“Professor, why hasn’t anyone updated the Bible yet?” A single question can lay bare the concerns and puzzlement of the spirit of an age. This was certainly true of the question put to me by my beginning theology student last year. Implicit in my student’s question was a host of others that naturally arise for people today who encounter the Christian doctrine of Scripture’s divine inspiration and origin. How can texts written thousands of years ago, to specific communities whose inner workings and history we so little understand, be a privileged site of access for hearing God speak to us here and now? Why were these holy texts written, it seems, exclusively by men? Why these texts and not others—in other words, can we trust the Christian canonization process? Doesn’t the existence of multiple canons across denominational lines challenge any confidence we might have had in that “process,” to the extent that we can historically reconstruct it? More broadly, what criteria could be rationally sufficient for judging that one text is more “God-breathed” than another? And granting that Christians do affirm by faith that these texts are given to us by God, how can one coherent message addressed to us today, and to all persons in the past who have read the Christian Scriptures as a whole, appear from the plethora of genres and theological perspectives that jump from the pages of every bound, printed Bible?
It is this complex of questions that Joseph K. Gordon’s systematic theology of the Bible, Divine Scripture in Human Understanding, addresses with such energy, depth, and care. The questions raised in my undergraduate classroom are posed in a more sophisticated register today by biblical scholars and theologians who have assimilated the historical, cultural, and linguistic turns and now seek to articulate anew the meaning of the Bible for Christian understanding and practice. Gordon’s work aims to lead the reader not behind these questions, pretending to turn back the clock, but instead through them to a vista that seeks to account for the linguistic, cultural, historical, philosophical, and theological differences evinced in the Scriptures themselves, as well as for the very material history and contingency of the “Bible” as human artifact.
The structuring metaphor for Gordon’s project is that of location. How can we “locate” Christian doctrine about the Scriptures in the complex of other doctrines Christians hold—hence, a systematic theology of the Christian Bible—while also locating that Bible within the one history God is creating, by recapitulating all things in Jesus Christ? Taking his cue from Bernard Lonergan’s account of what the discipline of systematics attempts (and should attempt) to supply, Gordon seeks not to establish that Scripture as received by Christian churches is God’s Word. That is a doctrine received by faith. Rather, systematics takes doctrines already so affirmed and seeks to understand them “at the level of our times,” in light of the developments in historical experience and human understanding that render each doctrine open to new questions for understanding in every era. Much like Aquinas’ penchant for giving fitting, but not necessary, explanations for God’s deeds in salvation history, Gordon’s project offers one way—but certainly not the only way, as he regularly reminds the reader—of understanding today the “ontology” of Scripture: what is the Bible, theologically, if we confess that these texts are God’s Word to us?
For this twofold task of positioning Scripture, Gordon brings into the conversation his two main inspirations, the twentieth-century theologians Henri de Lubac and Bernard Lonergan. The former’s ressourcement of the patristic vision of humanity as created for deification provides the book with its metanarrative of the Triune God’s actions on behalf of and with human persons in history. The latter serves Gordon’s account by providing a robust philosophical anthropology of human agents (114; 145) who are capable, through acts of self-transcendence, of bringing forth the Scriptures and hearing them as God’s word.
Readers engaging Gordon’s rich volume will discover this head-scratcher of a phrase: the “already-out-there-back-then” Bible. Early in my studies of Bernard Lonergan, I remember being extremely puzzled by the latter’s use of a laborious circumlocution (which I subsequently discovered to be something of a term of art): the “already-out-there-now-real.” I was to learn, though, that however cumbersome it sounds at first, Lonergan’s term in fact handily encapsulates an entire view of objectivity and reality. The person subscribing to the “already out there now real” takes it that the activities of understanding and judging—and faithful adherence to their intrinsic exigencies—have no serious role to play in our discovery of reality. Better simply to use one’s eyes, either physical or spiritual, to intuit immediately what is; whatever cannot be apprehended in this manner is to be forgotten as mere illusion. This, of course, is an extremely rough sketch of Lonergan’s sophisticated and rich analysis of the cognitional error he claims lies at the roots of so many confusions and misunderstandings in the philosophical terrain of modernity. The key point is the importance of human subjectivity in the process of coming to know truth and reality as opposed to fiction and appearance. (The reader familiar with the history of modern philosophy will recognize the paradoxical quality of Lonergan’s foregrounding human subjectivity and a proper grasp of its operations as the solution to the problem of objectivity!) Gordon takes Lonergan’s approach to objectivity to critique what he argues is a mythical understanding of Scripture as divine revelation: that divine inspiration of Scripture is “in” the Bible, passively to be received from one bounded book, or one collection of authentic autographs in the past, and that in this form the Bible “speaks for itself” (28). Instead, Gordon expands divine inspiration beyond the purview only of the texts’ original authors (a murky notion in itself, given what we know of ancient authorship) and locates it in the entirety of the process of the “production, dissemination, preservation, assemblage, and interpretation of the works constituting Christian Scripture” (221).
Thus “Scripture’s material reality has theological significance.” Due to the variety of canons, manuscripts, and the irreducible diversity of the texts known as “the Bible” throughout Christian history, “[t]here is no one already-out-there-now-real Bible at which we can point to answer the question, ‘What is Christian Scripture?’” (169). That there has never been and never will be “one Bible”—and this is the theological significance Gordon promises—renders an extrinsicist account of the Bible deficient, thereby bringing to light the fundamental problem of the ontology of Scripture. If Scripture cannot be physically located in an external given, then “where” is it? Here Gordon’s doctrines of God’s economic activity in history and theological-philosophical anthropology unite, in an account of Scripture as fundamentally a performance. Scripture is wherever God uses these texts, in all their material variety, to communicate Godself to the Church. The performer of Scripture is therefore God, but the performer of Scripture is also the Church herself, animated by the Spirit. (Compare Dei Verbum’s “dual authorship” of Scripture.) It is a point undeveloped in the text, but Gordon’s bibliology is in fact simultaneously an oblique ecclesiology. For just as the Lord transforms daily the instruments of bread and wine into his Body and Blood, so too does the Word of God mediate God to the Church through the matter of the biblical texts, through the members of Christ’s Body constituting his Church. And so the Bible does not “speak” (27–31) unless we speak it in the act of reading it attentively, intelligently, reasonably, and responsibly (259). And when we do, the Scriptures become the deifying means God intends for them to be.
The provocativeness of Gordon’s work has called forth equally thoughtful and challenging—as well as highly appreciative—reflections from this symposium’s respondents.
John Behr highlights the slippage between the terms “Bible” and “Scripture,” and asks what the implications are for Gordon’s thesis if the Scriptures were the very context in which Christ was intelligible to his earliest followers: does not Scripture ‘make’ the very Christ-event, as well as the Christian? In a similar vein, Olivier-Thomas Venard presses Gordon on the significance of language itself as a revelatory medium of the Word, as more than simply representational, and whether there is some justification in using the language of the Bible “speaking” after all. In his contribution, Bo Lim asks about the implications of Gordon’s thesis: if he is correct that Scripture “happens” through the performance that I have described above, then how should we think about the field of biblical studies, with its focus on reconstructing and understanding as far as possible the original biblical texts? Angela Parker’s essay challenges the universalist notion of human consciousness Gordon’s project borrows from Lonergan in order to theorize the subjects for whom Scripture can be most useful, even as she highlights the usefulness of Gordon’s argument for deconstructing the “bibliolatry” that she argues has functioned to keep oppressed communities down. Ephraim Radner explores Gordon’s use of the dual concepts of “history” and “providence” as the domains and explanatory context in which we can locate Scripture: can these notions bear the weight Gordon’s account needs them to?
I thank Joseph K. Gordon and all the respondents for inviting me to this rich conversation, one which I hope will leave us all better prepared to answer our students when they ask us how, through the Scriptures, God speaks to us today.