Who Owns the Bible? Toward the Recovery of a Christian Hermeneutic by Karl Donfried (Crossroad: 2006)
Originally presented at St. Luke Lutheran Church (Belmont), Chicago, December 2007
Who owns the Bible? I will begin with three quotes, which in different ways lead to Donfried’s answer. A. The Church. B. The Church. C. The Church.
Maintaining the indissoluble link between Christology and ecclesiology, Donfried quotes John Knox, “To speak of the church in its true identity is to speak of the event in which it arose, the event of which Jesus was the decisive center; and to speak of him in his true and only important identity as Christ and Lord is to speak of the Church, where alone he is known as such.” And since, quoting Donfried, “the early church understood the incarnation, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus to be central to their proclamation and teaching, anyone who rejected these indispensable components of the Christian narrative would be engaged in an alien hermeneutic namely, an interpretation of the Christ event that was in effect opposed to its essential meaning and dependent on extrabiblical conceptualities.” Such were the varied movements designated Gnostic, which both assimilated and distorted earlier traditions about Jesus having been handed on through the apostles and their successors for alien purposes.
The third quote illustrates what Donfried insists should be the interpretative stance of contemporary Christian interpreters of scripture. The statement of Raymond Brown will appear three times in the book: “What the biblical text said to its first readers should be related to what the text says to me, because I am a Christian heir to the people of Israel and the people of the early church, and not independent of them.” While anyone and everyone in our society can easily purchase a Bible at their nearest bookstore, Donfried eschews the principle of private judgment as having relevance for the church. There is no equal right even for Christians “to interpret normatively the meaning of the Bible for the Church Catholic.”
A rather different assumption seems to prevail in the second phase of the ELCA study on sexuality: “The Holy Spirit clarifies the meaning of biblical texts through dialogue in the church—the communion of saints.” (Journey Together Faithfully, ELCA Studies on Sexuality, Part Two, p. 14.)
The contemporary situation is rife with conditions that allow for the imposition of “alien hermeneutics” even within the church. Donfried paints a grim picture of the state of biblical interpretation today within the churches. He charges the mainline Protestant churches with neglect of the Bible in preaching, adult education, and Christian education for children. Both the Religious Right and the Religious Left have their distinctive “fundamentalism.” His charges against the right would be familiar to divinity students trained in historical criticism of scripture: for the right “every word of the good book serves as a quotable authority for all human situations, whether personal, communal or political” without regard to historical context. Jesus is therefore not regarded as the “interpretative key for all scripture.”
His major charge against the left is that it has replaced a theology of redemption with a theology of acceptance in which God is love conceived narrowly as affirmation of the other. Instead of biblical notions of justice, this emphasis is identified with inclusion. The left’s concentration on historical settings and prehistories at the expense of the text’s broader canonical context leads to atomistic interpretations that are also fundamentalistic. And this leaves the door open to ideologies in vogue, resulting in alien hermeneutics and the disabling of texts.
In contrast, Donfried proposes a “Trinitarian hermeneutic of scripture.” Such a hermeneutic “recognizes, together with the church’s earliest theologians, that Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. His life and ministry, his suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection are not only a word about God, they are the Word of God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the humanation of God. The continued presence of the risen Jesus through the Spirit in the community that worships him leads to Spirit as the most adequate manner in which to understand the revelation of God in creation, in the history of Israel, in Jesus and in the church.” Coherence means that a theological position that is consistent throughout the canon cannot be overturned unless the basis for the change is itself scriptural.
Texts should be read within their broader canonical context. While Donfried insists on and illustrates the continued usefulness of the tools of historical criticism, these do not exhaust the meaning of scripture, as some exegetes seem to think. Instead, canonical reading means interpreting text within scripture as one narrational whole. This perspective requires a certain act of imagination for those of us schooled in historical criticism. For scripture contains much more than narrative texts. Still, from the perspective of the church catholic, the canon we have comes through the church guided by the Holy Spirit. We could concede that the Bible begins in the beginning, proceeds to the history of Israel—over against Gnosticism—leads through prophetic expectation to Christ, coheres through intrascriptural references including promise-fulfillment, narrates the Christ event, the inception of the church, defends and sets forth the truth and implications of the gospel, looks toward and ends with the End.
Canonical criticism or interpretation will use all the tools of historical criticism but in service of a more inclusive reading (my term). “An adequate biblical hermeneutic requires the ability to hold a wide variety of factors together in creative tension and thoughtful balance. To properly interpret the various redactional levels in concert with the final canonical form of Scripture requires not only a profound knowledge of the primary text of scripture but also academic learning and theological insight…”
A Trinitarian hermeneutic will presuppose the unity of the Old and New Testaments. For Christians the Old Testament is as much Christian scripture as the new, and liturgically should not be referred to as the Hebrew Bible. Some designation of Old and New or First and Second Covenant is appropriate, and is not to be given a supercessionist sense. It is the risen Christ in the church who opens the heart of the church to understand the scriptures, which cohere through promise and fulfillment, and find their center in Christ.
When scripture is read in the church, it is presupposed that it is a living word to the community; it sheds light on all of human existence and therefore on whatever truly matters. Scripture also calls Christians to holiness. The Christ who is their center is rendered truly present in the church’s reading of scripture. Donfried commends the use of lectio divina a specifically religious kind of reading (in distinction from what Paul Griffiths would call a consumerist reading for the sake of gaining information, which presumes a stance of control toward the text; Donfried does not seem informed by Griffiths’ work, but would probably find his call for religious reading within religious communities congenial.) Slow, meditative reading and rumination, followed by prayer and contemplation, are all aspects of lectio. Indeed, lectio and canonical interpretation are both ways of overcoming the fragmentation of scripture and atomistic readings of the left as well as the right. Both kinds of reading presuppose (truly) that all scripture points to Christ, and that hermeneutics that ultimately fail to take account of this do no service to the church nor do they serve salvation.
The longest section of the book looks at the interrelationship of Faith and the Moral Life. It provides a robust and richly detailed corrective to the antinomian currents causing moral drift among mainline Protestants.
Donfried begins with Matthew’s gospel. Through his historical reconstruction of Matthew’s community he illumines sayings which had always disturbed me as a Lutheran. Sayings like “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” or “the gate is narrow and the road is hard” speak of a stringency of discipleship for a community who likely mistook the discipleship of Jesus as a less rigorous application of religion to life than the Judaisms they were used to. These verses, and the very structure of the entire gospel, Donfried shows, will disabuse them and us of that misunderstanding. To be sure, these hard words of Jesus still disturb, but in Donfried’s hands they make sense.
The other major focus of shoring up the relationship of faith and morals is Donfried’s reading of 1 Corinthians. Lutherans know well enough how to give lip service to the word as both law and gospel, and are not reticent about acknowledging that we are all sinners—in general. Donfried goes far beyond this, however, by showing that the law of love is not only a direct implication of the gospel, but has very particular implications for behavior and applications for living. Some acts are intrinsically incompatible with the gospel. Justification is the beginning of the process of salvation, which is only completed in the eschaton. Both baptism and grace, which are free gifts, are capable of being lost through outright disobedience. Paul’s references to that are numerous and clear, though they do not much find their way, I think, into Lutheran rhetoric, teaching and preaching. Only at the conclusion of the book does Donfried explore antinomianism by name, but he clearly shows Paul’s proclamation is not friendly to platitudes about God’s love, or a gospel of acceptance of who I already am.
Before turning to a discussion of sexuality and homosexuality from the perspective of a Trinitarian hermeneutic, Donfried lays out some presuppositions and clears away some of the arguments which suppose that a traditional, canonical interpretation is obsolete.
A Trinitarian hermeneutic will not begin with texts dealing with homosexuality. Instead, the creational intent of God in scripture is indicated in several texts, including Genesis. Donfried points to the covenantal relationship of God and his people and the creation of man and woman, the sacredness of sexuality, and the holiness of the body as overarching realities in scripture.
New or renewed covenant, which Donfried had earlier fleshed out as a category held as important in the Jesus movement, and in Paul, and which have strong parallels in the Qumran community, now becomes important for understanding the relationship of spouses as well. Just as intimacy and fidelity are part of the relationship between God and the people of God, so they are within the spousal relationship. Community is founded on covenant, and the health of the covenant is essential to it. God’s covenant, like that of spouses, enables self-donation and requires faithfulness. The seal of this self-donation of spouses is their “nakedness” or sexual relations. It is from that standpoint that Donfried enters a discussion of what is usually referred to as sexuality.
Before turning to specific texts, Donfried takes on some of the arguments that have been suggested for overturning a norm maintained throughout the canon. It has been suggested time and again, that the church has already made major changes in its reading of scripture in such matters as divorce and remarriage, and the ordination of women. Texts have been recognized as time-bound and contingent, and if the texts in question have been set aside, the same can be done with texts opposing homosexuality. Donfried holds that a reversal or overturning of any norm, contingent or not, is possible, but only if scripture itself provides the justification.
On the matter of divorce and remarriage, far from seeing the dominical sayings on divorce as rendered obsolete, Donfried speaks against the failures of pastoral practice and discipline which make it appear these texts no longer mean anything for our present situation. He finds no reasons for casting aside the New Testament prohibition. He does suggest that there are scriptural exceptions to the proscription of divorce—in very particular circumstances—which are to be taken seriously; the proscription is not rendered obsolete, neither is it, nor was it absolute. What is justifiably modified, in certain particular circumstances (which he suggests should be discerned through ecclesial, not secular processes) is not scripture, but a monolithic understanding of this important ethical application of the gospel, a modification justified on the basis of scripture itself.
I find it disingenuous to use, as some have, the ordination of women as a reason for accepting homosexuality. There is a strong positive tradition within scripture of women’s leadership. There is no such positive tradition regarding homosexuality.
Mentioning at the outset that ordination as we know it does not fall within the timeframe of the New Testament, Donfried begins with a look at texts about laying on of hands, and proceeds to the positive texts about the leadership of women. Paul praises women as his coworkers in the gospel, one is called “deacon” and another an “apostle.” Women seem to have continued in the Pauline churches the role of benefactors, which had begun in the inner circle of Jesus.
Of the three negative texts discussed, I have found the hardest text to deal with 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Though deutero-Pauline, it is nonetheless in the canon, and has seemed to me to involve a crackdown on the earlier leadership of women. I have long wondered what kind of unorthodoxy might have prompted this. Donfried’s reconstruction of the community to which the letter’s specific concerns are expressed—probably Ephesus—is telling. The Artemis cult was tremendously influential there, and in Donfried’s words, women converts would have “much to unlearn.” Thus historical context provides the clues to this situation in which women may have been rendered unfit as teachers (my term). To render this text normative is illegitimate, because it ignores its proper historical context.
Donfried draws his conclusions on the basis of more extensive and close examination of texts than can be remarked on here, and by applying his principle that an application of the gospel presented in the New Testament can only be revised or modified when scripture itself offers the justification; he finds that those churches which have ordained women have not “overridden” scripture, but rather favored the affirmative practices of Jesus and Paul and paid attention to the original historical contexts of the texts in question.
In approaching sexuality, Donfried wants to question first of all the creational intentions of God, and the positive teachings of scripture. In this way he looks at Genesis not as a text which, in an outdated way—thanks to the weight given to experience and the social sciences—“assumes that the male and the female, who complement each other biologically and in other ways, are God’s only given structure for human sexual relationships” (Journey Together Faithfully, ELCA Studies on Sexuality, Part Two). Nor is he reaching back to Genesis in isolation from its canonical context. At one point he shows that the Lord himself points to this text to show God’s original intentions for creation, which were corrupted by sin. He does a masterful job of showing the intracanonical coherence of God’s intentions for marriage, the covenant between a man and a woman, which is parallel to the covenant between God and his people.
John Paul II begins his discussion of sexuality in his series of weekly papal addresses on the body with the creation of male and female and marriage as the sign of Christ as bridegroom of the Church.
Donfried’s own use of covenantal terminology in describing the parallel between marriage and God’s covenant with his people is rather gender-neutral. He speaks of spouses, and may be sensitive to critiques that regard texts such as Ephesians 5 as denigrating to wo-men or covenantal terminology as preserving and reinforcing the inferiority of women. Earlier in the book he had protested the “silencing” of Ephesians 5 in the Lectionary for the Christian People. But when he finally treats the text, I don’t think he does much with it.
I would like to explore the possibility of going further, embracing the gender-specific language of the covenant between God and Israel and Christ and the church as bridegroom and bride, and try to show that it is not detrimental to women. Communion with God was disrupted by sin, opening a gulf of unknowability that is unbridgeable from our side. If Jesus is central to the interpretation of scripture, certainly the decisive reality of incarnation, the Word condescending to our nature to be the bridegroom is not an exercise of hierarchical power, but the bridging of that gulf and the beginning of restored communion. The end and aim of this communion is Christ imparting his divine nature to us, in an elevation and exaltation resulting in a mutuality and communion to which secular notions of equality pale in comparison.
I conclude with some questions for thought, consideration and future dialogue:
- The Bible and the church: Have Lutherans been prey to separating Bible and church? Has Sola Scriptura been understood too narrowly? When scripture and church have remained together, what accounts for that?
- What examples are you aware of in preaching and educational programs that ring true to Donfried’s charge that mainstream Protestants have silenced the scriptures? What would it take to un-silence them?
- Faith and Morals: (regarding Matthew) “Righteousness is specifically related to final entrance into the kingdom, or put another way, the ethical character of discipleship lived as a result of grace becomes the basis for the eschatological judgment.” Can or must a Lutheran affirm this? Have you preached this recently? (Year A is upon us.)
- One of Donfried’s most important moves is to liberate the notion of freedom from the notions of our culture: for Paul, freedom is the gift to move from the rule of the evil one to the rule of Christ. What are the implications of this for our thinking about sexuality? What does this mean for an understanding of the Christian as simul iustus et peccator?
- How could we give more prominence to the Pauline and deutero-Pauline epistles, which as Donfried shows, wrestle with problems and imperatives of holy living/discipleship as applications and implications of the gospel itself?
- What features and topics of Donfried’s Trinitarian exegesis of 1 Corinthians seem particularly appropriate for the church catholic today?
- Antinomianism was the first heresy to erupt within Lutheranism, already in Luther’s lifetime, and then again after his death. And Lutheranism has always been accused of downplaying or even positively discouraging good works. How can Donfried’s hermeneutic counter this perennial danger of a deficit of ethical seriousness?
- Donfried asks, quoting an article from First Things, whether it is coincidental that “permissive abortion, widespread adultery, easy divorce, radical feminism, and the gay and lesbian movement…[have] appeared at the same historical moment?” How might these be related?