the New Testament – to the passage from Luke that – as virtually all contemporary commentators agree – is a passage about economic reciprocity:



Luke 6




Blessings and Woes


20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:


‘Blessed are you who are poor,


   for yours is the kingdom of God.


21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,


   for you will be filled.


‘Blessed are you who weep now,


   for you will laugh.


22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[d] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.


24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,


   for you have received your consolation.


25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,


   for you will be hungry.


‘Woe to you who are laughing now,


   for you will mourn and weep.


26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.


Love for Enemies


27 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.


32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.[e] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.


37 ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’




Economic Reciprocity


This is a section of text that comes from what is widely called the Sermon on the Plain – although perhaps more accurately, the Prohecy on the Plain!  It makes particular claims about economic reciprocity – one of the key elements of Barclay’s research.


Reciprocity refers to the assumed necessity of earning and owing ‘payback’, the notion that acting for the benefit of another somehow places them in your debt, thereby earning credit for you.  Most recent commentators (e.g., Bovon, Edwards, Green) have recognized this as the primary theme running through the main body of the Prophecy on the Plain.  The reason it attracts such unremitting attention from Luke – not only throughout the duration of this prophecy, but through the entirety of the Gospel – is that economic reciprocity was a primal cause of the pressures faced by his contemporaries on a daily basis.  Reciprocity concerns the manner in which debts are both created and cleared, the bonds of obligation they establish, and the kind of society they sustain.  It was, in sum, a (if not, the) major factor shaping the day-to-day life of the Galilean peasant.  As David Graeber’s comprehensive survey of debt has highlighted, throughout history,


'… the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors—of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery.'


Graeber’s general claims are particularly and profoundly true of Lower Galilee in Jesus’ day, where a prophet who failed to tackle these issues could never have earned any reputation as a prophet in the first place.  This is by no means to reduce Jesus’ prophecy to an economic or political speech.  The separation of life into tidily distinct and non-overlapping spheres of concern (i.e., political, economic, spiritual etc) is very much a modern myth that our pre-modern ancestors would have rejected as naïve.  In his magisterial study of ancient Indo-European concepts, Emile Benveniste finds that,


'… [e]verything relating to economic notions is bound up with a far wider range of ideas that concern the whole field of relationships between men and the relations of men with the gods. These are complex and difficult relations in which both parties are always implicated.'


It is for this reason Jesus tackles economic questions at such length at the outset of his campaign.  Economic realities reach deep into the heart of every human, and as such are not beyond the attention or concern of the Yahweh worshipped as Lord of every dimension of the cosmos.  


The Challenge


All of this to say, that if this is true – what does this require of a commentator?  Should this be on the radar of a commentator?  If the commentary is a work of art, should the commentary seek to help the modern reader grasp the implications of grace for their own day?  


Part of the modern quest to keep Christianity away from public life, is to ensure that key Christian notions, such as grace, are kept carefully separate from public life.  It is a private affair, a church affair – and we all know, after all, because we have been trained to think, the religion and politics are not supposed to mix.  


Now it may be that the commentator’s job is not to draw political conclusions from biblical texts – perhaps that should be the job of the preacher.  But … if, as virtually every contemporary academic working in this or related fields argues … economics, as Benveniste argues – reaches deep into the psyche of every human.  It is part of the world into which we are thrown.  If we begin in the middle, then the contemporary reader and the temporary commentator alike, are imprisoned within an economic worldview that shapes the way we think and believe and act.


Today, the greatest ideological force shaping our worldview is that of Neoliberal economics.  That is, the belief not that governments should limit the powers of the market.  Those days are long passed.  Nor that governments should not interfere with the market (that is classical liberalism).  Instead, governments are supposed to be quietly subservient to the market.  So, as any economist will point out.  If you want to be the most powerful person in the world today, your job is not to try to become the president of the United States – but the CEO of Goldman Sacks.  


Now the way that this economic ideology works, is that wealth is drawn from the periphery to centre – from the poorest people on the planet, to the corporate titans who are the one percent of the one percent.  And rules are handed out, from the powerful centre to the periphery.  And of course, if something goes horribly wrong- like the banking crisis of 2008 – then where does the blame go?  To those at the centre that caused the banking collapse? Or to those on the periphery – to immigrants, benefit recipients, foreigners?  


Economic reciprocity was as invisible to the people of Jesus’ day whose lives it utterly shaped.  And precisely the same is true of Neoliberal capitalism today.  It is the air we breathe, and we tend not to think of it at all, or to believe that there is any alternative to the way things are.


If we begin in the middle, this is the middle in which we begin – this is how we have been shaped to experience scripture.


A vampire squid is wrapped around the face of humanity – and the church is busy clipping the toenails of humanity and calling it ‘salvation’


What then, does it mean, to hear Jesus’ words of grace?  What is the role of the commentator in bringing the implications of Jesus’s prophecy to life in our own day?  If the commentator highlights the invisible economic ideology of Jesus’ day, but fails to highlight the same economic ideology of the reader, is a commentary complete?  If we begin in the middle, should the commentator spell out what that middle is!  


Or is that simply asking too much of the commentator?


I have left a little more time for discussion today, because the question of what we need from commentaries, is best addressed by you.  









VTBS PIcture 3