[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]
“Probably nothing has contributed more to the misinterpretation of the biblical doctrine of the Word than the identification of the Word with the Bible.” – Paul Tillich
“We must then repeat that Scripture is not the Word itself, but rather the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Word.” – Hans Urs von Balthasar
When it comes to the place of the Bible in the 21st Century North American cultural landscape, one problem is obvious: Conventional Evangelical beliefs about it do not seem to stand up to intellectual scrutiny. Many Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, have long been accused of conceding too much of the Bible’s authority to its scholarly critics. With Christendom in the past and the promises of modernity now arguably in shambles, whether and how people of faith can restore sustainable confidence in their sacred scripture for the future remains a critical and mostly unanswered question. In response, I propose that one promising path forward may be found in the post-critical biblical hermeneutics of the 20th Century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
In von Balthasar’s “theodramatic” imagination, the Christian life is likened to the theater. History is a performance on the world stage. God is the author, the Holy Spirit the director, and Christ the lead actor. Human beings too have an important supportive role to play, as they are called to participate in God’s mission of redemption – to “dramatize,” as it were, God’s will on earth as it is heaven.
As has been suggested by others, I think the Bible should be read and seen as drama as well. In literary terms, the Bible is indeed a great narrative, and like any story, there are key moments that set the tone and determine the way that future events will unfold. The analogy isn’t perfect, but in this light, it can be argued that, while no less inspired or authoritative, the Bible and its interpretation can begin to function in a more dynamic, subtle and compelling way. And when this happens – remarkably! – whether one problematic verse or passage appears to conflict with the character of God as revealed in Christ no longer has the power to undermine the credibility of the entire biblical canon.
One of the main reasons for this is that, viewed as drama, the Bible takes on a shape and an organizing form rather than just a status (inerrant, infallible, etc). Hence, instead of predominately being read as a collection of propositional truth statements or moral guidelines, the structure of the Bible itself and the big story it tells becomes an enriching tapestry into which people get to be woven for the purpose of creating something beautiful and transformative. The problem though is that, without a key or high point to help us discern its overarching pattern, the otherwise revelatory, admonishing and redemptive texts of the Bible can become blurred and confused with the tragic, comic and obscure elements that are also strung throughout. This is why the climax of a drama is so crucial for distilling its most fundamental meaning.
Of course the climax is not all that matters. In fact, the other parts are essential for forming the whole, but the heart and the rhythm that tells us the story’s central significance is utterly lost without its culminating moment. The climax of a drama, therefore, is like the axis of a wheel out of which the supporting characters and events shoot like spokes in every direction. The climax is the key event that captures all others and reorients them into its orbit.
In the case of the Bible’s drama in particular, the climax occurs in the event of God’s self-revelation and dramatic action in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this claim is also what distinguishes the Christian understanding of revelation from that of most other religions, but especially Judaism and Islam. God is shown, and God’s love is demonstrated, by dwelling fully in a human being (Colossians 1), and not first and foremost in a sacred text or law.
Balthasar is also fond of saying that “truth is symphonic.” That is, truth can only be wholly experienced and perceived when presented in more than one form. Hence, there are four Gospels, not one, and they can’t just be synthesized together without compromising the integrity of each one. As symphonic, however, there is a musical key, and therefore a harmony that can be heard between them. According to Balthasar, then, we must bring all of our aesthetic senses to the Bible for an adequate hearing and viewing. Furthermore, just as we must tune in our ears to hear the truth, we need the right scope and lenses for proper vision of it. The form of the Word of God has “plasticity,” Balthasar insists, and such that is only appreciated through a “field” of view:
“Only Scripture itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself. But a body is itself a ‘field’, and it requires another ‘field’ in which to expand, a field part of whose form it must already be if it is to stand in contrast to it. Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God. Even Scripture is not an isolated book, but rather is embedded in the context of everything created, established, and affected by Christ – the total reality constituted by his work and activity in the world. Only in this context is the form of Scripture perceivable.”
But how will we know this form when we see it? How do we avoid arbitrarily relying on our own reason and experience when interpreting Scripture? Reason and experience are crucial, but they can’t be the highest measure of our faith. Something else has to function as a hermeneutical key. As already indicated, and as Balthasar has answered for us, the key is the climax of the drama itself: the person and teachings of Jesus, the one who fulfilled the letter of the written law by going beyond it in divine and human form.
In other words, because there are human and cultural fingerprints all over the Bible, there has to be a climactic light that illuminates each passage to show us the difference between its human and divine components. Karl Barth was another giant figure who stressed that the Bible must become the Word of God, which occurs when it is read and exposited by a faithful, worshiping community. Revelation is an event. It never belongs to an object or text as such. It approaches us more so than the reverse. This would partly help to explain why people are able to use and abuse the Bible for all kinds of distorted ends. Thus – and this is what has been so difficult for modern people – interpreting the Bible is not just an intellectual activity. It is the activity of the eyes, ears and heart in the light of faith, guided by the Holy Spirit and the key of the Incarnate Word. In this way, the church can learn to see and discern its role in God’s drama.
“Retrenchment” is a fitting word to describe the convergence of evangelicalism and modernity.
Thank you for shedding light on Balthasar’s work, it has been very helpful.
While I like this post for its well-supported move away from literal and moral interpretations of the Bible (I like the drama idea… perhaps all worthy literary works are so by their dramatic effect), the concept that the key could possibly be one of the characters in the book itself doesn’t make much sense. The reasoning is obviously circular. If it were possible for people to know Jesus Christ entirely without the Bible or any of its derived works, then it might make some sense as a biographical dramatization. But the Bible is the most original source of Jesus Christ as he can be known to anyone living in this post-Roman era. So I don’t see how he could be the key as has been written above.
What could be a key is the individual reading the Bible. And by this I mean of course that the “incarnate word” is an appropriate identification, but Jesus Christ not so much. By recognizing that each person is him/herself a child of God, and a very real and present incarnation of the Word which authored the entire world, then we have a far more truthful “key” as is being described in this post. In fact, that key is the only one I can see as valid for interpreting any set of ideas, dramatic or otherwise.
The human heart is the measure of all things experienced by the individual; that statement is an obvious tautology. Said another way, each person’s heart (or soul, if you prefer) is his or her key to all of experience. The beauty and majesty and meaning running deep and wide through this marvelous thing we call Life is decoded in the desires and discoveries of each element of it. The true story is so very much more beautiful than being about one man whom no one today could meet or observe. The truth is that all of this is the word incarnate and we sentient ones are the most deeply aware of that and therefore have the best seats to experience it in its radiant fullness.
Thanks always Guy for the quality of engagement you bring in your comments. It’s very enriching.
First, I can clarify that by “key,” when describing Jesus that way with respect to the rest of the Bible, I do not mean for this to be taken prescriptively, as if the rest of Scripture is an outflow of that center. It would be more accurate to say instead that Jesus is a key in the way that we might say “love God, love others” is the key to the rest of the Law. In many ways, Jesus is simply the prototypical human embodiment of that very teaching.
There are many people who can inspire us that we haven’t met. I don’t necessarily see why that’s a problem, especially since we can talk about experiencing the “Spirit of God” or the “Spirit of Christ” as present to us now.
More importantly though, while I do see other more contemporary examples that closely imitate the life of Jesus, I am not aware of anyone who said the things he did before him, or that incarnated the reality of what he taught in a more dramatic and compelling way — brutal torture with the rest of the victims of history while standing by his non-violent and unconditional forgiveness principles at the same time. The meaning that is found in Christ, that judges the injustice of history but offers an alternative path to that of destruction and condemnation, and also gives hope and courage in the face of immense suffering — in all of this I find no parallel.
Of course, that by itself does not prove anything. we are still talking about faith here, and I would say, the more I reflect on it, that faith does indeed start with the individual heart, so there we agree, but not before that heart has been touched or even grasped by the same Spirit that was in Christ. In other words, God approaches us before we approach God. Or substitute any word you want for God there — love, truth, goodness, etc. The point is, human hearts left to their own devices apart from the light of faith and grace that comes from beyond us are unreliable at best and deceitful at worst. It is only by way of a “sanctified” consciousness, which becomes sanctified over much time usually, that human beings can then grow to adequately trust their own heart for discernment of the Real ground of Being, to use another useful phrase I think, and even then it is still that same Ground or Source of Life (God, etc.) that gives us the ability to have a trustful heart in the first place.