Symposium Introduction

“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. 

John Behr


“Scriptures” or “Bible?” On the Apocalypse of Christ

Joseph Gordon has offered us what he describes as “a constructive systematic account of the nature and purpose of Christian Scripture that articulates the intelligibility of Scripture and locates it within the work of the Triune God in history and within human cultural history” (8). The result is indeed a broad and comprehensive account of the intelligibility of the Bible, ranging from an analysis of the rule of faith in the early Church and the role that such a rule plays within our contemporary understanding of Scripture and its interpretation, to a philosophical and theological anthropology that can adequately account for our own engagement and the telos to which this leads, as well as the changing shape of the material realia in which Scripture has been embodied throughout history, for this cannot be separated from how we understand it to be the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit. Through all of this, and more, Scripture is located in the broadest possible framework, to show how it “serves as a useful and virtually indispensable instrument through which the Triune God accomplishes God’s work in history, both in presenting and testifying to that work and through effecting that work in its readers and hearers” (30).

The scope of the work is impressive. Particularly so is its recognition, indicated in the title, that a full account of “human understanding” is needed to be able to give any adequate account of what “divine Scripture” might be, something that is all too often neglected in treatments of Scripture and its interpretation. The common expression “the Bible says,” as Gordon notes, “can easily hide from hearers and readers a myriad of assumptions” (29), for as Lonergan observed, “the plain fact is that there is nothing ‘out there’ except spatially ordered marks,” so that as Gordon concludes, “our only access to the texts as intelligible is our own subjective constitution made up of our own experiences, our own linguistic apparatus, our own horizons of understandings, judgments, decisions, our own memories, and our own imaginations” (109). It is within a Lonerganian understanding of human self-transcendence, meaning, and language, experienced within the conditions of sin and finitude that Gordon articulates—clearly—the themes of human subjectivity and authenticity (113–66). 

Equally important is the well-known point, but one also often neglected in systematic reflections on Scripture, that the Bible is not simply a datum, but the result of innumerable vagaries in the work of scribes, scholars, redactors, compilers in diverse historical and geographical contexts: “the texts we possess as Scripture are not merely the products of individual authors … but have come down to us through the processes of redaction, transmission, correction, and even interpretative commentary; they are intrinsically communal” (220). All those figures involved in this process also “have a place in the actual history of Christian Scripture. Apparently the Triune God has providentially chosen not to give us exhaustive knowledge of the precise human origins and vicissitudes of transmission of the written word” (220). It is through the immense spiritual and intellectual work of countless figures before us, responding to the work of God, that we have the Bible. And, as such, “for historical, theological, and phenomenological reasons … communal Christian self-understanding is antecedent to and the condition of the recognition of the Christian Bible as Christian Scripture” (109). 

As grounded as Gordon’s reasoning is, the phrasing of the last words just quoted make me pause. Recognizing “the Christian Bible as Christian Scripture,” it seems to me, puts the emphasis the wrong way round, with significant implications. It implies that it is the “Bible” as we know it that is the object being reflected upon, given a systematic theological account, so as to account it as “Scripture.” It goes without saying, however, that the first Christians—meaning the apostles and evangelists—did not have the “Bible” to hand, but they certainly did, from the first, have “the Scriptures” (i.e. the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, or however one might want to categorize what is called, in our “Bible,” the “Old Testament”). 

The “Bible,” as Gordan emphasized, is not an uninterpreted or non-historically mediated given. This means that, as he puts it: “In order to understand what Christian Scripture is, we must know what it has been” (168). The idea of the Christian Bible “as a unit” is, he notes, a “medieval invention” (174, quoting Boynton and Reilly), one that really gained traction by the invention of the printing press; indeed, the Greek Ta Biblia is a plural, “The Books.” Certainly there were the fifty pandects that Constantine ordered Eusebius to prepare, but the immense labour, and cost, that each would have involved puts them far beyond the reach of most Christians. It is likewise worth noting that the “Bible” has no place in Christian liturgy, the context in which most Christians before Guttenberg’s printing press would have heard Scripture; there Scripture has the form of the Prophetologion (readings from the Old Testament), the Apostolos (readings from the apostolic letters), and the Evangelion (readings from the Gospels), with the text in each case being arranged according to the lectionary. Its physical form does not correspond to a single book with a single narrative.

Most importantly, however, is that even within the “Bible” as a single unit, the word “Scripture” has a particular referent: Christ, the apostles, and the evangelists, in the writings we now call the “New Testament,” all refer back to “Scripture” (and so too, for that matter, does the Nicene Creed). Even once the writings of the New Testament are accepted as “Scripture,” as part of the same “Bible,” they cannot simply be placed on the same plane. Recognition of the intertextual dynamics of the two “parts” of the “Bible” is not, of course, lacking from Gordon’s work. However, the emphasis lies elsewhere. As Gordon puts it:

While Christians have had an invested interest in written texts from the very beginning (see 1 Cor 15.3), Christianity is not fundamentally a movement of textual hermeneutics. The Christian community emerged as distinctive response to actual historical events that its adherents held to be of utmost importance. The primary accent of Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 is not on the confirmation of Scripture itself but on the actual events of Christ’s death and resurrection. (229)

Surely Paul’s repetition of the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures” twice within a single sentence is evidence of the immense significance that recourse to the Scriptures had for the apostle, not as “confirmation” of the “historical events,” but as providing the means, the fabric or the texture, by which he could understand and proclaim those events. That proclamation was certainly “oral,” but proclaimed by reference to the Scriptures (cf. 201). This is the very point that Luke (who, according to Irenaeus, wrote the gospel proclaimed by Paul) makes: having abandoned and denied Christ at the crucifixion, then failing to understand the significance of the empty tomb, and even failing to recognize the risen Christ, it was only when he opened to them the Scriptures to show that it was necessary that the Christ should suffer and enter into his glory and broke bread that their eyes were opened to recognize him (Luke 24). The Scriptures (“Old Testament”) provided the background, words, and imagery, in which, from the first, Christ is known and the gospel proclaimed. The Scriptures were, as Joel Marcus puts it, borrowing from E. Grässer, a “paint-box” from which the evangelists portrayed Christ in their Gospels.1 As such, it is, I would argue, mistaken to think of the appeal to “the ancient Jewish Scriptures” as being merely “authoritative support” for the Christian proclamation (238)—as if the proclamation ever existed apart from the Scriptures—or of these Scriptures as being secondary in importance to the writings of the New Testament (177–8), for it is these Scriptures that from the beginning shape that proclamation and continue to do so.

This dynamic, inscribed within the very proclamation of the gospel from the first, implies a very different way of understanding the relationship between the Scriptures, the gospel, and Jesus Christ, than is entailed by placing the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” in sequence as does the “Bible.” While the latter configuration pushes towards an understanding of the “New Testament” as “what happened next” in a linear history of the Triune God with creation, the apostle would rather see it as the revelation of a mystery hidden from all eternity:

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the apocalypse of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now made manifest and made known through the prophetic writings … (Rom 16:25–6).

It is with this “unveiling” of the eternal mystery through the “unveiling” of the Scriptures (see also 2 Cor 3–4) that Christians were concerned with in the early centuries and beyond; indeed, one might well say that the so-called “Arian” controversy of the fourth century was primarily concerned with how—not whether—Christ, the Wisdom of God, speaks of himself in Prov 8:22. 

Irenaeus provides the most forceful testimony regarding this: Christ is the treasure hidden in Scripture but brought to light by the cross, so that when Scripture is read by those not sharing this starting point, it is “like a myth,” for the prophecies that it contain cannot be understood until their fulfilment; but, when read in the light of the cross, it transfigures the one who reads it “to such an extent that others will not be able to bear his glorious countenance” (Haer. 4.36.1). It is, as Richard Hays puts it, “the eschatological apokalypsis of the Cross” that provides coherence to the books as Scripture, giving them “a profound new symbolic coherence.”2 

This twofold relationship between the Scriptures (OT), on the one hand, and Christ and his cross, on the other, as prophecy and fulfilment, cannot be simply transposed into the relationship between Old Testament and New Testament, as is done ever more frequently once the physical “Bible” gains traction (“what is prophesied in the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New”), for that would, in fact, elide Christ himself (or relegate him to the past). As the writings of the apostles and evangelists gained increasing acceptance as their authoritative written word, the twofold schema became threefold: shadow (OT), image (NT), and Christ himself. The writings of the New Testament, for Irenaeus, are not so much “what happened next”; rather they “recapitulate” the Scriptures, giving a “recap,” a clearer image of the one spoken about obscurely in the Scriptures, so that we too can encounter the coming Christ in the present.

Finally, this being the case, it perhaps becomes clearer why, despite all assertions to the contrary, the rule of faith—whether Irenaeus’ first stabs at putting it in writing or the Creed of Nicaea—is not a narrative. There certainly are narratival elements in the second article—yet limited: the birth of Christ from Mary and the Spirit, the crucifixion under Pilate, his rising and coming again—but nothing of the lengthy narratives in Genesis and thereafter (the long history of the Triune God with his creation, as Gordon would put it). The rule/creed is rather a confessional statement about the three persons of the Christian faith—Father, Son, and Spirit. The canon is, to have recourse to Irenaeus once again, an expression of what he designates as the “hypothesis” of the Christian faith, the supposition one must have to be able to look at the mosaic of Scripture and see the image of the King rather than a fox (Haer. 1.8–10).

“In order to understand what Christian Scripture is, we must know what it has been”: Gordon is absolutely correct about this. The points I have raised here all arise from what it has been. The question, then, that must be asked is whether what I have adduced is anything more than an interesting but immature episode in the processes that led to what we have today as the “Christian Bible” so that it is indeed our modern “Bible” that is rightly the object for reflection, and whether, in this case, the hypothesis upon which this “Bible” is read is other than the hypothesis by which Scripture was read from the beginning? That the points have more than a mere historical significance is, I would argue, indicated by two points. First, that, as we have seen, the gospel is always already, from the first, proclaimed by reference to the Scriptures; this Scriptural fabric of this proclamation is, it would appear, intrinsic to the very proclamation of the gospel. Second, that the physical form of the Scripture in liturgy—at least in those traditions that still have an Evangelion, arranged according to lectionary, sealed and placed on the altar, waiting to be opened and proclaimed—is other than that of the “Bible”; this is testimony to the abiding significance of the shape of Scripture as it was “from the beginning.” If this is accepted, must not “the eschatological apokalypsis of the Cross,” to borrow Hays’ phrase again, be recognized as the structural center of any account of the divine Scripture in human understanding?

  1. Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 2.

  2. Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 169.

  • Joseph Gordon

    Joseph Gordon


    Gordon Response to John Behr

    My sincere thanks to Reverend Professor Behr for his generous and thoughtful engagement with my work in Divine Scripture in Human Understanding. His response draws together insights from his extensive, penetrating historical and spiritual study of ancient Christian thought and praxis and his own ecclesial experience of Scripture as read in the divine liturgy to highlight a potentially significant issue concerning my overall organization of topics considered in Divine Scripture. My response to his thoughts will focus on the heart of his critical remarks; Behr raises the question of how to go about structuring “any account of the divine Scripture in human understanding.” I obviously have taken a stand on how to structure an approach, and I take full responsibility for that stand. Given my insistence on the provisional nature of my work, which I reiterate here again, I note before proceeding that it is not just possible but even desirable—even fruitful—for others to develop structural approaches to the question of the nature and purpose of Scripture that differ from my own.1 Other structural approaches might be dialectically opposed to Divine Scripture, and perhaps Behr’s would be so, should he undertake one, but my hope is to identify points of common ground even if substantial disagreements remain. 

    Behr highlights how my phrasing on page 109, “implies that it is ‘the Bible’ as we know it that is the object being reflected upon, given a systematic theological account, so as to account it as ‘Scripture.’” Behr’s fundamental question is whether beginning from “the Bible” and proceeding to explain such a unit as Christian Scripture is to treat things in the wrong order. The earliest Christians, of course—as I acknowledge in Divine Scripture and as Behr summarizes—could not have done so. At the very beginning the communities that followed Jesus of Nazareth had neither the texts of the New Testament nor the technology for binding all such works reckoned or recognized as Holy Scripture together. But even if the practice of putting everything together between two covers comes much later in Christian history, and even if those impulses and their products have developmental histories, I have argued that the movements towards them are early. The newness of the New Testament documents, and the new covenant language which predates both those documents and their literary collection, both do entail some sequential relationship to the ancient scriptures as well. The new covenant comes after any prior covenant(s). 

    As Frances Young notes in the epigraph I quote at the beginning of chapter five of Divine Scripture, our contemporary situation presents most contemporary Christians in the global churches with “the Bible,” ready-to-hand.2 This is true even for Orthodox and Catholic believers, and some magisterial Protestants, who experience the Scriptures most often, or even exclusively, through the readings in Mass and the Divine Liturgy.3 The most significant practical reason that I began from “the Bible” and proceeded to an understanding of the Bible as Christian Scripture is that the situation of Scripture in the churches in the present requires giving attention to how contemporary Christian consciousness, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, has been impacted by the concrete situation, which gives us a or “the” Bible as a singular work. We are all downstream of the invention of the codex, the technological possibilities of pandects, the ancient Christian quests to determine canonical lists, medieval processes of “standardization,” and the Protestant revolution, with its assumption of the existence of “the Bible” as a singular work. No individual Christians or Christian communities, even if significantly sheltered, can avoid such impacts. While we must do the historical work of “unimagining” such givenness, as both I and Behr have done constructively in our own treatments of such historical developments, we are all still stuck with the “givenness” of “the Bible” in its ubiquitous pandect forms; Young declares that “we have to retain the element of ‘givenness.’” This is not merely a historical issue, either. Unless we are all to become Orthodox (or Catholic), we Christians who are not must responsibly and faithfully begin from where we are, proceeding from faith that the Triune God meets and teaches us even here with our “Bible(s)” as they are; it is from here that we can proceed to understand well what God has done and is doing in our midst. I would suggest that Catholic and Orthodox Christians must also reckon with this concrete situation in a way that does not suggest that “the Bible” as a unit is only and completely a mistake. 

    In reading Behr’s response, I confess that I often found myself nodding along in agreement with what he was saying; I could not always identify clearly where, if at all, he was disagreeing with things I had written or argued. There are a couple of points where I would like to address some potential misunderstandings his words could suggest for those who read his response before or apart from reading Divine Scripture. Behr writes that “it would be mistaken to think of the appeal to the ‘ancient Jewish Scriptures’ as being merely ‘authoritative support’ for the Christian proclamation (238)—as if the proclamation ever existed apart from the Scriptures—or of these Scriptures as being secondary in importance to the writings of the New Testament (177–78), for it is these Scripture that from the beginning shape that proclamation and continues to do so.” 

    I want to be unequivocally clear that I do not think that early Christian use of the ancient Scriptures (that we know today as the Old Testament) was merely authoritative support for their proclamation of the gospel, nor do I think that such proclamation ever historically existed—or could or should exist—apart from or without the specific words, symbols, and imagery of those ancient Scriptures (I thought my language on 178 indicated as much, if not put quite strongly enough for Behr). Fr. Venard has also raised concerns that I have downplayed or even practically denied the revelatory particularity of the very words of ancient Scripture. It was not my intention to do so, and I hope I have not done so practically because of the strength of my rhetoric! As an aside, I love Grässer’s image of the ancient Scriptures as a “paint-box” that the evangelists used to portray Christ in the canonical gospels. I would note again, though, that it was Christ’s extratextual words and performative interpretation that set the agenda for how the earliest Christians received and expressed the meanings of the words, symbols, and images of the ancient Scriptures. 

    The actual events of Christ’s work and the work of the Holy Spirit relativize the ancient Scriptures, and I am not sure that Behr would disagree with that judgment even if he would want to put things slightly differently. Behr asks, should not the “eschatological apocalypsis of the Cross” serve as the structural center of any account of divine Scripture in human understanding? Indeed it should! While the language I employ is different, the cross does have a central role in Divine Scripture.4 The actual constructive work of the book begins, after all, with chapter three’s discussion of the action of the Triune God in history in the missions of the Son of God, culminating and completed in his cross and resurrection, and the work of the Holy Spirit applying Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection throughout the world.  

    I wonder if Behr thinks that the historical developments that have led to the consolidation of the Bible, as an alternative to Holy Scripture encountered in the liturgy, are mistakes? Must we see them simply as manifestations of a fallen human desire—a libido dominandi—to domesticate and control divine revelation through a historical schematic? I think we can think of them in more charitable ways than that, even though I acknowledge that there are risks of starting with “the Bible” and proceeding from there to an understanding of Sacred Scripture. But practically, even if Behr or others start from the different beginning he proposes, or any others, one must get around to dealing with the concrete situation of “the Bible” in contemporary Christian communities eventually.  

    1. For some recent works that address the question of the nature of Scripture through much different structural approaches, see Denis Farkasfalvy, A Theology of the Christian Bible: Revelation, Inspiration, Canon (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2018) and Jeremy Holmes, Cur Deus Verba: Why the WORD Became Words (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2021), both by Roman Catholic authors, and Brad East, The Doctrine of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021). Brad’s approach is catholic (with a lowercase “c”) as well, but he hails from a sister tradition of mine, the Churches of Christ a cappella.

    2. See Frances Young, Virtuoso Theology: The Bible and Interpretation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1993 [2002]), 43; quoted in Joseph K. Gordon, Divine Scripture in Human Understanding: A Systematic Theology of the Christian Bible (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019), 167.

    3. For Catholics, see, for instance, the Douay-Rheims Bible, the New American Bible (and NABRE), the Jerusalem Bible (and NJB and RNJB), and the New Revised Standard Bible Catholic Edition, all having approval from ecclesiastical authorities in the Roman Catholic Church. The situation for Behr and other Orthodox Christians is different given there has never been an officially approved edition or translation of the texts of both Testaments. Even so, the ecumenical Patriarch did commission a text of the New Testament (1904, with revisions in 1907 and 1922), and various attempts have been made, such as the Orthodox Study Bible and various translations into Russian and Slavic languages, to create “a Bible” suitable for use by specific communities of Orthodox Christians.

    4. For my own reflection on the centrality of the cross as the hinge point of history and the fullness of God’s self-revelation, see Gordon, Divine Scripture in Human Understanding, 241: “The cross, for Christians, stands over the whole world.” See also 21, 103, 106, 162, 178, 186, 235 and the notes on those pages.

Angela Parker


Divine Scripture in Womanist Understanding

A Conversation with Joseph K. Gordon’s Divine Scripture in Human Understanding

As I read and engaged the work of Joseph K. Gordon and his book entitled Divine Scripture in Human Understanding: A Systematic Theology of the Christian Bible, my Womanist sensibilities kept returning to Katie G. Cannon’s article entitled “The Biblical Mainstay of Liberation.”1 As a Womanist Christian ethicist, Cannon puts forth her view that Scripture is “the story of God’s continuing self-disclosure as the divine liberator to members of the believing community.” God as liberator for a believing community is what sticks out to me. As I read Gordon’s labor of love, I actually longed for more community engagement even as I greatly appreciated his overall work. Gordon’s exacting and thorough Trinitarian approach to a systematic theology of Scripture is a needed conversation for faith communities and one I am very heartened to engage now and in the future. 

My conversation with Gordon’s work will concentrate on questions that arose specifically in Chapter 4. Moreover, I will engage Gordon with Womanist work on biblical authority, specifically Katie G. Cannon and my own work If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority.2 In my concluding remarks, I will also uplift Latino/a theology and its relationship to authority and Scripture. My comments and questions focus on the idea of human consciousness and community engagement. However, prior to exploring human consciousness and community engagement, I begin with appreciation and my own affinities with Gordon’s work. 

Appreciation and Affinities

In the beginning chapters, Gordon approaches the work of scripture in theology with a same view as Telford Works excellent monograph entitled Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation.3 While Work develops a fully Trinitarian account of Scripture that establishes and explores its divine and human character towards a systematic bibliology, Gordon proffers a systematic theology of Scripture.

As I have already described Gordon’s work as a labor of love, I was extremely heartened by the care and detail in Gordon’s organization and analysis of early church fathers, the rule of faith, and what all of this means for his construction. As I read his writing, I feel an affinity similar to my own love of Scripture. I often tell students that there is no way I would have become a biblical scholar if I did not intensely love the Bible, warts and all. I would argue that Gordon feels similarly. 

My greatest affinity comes with Gordon’s non-use of language surrounding inerrancy, infallibility, plenary inspiration, perspicuity, and sola scriptura (25).  I appreciate Gordon’s immediate declaration since I have argued in my own work that the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility are actually tools of White supremacist authoritarianism that places the preacher or pastor as inerrant and infallible over congregations. Gordon’s recognition that there are some distinct Protestant controversies in which this language developed is what I attempt to argue in my own work. For Gordon, the avoidance of such language allows him to treat some of the key issues and questions concerning the doctrines of Scripture considered in his Chapter 6 in fresh and new ways (25). 

In Chapter 6, Gordon lists his presuppositional doctrinal ideas concerning Scripture.  First, Christian Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Second, Christian Scripture is the written Word of God that mediates the meaning of Jesus Christ as its referent. Third, Christian Scripture is a preeminently useful instrument within the redemptive pedagogy of the Triune God in history (25). While I basically adhere to the same doctrinal views regarding Scripture, some questions did arise for me as Gordon argued towards these in Chapters 4. Specifically, I found myself wrestling with Gordon’s delineation of human consciousness and the soul. Accordingly, my following two sections will address what arose for me as I was reading Chapter 4.4 

Question Regarding Human Persons and Consciousness

 With these initial conversations and questions outlined, I move to Chapter 4. In Chapter 4, Gordon explores human persons and human meaning in history. As this chapter begins, Gordon argues through the Western philosophical tradition for a particular idea of the soul and the human person. Moving from questions surrounding an understanding of the “soul” both in biblical text and philosophical thought, Gordon quotes Krister Stendahl’s watershed article, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Consciousness of the West,” to argue that it would be irresponsible to force modern or postmodern notions of human consciousness onto Paul or any other premodern figure who discusses human nature and interiority (118–19). 

While I agree with Gordon’s rightful use of Stendahl, I could not help but wonder if there was some way for postmodern notions of human consciousness to feature in the Christian reflection aspect of his analysis (not the Christian notion of the human person). I think that there is a problematic use of consciousness language that may be thorny to unravel. Specifically, Gordon makes the controversial argument that the same structured intentional consciousness, with its exigencies and norms, is shared by all human persons across cultures and across times (145).

As a Womanist scholar, Gordon’s argument is problematic as not all philosophical thinkers, Christian theologians, or even biblical scholars would embrace such an idea due to the problematic history of consciousness.5 Particularly, German idealists like G. W. F. Hegel believed there was a pure, authentic culture that could not only be found within the biblical text but also within Europe. As an influencer of F.C. Baur, Hegel’s thoughts infiltrated biblical interpretation. 

For Hegel, history and consciousness coincide. Hegel understood the history of the world through the lens of progress. For Hegel, a pure, authentic culture is a culture that progresses toward consciousness of freedom. He believed the “Spirit” directed history through phases, beginning with “the Oriental World,” then moving into the Greek and Roman worlds, and finally culminating in the “Germanic” age with Christianity. Scholars such as David Horrell and Shawn Kelly stress that Hegel’s philosophy of history and progress is a racialized one that promotes a narrative of western European cultural, religious, and racial superiority.6 Other cultures (whether Jewish, Black, Asian, etc.), by default, cannot exert such a superiority. Purity and superiority were extended from western European culture to White people themselves, who felt it their duty to expel the racially “alien” (the Jew, the “Oriental,” the African, the non-European) from multiple areas of knowledge and from the narrative of world history.7 

Moreover, as nationalism arose in European academic thinking, the Hegelian logic of moving from lower to higher levels of consciousness began to take root. Hegel espoused consciousness as developing geographically and racially, assigning levels of consciousness to particular races and peoples. For Hegel, lower levels of consciousness belong to lesser, backward cultures. On the other hand, Europeans, particularly Germans, are capable of higher levels of consciousness. It is the Germanic Europeans who possess the potential for authentic culture and real freedom. Hegel developed a narrative of history8 that denied humanity to Africans and denied the consciousness of freedom to Jews and “Orientals.” While I appreciate Gordon’s argument that every person contains a similar internal consciousness, I am not sure that belief is enough to impede the problematic ways consciousness is understood in Western thinking.

As a way to thwart a Hegelian history of consciousness I espouse a Black feminist consciousness in my work. Ideas around consciousness must confront and negotiate specific life conditions related to historical asymmetries of power that occur in the categories of race, gender, sexuality, and class. The starting point for my understanding of Womanist identity is consciousness of these felt and lived inequities as well as a determination to disrupt them. In her pioneering article “The Black Feminist Consciousness,” Katie G. Cannon states that a Black feminist consciousness reads the Scriptures in order to struggle for human dignity, fight against White hypocrisy, and wrestle for justice by understanding the prophetic tradition within Scripture as a way to face formidable oppression.9  In her reading, Scripture is still authoritative while also liberating. Since liberation is important for me, I have a difficult time finding the liberation of marginalized others in Gordon’s work since he specifically argues that the same structured intentional consciousness is shared by all human persons across cultures and across times (145). 

Question Regarding Human Consciousness, Self-Transcendence, and Community

Moving back to the issue of community with which I opened this essay, I would highlight a quotation from Cannon as follows:

In turn, each member . . . took turns sharing family faith journeys. As descendants of Africans in America who were enslaved, subjected to racial apartheid, stripped of material possessions, routinely raped, beaten, and degraded as nonpersons, we resonated with the prophetic messages in canonized Scripture, particularly the biblical worlds of Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.10 Human beings have developed such organizations in both organic and distinctly intentional manners to ensure the stability and recurrence of the vital values of nourishment, living stability, and community. Such social orders, upon their development, recurrently operate and function without regular critical reflection or intervention (157). I would disagree with this assumption. The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s was such a faith-filled Black church-led event that did provide critical reflection and intervention on the social order of the time. There was a communal consciousness that was transformed in the Civil Rights movement since the participants shared a particular habitus that was beyond self-transcendence. Shared experiences, shared understanding, shared judgment and shared decisions in the Civil Rights movement evidenced how Scripture (through the preaching and teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.), human consciousness, and community came together for communal transcendence. I think that a deeper consideration of the individual with the communal, along with the Triune God’s ability to transform collective subjectivities, would aid Gordon’s argument regarding Scripture and the human.

Concluding Thoughts

While I did not have the space to address every question I bring to Gordon’s work, I must say that I appreciated the opportunity to read, engage, and grow in my own understanding of the development of the Christian Bible. Gordon has provided a deft theological construction that is a needed antidote to the bibliolatry that we see in contemporary society. 

  1. See Katie G. Cannon, “The Biblical Mainstay of Liberation,” in Engaging Biblical Authority, ed. William P. Brown (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007) 18–26.

  2. Angela N. Parker, If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021).

  3. Gordon, Divine Scripture, 13–14.

  4. Since space does not allow a thorough delineation of all of my questions, I did want to provide a footnote that did articulate other lingering questions for later conversation. One question regards redemptive pedagogy. Even though Gordon argues for one internal human consciousness, I wonder if he can think through diversities of consciousness and redemptive pedagogy functioning differently within diversities of consciousness? A second question stems along Gordon’s use of history as a term that centers on Christian history. Throughout my reading, I kept coming to a question of the “parting of ways” between Christianity and Judaism and wondered how Gordon’s idea of history would be understood within such a comparison and contrast between Christianity and Judaism?

  5. For a fuller explanation of a Womanist understanding of consciousness, please see Angela N. Parker, If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I?: Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021).

  6. David G. Horrell, Ethnicity and Inclusion: Religion, Race, and Whiteness in Constructions of Jewish and Christian Identities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), and Shawn Kelley, Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship (New York: Routledge, 2002).

  7. Kelley, Racializing Jesus, 47–50.

  8. See n5 above regarding my question regarding history.

  9. Katie Geneva Cannon, ‘‘The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), 30–40.

For Cannon (and, I would argue, for most African American Christians), the idea of “family faith journeys” are part of the communal aspect of God as liberator for a believing community. Africans in America engaged the Old Testament since many of the messages resonated, as Cannon notes. 

Gordon, on the other hand, delves into self-transcendence throughout his work while seeming to shy away from community. For Gordon, “whole communities can be inauthentic” (157). Gordon argues that the group biases contained in one community only truncates their ethical development. Noting that “normal human development” involves socialization into already existing social orders and contexts, Gordon relies heavily on Bernard Lonergan to highlight that the social is a way of life based on convention that is orderly and predictable.[footnote] I have “normal human development” in quotations to highlight the unquestioned assumptions behind normality and abnormality. I would be remiss if I did not highlight such understanding of the Black woman as abnormal and the downfall of her race as outlined in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1965). Moynihan’s report does not take into consideration any of the inequities as described in my understanding of consciousness identified above.

  • Joseph Gordon

    Joseph Gordon


    Gordon Response to Angela Parker

    My sincere thanks to Rev. Dr. Angela N. Parker for her generous and keen engagement with Divine Scripture in Human Understanding. Parker begins her response by identifying the ways in which Divine Scripture and her own book, If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority are complementary.1 As Parker notes, both of our books contain critiques, both implicit and direct, of “inerrantist” approaches to Scripture. That observation provides me the opportunity to reflect on some of my own personal history with studying doctrines of Scripture, which will in turn allow me to identify something significant that I have learned from Parker’s If God Still Breathes, which will finally provide me the opportunity to address justifiable concerns she raises regarding what I have written about human nature, human knowledge, and the relative lack of engagement with communal approaches to scriptural interpretation in Divine Scripture in Human Understanding

    I come from, and am ordained in, and teach at an institution affiliated with a church tradition that has not historically made the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture a test for confession or fellowship. The Stone-Campbell or Restoration movement, with its modern branches being the Churches of Christ A Cappella, the Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (my ecclesial home), and the Disciples of Christ, has historically been explicitly critical of making extra-biblical creedal or confessional statements as exclusionary tests of fellowship or orthodoxy.2 In fact, my New Testament Professor at Lincoln Christian Seminary, the late Robert Lowery, noted that the very word, “inerrancy” is not a biblical word, and my ecclesial tradition has long aspired to use “Bible words for Bible things.” I found Lowery’s explanations of the problematic nature of the language of inerrancy persuasive.3 

    Another professor and mentor convinced me that evangelical doctrines of inerrancy raised more problems than they solved. Since they referred to a version of the text—the original autographs which never existed together for any particular Christian community—such doctrines could not actually be useful for understanding or reading Christian Scripture as we have it in a faithful and responsible manner. Given those formative experiences, I never felt an intense need or desire to affirm any particular notion of inerrancy.4 To be clear, though, the critique of “inerrancy” that Divine Scripture in Human Understanding provides is not direct, historical, or dialectical. It is implied, more than anything else.5 

    To reiterate and summarize what I state in the book (see 25–26), I did not engage the doctrines of inerrancy or infallibility because I have not found them useful for appreciating and understanding the eminent divine usefulness of Sacred Scripture. Through what Parker has taught me in her own book, I have come to learn that my ability to avoid discussing such doctrines is, in significant part, a result of privilege. Such doctrines have had pronounced historic uses in the history of American Bible-centric traditions. As she writes in her response to my book, and elaborates compellingly in If God Still Breathes, the doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy have served as “tools of White supremacist authoritarianism that places the preacher or pastor as inerrant and infallible over congregations.” All such uses of Christian scripture are blasphemous. They wickedly deny the dignity and goodness of persons created in the image of God and manifest approaches to social power which contradict and reject the kenotic lordship of Jesus Christ. 

    In the critical portion of her response, Parker raises concerns about the philosophical resources that I deploy in the account of human persons that I offer in chapter four of Divine Scripture. She highlights major issues in the history of western reflection on consciousness that she justifiably worries may taint my approach. While Lonergan did learn from Hegel, the racialized Hegelian notions of culture, community, and history that Parker rightly denounces constitute an instance of what Lonergan would call “classicism,” or a “classicist” notion of culture. In such an approach, there is only one culture and all else is benighted barbarism. Lonergan affirmed—as I do as well—an empirical, or pluralist, approach to culture and community (150–51; and especially 331n160). Human culture and human authenticity exist wherever there are distinct, historic groups of persons with distinct values. All such communities are relatively authentic; that is to say, they possess intrinsic dignity, reflect the reality of human intelligence, and have a capacity to seek, and even find, God, precisely in the particularity of their customs and habits (see Acts 17).6 To reiterate what I state in my response to Lim’s comments on my book, I affirm the authenticity of specific Christian—and even non-Christian—communities and cultures in their very particularity. Nothing in Divine Scripture should be utilized to deny that judgment. And I think the book welcomes all of Parker’s critiques and suggestions. For what she writes is eminently attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. I am grateful she has shared the fruit of her Womanist consciousness with me and with the broader Christian community with such grace and patience. 

    In chapter four I do perhaps overemphasize individual self-transcendence to the detriment of providing an adequate account God’s work within communities, but I hope that can be balanced by what I have written elsewhere.7 In chapter three, for instance, I stated explicitly that “redemptive work of the Son and the Spirit . . . includes the work of the Christian community.”8 In chapter six, I wrote that “the Spirit works through the particularities of the authors, texts, and hearing and understanding communities of Christian Scripture to lead those communities to the fullness of the truth of the Son of God in whom the Father is reconciling all things (Eph 1:3–14, especially 10)” (227, italics for emphasis). Parker notes that “[s]hared experiences, shared understanding, shared judgment, and shared decisions of the Civil Rights movement evidenced how Scripture (through the preaching and teaching of Martin Luther King Jr.), human consciousness, and community came together for communal transcendence.” I think that is a quintessential example of the Spirit’s work within a particular Christian community, empowering Black American Christians towards (for the work is not yet done) the fullness of God’s liberative, transforming work of righteous justice and judgment.9 

    In a footnote Parker asks if I “can think through diversities of consciousness and redemptive pedagogy functioning differently within diversities of consciousness?” I think this is an excellent question. I would answer that God does work redemptively in different ways in the different concrete, historic consciousnesses of particular persons and communities. But all such work will depend upon our general capacities for attentiveness to experience, intelligence in understanding, reasonableness in judgment, and responsibility in decision. And all such redemptive work will enhance those capacities, healing them where the damage of social and personal sins have devastated us, and transforming us to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Such attentiveness and intelligence, patience and kindness, are evident throughout Parker’s work and in her response to my own. So I thank her, and the rest of the respondents, for sharing such virtues, such personal gifts, with me through this symposium.   

    1. See Parker’s faith-filled boldness, rigor, and self-assurance—in a single word, authenticity—in Angela N. Parker, If God Still Breaths, Why Can’t I? Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021).

    2. For an excellent history of the Stone-Campbell Movement, see D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, and Paul M. Blowers, eds., The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).

    3. Lowery raised concerns over the problematic nature of the language of inerrancy in print in Robert M. Lowery, “Acknowledging the Authoritativeness of Scripture,” Christian Standard 119 (1984): 790–2; 814–5.

    4. I do firmly believe that the God of Scripture is perfectly trustworthy. Moreover, God has not made a mistake in giving us Scripture as it is in the manner God has done so.

    5. In fact, I had hoped to avoid discussing the traditional Protestant language developed for discussing Scripture entirely—terms such as inerrancy, infallibility, plenary verbal inspiration, etc. The only reason I did at all is because one of the anonymous reviewers of the book suggested that I, at the very least, needed to offer a justification for why I was not engaging such language. See Joseph K. Gordon, Divine Scripture in Human Understanding: A Systematic Theology of the Christian Bible (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019), 25. I am less sanguine about the possible positive usefulness of the language of inerrancy now than I was when I wrote that section of the book in the summer of 2017.

    6. I do note that such authenticity is relative, though. Christians should, I argue, expect all communities and cultures to reflect the dignity of natural human authenticity in attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility; all such communities and cultures reflect the potentiality, and perhaps actuality, of receiving supernatural grace. But all such cultures will also reflect the truncations of self- and communal-transcendence that is the surd of human sinfulness.

    7. See Joseph K. Gordon, ‘Redrawing the Map’: Insights from the Work of Robert M. Doran on the Place of Christian Scripture in the Dialectic of Culture,” ed. Joseph Ogbonnaya and Gerard Whelan (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2021), 111–30.

    8. Gordon, Divine Scripture in Human Understanding, 107, italics here for emphasis. Having read Parker’s, and Lim’s responses, though, I wish I could rewrite that sentence to affirm God’s redemptive work in Christian communities.

    9. To be clear, though, not all Civil Rights leaders were Christians. I take the risk of thinking that the authentic work of such leaders reflects their intrinsic dignity as persons created in the image of God called by God to beauty, truth, and goodness.

Bo H. Lim


Communities and Commentaries

Questions on the Bible for Gordon

Joe Gordon’s Divine Scripture in Human Understanding makes an important contribution to a growing field of what Telford Work has called “Systematic Bibliology.”1 This genre is not to be confused with studies regarding the origins of the biblical writings, the manuscript evidence, and the process of canonization. Neither are its aims apologetic, attempting to defend a particular view of biblical inspiration or scriptural authority. Gordon’s work can be catalogued among works committed to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS), but its focus is not on interpretation per se, but rather the ontology of the Bible. The book is an ambitious project since the notion of “systematic theology” is presently contested, the textual evidence that comprises what is considered “the Bible” is technical and complex, and Judaism and Christianity’s conception of Scripture is vast and diverse.

What sets Gordon’s work apart from other systematic theologies of the Bible is the scope of his project. These works typically employ traditional dogmatic categories such as Trinitarian theology or soteriology and engage noted theologians from the patristic period to the modern era. This methodology is unsurprising given that TIS seeks to revive ecclesial resources for reading the Bible rather than the so-called scientific methods of historical criticism. Rarely do these bibliologies engage “contextual” theologies and technical discussions regarding the extant textual evidence for the Bible. Gordon’s work differs in that he believes engagement with historical-critical, theological, and contextual readings are necessary for a theology of the Bible. This decision is rooted in his adoption of the theological methodology of Bernard Lonergan as well as his understanding of the task of systematic theology. For Gordon, theology is not the pursuit of totalizing discourse but rather the understanding and articulation of the mysteries of the Christian faith for the theologian’s current context. Such an endeavor requires human authenticity on the part of theologians and their recognition of, and accounting for, their own subjectivity and that of their audiences. Gordon repeatedly employs the maxim, “concepts have dates,”2 not to insist on historical accuracy to attain objectivity, but rather to acknowledge human subjectivity in the entire theological process from the writing and formation of Scripture to its interpretation and application. He acknowledges that theology is always contextual and embodied and therefore historical research is necessary to understand ideas set forth in the past and taking human subjectivity into account is necessary to formulate a theology for the present.

Gordon recognizes that the question, “How should these various approaches—historical critical, contextual, and theological—be related to one another, and how should they inform contemporary engagement with and use of Scripture in Christian communities today?” (5) is of pressing importance to the church today. To this query he responds, “This is a challenging question, and the present work cannot answer it completely” (272, n21) and states he will address this question in a subsequent monograph. TIS scholars have typically engaged historical and theological issues, but have largely neglected contextual concerns, a point I have written on elsewhere.3 What is disconcerting is that so many TIS scholars acknowledge the importance of understanding the role of human contexts in the theological task, but then leave this work to others. If these questions are vital to theology, why set them aside for the present and what does this deferment reveal about the composition, values, and priorities of theologians? Typically, TIS scholars acknowledge the vital role of human context in the theological task by voicing the importance of “humility” or “diverse voices.” In a similar manner Gordon, drawing from work of Lonergan, speaks of the important role of human “subjectivity” in theology and repeatedly acknowledges the provisional nature of theological assertions but he, like other TIS scholars, has little to say on doing theology in multicultural contexts. 

When speaking of the importance of human context, Gordon most often refers to the “world behind the text,” the cultural context of the ancient writers and tradents of Scripture rather than the “world in front of the text,” the cultural contexts of modern readers. When moving from text to modern application, Gordon focuses his attention on the effect of Scripture on the human soul. He devotes an entire chapter to recover a robust doctrine of the soul following the teachings of Henri de Lubac and Lewis Ayers. If deification is the goal of God’s sanctifying purposes in history and Scripture is the divinely ordered means to this end, for Gordon a theological anthropology is necessary to properly understand the transformative role of Scripture. Gordon consistently applies his theological method by drawing upon both ancient and contemporary sources. He writes, “Our need today is for an articulation of the intelligibility of human nature that maintains the advances of understanding in historical philosophical and theological anthropologies and simultaneously address the pressing questions about the historical locatedness and cultural diversity of humanity that have arisen in recent years in an adequate way” (120–21). Drawing upon and developing the thought of Aristotle and Lonergan, Gordon concludes that what is universal for all humans is the intrinsic ability for self-transcendence. This ability is uniquely human and sets them apart from other animals. The Scriptures are both a product of human self-transcendence and an instrument to facilitate self-transcendence for subsequent generations. Following Lonergan, Gordon describes this experience of self-transcendence as affecting the four levels of human consciousness: the empirical, the intellectual, the rational, and the responsible. Each level possesses its own respective exigencies, and the role of Scripture is to reform each of these in their own terms. 

Gordon writes that “all engagement with the textual otherness of Scripture depends on the subjective constitution of the individuals or communities” (28, italics his) While he acknowledges the important roles cultural diversity and communities play in the reception of Scripture, Gordon gives no account of how Scripture transforms communities beyond the self-transcendence of individuals. This omission is noteworthy given that the church continues to struggle to give an account of why so many of its followers who claim its doctrines, participate in the life of church, and practice a vibrant devotional life, continue to be blind to social sins such as nationalism and racism. Skeptics both in and outside the church wonder whether the Scriptures possess the means for social transformation. If a theology of Scripture is written today to address the pressing needs of the church, it must engage how the Bible functions within human social contexts and not merely at the level of individuals.4 Such a focus aligns with the nature of the biblical materials themselves since they are primarily addressed to communities rather than individuals. 

Given the importance of human context in the theological endeavor, Gordon rightly acknowledges, “Any adequate understanding of the nature and purpose of Christian Scripture, though, must do justice to the actual evidence of Christian Scripture” (169, italics his). He highlights how the printing of single volume pandects of Scripture known as “the Bible” obscures the diversity of materials that fall under this rubric. Rather than ignore the textual diversity of the Bible, or marshal apologetic arguments for an authoritative version, Gordon acknowledges that there are five hundred thousand textual variants among the five thousand, six hundred-plus extant Greek manuscripts. He cites the evidence demonstrating that the textual history of the Jewish Scriptures is fluid, that Christians utilized both and Hebrew and Greek versions of the Jewish Scriptures even when they contradicted each other, and acknowledges terms such as “canonical,” “apocryphal,” or “pseudepigraphal,” are all anachronistic and the judgments of later communities. Gordon cites the evidence demonstrating that the Jewish Scriptures were of secondary importance to the oral and written testimony concerning the events of Jesus Christ in the early church. This history supports TIS’s emphasis on the telos of biblical interpretation to be the res of the gospel of Jesus Christ yet somewhat relativizes the necessity for close readings of biblical texts. 

Gordon acknowledges the theological questions that arise given the diversity of the manuscript evidence and the church’s reception of Scripture. Neither the biblical materials nor Christian creeds are sufficient to address of the textual diversity of the Bible, and therefore Gordon, like others, defaults to the doctrine of providence to form a theology of Scripture. He believes that if Scripture is a divinely ordered means in the economy of salvation, then what has been written, translated, and preserved is sufficient for such ends. If Gordon’s observations and assertions are correct, Christian readers of Scripture, particularly biblical scholars, may need to reconsider the nature of their work. According to Gordon, so much variation exists within the wide range of texts accepted by the church, the memory of the events of Christ were considered far more important than the Jewish Scriptures, and NT writings were initially considered mere memoranda. Certainly, quests for authoritative autographs and canons ought to be abandoned, but one wonders whether the focus on textual detail by biblical scholars is warranted. Biblical scholars obsess over word choices, grammar, literary genre and structure, manuscript variations, intertextuality, the inclusion of, and ordering of literary materials, and so forth. In this regard, biblical scholars engaged in TIS are no different and assume theological significance resides in textual details. They may eschew the more speculative aspects of historical criticism but nonetheless still write technical theological commentaries. One need only look to the works of Brevard Childs, arguably the founder of TIS in its current iteration, as an example. Yet if one adopts Gordon’s narration of the role of the Scriptures in the early church, such close attention to textual detail for theological purposes appears unwarranted. 

As a biblical scholar myself, I recognize that modern biblical scholarship often seeks a precision to, and quantification of, biblical data that the ancient manuscripts simply do not possess. An examination of redactional theories demonstrates how so much of the work of academic biblical scholarship is speculative and over-analyzed. But one still wonders how much theological significance ought to be attached to textual details, particularly if one can find theological meaning in allegorical interpretations. Should modern theological commentary writing, which continues to be quite a contested genre, altogether abandon traditional forms of exegesis, and should Scripture take a secondary role to the proclamation of the events of Christ’s life? Highly liturgical traditions have chosen the latter. Perhaps the extensive effort of TIS scholars to write exegetical and theological commentaries on the entire Bible is misplaced and unnecessary. TIS scholars have criticized theological commentaries such as those in the Brazos (Brazos) or Belief (Westminster John Knox) series for failing to engage in substantive exegesis, but perhaps their critique is unwarranted.

While described as a systematic theology, Gordon’s work is infused with biblical scholarship such that it truly straddles the disciplines of theology and biblical study and therefore fulfills the aspirations of TIS. Christian biblical scholars and theologians will be challenged by this work, and both will come away having to think more critically about their understanding of nature and role of Scripture. 

  1. Telford Work, Living and Active: Scripture in the Divine Economy of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 9. Other works in this genre include John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and more recently, Daniel Castelo and Robert W. Wall, The Marks of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).

  2. Robert Doran, What is Systematic Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 144, as cited in Gordon, 150.

  3. Bo H. Lim, “Critical Methods and Critiques: Theological Interpretation.” In The T&T Clark Handbook to Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics, edited by Uriah Y. Kim and Seung Ai Yang (New York: T & T Clark, 2019), 141–59.

  4. For a recent work by a TIS scholar addressing such concerns see Stephen E. Fowl, Idolatry (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2020).

  • Joseph Gordon

    Joseph Gordon


    Gordon Response to Lim

    My sincere thanks to Professor Lim for his generous and thoughtful engagement with Divine Scripture in Human Understanding. Lim begins by situating my work relative to projects in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) movement. He notes that while my work reflects many of the characteristics common within this movement, its attention to the material history of Scripture and its positive mention of the role of so-called “contextual theologies” for engagement with Scripture set it apart relative to many TIS projects.1 While chapter five provides a broad overview of the material histories of Christian Scripture, Lim is correct that my discussion of the relevance and importance of multicultural perspectives and “contextual theologies” for the theological reading and use of Scripture is underdeveloped. 

    Since the book provides an ontology of the Bible, it does not directly deal with specific questions about the concrete interpretation and use of Scripture. That practical exigency provides a partial explanation for why I did not take up the question of the promise, vitality, and even necessity of reading and understanding Scripture in a multicultural Christian community directly. While Lim notes the breadth of Divine Scripture as a strength of the book, he—and Angela Parker—are justifiably critical concerning my lack of engagement with the communal or social dimensions of scriptural interpretation. One cannot do everything, of course, but I am and will remain haunted by Lim’s legitimate question about this lack in my work: “why set [these questions] aside for the present and what does this deferment reveal about the composition, values, and priorities of theologians?” I take this as a gracious opportunity, given the justifiable frustration and anger that might be behind it, to clarify my own priorities and values and discuss some of the limitations of Divine Scripture in Human Understanding

    When I set out to write what has become Divine Scripture, my plan was to provide an ontology of Christian Scripture in four chapters, followed by two chapters updating the first two senses of the historic “fourfold sense” of Scripture, history and allegory.2 A second book would supplement those final two chapters with two more on the moral and spiritual reading of Scripture.3 It quickly became clear to me I would have to settle for getting straight my account of the ontology of Scripture, and that work expanded from four to six chapters. All of the work on retrieving, and updating, the fourfold sense would have to come later. 

    That future work, for me, requires special reflection on the communal nature of the third of the four senses—tropology, or moral interpretation of Scripture. My conviction is that such reflection will not just be informed but must be determined and lead by the monumental achievements made through liberative reading strategies in communities traditionally marginalized by western, male, elitist scholars and clerics. Historico-literal/literary, allegorical, and spiritual reading strategies must also be fundamentally informed by such achievements, too, though. Since attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and ultimately faithful, hopeful, and loving engagement with Scripture is in the service of God’s redemptive, liberative work in history in and for specific human communities, historical/literal and theological/allegorical, and spiritual anagogical approaches to Scripture must be multicultural through and through. Given that the redeemed community God intends will not erase the differences between peoples (see Rev 7:9 and the entire book of Acts), explicitly culturally pluralist readings of Scripture are not just to be expected but are needed for the fullness of Christian witness and faithfulness. “Scripture will be fully understood . . . when it has been translated, read, meditated upon, in all the languages of the earth.”4   

    Besides pointing forward to that future work, I should note another limitation of Divine Scripture that exhibits how I continue to grow and learn, and shows how much further I have to go. I am simultaneously proud of and discomfited by the bibliography of the book; one of the original blurbers wrote in a personal message that I had seemingly read everything relevant to the questions the book addresses. A close friend whose own intellectual care and thoroughness I admire has called the book “eminently responsible” and judged that I read myself into all of the relevant conversations that Divine Scripture addresses. But anyone who peruses the bibliography will recognize that women, non-white, and non-Western thinkers are relatively underrepresented. This is due in part to the fact that hegemonic social structures, cultural misvalues, and powerful gatekeepers have limited the number of such works available; there were fewer such resources when I wrote my dissertation—now almost ten years ago—than there are today. I take responsibility for a more significant issue, though. I simply did not engage sufficiently with the breadth of works on different cultural approaches to Scripture that were available when I wrote it. 

    Divine Scripture in Human Understanding draws together things I learned during eleven consecutive years of post-secondary theological education. My undergraduate Bible college experience included courses in most of the books of the Protestant canon, four semesters of Hebrew and five of Greek, hermeneutics, introductory courses in theology, and an honors course on the history of the Bible. My seminary coursework in patristics, systematic theology, ancient and modern philosophies, and independent study of the works of Lonergan and de Lubac built upon, deepened, and fruitfully developed those undergraduate foundations. Further coursework on Augustine, Aquinas, Lonergan, and the nouvelle theology during my Ph.D. and qualifying exam questions on patristic exegesis and hermeneutics, de Lubac’s ressourcement of premodern approaches to Scripture, and language in theological method pressed my own development further. 

    That said, a doctoral seminar in political theology was the first time I was assigned any works of so-called “contextual theology,” and two bibliographies—one I received for my entrance exam at Marquette and one that I composed and read for a doctoral qualifying exam question on the ethics of scriptural interpretation—were the first times in my formal theological education that I strategically worked through classic monographs in black, feminist, womanist, Latin American, and other multicultural and liberative theological perspectives. Such influences are present in the book, but I could have done much more than I did.5 I now require my own students to encounter and work through such resources in the undergraduate courses I teach, and I continue to work through others myself.   

    I am haunted by another of Lim’s statements: “Skeptics both inside and outside the church wonder whether the Scriptures possess the means for social transformation.” Can Scripture be read in a way that transforms communities and builds towards life for all? In After Whiteness Willie James Jennings notes that contemporary theological education is a necessarily constructive project.6 Theological educators, and authors, are faced with a dialectical choice: will we build towards life for all, or death? In an article on Henri de Lubac’s relative failure to reckon with the anti-Judaism present in the tradition of Christian spiritual or theological exegesis, I note that four themes of de Lubac’s wartime writing must be foundational for any recovery and transformation of traditional theological interpretation of Scripture. De Lubac affirms (1) the integral unity of human community, Jew and gentile, (2) that God’s redemptive work is for the whole world and so for the entire human community, (3) that every particular person has a fundamental, irrevocable dignity, and finally (4) that to receive and share self-sacrificing love is the fulfillment of God’s intentions for humanity.7 To these I would add a Lonerganian principle affirming the goodness of cultures in their very plurality and particularity.8 

    The embodied reading practices of marginalized communities demonstrate that it is possible to read Scripture in a way that promotes life for all; such readings must be promoted as authentic and faithful.9 Scripture has all-too-frequently been used to sanction divine authority for uses opposed to these fundamental convictions. Such uses must be denounced as blasphemous. I am working towards growing and learning in a way that will allow me to build towards life. May God help me, and may I respond well to the witness and prophetic testimony of sisters and brothers to convict me of how and when I fail to do so. 

    I offer one final comment. Lim suggests that if my explanation of the theological significance of the Bible’s material history is correct, biblical scholars may need to give up the pursuit of the original text of Scripture as a basis of theological readings. Textual critics have already long noted that it is not even fruitful to conceive of there being an “original text” for many books of Scripture. But giving up on the pursuit of either the “original text,” or alternatively the “final form” of Scripture, does not entail that we should give up seeking to understand the material vicissitudes of the transmission of the texts as carefully as possible.10 In fact, my approach could be construed as a fuller notion of plenary inspiration than that championed by some. Since the Bible is the entire history of the transmission of Scripture, the differences between texts are themselves superintended by God. Nothing in the history of the transmission of Scripture escapes the providential care of the Triune God, and “all Scripture” is God breathed. We can see such material variability, like the cultural plurality of the human community, is a gift to be received, shared, attended to, understood, and affirmed as good. 

    1. For reflections on the strengths and limitations of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement, see Joseph K. Gordon, “On the (Relative) Authenticity of Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” The Lonergan Review 9 (2018): 78–102.

    2. Premodern Christians developed an approach to engaging Scripture (1) at the level of the letter or history, (2) at the level of allegory—which relates all in the Old Testament to Christ and the Church—(3) at the level of tropology or morality, and (4) finally at the level of analogy or spiritual formation on the way to the beatific vision. See the work of Henri de Lubac on the fourfold sense of Scripture in his four volume Exégèse médiévale: Les quatre sens de l’Écriture (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1959, 1961, 1964).

    3. I describe what this future work would entail in Divine Scripture in Human Understanding, 316–17n8; 366n148; 367n153; 369n177.

    4. See Henri de Lubac, “The Theological Foundations of the Missions,” in Theology in History, trans. Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 405. De Lubac is quoting a young man from China.

    5. See, for instance, Gordon, Divine Scripture in Human Understanding, 4–5, 164, 255 and the notes on those pages.

    6. See Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020).

    7. See Joseph K. Gordon, “Ressourcement Anti-Semitism?: Addressing An Obstacle to Henri de Lubac’s Proposed Renewal of Premodern Christian Spiritual Exegesis,” Theological Studies 78, no. 3 (2017): 614–633.

    8. On this point, see Joseph K. Gordon, “Redrawing the Map”: Insights from the Work of Robert M. Doran on the Place of Christian Scripture in the Dialectic of Culture, ed. Joseph Ogbonnaya and Gerard Whelan (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2021), 111–30, esp. 112–7, 121, 127.

    9. See Lim’s discussion of enculturated advocacy for and nurture of Asian American communities as key priorities for Asian American theological reading in Bo H. Lim, “Critical Methods and Critiques: Theological Interpretation,” in The T & T Clark Handbook to Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics, ed. Uriah Y. Kim and Seung Ai Yang (New York: T & T Clark, 2019), 150–2.

    10. See Joseph K. Gordon, “On the Theological and Moral Usefulness of the Data of Christian Scripture,” in Critical Realism and Christian Scripture, ed. Joseph K. Gordon (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2023).

Olivier-Thomas Venard, OP


Divine Poetics in Human Understanding

“An adequate contemporary understanding of the nature and purpose of Scripture must affirm its abiding authority even through the variegated cultural historicity of its contents” (151). In the context of systematic theology today, Joseph K. Gordon offers us a most needed book. It addresses the most vexing question for many faithful: how to cope with the sense of relativity acquired over the past centuries through the results of historical critical examination, and over the last decades through the multiplication of methods and approaches, without yielding to relativism? As “one attempt to grapple with the extant historical data of Christian Scripture, the histories of its use and interpretation, and traditional doctrinal judgments about Scripture itself” (264), the book does meet the challenge it sets itself.

Gordon’s book fills a vexing lacuna in many courses intended to introduce Scripture to students in divinity. One can only share Gordon’s dissatisfaction with “how little scholarly achievements concerning the actual material history of Scripture have figured in theological accounts of the nature and purpose of Scripture” (27), and one can only share his aims in this book.

For all the brilliant scholarship and truly edifying sense of theological responsibility which it displays, though, Gordon’s book could be supplemented. Readers who know of my own research will not be surprised that I find Gordon’s rendering of the linguistic, literary, and poetic dimension of Scripture and revelation not entirely satisfying. “Exegesis without presupposition is impossible,” and so too is systematics, (38) and despite Gordon’s attempt to reach the most balanced view between Tradition and contemporary challenges, he remains “modern” in his relative distrust towards the revelatory capacities of language.

Gordon rightly intends to account for history without being positivist or historicist. Yet, citing Lonergan, he tends to reduce scriptural writing to representing (historical) exteriority. When he writes that “a Christian approach to Scripture will necessarily take its point of departure from a Christian theology of history. A fully responsible Christian exegesis of Scripture will be impossible without a critically articulated Christian understanding of what has happened in the history that is” (40), we would add that not only a Christian theology of history is needed but also of literature/poetics. Taking into account the poetic nature of revelation is exactly what would prevent positivism.

When Gordon rightly insists that “Christian Scripture is the primary linguistic instrument that the Triune God has given to the world through which God continues to facilitate such transformation in communities and interpreters” (266, italics mine), we would like to add: linguistic, poetic, and literary, and we would wish to see that properly verbal dimension of revelation treated. But—maybe in excessive reaction against the invasion of the so-called “hermeneutic turn” of theology— Gordon downplays the importance of verbal inventio in the birth of Christianity. However, do not de Lubac (237, n107) and more recent authors such as Bokedal, Hurtado, or Wicker (344, n112), stating the fact that the earliest Christian “found Christ everywhere in the ancient scriptures” (238), invite us to think that it was both “ontological” and “hermeneutical?” Not only did “[t]he early Christians [treat] the ancient Jewish Scriptures as authoritative support for their proclamation of the definitive coming of Christ” (238), but the recognition of this living Word in Jesus was and is dependent on texts (cf. the proto-rabbinical kata tês graphès in the earliest NT credal forms). Unfortunately, Gordon embraces a pseudo dialectic between words and things, history and language, or sacredness and utility, citing Barton who strongly contrasts “irreversible event in the external world” and “exegesis of Scripture,” (229) and who claims that the apostolic witnesses “functioned not as holy texts but records of living memory” (238). But in the history of Western culture, is this dialectic not exactly what the incarnation overcame? Does not the gospel (hence the Gospels) represent the unique case of “myth” which “really happened”?1 From this point of view, Christian realism cannot be based on a crude dialectic between reality and language, and we must be careful not to retroject our modern “oblivion of language” onto ancient times. The new understanding of Scripture reconfigured by faith in Christ did not come without using words, and that wording was mostly scriptural.

This (anti-/neo-)positivism seems to be the corollary to a defect in the book’s assessment of the main challenge to Christian faith in our own time. Gordon repeats all throughout the book the motto of understanding and communicating “the intelligibility of Christian faith in their own time” (21), of going beyond historical rules and creed “to address unique questions and concerns that have arisen in recent times” (81) and “to recognize the historical diversity of concrete instantiations of Scripture“ (251), etc. And this could (or should) have led to confronting more directly what, in my opinion, is the main challenge to any belief today: both the oblivion of language and its dialectic consequence, linguistic deconstruction. Though it has yet to be accounted for by dogmatic and systematic theologians, the demotion of language which results from the oblivion into which Greek thought has plunged it, and which prevails in the modern cognitivist or logical approaches to language, is the key challenge to continuing to preach, to celebrate, to think (and systematize about) the incarnation of the Logos.2 By unfolding a universe where language dominates reality, speech action, and verbum esse—from the beginning of Genesis, where God creates the world through/in and by the Word, to the end of Revelation, where God rips out heaven, earth and sea as one tears the page of a book, and passing through its most incandescent point: the historical incarnation of the Word, his diffraction in human words and “inscripturation” in holy writ—the Scriptures do resist our cultural prejudice consisting in reducing words to be transparent signs of reality, our privileging of language as representation over language as power.

Yet Gordon systematically downplays the issue of language. For example, Gordon, citing Charles Hefling, is adamant: “Scripture is not a speaking and acting agent” (italicized, 28, reiterated on 39: “the written text as written, and even as recited from memory, does not ‘speak’”). Though many scriptural passages (duly listed on 29) affirm the contrary, Gordon insists, “our awareness of the drastic historical differences between our own situation and the situations out of which the texts of Scripture emerged and our awareness of the subjectivity involved in all appeals to authority, make it necessary for contemporary Christians to be cautious in our use of language concerning the ‘speaking’ of Christian Scripture” (30).

I wonder if this caution, quite legitimate against any literalism, does not prevent Gordon from recognizing the sacramental/christic dimension of the verbality of Scripture and does not lead him to stay at the “programmatic” level of theological declarations on the work of the Trinity. As he himself nicely asserts on page 80, “The artifacts of Scripture emerge from and are engaged within the time and space of the economic work of the Triune God.” But words, language, writing are essential parts of these “artifacts.” Instead of immediately replacing the striking image of speaking texts or books with an abstract theological reduction (one must “identify the ‘speaker’ of Scriptures as God” (80), or “align[ing]” the diversity of the ways in which God spoke in Scriptures with “the authority of Jesus Christ” (30)), I wonder if one might not linger on the linguistic, verbal dimension inherent in the personification of Scripture. After listing some instances of diverse and competing theologies within the Bible, Gordon states that “we must admit the insufficiency of Scripture alone for comprehensively establishing the content of Christian faith. Scripture itself does not reign in its constitutive plurality and particularity. As I emphasized earlier, it is not an agent capable of doing such work” (34). Yet, is there not a christographic” movement embedded in Scripture, which eventually was structured artistically and intentionally in confessions of faith already included in Scripture (37)? Could that properly theo-linguistic movement be an instantiation of the “different plane” of existence that Father Benoit, of the Ecole Biblique, was evoking as early as 1977 in the following bold statement? New Testament authors, he wrote, when alluding to Christ’s presence in Scripture before the incarnation “always give the impression that the concrete and historical person of Jesus whom they had met on earth did not wait until that moment to exist in reality, even on a different plane from the earthly one […] The concrete and historical person of Jesus Christ […] was present in the Old Testament acting in the formation of the chosen people and laying the ground work for his coming among us. And it is not simply the second person of the Trinity in his eternal and transcendent existence who gets involved in our history: it is Jesus Christ himself who is already at work.”3

Gordon’s solution to the book’s main question holds in these neat lines: “As determined […], whether finally or provisionally, the words of Scripture, in all of the precise and imprecise particular configurations in which they are extant, always point beyond themselves. Christian Scripture is an instrument of human and divine meaning making in history. […] The diverse concrete historical instantiations of the Old Testament and the New Testament have served as useful, divinely ordered instruments that have mediated the meaning and actuality of the economic work of the Triune God throughout Christian history” (172–73). We would simply add that they point beyond themselves, but from within themselves, and not necessarily to something “out there,” either in historical efficiency or in representative human consciousnesses. Indeed, the relationship between signa and res in Scripture, starting by its words-things instantiation, may be encapsulated in one key word: instrumentality or sacramentality. Now, accounting for instrumental functioning implies exploring the very nature of the instrument, which in this instance is: language, literature, poetics.

By the very end of his book (267–68), Gordon describes the relative necessity of Scripture for Christians, even though Augustine (Doctr. Christ 1.39.43) himself daringly recognized its dispensability for believers confirmed in their faith. But it is the sacramentality of Scripture that Augustine here describes! Christians, Gordon says, “can return to Scripture again and again to grow in their faith, hope, and especially love. Scripture is an eminently useful instrument for such transformative work in human persons. As symbols give rise to thought, so the language of Scripture gives rise to reflection in readers and hearers” (267). Here, while Gordon points to the performativity of Scripture, does he not tend to reduce its function to a hermeneutic/doctrinal task (i.e., passing from symbols to concepts)?

We would rather propose to try and describe the performativity of Scripture linguistically and poetically. Gordon reminds us several times that “Christian thought is not static; it is not dependent on, or the explication of, a univocal ‘already back then real’ deposit of faith entrusted to the saints (Jude 3)” (51). Recognizing the poetic dimension of revelation would help in retrieving a sense of the dynamics presented here. Somehow this is what Gordon does with his astute remarks on the referential nature of the rule, paradoxically implied in the genitive kanôn tês pisteôs, which is epexegetical: the faith itself is the rule and norm for Christian life, even though its form is irreducibly narrative and linguistic despite its claim to spatial-temporal catholicity (51). Christians believe that it is the case.

More precisely, theology must focus on the writenness of Christian Scripture and—beyond the ironic Socratic disdain for writing, often too lightly adopted—must recover it as an indispensable mediation of revelation. Yet in a modern fashion, referring to Walter Ong, Gordon links writing’s function maybe too exclusively to enhancing consciousness: “[to] say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word. Such transformations can be uplifting. Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does” (208). Before relating “writing” or “writtenness” globally to interiority and consciousness, I wonder if systematic theology should not undertake to inventory the main devices of divine linguistics and poetics throughout Scriptures that elicit a Christological dynamics not only at the allegorical level, but within the very litera of the Scriptures: does not the famous passage of Origen cited on page 60 mean that the biblical text demands, more precisely than a “spiritual” reception, a Christic-poetic manner of reading?

  1. Cf. C.S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis. Revised edition. Edited by W. Hooper. (London: Collins/Fount, 1988), 286–89; and the amazing book by Justin Taylor, The Treatment of Reality in the Gospels: Five Studies (Pendé: Gabalda, 2011).

  2. On this, see H.-G. Gadamer, Vérité et méthode: les grandes lignes d’une herméneutique philosophique, translated by Gilbert Merlio and Jean Grondin (Paris: Seuil, 1996) 431–51.

  3. P. Benoit, “Préexistence et incarnation.” Exégèse et théologie IV. (Paris: Cerf, 1982) 11–61, here page 29.

  • Joseph Gordon

    Joseph Gordon


    Response to Olivier-Thomas Venard

    I begin by offering my sincere thanks to Fr. Venard for his gracious and incisive engagement with Divine Scripture in Human Understanding. His elaborate, judicious response to my book is both encouraging in its generosity and praise and salient in its suggestions and critiques. The most significant issue that Venard raises at the end of his introductory remarks and explains throughout is his worry that my approach, at least as evident in the book, “remains ‘modern’ in [its] relative distrust towards the revelatory capacities of language.” This is a concern that I take with utmost seriousness; I hope that I am not incorrigibly afflicted by the modernist distrust of language Venard ostensibly detects in my work, even if the limits of the book itself justifiably invite Venard’s critique. If I have problematically downplayed the efficacy of the verba of Scripture as revelatory themselves, it is not because I conceive of Scripture as merely referential. It is because of my overriding concern, perhaps overwrought, to insist that a Christian approach to Scripture demands that readers take responsibility for the subjectivity intrinsic to all engagement with Scripture.

    I am heartened to find that Venard highlights quotations from Divine Scripture, especially in the latter parts of his response, that could welcome, even if they do not explicitly reflect, a more robust appreciation of the poetic and literary nature of the revelatory language of Scripture that he rightly argues is needed in our contemporary situation. He is correct that I do not develop such insights in the book, at least not in a way that is more than suggestive. I would consider my work a relative failure if it could not welcome such insights. As I noted in the introduction and have had occasion to indicate many times since, Divine Scripture is not the last word on the matters at hand. Despite its generality and the breadth—or even audacity—of its scope, it is far from comprehensive. I meant it when I stated that I hoped my work could invite needed correctives.1 I consider it an experience of grace that the book has received the readership and attention it has, and Venard has not only taken up the invitation to read: he has suggested needed supplementary reflection, if not correctives. Even more, he has provided a compelling example of how attention to the poetic and literary nature of Scripture’s language can produce invaluable fruit for engaging Scripture “at the level of our times” in his own magisterial work.2

    I do affirm, without any hesitation, that the scriptural texts themselves “are able to make [us] wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim 3:15, italics for emphasis). Scripture is not only “a useful and virtually indispensable instrument” referring to the work of God. I even say that it “effect[s that work] in its readers and hearers” (30). “The distinct particular words . . . are of unique value and play their distinctive roles in the redemptive pedagogy of the Triune God” (262). Scripture, I state elsewhere, “mediates divine revelation in the very particularity of its words” (28). The ability and power of the verba of Scripture can only be operative and actual through the quickening work of the Triune God in concrete acts of reading, hearing, and study. And such reading, hearing, and study presupposes personal and communal histories of formation.

    To highlight a personal example, I believe that the poetics of Scripture are already profoundly impacting my children, two years old and five at the time I am writing this response, when we read from the texts and when they hear them read aloud in church, and neither of them can yet read! They will both, God-willing, continue to grow in their abilities to understand and read, and all such subjective developments must be accounted for in an adequate, faithful manner in any account of the nature and purposes of Scripture. If I have not adequately accounted for the revelatory nature of the very words of Scripture, I have done so because of my insistence, perhaps an overemphasis, on the need to attend to and responsibly and faithfully account for the subjectivity of personal and communal engagement with the texts or words.3

    As Roberto de la Noval puts it in the introduction to this symposium, within the perspective of Divine Scripture, “Scripture is not an object, or at least it is only secondarily an object. Scripture is first and foremost an event, in which the Church encounters God by reflecting back to herself her originary experience. Scripture is therefore a performance before it is a book (italics in original).” To that judgment I could say further, Scripture is a performance before it is specific words/verba. I do not think I am placing undue limits on the text, for instance, when I say that Scripture’s usefulness presupposes subjective engagement, whether communal or individual. Neither does my emphasis on the necessity of paying attention to the subjectivity involved in engaging Scripture forbid, nor even discourage, the essential work of coming to understand, affirm, and appreciate the unique poetics and rhetoric of the specific verba of Scripture.

    The work that these texts, with these words, can do—their authentic intelligible revelatory poesis—is not automatic or magical. My warnings against ascribing agency to the text—whether the whole or specific words in abstraction—are addressed to the uncritical, unexamined, unself-conscious commitments in so many Biblicist strains of Christian culture that have proliferated in the wake of the Reformation. Such commitments make the road to blasphemous employments of the text so easy. As I state in the first chapter, “While there is no doubt that the marks on the pages of Scripture are objectively other than us, all engagement with the textual otherness of Scripture depends upon the subjective constitution of the individuals or communities engaging those marks.”4

    To Venard’s question, “is there not a ‘christographic’ movement imbedded in Scripture?” I answer in the affirmative. But for any one person to answer that question in the affirmative requires conversion and cooperation on the side of the subject, that is, outside of the text or words, in us. We have to come to recognize that there is a christographic movement embedded in the text. Not everyone can do so upon a first reading of the text. Like the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 and the two on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, we need others to teach us how to read, to help open our eyes, to come to understand. We must have “eyes to see” the christographic movement in the text, and such “seeing” is not merely “taking a good look.” It depends upon transformations that influence our experience, sensory and conscious, our understanding, our judgment, and our decisions. Such statements might raise once more for Venard the concern that I “tend to reduce [the performativity of Scripture] to . . . hermeneutical/doctrinal tasks (passing from symbols to concepts).” But again, I hope I have not presented Scripture in such a reductionist way. The cooperation that I have in mind is not just needed in the specific moment of reading, and it is not exclusively intellectual; for every reader or hearer it presupposes a long period of formation in reading and hearing Sacred Scripture.5

    I certainly agree with Venard that Divine Scripture “could be supplemented,” and my desire and hope, God-willing, is to extend the arguments of Divine Scripture in future work(s) in part through continuing to ponder his reflections—and the contributions of the other respondents—in this symposium. Moreover, I know that what I have learned from reading Venard’s own books, particularly the excerpted and translated reflections in A More Poetic Christ, has born fruit in my own engagement with Scripture, and I trust it will continue to bear fruit in my subsequent reflections on such matters. It is precisely Venard’s own judicious, intelligent, responsible, and even creative exposition of the poetics of the gospel that I have found so compelling. His brilliant, spiritually edifying, even—dare I say—graced work in A More Poetic Christ is not the work of personal, community-free genius, and neither is it subjective eisegesis; it is not any less Venard’s own work for its fruitfulness, objectivity, and truthfulness. He has, through his research and his own original insights, helped me to better recognize and so better understand the christographic movement of the text through how he attends to and explains the very words and symbols of the text. I note again, though, it is his own traditioned, developed, even graced personal subjectivity that has helped me to understand the poetics, the rhetoric, the words and the text. So once more, I offer my sincere thanks for the attention, inquisitiveness, and perspicacious judgment he has provided in his response to Divine Scripture in Human Understanding, and moreover, for his own patient and illuminating work in providing me, and any other Christians seeking to better understand and love God through better understanding and loving Scripture, with his own responsible and faithful performative engagement with Sacred Scripture.

    1. “Whatever mistakes the present work contains, I hope, will invite readers to overturn said errors and so help to advance Christian understandings of the nature of Scripture, its meaning, and its use[.] . . . I trust that attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and loving readers will propose advances and reversals where needed.” Joseph K. Gordon, Divine Scripture in Human Understanding: A Systematic Theology of the Christian Bible (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019), 13.

    2. See especially Olivier-Thomas Venard, Pagina sacra: le passage de l’Écriture sainte à l’écriture théologique (Paris: Cerf, 2009). English translations of much of that work are available in Olivier-Thomas Venard, A Poetic Christ: Thomist Reflections on Scripture, Language and Reality, trans. Kenneth Oakes and Francesca Aran Murphy (New York: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2019), 3–115.

    3. Despite my generalist and systematic intentions in Divine Scripture, my strong rhetoric against ascribing agency to Scripture does reflect and address pressing issues at work in the background of my conception and composition of Divine Scripture in Human Understanding. While the book is generalist in scope and intention it does address definite challenges—some I was consciously aware of, and probably others more subterranean—from my own spiritual formation, education, ecclesial context, and the ongoing work of teaching.

    4. Gordon, Divine Scripture in Human Understanding, 28; italics in original.

    5. I have discussed these processes and insights further in two recent pieces, Joseph K. Gordon, “‘Redrawing the Map’: Insights from the Work of Robert M. Doran on the Place of Christian Scripture in the Dialectic of Culture,” in Intellect, Affect, and God: The Trinity, History, and the Life of Grace, eds. Joseph Ogbonnaya and Gerard Whelan (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2021), 111–30; and Joseph K. Gordon, “Scripture and Psychic Conversion,” in Perspectives on Psychic Conversion, ed. Joseph Ogbonnaya (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, forthcoming).

Ephraim Radner


Commentary on Divine Scripture in Human Understanding

The medieval hermit Stephen of Muret wrote this about Scripture: “If you are well-intentioned, your first response to God’s word will be to assess yourself according to its measure. Listen with a bad will and you are bound to twist the words around, to exonerate yourself while blaming someone else.” This is more than pietistic advice. There is an entire Scriptural metaphysic wrapped up here, centred on the nature of God’s “now.” Since I am passionately committed to Stephen’s counsel, I am bound to wonder if Joseph Gordon’s rich volume sustains it. It might; I’m just not sure.

Gordon’s marvelous volume begins with a presupposition that is a “matter of faith,” as he puts it: “Christian Scripture results from the divine activity of the Triune God in history.” Then, pressed by the confusions and debates regarding Scripture in our day, he analyzes how this presupposition might work itself out within these unavoidable pressures. After all:

[Scripture] is also the product of human subjective activity. It is the product of specific human persons and communities acting at all levels of consciousness but primarily at the levels of experience and decision. Its original human authors, moved by the Holy Spirit, acted to communicate their experiences, understandings, and judgments about the work of God in their midst through writing. Subsequent communities and individuals have acted at the levels of experience, understanding, judgment, and decision in preserving, redacting, copying, translating, reading aloud, reading in silence, memorizing, interpreting, describing, canonizing, and explaining the material texts of Scripture. Divine providence has operated in all of these activities (165).

Much of Gordon’s book constitutes a detailed examination of the way that God works through the historical particularities of human scriptural composition and reception, so as to further a divinely “transformative pedagogy.” The result is a picture of Scripture as a divine “instrument” for this pedagogy over time and place, bearing witness to and “mediating” the divine history of salvation that is still ongoing (260). Countering both the simplistic (“unnuanced”) deployment of the Bible by the unthinking and unself-aware Christian, as well as a modern despair at ever reasonably asserting the divinely “truthful, unified, and authoritative” character of Scripture, Gordon’s volume represents a massive apologetic for Scripture within a culture of narrowmindedness and doubt.

On a practical and pastoral level, Gordon is convincing. But I worry that his apparatus is unnecessarily complicated. Even more so, I worry that the complications (the “nuances”) risk obscuring the quite concrete realities of Scriptural power and truth, its divine “now,” that Gordon wants to find a way to maintain in the face of modernity’s historical relativism. Is intellectual plausibility enough? While Gordon’s final reliance on a doctrine of divine providence does seem to “save the phenomena” (e.g. historical contingency), it may do so by mitigating the phenomena’s own brute challenge, experientially and morally; and to that degree he risks brushing aside the morally grating elements of Scripture that in fact cohere with much brute experience. Is Gordon’s task simply Sisyphean? Perhaps. In what follows, I will address two of his key concepts, “history” and “providence,” whose burden is hard to carry.

I confess that I no longer really know what the category “history” amounts to. Of course, I use the word all the time; and I reason according to processes that rely on something called “history” to make sense. Much of this is habitual, practically useful in ordering my relations and active navigation through the world, moment by moment. But more and more I sense the fundamental incoherence and lack of usefulness of some integral category called “history.”

Let us call “history” the chronologically-ordered set of causal relationships that determine the “way things are.” But how the world I experience “came to be,” what my past or my parents’ past, or even my church’s past amounts to, or how the artifact of this or that translated Bible in its phenomenal shape has emerged—how any of these processes, in their identification and analysis can make sense of either present or future—all this seems murky at best; and once articulated, misleading at worst. Whatever “history” is—in terms, say, of a temporal metaphysic—it seems less and less like a helpful way to explain matters. Observationally, plus ça change . . . things just are, and it is the “is-ness” of matters, not their dynamic emergence, that cries out for understanding. Perhaps, then, Scripture “just is.” Perhaps, in a substantive way, Scripture does “fall from heaven ready-made” (a view Gordon rejects, 29). Or better, perhaps it is we who fall, pushed by Scripture.

Much of Gordon’s wonderfully synoptic volume (and it is wonderful in its breadth, detail, clarity, and gentle spirit) is aimed at dealing with the elements that make up the challenge of fitting Scripture with something called “history.” He wants to get at Scripture’s “dynamic emergence” on the scene of our experience, trying to pick apart the divine significance and power of this emergence. As I noted, he describes this as an apologetical demand, due to the inescapable claims of modern “historical consciousness” as it now engages the Bible. (“Historical consciousness” presumes something called “history”; but it also presumes that there are other consciousnesses that have gripped human understanding that are not somehow “historical.” This is a bit of a paradox. The very notion of “historical consciousness” as a modern psycho-social phenomenon, informing this or that person, people or circumstance, cries out for analysis. Again, I’m not sure that it stands up as a stable explanatory category.)

The complexities of the purported dynamic of emergence, however, are such that Gordon’s response is to sublate them into the singular and beneficent power of God: “providence.” Scripture is fundamentally historical in Gordon’s view: it has “come to be” through a host of temporal moments, agents, and contexts whose “contingent” character are human and cultural limitations. While these might seem to subvert a confidence in the text’s divine meaning for “us” in this or that time and place, Scripture’s historicity turns out to be the material “instrument” of God’s purposeful and sovereign goals. It is possible to define these goals theologically in a traditional Christologically-ordered “salvation” of humankind and world. Specifically, the movement from a plethora of historical particularities linked through complex chains of causality and influence, which go into the scriptural artifact to form such a coherent theological definition, is what divine providence assures.

What exactly is “providence” in this case? Gordon sticks to certain common-sense categories to frame the concept. There is, first, the category of temporality as a created realm (container, process, ontic order) that defines creaturely existence. There is, second, divine being that works with and within this realm, work that is theologically referred to in terms of divine “missions” and “economies.” Hence, in Gordon’s picture of the Bible, providence refers to the way that temporal or historical aspects of Scripture’s being (in its verbal and written character, a created being) are divinely ordered through the divine work of the Trinitarian persons, who thereby use and move history to its end.

All this makes sense, and also represents the general trend of (mostly orthodox) thinking about Scripture’s authoritative weight, as it has taken shape within the “historical consciousness” that has evolved over the past few centuries. Even if not engaged with the concrete forthrightness of Gordon, providence is the presupposition of most historically-sensitive attempts at maintaining Scriptural authority in our day. Within my own formative milieu, one could see the “canonical” approach of e.g. Childs, as generally reliant on this view of providence’s (often pneumatic) orchestration of historical (and thus humanly authorial and contextual) elements. Gordon’s rich discussion of the Rule of Faith as itself a formative providential template for identifying the purposeful aim of the divine orchestration of both scriptural text and meaning is itself something that the “Yale School” of my own background also embraced. I commend it, as far as it goes.

That said, I have become more sceptical about the compelling value, not of a theory of providence in general with respect to Scripture (and anything else!), but of the elements that define this application of providential purpose, ones that in this case remain themselves too general. If the Holy Spirit is ordering the historical elements that comprise both the Bible’s formation and its meaningful and transformative reception, the particularities of, e.g. the Book of Numbers, fall within this divine orbit centrally and specifically, not generally. The mess of history may get us to the broad claims of the Rule of Faith, and Scripture, in its messiness, may work coherently with both the broad claims and the historical process of their articulation; but alas, the broad claims themselves are not sufficient to order the messiness of human experience itself nor to maintain the pointed particularities of Scripture’s own words. The Rule of Faith is a rule; it is not the world; it is not Scripture itself; it is certainly not God. Numbers 14:33 (to take an almost random example), however, describes the world, is specified by Scripture, and tells us about God; even in God’s own words: “your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness.”

If divine providence, as a category, is to be compelling, it must at least be able to account for every aspect of contingency and of scriptural reference, such that “this” and “that” is of God and for God’s purposes. Gordon is alert to this challenge (as his remarks on 6-7 indicate): the particularities of biblical reference, he says, with their “atrocities” and moral repugnancies, are too hard to attribute very clearly to God. Yet this is a kind of generosity that risks muddling the very commitment to history that Gordon wants to grapple with. Attributing the difficulty to providence is not a mistake; but to do so, one must admit that providence itself is as dark as the historical phenomena the doctrine is meant to explain. The providential God must be just this God of Israel’s desert “carcases.”

Maybe historicity is a red herring in all this. Gordon is adamant up front that Scripture itself is “not an agent, that speaks, commands, admonishes, or rebukes” (P. 29). The world, and the people within it, are historical entities, and that includes the words spoken, heard, written, and reflected upon. We must not confuse historical agents and their artifacts; nor ought we to confuse historical agents with God. So Gordon argues. But is this right? Is not the whole thing—the words of the Bible, their coming-to-be (of which we know little), their hearing, their use, the people who receive and respond—is it not all an expression of “what is” and its explication at once? Numbers lays out the world, displays the world’s God, and, in a telling that reaches us with an utter mystery, makes the world just so. If the Word of God speaks and explicates God (Jn. 1:18), there must be some sense in which “self-testimony” is lodged within Scripture, in this case, such that God the Word and his words, from which derive all things, stand prior, ontologically, to the words that human beings utter, however faithfully. Furthermore, the “set of the world,” if not directly interpreted by, at least displays the meaning of, the text. It is all one big bundle of creation, into which we have fallen. That there is a definable process, patent to our understanding, called “history” that describes this fall into time (in Cioran’s wonderful phrase) is hardly obvious.

Gordon rightly works with the tools of Lonergan to help parse the complicated interplay of human historicity and divine reality: Lonergan was among the most sophisticated and fair-minded students of historicity’s heuristic demands. I just don’t think the attempt is successful: time, things, human “subjectivity” and intentionality are surds, if not intrinsically then at least to our own feeble understandings. I am simply not sure what any “historically” sensitive reading of the Bible—let alone the putatively rigorous disciplines of historical criticism—comes up with that is not basically arbitrary, or at least bound by formal custom but not general rationality. The critical notion that we can disentangle specific words in the biblical text from the whole set of the world—such that this or that word or paragraph or book “occurs”/appears in such and such a year, within just this knot of circumstances and their significant pressures, but distinct from and after the vast series of years that precede the text, and after which follow thousands of new years and their contents, perhaps reshaping the text in the process—seems theoretically plausible (for God), but practically impossible (for us). And, if one takes seriously the divine origin (somehow) of these words and texts, such an attempt at disentanglement is a recipe for misunderstanding. Leibniz may have rightly stated the truth of such a divinely providential calculus; but Voltaire also rightly mocked its human application.

To flip the direction of influence: what is that “set” of the world in which the scriptural texts “appear,” in a way that marks them as having a bearing on that set somehow? Is it the evolutionary pattern of the past four billion years (as we measure them)? Just the last two thousand years (for the New Testament) or three to four thousand for the Old Testament? Or perhaps only just the history of this church or that? Or this century? Or today, here in my small life? From the traditional Christian perspective of Gordon (and of me too), we would want to say “all of it, and in each way this is expressed,” for whatever “is” is that set, however we are able to apprehend or express it, and Scripture, in God’s purpose, “mediates” this whole set of historical realities. The implications of this claim, though, outstrip our historical imaginations as applied to the historical character of Scripture. Divine providence, with respect to the truth-bearing authority of Scripture, must be able to embrace this “all,” with its lost peoples of Central Asia, forgotten slaves in the millions, advancing and retreating ice-caps, dinosaurs, planets, dusts, and dark spaces. The Book of Numbers too, with its redemptive carcases. The fact that we cannot grasp this set even remotely, let alone locate the particularities of the scriptural artifacts—words, paper, books, imagined authors, and intentions—within this set in any way that pretended accuracy, both leaves divine providence intact (if we believe in a creator God) and the biblical text we hear undisturbed in its brute encounter with our varied and variously formed predilections.

I can’t get at the past the way Gordon wants me to. I know virtually nothing about it; and to the degree that I know so little, I really know nothing about “the past” as a category. It is foolishness for me to pretend otherwise. Hence, I realize that I must demur from Gordon’s absolute presupposition: “Christian Scripture results from the divine activity of the Triune God in history.” I do not deny the proposition. But I wonder if Scripture may itself “result” from the activity of God quite apart from history, “prior” to history metaphysically; beyond history; within the recesses of the divine being from which “history”—our opaque but infinitely valuable lives—emerges. History is the result of Scripture, not the other way around. It measures me, ever now, from start to finish.

  • Joseph Gordon

    Joseph Gordon


    Gordon Response to Ephraim Radner

    My sincere thanks to the Rev. Professor Radner for his thoughtful engagement with Divine Scripture in Human Understanding. Radner begins by quoting Stephen of Muret: “If you are well-intentioned, your first response to God’s word will be to assess yourself according to its measure. Listen with a bad will and you are bound to twist the words around, to exonerate yourself while blaming someone else.” Muret’s words, Radner contends, suggest “an entire Scriptural metaphysic . . . centered on the nature of God’s ‘now.’” While Radner finds much to praise about Divine Scripture in Human Understanding, he raises a significant, serious concern that its nuances “risk obscuring the quite concrete realities of Scripture power and truth,” that is, the divine “now” of its address. Radner finds the concepts of history, historical-consciousness, and providence—fundamental notions for the book—particularly problematic. The technical apparatus of Divine Scripture in Human Understanding may indeed be a shadowy primeval forest for readers; having entered it, one might not be able to find her way through to the clarity of divine address. Caveat lector—perhaps you cannot get there from here! Though Radner may not be able to get there, I personally cannot discern God’s address through Sacred Scripture apart from my convictions about history and providence.  

    If my work is convincing “on a practical and pastoral level,” to Radner, his worry that my “apparatus is unnecessarily complicated” seems to me, I confess, curious at best, but perhaps even unfair.1 If the work helps him, and anyone else, to understand better, to appreciate more fully, and to have even slightly more responsible and faithful expectations when hearing, reading, and teaching Sacred Scripture, then I have achieved what I set out to do. And of course, my book is metaphysically unnecessary; no created thing is necessary. The world and the Church do not need, in the strict sense, any more technical theological monographs! I still believe it was the work I was given to do and that it is useful. One of my friends has referred to it as an “eminently responsible” work. If that friend is correct, and I hope he is, then I would suggest that the complicated nature of my apparatus reflects such responsibility. I do believe it is possible to be too careful; we can become paralyzed in thought when particular situations demand timely commitment and action. But I did finish the thing, and now Divine Scripture seems to be helping at least some Christians—scholars, ministers, and even lay-people—to better understand and appreciate Scripture as the peculiar but divinely appropriate, eminently useful gift that it is.  

    Perhaps, notwithstanding his praise, Radner is truly troubled by what I have written; I admit that I find his own response disconcerting. Radner is agnostic that we can know much of anything about history or the precise details of divine providence and history. He puts it emphatically: “time, things, human ‘subjectivity’ and intentionality are surds, if not intrinsically at least to our own feeble understandings. I am simply not sure what any ‘historically’ sensitive reading of the Bible—let alone the putatively rigorous disciplines of historical criticism—comes up with that is not basically arbitrary, or at least bound by formal custom but not general rationality” (emphasis original). Later he is even more despairing, “I can’t get at the past the way Gordon wants me to. I know virtually nothing about it; and to the degree I know so little, I really know nothing about ‘the past’ as a category.” 

    From these phrases I worry that Radner risks effacing the very goodness of creation, and especially the goodness of our created knowing. My concern is that he might collapse both into sinfulness, opposing both to a completely unknowable and even darkly transcendent God, possibly even an arbitrary Deus absconditus. But it is entirely possible that I am misreading him and misunderstand the implications of his response. I lack the space to comprehensively defend my approach to the notions of time, history, and providence in Divine Scripture; in what follows I will have to settle for offering a few (hopefully) clarifying remarks. Interested readers will have to engage the broader arguments of Divine Scripture to judge whether it reflects the limitations and problems Radner finds in it. 

    While concretely the world that is, “all of it, and in each way this is expressed,” is one, I remain convinced that the witness of Scripture concerning the distinction between God and the creation, testimony concerning the goodness of creation, and testimony concerning the ubiquity of human sinfulness demands that we differentiate, or abstract, first between the reality and pervasive impacts of sin and the goodness and the intelligibility of God’s creation—that is, “nature” as good and understood expansively—and finally the superintelligibility of divine grace in history. We can understand not just that humanity has failed and characteristically fails to will the good that God intends for us, but also that we do not fail all the time, we do understand our experience, come to true judgments, and decide and act responsibly. For me sin itself is the only surd in the one economy of God’s creative and redemptive work. 

    If Radner worries that I obscure the “divine now” of Christian Scripture, I worry that he obscures different vital truths about Scripture in his agnosticism concerning history. God has given us not only Scripture but also ourselves with our characteristic attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness, responsibility to engage the texts and their histories.2 It is my judgment that Radner’s own construal of the “measure of Scripture”—and it is a construal, for Radner’s own work is exceedingly sophisticated—is attentive to Scripture’s concrete particularity.3 Moreover I find it intelligent, and, while I have quibbles with certain aspects of it, even true to Scripture. His work is eminently faithful and responsible. I continue to expect to learn from what he has to say. But I analogously trust that historians, even biblical scholars who utilize historical-critical tools, are not completely ignorant in their explanations of the data of historical interest that they engage and explain with such care. They too are attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and even faithful. Their work was, is, and will remain a “necessary [aspect] of scriptural reading.”4 While mistakes and errors in such work are inevitable, that responsible admission does not permit the sorts of fatalism, even historical nihilism, that I fear Radner’s more recent words could invite. To receive Scripture as a gift from God requires raising and pursuing all the kinds of questions that spontaneously occur to us concerning its nature, purpose, and history. 

    To be sure, I do think there is an inescapable darkness or obscurity to the divine pedagogies of Scripture, providence, and history. In Radner’s words, “providence itself is as dark as the historical phenomena the doctrine is meant to explain.” To affirm that God is the provident Lord of all history is to affirm that what has been, what is, and what will be is held in existence by God and so all that is is willed by God (actively, in the case of nature and grace, and permissibly in the case of sin). God is not the author of sin; it is our responsibility that we actively, knowingly will that which is not good and that we actively fail to will the good we know we should. But God is responsible for the concrete order of the world, created, fallen, and being redeemed as it is. To affirm divine providence, in fact, does not do away with the challenge of affirming the justice and goodness of God’s action in the face of the darkness of history but only increases it.5 For God gives all—once again actively and permissively, even “statutes that were not good and ordinances by which [we] could not live” (Ezek 20:25, NRSVue). But God also gives creation in its goodness and beauty—precisely in their contingency—including our capacities to understand and to come to true judgments about history. Our knowledge of history is contingent and so intrinsically limited, of course, but surely God makes it possible for us to know it in part (see 1 Cor 13:9) and that is not nothing. To talk about Scripture’s divine now apart from what we can know about its concrete historicity would be to truncate, if not to abdicate, our own attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility.

    To save the divine now of Scripture, Radner might risk mythologizing the whole of it. He locates Scripture before and outside of time and space, “within the recesses of the divine being.” Within such an account of Scripture’s origins, I wonder what checks there might be to prevent powerful, beguiling leaders from employing dark texts, the carcasses of Numbers 14:33 for instance, to sanction moral atrocities with divine authority. My approach is to begin from the affirmation that God is unconditioned, and Scripture is not God. Scripture, by divine design, like all things created, is conditioned or contingent. It is not necessary in the strict sense because nothing created is. Had God not created—a counterfactual, of course—there would be neither Scripture nor a need for its composition and history. Neither the difficulty of created knowing nor its fragility, contingency, or constructive nature entail that we should give up our pursuit of coming to better know what has been, our history of created being in relationship to God. One way to avoid abuses of the authority of Scripture is to take a stand on the entrance of divine meaning into history in Christ Jesus. We are to read the texts, including the dark ones, in a way that promotes the twofold love of God and neighbor that Christ commands and embodies—extending that love even to enemies. To do so is to make a judgment not merely about how to navigate the particularity of the diverse words and images or figures of Scripture, but about the entrance of divine meaning into history and its redemptive shape.

    For Muret, and Radner, one must be well-intentioned in how one approaches Scripture, and one must “assess [oneself] according to its measure.” Despite the sincere piety of these words, no one can responsibly avoid the fact we must determine what counts as good intentions, and we must determine what we think the measure of Scripture is. We all face the subjective work of taking responsibility for what we—our Christian communities, our Christian consciences—think the measure of Scripture is. There’s no measure of Scripture available to us in some perspicuous, extra-subjective, unmediated “divine now.” We are stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor 4:1), and to steward them well demands that we take responsibility not just for particular interpretations but for our understandings of the nature, scope, and purpose of Christian Scripture. Such work requires refining our understandings of time, history, providence, the past. To do so is not to stand over against God or to stand in judgment of Scripture itself. It is to test every spirit, and to take everything captive unto Christ. Only thusly, I contend, can we put ourselves in position to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches today. 

    1. As an aside, having wrestled through and benefitted greatly from some of Radner’s own complex monographs, I am not sure what to make of his judgment that my book might be unnecessarily complicated!

    2. For more on this, see Joseph K. Gordon, “On the Theological and Moral Usefulness of the Data of Christian Scripture,” in Critical Realism and Christian Scripture, ed. Joseph K. Gordon (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2023).

    3. See Ephraim Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016).

    4. Radner, Time and the Word, 18.

    5. For explorations of this judgment, see Brian Robinette’s The Difference Nothing Makes: Creation, Christ, and Contemplation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2023) and Matthew Z. Vale’s response in the Syndicate symposium on Robinette’s work.

    • Ephraim Radner

      Ephraim Radner


      Radner Rejoinder to Gordon

      Joseph Gordon is fair to push back as he does against my “worries” about his over-reliance on historicist categories in the understanding of Scripture and its character and genesis.  It’s “fair”, because he rightly sees that I put little stock in the deployment of these categories in any consistent fashion, such that there are “more” and “less” “responsible” ways of deploying them that can be “refined” more and more into ever more illuminating tools for truly understanding God and our lives with God.  I don’t buy any of this; and in not buying it, I am indeed questioning basic premises that Gordon and eminent colleagues are engaging.

      He wonders how, then, I could find his volume convincing on a “practical and pastoral level” – something I do, and do with enthusiasm!  It really comes down to premises.  As he writes, “I personally cannot discern God’s address through Sacred Scripture apart from my convictions about history and providence.”  That expresses one of his premises.  And, he rightly senses that I cannot get at (or be gotten at by) God’s address in Scripture with such convictions essentially in play.  Our premises it seems, collide.

      But we live in a world, and in a Christian church where premises diverge.  That’s part of life, and often a good – because necessary – part of life.  I am not naïve in thinking that my convictions or premises on the matters in discussion carry much sway with most people.  No should one worry that they might!  Most people in fact share Gordon’s premises regarding the categories of time, history, and providence historically rendered.  I accept this.  Given this reality, I’d rather they read Gordon on Scripture through such categorial lenses than someone else.  We are not, after all, arguing about the goodness of God and God’s saving revelation of himself in Christ Jesus.  Insofar as Gordon’s explanatory framework furthers such truths and in a way that most people can make sense of, all to the good!  His premises are more attuned to how most people think, and he will be better understood because of it.  (I should be clear that I – and, as he points out, I of all people! – have no criticisms of Gordon’s lucidity of discourse.  It’s the “apparatus” of historical argument itself that I find overly complicated as applied to Scripture.  That said, the apparatus is probably second nature, in its broad structure, to most people, and its complicated implications for God’s work and word never really come up for them, as they do for me.)

      In general, there is little value in arguing premises – that’s what makes them bedrock.  But I do want to be sure that Gordon understands how mine differ from his.  I read him as thinking that my main problem with a history-tethered understanding of Scripture’s nature is that we simply do not know enough, or that we cannot know enough and will not know enough to apply this understanding well or in a trustworthy manner.  But that (whatever impression I may have given otherwise) doesn’t go far enough.  I am not simply a relentless fallibilist, or historical sceptic (although I am that to a degree).  It’s not that I am pessimistic about our abilities to refine historical knowledge-gathering and evaluation to a sufficiently useful degree.  Rather, I do not think that there is a metaphysical “there” in the whole historical-referential-productive complex altogether:  past, present, future, artifacts, archeology, traces of intentionality, authorial and contextual contingencies and influences, and the rest.  The complex itself is perfectly coherent as a theory. We “use” it, in our newspapers, our schools and politics, our family gatherings, our thoughts.  But I believe it to be a constructed fiction, useful for this or that; but not the basis of our existence and meaning before God.  Creation itself is not fundamentally temporal; time (as we commonly understand it) is instead something that follows from creation – it is metaphysically subsequent to creation — as a useful ordering of matters here and there.

      That said, I also think that the fiction really is useful to the degree that it proceeds from the Scriptural text – if there is anything divinely trustworthy to know about what we call history, and time, and providence, we know it only as Scripture lays it out.  And any “historical framework of understanding” has value only as it derives from such a Scriptural construction, rather than being applied to the Scriptural text.  I don’t consider Scripture to be God; but as close to God as something can be that is not God – and that is a nuance that is best explored only now and again, and with a light touch.  God gives us Scripture as the articulate universe in which we live.   Hence, I do believe in divine “providence”; I just equate that with Scripture itself. (My guess – although how would I know? – is that Scripture precedes “creation”, just as time follows it, and will meet us or persist at creation’s end;  it mirrors the light of God’s own mind, as it were.)

      My premises do not particularly help solve public ethical problems, and Gordon is surely correct to wonder how a non-historical approach to Scripture offers guardrails for decision-making.  The “now” and the “just-isness” of Scripture that I might advocate provides no certain means of discerning better and worse, and offers too many morally unfiltered exemplars of horror.  The universe of Scripture is – divinely as much as humanly – too vast a canvas to permit simple principles of application.  But I’m not sure that Gordon’s historical framework does any better.  It may provide competing directives, as each one who applies it seeks to distinguish the historical wheat and tares, but it cannot adjudicate them existentially.  Perhaps there are more or less “responsible” ways to read Scripture that can follow the application of such frameworks; but – within the framework’s logic itself! – there are no compelling consequences that we can call solutions that emerge.   The world and its ethical posture does not seem a much better place, after the progress of the Church’s centuries of refining her historical consciousness.  On this score, I think Scripture itself properly provides the historical fiction its divine use, when it describes human attempts at ordering the goodness of creation well:  don’t bet on it!  God will do something else. Our job, as it were, is to be ready for such divine outcomes – all on display in Scripture as possible or likely or even certain – even as we seek a simple obedience to the clarities of Scriptural command (and these do exist).  It’s not so much that God is obscure, dark, or even absent. God just isn’t us (Is. 55:8-9).

      I don’t think that such a premise disdains the goodness of creation or the inherent rationality of human creatures.  I do think that the fiction of history is not necessary, however, for the embrace of such goodness or reasoning.  To be sure, it can certainly cohere with these things as well; but only if its substance is taken for what it is, a potentially useful tool in the pursuit of some penultimate values. Just not necessary. Indeed, only one thing is necessary (Lk. 10:42).








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