Well over a decade ago, I was doing postgraduate work at the University of St. Andrews and the place was abuzz with exciting news. Robert Jenson was coming. A close friend of mine was writing his dissertation on Robert Jenson. He was excited. I was too. Jenson, who passed away in 2017, was by this time already established as one of America’s premier theologians, so this was a momentous occasion.
We crammed into College Hall, a small, boardroom-style meeting space, to hear from the living legend. From the back wall, Samuel Rutherford’s puritan portrait gazed down on our gathering, as it does on every gathering in that room. Truth be told, he might not have been so excited to hear from this ecumenical, Lutheran theologian. But he couldn’t go anywhere. So, he listened too.
At some point during the conversation, someone asked a snarky question. “Who wrote the Bible?” The ability to ask good questions in these kinds of settings is a learned skill (I’m still learning). I didn’t think this duck had any wings. Even the tone of the question seemed off: a kind of awkward jab at simple profundity. But Jenson took the question seriously and turned the moment from an awkward jab into one of, well, simple profundity.
“Years ago,” Jenson answered, “I would have pulled my historical critical commentaries off the shelf and talked about the theology of the Jahwist, the various communities of the early church behind the gospels, etc.” In other words, Jenson would have given the best critical answers of the day about the human authorship of Scripture. “But now,” Jenson concluded, “I just say God.”
If what Jenson says is true, and I believe it is with every fiber of my being, then everything changes in our approach to reading the Bible. For all the advancements over the past two centuries regarding the human authorship of Scripture—and these are enormous and illuminating—the divine authorship of Scripture remains prior; it shapes our approach to every aspect of reading and reception. At least it does so for those whose reading of the Bible takes place in the church. To speak of Scripture’s authority or its “canonicity” assumes a confession of faith regarding its singular Source.
It doesn’t take great effort to find different human voices peeking through the Bible’s vast sweep, even when identifying those voices can be challenging. For example, we know Isaiah’s register is different than Paul’s. Proverbs seems a far cry from Numbers. Matthew’s narrative emphasis shades in directions other than John’s. Song of Solomon resides in an entirely different universe from Philippians. In fairness, the religious and social forces at work behind these differences cannot and should not be denied. But Bible scholarship—and bear with me here if this seems hostile—often suffers from theological and metaphysical anemia.
This interpretive anemia is most evident when Bible scholars reduce Scripture to the horizon of its human/historical dimension alone. These historical insights can all be helpful and good as a part of the reading process. What’s a cow of Bashan? Josiah died at Megiddo? Where’s that? Was Elijah poking fun at Canaanite Ba’al myths on Mt. Carmel? You mean they recently discovered the pool of Siloam in the old city of Jerusalem?
To be sure, the Bible inhabits historical and cultural contexts from beginning to end and understanding these features certainly aids our Bible reading. But these features of the Biblical text are only a part of the reading process, not the whole. They make great textual servants but pallid masters. Somewhere along the way, the Bible slipped outside the theology department into the history department. And the governing interpretive instincts in the history department are not sufficient for a Christian hearing of Scripture’s divine word.
If God is the author of Scripture, then its choir of voices, litany of outlooks, and variety of genres are a singular, even if complex, witness to God’s incredibly gracious act of speaking to his people: not just then but now. Put in terms of the Anglican Articles of Religion, the church is not to “expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another” (Article XIX). Canonical reading is non-repugnant reading. It’s a kind of reading that seeks to hear the Scriptures in a complex—but still concerted—harmony. And non-repugnant reading of the Bible can only take place and thrive if what Robert Jenson said is true: God wrote it.
It ain’t the parts…
“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand.” So quipped Mark Twain in his oft-repeated wisecrack. Herein lies the perpetual challenge of Scripture’s canonical authority. The Bible anticipates readers who come to it in a spirit of humility; in a spirit of patient and joyful anticipation that what it has to say is more important than the best things we have to say. Admittedly, that’s a tall order for Christian faith because there are so many good things on offer in the world of exchanged ideas, especially Christian ones. Should I read the newest James K.A. Smith book or N.T. Wright book or the book of Joel? I don’t intend to put readers on the horns of a false dilemma here. I’m simply highlighting a basic tendency Christians readers face (myself included!).
When it comes to ordering our thoughts and desires, when it comes to shaping our prayers and worship, and when it comes to preparing us to die—the stuff that resides at the center of Christian existence in the world—nothing outdoes Scripture. The Church has said so from its beginning. Even the risen Jesus had a Bible study with his disciples to reveal the importance of his person and work (Luke 24). Luke’s Emmaus Road narrative is a stunner. The Risen Jesus, who is Scripture’s primary author as God in human flesh, takes the time to have a Bible study in order to help his disciples makes sense of all the crazy things happening because of Him. I think David captures something of this view when he sang, “The Law of the Lord is perfect” (Ps 19:7).
Submission to Scripture’s authority is no trifling task. In fact, the parts that we do understand, the parts that bothered Twain, can and should lead to bona fide fear. I think Augustine would have liked Mark Twain’s quip. Augustine might say that allowing Scripture to challenge and even scare us is all part of the joyful danger of reading it well: “It is necessary above all else to be moved by the fear of God towards learning his will.”
Even if our reading practices tend towards the parts that describe the Lord as Shepherd, the Lord as Lion bits cannot be avoided. And who wants fear with their morning cup of coffee? Yet, Augustine assures us that fear “will necessarily inspire reflection about our mortality and future death.” These kinds of difficult thoughts drive us to embrace Christ’s cross.
When we encounter the Word of God in Scripture, our pride, that most basic of all human instincts, is exposed and nailed to the only place possible for absolution, the cross of Jesus Christ. The very act of reading Holy Scripture necessitates the gospel because when we read it—either corporately or individually—we encounter the very living God whose severity is only equal to his mercy. Bible reading and proclamation resists domestication.
That’s not all Augustine has to say in this imaginary conversation between him and Mr. Twain. Our broken pride and fear lead to piety. Now we shouldn’t let the word “piety” throw us, as if Augustine is after an “every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before” platitude. Piety for Augustine in this instance is a humble willingness to submit to Scripture’s claims—yes, Mr. Twain, even the bits that bother us. “Instead,” claims Augustine, “we should rather think and believe that what is written there is better and truer, even if its meaning is hidden, than any good ideas we can think up for ourselves.” Allow the force of Augustine’s claim to sit on you, dear reader. It may prove impossible to find a more robust affirmation of Scripture’s canonical sufficiency and supremacy.
Exegesis, Exegesis, Exegesis
If Scripture is an encounter, then it is encounter with the living God. Scripture breathes and pulses. It doesn’t exist as a compendium of inert doctrinal or historical facts, a shard resting in the Middle Eastern desert back there. Rather the Bible intends to draw you into the wild river of its existence. The Bible is pneumatically charged. It’s aflame with the Holy Spirit’s promise to lead us into relational truth, a relational truth identified with our risen Lord and his self-giving scars. Therefore, attendance to the Scriptures in all of their variegated forms remains an ongoing requirement of every generation of the faithful. Scripture reading is never one and done, sealed and finished. How could it be if God is its author? How could it be if revelation is encounter?
In 1935, Karl Barth was forced to vacate his post at the University of Bonn under compulsion by the German government. He had refused the declaration of allegiance to Germany’s Führer and lost his job as a consequence. Little knowing the storm awaiting the German nation over the next decade, Barth offered some parting words to a group of students about the sad situation: “And now the end has come. So listen to my last piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, exegesis and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given us.”
At first glance, Barth’s parting words may ring of seminary speak: surely the four syllables of ex-e-ge-sis don’t appear to inspire and fortify! No St. Crispin’s Day speech at the University of Bonn on that day. Yet this reaction fades after the initial glance. Barth leaves his students with the keys to a life of faithfulness in the kingdom work of the gospel. He leaves them with a living God and his life-giving Word. In effect, Barth’s final piece of advice can be summed up as follows: never stop engaging the Bible; you and the church depend on it. The resources of Holy Scripture are incapable of exhaustion. The mineshaft remains perpetually open.
The Bible’s capacity to deliver the mysteries of God to mere mortals is a remarkable feature of a material thing. The Bible is something we can hold. I can give one to my children and in doing so be filled with hope. By the Holy Spirit, this material thing can lead them to the truth of the gospel. They can get it or, better, it can get them.
Yet, for all the Bible’s material dimensions, it remains the good gift of God never the possession of humankind. We are responsible to bring our best efforts and skills to the reading and teaching of the Bible. But we can never “make the Bible happen.” That’s outside our skill set. For the Bible to happen, God has to be involved. And the wonder of grace is, Christian readers have every reason to anticipate God’s involvement. God promised us He would.
At the same time, these delivered mysteries are not always low hanging fruit. Reading the Bible is not always a walk in the park. It challenges us. There are difficult alleys in Scripture. Just follow Jacob to the banks of the Jabbok River and watch him wrestle with God (and—don’t forget—prevail over God). Watch the Lord himself try to kill Moses in Exodus 4. We’ll hide behind the word “enigmatic” for that one.
The litany of difficult texts could roll on. Augustine would say these difficult parts of the Bible remain there to humble us. The Bible is accessible enough to be understandable for children, as is often claimed, and complex enough to ward off boredom or a cocksure understanding of its every corner. It towers above our platitudes and reductions. Yet, the Bible’s porch light is always on.
When the church or churches leave patient and faithful attendance to the Scriptures for some greener pastures, we exchange a heavenly banquet for Esau’s porridge. The temptations for these lesser meals are great. But the Bible is better and truer and livelier, even the parts we find most difficult and challenging. If what Robert Jenson said all those years ago in St. Andrews is true, then we must continually listen for the voice of the divine author speaking through the Canon of Holy Scripture. Because it is the word of the Lord. And, indeed, thanks be to God.
Mark S. Gignilliat is Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University and serves as the canon theologian at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author of Reading Scripture Canonically: Theological Instincts for Old Testament Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2019).