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A look at Walter Brueggemann on biblical authority
From the outset I would like to add a personal note about Walter Brueggemann’s background. Brueggemann indicates that Psalm 119:105 is his life text: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Interestingly, it was handed down to him at his confirmation from his father, who taught him “the artistry as well as the authority of scripture”. What a beautiful legacy for a father to leave his son. Aside from his dad, an evangelical pastor who himself loved the Word, Brueggemann’s approach to Scripture was strongly influenced by a number of liberal theologians (of the German variety). His association with this latter group has nurtured in him both a special longing for unity in the broader body of Christ (including non-evangelicals), and a penchant for championing the cause of the underprivileged and marginalized elements of society. That association has also reinforced his love for the literary brilliance and divine nature of the Scriptures. All these formative influences are apparent in such statements as this one made in the address he gave at the particular conference on biblical authority under review: “The Bible is essentially an open, artistic, imaginative narrative of God’s staggering care for the world, a narrative that will feed and nurture into obedience that builds community precisely by respect for the liberty of the Christian man or woman.”
Now, enough background. Let’s move on to Brueggemann’s framework for approaching interpretation of the Bible. A base assumption, and two derivative “learnings” (as he labels them) vital to this discussion, are as follows: “How we read the Bible, each of us, is partly a plot of family, neighbors, and friends (a socialization process) and partly the God-given accident of long-term development in faith.” From that Brueggemann concludes that: “The real issues of biblical authority and interpretation are not likely to be settled by erudite cognitive formulation or appeal to classic settlement, but live beneath such contention in often unrecognized and uncriticized ways that are deeply powerful, especially if rooted (as they may be for most of us) amidst hurt, anger, or anxiety.” And further, “Real decisions about Biblical meanings are mostly not decided on the spot, but are long-term growth of habit and conviction that emerge, function, and shape, often long before recognized. And if that is so, then the disputes require not frontal arguments that are mostly exercises in self-entertainment, but long term pastoral attentiveness to each other in good faith.”
Brueggeman’s six facets of biblical interpretation
Beyond these qualifying assumptions, Brueggemann identifies six “facets of biblical interpretation” which he believes are operative (or ought to be) among all those who would maturely attempt to unpack the bible’s meaning and application for today. These he captures in six “I” descriptors: 1) inherency, 2) interpretation, 3) ideology, 4) inspiration, 5) imagination, and, 6) urgency (importance). I will very briefly lay out my understanding of what he is implying with each of these facets, and then I will respond with some of my own commentary on the value and some dangers I personally observe in the application of these.
Let’s start with the first facet. This is not an easy one to articulate, but I’ll give it a try. By inherency, Brueggemann means God’s word is not fixed or frozen - it is the “live word of God.” That authoritative word is embodied in the text of Scripture, but refracted through many authors who were not simply “disembodied voices” but who were speaking the inherent faith into their given context and circumstances. Because of this refraction, and because of the living, active divine breath behind it, the locus of authority is the Bible’s good news and “main theological claims”, and these are what the church at large must base its unity upon. I get the idea that inherency is an acknowledgement that the divine is lurking within the text, but it’s not easy to pinpoint exactly where (beyond that gospel corpus & such main claims as creation, redemption, the consummation of all things, etc.).
With the facet of interpretation, Brueggemann argues that the Bible requires and insists upon “human interpretation that is inescapably subjective, necessarily provisional, and as [we] are living witnesses, inevitably disputatious.” Beyond the baseline of main claims or affirmations of Apostolic faith, we must attach only “tentative authority” to interpretations on almost all questions. He claims that Reformed interpretation too often has involved “a slight of hand act of substituting of our interpretive preference for the inherency of Apostolic claims.”
This process of interpretation that avoids absolute resolution on almost everything the Bible teaches (beyond the most basic of Apostolic claims) is self-evident, Brueggemann claims, in the Bible itself. For example, when God re-iterates the law given at Sinai for a new generation, Moses claims “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today” (Deuteronomy 5:3). The original instruction from Sinai is applied in a fresh manner for a new circumstance. He claims that God actually overturns in some instances some decrees that were in their historic context binding for the people of Israel. He cites God’s original ban from inclusion in community anyone practicing distorted sexuality. In Isaiah 56:3-8 he claims this is overturned for a more inclusive, tolerant perspective. A similar dynamic is observable, he claims, in Deut. 24:1 where it is declared that marriages broken in infidelity cannot be restored. Later in Jeremiah chapter three, Brueggemann sees God actually overturning this original decree in light of new circumstances (where restoration despite infidelity is possible).
The third facet Brueggemann mentions is imagination. In seeking to understand and apply Scripture we ought to employ this faculty of creative imagining to envision “a movement of the text beyond itself in fresh ways.” It takes a measure of fantasy or imagination to “transpose ancient voices into contemporary voices of authority.” Brueggemann claims that we do this all the time in interpretation; for example, he says “those of us who think critically do not believe that the Old Testament was talking about Jesus [what?!!!], and yet we make the linkages. And we make “a huge leap to imagine that an ancient Purity Code in Leviticus 18 bears upon consenting gays and lesbians in the twenty-first century…” (although gay people find supposedly more sound argument in Brueggeman’s earlier idea of situational - perhaps, more accurately, evolutional – abrogation of earlier biblical decrees). I love (and fully concur with) the following summary statement of Brueggemann’s view on imagination in interpretation: “Imagination can indeed be a gift of the Spirit, but it is a gift used with immense subjective freedom which we would do better to concede, even if that concession makes it unmistakably clear that our imaginative interpretations cannot claim the shrillness of certainty but only the tentativeness of our best extrapolations.”
Ideology is Brueggemann’s fourth “I” which is operative as we approach the biblical text. By ideology he means the bias we all bring to the text out of unique design and experience. Our passions, self-interests, anxieties, fears and pains represent a complex filter through which an individual or a group or a culture, filter her/his/their understanding of the Bible. We are essentially context-bound by our unique individual and group filters that we are in some ways permanently marked or skewed in our comprehension and application of certain texts. This introduces a distortion in our perspective that can only be remedied by submitting our convictions to others who interpret out of a much different filter (i.e. a different context and life experience). “There is enough truth in every such interpretive posture and strategy….to make the posture credible and to gather a mass of constituency in order to maintain a sustained voice.” But no posture can rightly be given absolute veracity or claim. None of us can claim to be “innocent” (without vested interest) in this regard.
By the fifth facet of inspiration, Brueggemann does not mean the traditional view of the inscripturation of God’s revelation (i.e. recording in written form). What he means is that the Spirit of God actively breathes through the text and “blows past all our critical and confessional categories of reading and understanding…so that the text yields something other than an echo of ourselves.” This happens as we approach the Bible in prayer and study, or even in times when we may not expect it, when the living Word strikes a special chord in us, individually or corporately. “The script of the book is a host and launching pad for the wind among us that the world cannot evoke and the church cannot resist” - what a powerful statement!
The last “I” in Brueggemann’s hermeneutical repertoire is urgency, or importance (as he puts it, to maintain consistency). Biblical interpretation is not primarily done in order to seize control of the church, but rather to give the world access to the good truth of the God who creates, redeems and consummates. This truth is not to be reduced to formula or technique, or trivialized to solve certain problems or correct certain social inconveniences. We must keep in view that “reading Scripture is for the sake of the missional testimony of the church” - good news that is, first and foremost, for the world.
What I feel is to be gained (or lost) by adherence to Brueggemann’s view of Scripture
On this issue of inherency, the word of God is seen to be lodged within a text that sprang forth from fallible human sources. We are challenged to resist too much familiarity with that text lest we close ourselves to being surprised by what new things God might want to bring out through it. In the language of Karl Barth, it ought to be endlessly “strange and new” to those seeking to encounter God’s living voice through it. I really like that idea of remaining ever open to be surprised by the Word of God – for it to be “rhema” over and over again. But, beyond that, I find this concept an inadequate accommodation for the rigidity of inerrancy. It seems to me it creates more problems than it solves (in terms of helping the Church understand how to bring its life in congruence with sound doctrine).
Brueggemann gets into hot water when he takes this a step further and argues that some biblical witnesses succeeded more effectively than others in bringing out this inherent word. If that is true, then on what basis do we determine where the more authoritative material lies? (Although, if we’re honest, most of us do not attach the same authority to II or III John or even Jude, as we do to other NT epistles – which may well be a step toward the accuracy of Brueggemann’s point). I personally would put more confidence in God’s involvement in insuring that the distortion in transmission to written text was minimized. Otherwise, it seems like the game of telephone, where God’s clear revelation gets all cluttered up in human fallibility; and the best we can hope to find when turning to Scripture is an authoritative gospel nucleus surrounded by a lot of spurious teaching and opinion.
As far as interpretation is concerned, Brueggemann makes a statement which I believe endangers (if embraced) any hope of finally resolving what is authoritative and what is not in the Bible’s teachings: “Interpretive humility invites us to recognize that reading in a particular time, place and circumstance can never be absolute, but is more than likely to be displaced by yet another reading in another time and place, a reading that may depart from or even judge the older reading…The Spirit meets us always afresh in our faithful reading, in each new time, place and circumstance.”
This is a slippery slope, obviously. There is no doubt some truth to certain older teachings being abrogated or overturned by later teachings. But, it seems to me that where there are clear cases of such abrogation, we must be very careful not to overextend that principle and let current political or ideological agendas overturn longstanding interpretations of the text. How Brueggemann actually applies the biblical examples of abrogation cited in his address I find questionable at best. For example it is true, as he argues, that foreigners among the Israelites were in Moses’ day excluded from worship, and then later in Isaiah’s day Israel were given a promise that this was to be overturned in the new covenant God was making. But it is a leap to suggest that this actually meant God was overturning this in Isaiah’s day, and that it might be changed even again in days to follow. This change is set within the context of the promises of the new covenant age, not necessarily that specific moment.
This idea of later biblical teaching replacing earlier teaching has apparently been used to justify arguments for inclusion and acceptance of gay lifestyles within the fold of the church. The Isaiah 56 text appears to be fuel for that justification (I’m not sure that Brueggemann himself espouses that, by the way). In that text eunuchs, a previously excluded group, are shown to now be included in the worship of Israel. What was earlier viewed as a “distorted sexuality” (being a eunuch) in Moses’ day is now to be embraced in Isaiah’s time. The homosexuality of old which was viewed as a distorted sexuality ought to also nowadays be embraced as being sanctioned by more current teaching in the Bible. These sorts of applications strike me as huge interpretive leaps, where certain Scripture is used to justify a present ideological bias.
Brueggemann’s quote above (the one about no reading in any time, place and circumstance holding absolute authority) makes me nervous. But I do realize that many postmoderns do not share my concern (i.e. they would not feel at all concerned whether particular parts of the Bible are authoritative in an absolute sense or not); And they might even honestly ask, why do we as Christians even need to have a text that is absolutely authoritative? Rather than deriding such thinking as naÃ¯ve, we would do well to ask ourselves how much our quest for certitude is really in itself God-ordained. Having said that, I must confess that my personal motivation to make a stand for and strive to internalize certain Scriptural teachings is very much negatively affected when I perceive a given text or passage as not having a timeless authoritative ring to it. For example, the Apostle Peter urges us to “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith…” (I Peter 5:8-9). If I do not see this as an absolute command having authoritative sway over my life (e.g. maybe I think the devil is a dated concept), I am apt to drop my guard and act like we as Christ-followers really are not in a serious battle against evil. Or maybe I hear no absolute ring in Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God. I might believe it, but if another church does not, that’s acceptable because who is to say what is absolute? Absolute authority means it’s more than my truth, or only binding because I believe it’s important. It means it is true for anyone because God has revealed that general reality as an anchor in this stage of human history.
I think Brueggemann makes some excellent points on the operation of imagination in interpretation. Indeed, we would do well to own up to that faculty we all employ – and further, see the good in it. The Spirit can and does enliven our imaginations, and no doubt takes us farther than our familiar interpretations (if we apply our creative mind’s in the light of God’s Spirit). But, as Brueggemann rightly asserts, “we must regularly, gracefully, and with modesty fall back from our best extrapolations to the sure apostolic claims that lie behind our extremities of imagination…” This call to “fall back” is reassuring, but does Brueggemann have a sense of what those specific apostolic claims are? Don’t we get back to creeds and confessions, when we start talking in those terms (Were these not an attempt to determine that authoritative “main claim” pool Brueggemann cites?)?
Ideology, or the power of those filters which are the product of our exposure and experience in life, is truly a powerful interpretive force. Brueggemann makes an excellent point here, as there are indeed many Christians who confuse their political leanings with biblical Christianity (e.g. I suppose consumer Capitalism would be a major one for too many American evangelicals, who have adopted this as the uncontested norm for societies). There is great danger in any segment of the body of Christ which allows itself to remain ideologically naÃ¯ve’ in the face of technology’s shrinking of the world (with its associated easy dissemination of diverse cultural expressions). The consequences of an entrenched narrowness are detrimental to the cause of Christ, as nonbelievers end up rejecting an ideology (even with its merits as far as truth) rather than the gospel itself. As well, it is important to recognize that ideology can be “enshrined in longstanding interpretation” until it is [viewed as] absolute and trusted as decisive authority.
While I agree with Brueggemann’s general point about each of us (including our given group or culture) being context bound, resulting in some distortions in biblical interpretation, I am hesitant to fully embrace his belief that “every such ideological passion…may be encased in scripture itself”. On some levels this may indeed by true of the biblical writers, but how in the world we sort out where and with whom this is evident is certainly a highly subjective determination. Accepting that God has used fallible people (where specific word-choice is not necessarily Spirit-driven, but the inspired or revealed concepts put in the heads of the writers are), I believe we still have other clear didactic material in the NT to help us maturely decide what may have been ideologically-driven (and hence, not necessarily given as timeless truth).
On the point of inspiration as a key facet of interpretation, I think Brueggemann also has good insight. The Scriptures are indeed “the breath of God”, and we must have this overarching appreciation for and humility toward the Bible as we approach it. This posture enables us to catch the “shimmerings” of the text, so that at times we breathe in just what we need to sustain us at the moment. Inspiration helps me resolve the tension of not being able to determine the “good deposit” I am supposed to guard as a leader in the church (recall that the Apostle Paul urged Timothy to “guard the good deposit” – a deposit which Timothy had the prerogative of getting clarification on, but which I don’t). We may find it is impossible to know exactly what constituted the good deposit in Timothy’s mind back then (and what might constitute that exact deposit for us today). But, we can be assured that as we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, God will see that we come to greater and greater personal and corporate resolution over what that good deposit to be guarded means for ourselves and for our group.
This last facet Brueggemann mentions of urgency or importance is particularly relevant to our times. We see the text of Scripture dissected and trivialized in evangelicalism’s nauseating penchant for pragmatism. The Scripture is distilled down to a formula and proposition handbook, with “precious moments” theologies (God’s promise-a-day, like a one-a-day vitamin) and a Prayer of Jabez prosperity-driven Christianity. May we not let the missional thrust of the Bible get submerged under the avalanche of technique, systematic theologies, and whatever else aimed at mastering the text so that we can “use” it. But, equally, may we not let missional urgency drive us to a quest for more techniques alone; may it also inspire us to be persons who live out the missional testimony (making it visible, and in some cases, more powerful and visible than the stories and words we bring).
In summary, Brueggemann’s contribution to helping us better understand the place of Scripture in the community of faith is substantial. He helps us acknowledge the rallying point for unity in the body of Christ around a simple core of Apostolic claims; the reality of subjectivity in interpretation beyond those simple Apostolic claims; the presence and limits of creative imagination in drawing out meaning from the text; the power of our own ideological filters to distort as we come to the Bible; the all-important role of the Spirit in breathing freshly upon us through His living Word, time after time, as we look to God to help us sense that breath; and, finally, the importance of how all these sum together to produce a message that is crisply and clearly urgent for our world.
 All quotations attributed to Brueggemann in this paper are taken from the transcripts of his Address to the 2000 Covenant Network of Presbyterians Conference, which took place on 3 November, 2000, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
 These three statements above are well-worth pondering, because they are so pregnant with insight!
 Brueggemann’s idea seems to suggest that God breathed into the minds of the biblical writers but left them to their own devices in expressing that. This feels a bit too loose - a hit and miss transmission process which lets some revelation through but obscures other aspects of it. I guess by faith I believe the Spirit was not so passive in that process of transmission of revelation to text.
 I think Brueggemann would acknowledge the value of an authoritative core of essentials binding for all churches that claim to follow Christ and His teachings. How much deviation should be tolerated on certain main claims, and how ought we to relate to churches that alter or ignore those main claims, is a subject for ongoing discussion in the Church. Teachers may well “incur a stricter judgment” where they as representatives of the Church permit too much freedom in belief and practice, or alternatively, where they make secondary issues binding essentials (and hence grounds for impeding fellowship with non-adherents).