Recovering the Bible
The Bible contains a verse that scholars like to quote. It is from the book of Ecclesiastes: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is weariness of the flesh” (12:12). In context it serves as a warning against the vain illusion that we can study our way to the Kingdom of God. The spiritual life is not a Kaplan course, nor is it like getting tenure after piling up a good record of scholarly publication.
Of late, I’ve come to see this verse as a wry moment when the Bible makes a prophecy about itself, foreseeing the vast number of commentaries on the sacred pages of scripture. Over the last few years I have been wearying myself as the general editor of an impossibly ambitious project, the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Working with authors on the first dozen or so commentaries, and also toiling on my own effort to write about Genesis, the thought has come to me many times: “Of the making of commentaries on the Bible there is no end, and to be honest, Lord, I’m getting pretty weary.”
Wearying, yes, but often profoundly rewarding, and certainly necessary. From the very outset, faith in Jesus took the form of scriptural commentary. The gospels are punctuated with the refrain: “that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” The Sermon on the Mount is a commentary on the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. St. Stephen’s speech in the Acts of the Apostles provides a summary interpretation of the Old Testament as a whole. St. Paul’s letters are chock full of biblical citations, allusions, and expositions.
Not surprisingly, biblical commentary played a central role in the life of the Church. The Fathers wrote commentaries, far more in fact than treatises on doctrinal topics. The great medieval theologians wrote commentaries. Martin Luther and John Calvin wrote commentaries, as did Cajetan and Robert Bellarmine. For more than a thousand years it was simply assumed than an exegete and a theologian were pretty much synonyms. After all, you need to know what the Bible says in order to develop an accurate account of God and salvation—and you need to study classical doctrine in order to give a clear and cogent account of what the scripture says.
These days this unity can no long be presumed. Over the last two hundred years, the work of biblical interpretation has rotated away from the churchly business of teaching doctrine. Bible scholars have built their own independent intellectual project, one that excludes Church doctrine from the process of interpretation as a matter of principle. The job of the modern historical exegete is to scientifically determine what a particular portion of the Bible meant when it was composed, not how it should be read by the Church today.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Reno on Recovering the Bible
There's an interesting article up on First Things site by R. R. Reno: