April 16, 2013

Duke Divinity Faculty on Scriptural Imagination

Stanley Hauerwas (Photo Credit: Fuller Theological Seminary)

By Aaron Gaglia (@GagliaAC)

“When you read Scripture” said Stanley Hauerwas, “you are reading God’s engagement with yourself and with the community.”

On February 11, 2013, three Duke Divinity School professors were featured in a panel discussion entitled “Forming Scriptural Imagination.” This discussion, featuring DDS Dean Richard Hays, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, and Dr. Ellen Davis focused on what Hays articulated as the school’s mission: “Formation of scriptural imagination for the sake of renewal of the church.”

This panel presented a vision of Scripture as a living text that we interact with versus a text from which we merely extract history or meaning. “Scriptural imagination…is the capacity to see the world through the lens given to us through Scripture.” We participate in what Hays calls a “hermeneutical circle”, by which our interpretation of the world and Scripture continually interact with and shape each other.  Hays gave several examples of Scriptural imagination at work, including an example from the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul calls Gentile converts to interpret their current experience in light of Israel’s history, and learn from the connection.

This type of thinking calls us to do what many great artists and writers have been doing for centuries. The worlds they create, the arguments they make, the stories they express to understand and deal with the world are completely saturated by Scriptural imagery. Take for example, the poetry and prose of John Milton. His work is so packed with Scriptural allusions you have to know your Bible extremely well to catch them. Yet his work is also packed full of cultural, historical, and mythological elements that create a beautiful synthesis that helps us understand both Scripture and culture better. Through reading his work, one comes in full contact with the living Word in full interaction with the culture around it.

This type of reading calls us to read the Bible beyond interpretation and application to a narrow “spiritual” life, but instead to read Scripture as an engagement and confrontation with all aspects of life.

“Scriptural Imagination… is the capacity to see the world through lenses given to us through Scripture” says Richard Hays. It is a living powerful narrative by which we understand happiness, we experience failure, and we breathe hope amidst suffering. This view of Scripture not only allows us to sin less and love God more, but it allows us to embody Christ and His Word as we step into the narrative of Scripture.

Hauerwas explains the Spirit’s role in Scriptural imagination. “[T]he church itself is about the formation of a people through the Holy Spirit, we cannot live without having that Spirit talk to us through the text. That’s what it means to engage in Scriptural imagination I think.”

Rather than simply stating that the Holy Spirit helps us interpret Scripture, this approach opens up the possibility that the Holy Spirit will lead us into territory that intense study of the meaning of the words will not take us.

What he means by this becomes clearer with a question Hauerwas asked Hays. “If Paul walked in right now, and said ‘What I really meant in 1 Corinthians 13…’ Would you be willing to say, ‘That’s very interesting. We’ll take that into account. But of course you didn’t know you were writing Christian scripture so we get to interpret it more than you do?’”

Hays sums up this point by saying, “I suppose the concise way of saying that is that original authorial intention is not the sole goal of interpretation.”

In this understanding, the Scripture has meaning that transcends the intention of the author–the Scripture has greater meaning that is found in the broader context of the church and the canon of Scripture. The task of interpretation, then, is not merely the task of discerning authorial intent, but of understanding what the Holy Spirit is saying through it to the church. At the end of the panel, Ellen Davis mentioned that this Scriptural imagination is practiced by reading Scripture in the context of prayer. In sum, interpretation in this context is done through a combination of careful exegesis, prayerfully seeking wisdom from the Holy Spirit, and actively participating in the story of Scripture, with the goal of transformation.

This panel scratches the surface on some very complicated and controversial theological issues, yet still delivers timeless insights that Christians on all sides of the issues will benefit from. There are three important lessons one can learn from this panel:

1) We must become so saturated in Scripture in order that we see all  aspects of life through the lens of Scripture

2) We must interpret Scripture in the context of a church community. Our doubts, questions, and interpretations become intelligible in the context of other Spirit-filled believers as we corporately interpret Scripture and build up each other to know Christ more

3) The Holy Spirit is key to understanding and interpreting Scripture. As an evangelical Christian, it is very easy to tack on the Holy Spirit as an appendix to interpretation, while relying solely on our mind and intellect to understand it. Instead we must prayerfully rely on the Holy Spirit when interpreting and applying Scripture for “he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13, ESV).

Taken together, this renewed understanding of Scripture will propel us to a more intimate walk with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and the members of His body.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTOVoWbRc0A&w=560&h=315]

6 Responses to Duke Divinity Faculty on Scriptural Imagination

  1. I am troubled with the words ”
    not merely discerning authorial intent,” if it suggests that the church can go beyond the canonical text. Paul exhorts Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God,” urging our concurrence also that we cannot be revisers of the text, since the very hand of God is immediately involved in their writing. We are also warned in John’s conclusion that nothing can be added nor taken from the scriptures, and that surely would mean no diversionary twisting of the text, pursuing instead the plain intent

  2. What may be missed is the fact that Scripture does, indeed, set up boundaries.

    The Holy Spirit facilitates personally transformative engagement with Scripture, but the Holy Spirit will not lead us into understandings that clearly contradict the plain words of Scripture.

    It is interesting how so many of these analysts are uncomfortable referring to Scripture as “devinely-inspired.”

  3. Bill Holmes says:

    And how do we really know authorial intent? Plain intent? Who will make that call? Some speak of the plain intent of Scripture in the same way Supreme Court Justice Scalia speaks of the plain intent of the constitution, as if it should be obvious to reasonable people. Either task is difficult if not impossible. Yes, pursue the plain intent but if you think you have found it, think and pray again.

    • Plain intent? Plain intent has to do with those passages where the intent is plain, for example the 10 Commandments.

      We should concentrate on following clear Scriptural guidance rather than using less clear Scripture as an excuse to subjectify everything (often with selfish motives).

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