I want to talk a bit about interpreting scripture as presence and absence, because I think it’s something that can bear fruit in anyone’s reading of the texts, and subsequent application of discipline to carry out truth and reconciliation.
Let’s begin with absence shall we?
Scripture as absence, what I’m trying to say is that scripture is dissimilar from us. But we sometimes read about new moon feasts and the uncleanness of a leper and try to allegorize it, or spiritualize it, or relate it symbolically to something in our own world. Do not mistake me, I don’t think this is wrong, I do however think it’s incomplete. Scripture is not a handy guide to life with all the truth we need presented to us in a nice user friendly format and we have to take this seriously. The book of scripture is a text, it’s stories, it’s about imagination, discipline and identity. It’s about a community called out by God to be an advance sign of new creation.
Scripture wants to shape our identity so the we are the Israel of God. So that we shall be His people, and He shall be our God. The first task for carrying out this mission scripture desires to undertake is to recognize Scripture’s absence from us. St. Paul was not writing to make me feel better about my boss, or to inspire me to use the right words when I pray for a new car. “That Paul, in his time and place did not necessarily think or experience what I in my time and place presuppose everyone must is a necessary first step of his authority over me.” – Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Vol. 2: The Works of God, (New York; Oxford, 1999), 278. Scripture stands above us, and judges our faithfulness, as does our theology. The Church must consistently examine whether she stands in continuity with saying what the apostles and early Christians were saying when they confessed Jesus as Lord.
A small anecdote, just to help us along. I remember as a young Charismatic converted into the word-faith movement that we were supposed to think positive and confess good things over our lives, and when we prayed we were supposed to use formulas like “I decree and I declare,” as well as “I speak to this situation(or body, problem condition etc.)”. My first thought that made me question these teachings was I didn’t see the apostles doing this. I didn’t see St. Peter running around Jerusalem decreeing and declaring or running amuck laughing and falling over. I didn’t see the apostles afraid to say that they were in danger for fear of making a “negative confession” or “speaking bad things over themselves.”
This recognition was the beginning of allowing the bible to exercise authority over me, by allowing it to speak to me on its own terms, and not in terms of elaborations by people with no credentials other than the fact that they led a church. I turned to the historians, the scholars and the speculative theologians, i did much work, and labored sleepless nights in pursuit of truth. I studied with the historians to guide me, so I might learn what St. Paul really meant, what Jesus meant, what Jude meant when he spoke to me via this record.
It was the text’s absence from me as something that was strange, a stranger that I recognized but did not exactly know, that’s when the bible began to mean something to me. Recognizing that each book has and is a theology, and that even books I had overlooked like Chronicles have vitally important meaning for my Christian life. When reading scripture I must recognize its absence from me, from my world and from everything I think I know.