Three considerations on reading the Bible

Webster expounding/expanding on Bonhoeffer and Barth.

Assumed audience: Theologically-orthodox Christians, or folks interested in things that theologically-orthodox Christians think.

First: hermeneutical and methodological questions are at best of secondary importance in the interpretation of Scripture. The real business is elsewhere, and it is spiritual, and therefore dogmatic. Correct interpretation cannot be detached from correct depiction of the situation in which we as readers go to Scripture and encounter God. The task of such a depiction is a dogmatic task, calling for the deployment of the concepts and language through which the church has sought to map out as best it can the astonishing reality of God’s saving self-communication. If sophisticated hermeneutical theory fails to persuade, it is largely because, in the end, it addresses the wrong problems, and leaves untouched the real difficulty with reading Scripture. That difficulty as Bonhoeffer and Barth diagnose it – is spiritual and therefore moral; it is our refusal as sinners to be spoken to, our wicked repudiation of the divine address, our desire to speak the final word to ourselves. From those sicknesses of the soul, no amount of sophistication can heal us.

Second, it is therefore true that a fittingly Christian hermeneutics requires the formation and transformation of the character appropriate to Christian disciples’. But Bonhoeffer and Barth counsel real caution here. The required formation and transformation are not natural acts, to be depicted through the vocabulary of virtues and dispositions; nor are they acts which can be described in terms of practices learned from the social realities of ecclesial fellowship. If recent essays in ecclesial hermeneutics have done much to draw discussion of Scripture and its interpretation away from the generic and a-social and steer it towards the Christianly specific, they have nevertheless customarily lacked an eschatology of sufficient strength to resist the naturalizing tendencies of the notions of virtue and social practice. However little it may apply to Bonhoeffer, Barth’s worry about any cultivation’ of habits of reading – that it may substitute routine for repentance – ought not to go unheeded.

Third: the chief task of Christian theology is exegesis. The reason for that is devastatingly simple: Jesus Christ as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God.’ Theology is exegesis because its matter is Jesus Christ as he communicates himself through Holy Scripture. And so attention to Holy Scripture is not only a necessary but also in a real sense–- a sufficient condition for theology, because Scripture itself is not only necessary but also sufficient. One way of writing the history of modern theology would be to trace the sad fate of Scripture’s sufficiency and its reduction to merely necessary status. The counter to this is: exegesis, exegesis and exegesis. The task of exegesis is far too important to be devolved upon biblical technicians. But if modern theology demonstrates a failure on this score, it does not lie primarily on the part of the guild of biblical scholars, but on the part of dogmatic theologians, who have all too often abdicated responsibility for exegesis, and rested content with genres and modes of argument which have encouraged the conceptual takeover of the biblical gospel. Christian theology is properly evangelical, because it is generated by the gospel. But part of securing that evangelical character will be recovering a rhetoric for theology which simply lets Scripture be. Work on that task which, in their different ways, Barth and Bonhoeffer also deemed theology’s central preoccupation – is scarcely begun.

 — “Reading the Bible”, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics, John Webster, pp. 109 – 110 (emphasis original)