John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge, 2003) is a carefully argued fugue on one theme: reintegrating the doctrine of Scripture into a properly theological account of God’s saving work. Webster moves Scripture from its station as theological doorman and gives it place with the other main dogmatic foci. Like them, its adequacy depends on God’s act in Christ and not on standards drawn from elsewhere.
This also means that, rather delegating exegesis to general hermeneutics, Webster fleshes it afresh along more specifically Christian lines. As such, Webster extends the deeply Reformed tradition of suspicion towards the idolatrous self. “Reading Scripture is an episode in the history of sin and its overcoming; and overcoming sin is the sole work of Christ and the Spirit. The once-for-all abolition and the constant checking of our perverse desire to hold the text in thrall…can only be achieved through an act which is not our own” (89). Critical methods, then, represent for Webster “a false stance towards Scripture,” characterized not by child-like “teachableness” but by “mastery” (102).
This rings true to me. And yet I am also left wondering where this classical tradition of suspicion towards self and the modern legacy of suspicion towards Scripture intersect. Webster acknowledges the “creatureliness of the text” – mildly endorsing modern insights into the Bible’s complex development and gradient historicity (20). But it is hard to imagine what role various forms of ethical criticism could play in his proposal. How might one assume a childlike posture towards the Bible while also recognizing its pervasive patriarchy or class interests?
If Webster would give me no answer, perhaps others who shared his dialectical coordinates might. I turned to the chapter on the Bible in Helmut Gollwitzer’s Introduction to Protestant Theology (trans. David Cairns; Westminster John Knox, 1982). Gollwitzer’s (far shorter) presentation on the doctrine of Scripture addresses two problems: first, of biblical authority per se, and second, of the Bible’s material adequacy to function as authoritative.
Gollwitzer asks in the first instance whether claiming biblical authority effectively places some people (the biblical authors) in power over others (the churches). Is kyriarchy ingredient in biblical authority? The concern does not emerge from a secular egalitarianism; one of Gollwitzer’s fundamental convictions is that the gospel means freedom – spiritual and this-worldly. Can the Bible truly promote human emancipation if its adherents insist that its particular collection of human voices function as an unsurpassable court of theological appeal?
Gollwitzer postpones this question to ask a second: even if biblical authority per se is acceptable, is the Bible capable in the modern period of fulfilling its role as theological arbiter? Here Gollwitzer rehearses the familiar difficulties generated by biblical criticism, namely, the Bible’s gradient historicity and theological plurality.
Gollwitzer responds to these two questions by developing the interlocking concepts of faith and of witness. Faith in the biblical sense is “personal trust in God” (50). It cannot depend on the prior fulfillment of certain conditions, “namely, the act of submission to a human authority, either that of the church’s teaching office (the pope) or that of the biblical authors” (ibid). No human power must be confused with God’s word in which Christians put their personal trust. “By such investing of the Bible with divine authority, by laying down the previous condition of a work to be performed by us…as coming before trust in God’s word addressed to us, we involve ourselves in a hopeless contradiction with what the bible itself has to tell us about the nature of faith” (ibid.).
Rather, the Bible is a witness. Gollwitzer explains the Bible’s similarities in this regard to the church. The church, too, is deeply fallible, theologically disunited, and inevitably local in its history, point of view, and form (56). Yet God uses the church effectively to bring people to faith in Christ. And the church is united by its shared referentiality: in fact, its only unity may exist at the level of its common gaze upon Christ. So, too, is the Bible fallible, disunited, and local; its unity, too, is not formal but referential, pointing to Christ. Two features distinguish it from the church: its uniquely intensive authenticity to its message and its historical proximity to the events of God’s revelation. As a matter of experience over time, the church has found that these writings “thrust themselves” on the community, i.e., their trueness to God is self-attesting (54). The (relative) nearness of their writers to God’s acts of self-revelation in Israel and in Christ also sets them apart from other, subsequent ecclesial forms of testimony.
Gollwitzer’s deployment of these concepts, faith and witness, establish a strong differentiation between the Bible and the word of God, first from the human perspective and then from the divine. Christians trust God (and not, ultimately, the Bible); and God speaks (not, ultimately, the Bible). This distinction enables Gollwitzer to countenance a greater suspicion towards the Bible than Webster’s language about “creatureliness” allows. He goes so far as to encourage exegetes to point out “accommodations [in the biblical texts] to class interests” (60). Gollwitzer thus speaks not only of the Bible’s fallibility in matters of historiography, but also in ethics. Presumably this willingness to identify the interference of class interests could extend to include other forms of ethical criticism, e.g., feminist.
Most likely Webster would find that Gollwitzer’s use of “witness” as an organizing concept falls prey to “a curious textual equivalent of adoptionism,” i.e., it makes the relation between text and revelation too occasional, even arbitrary (24; one wonders if the fallibility of the scriptural witness is a purely formal acknowledgement on Webster’s telling, and authorizes no concrete examples). More important, perhaps, is the possibility that Gollwitzer’s project betrays Webster’s other commitments: the Reformational suspicion towards the self and an attitude of child-like receptivity towards Scripture. That is harder to decide…