Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Interpreting Scripture Theologically

Douglas Sweeney:
Edwards tried to interpret the Bible theologically. He handled it not as a collection of antiquarian artifacts, but as the living Word of the God who calls himself "I Am." Thus he studied it both as scholars study sets of primary sources (to understand the lives of those whom they were first put to writing) and—in a manner more important to his daily pastoral ministry—as priestly theologians study the oracles of God (to understand his will for those who still have ears to hear). This sets him apart from many modern Western biblical scholars, whether Christian or non-Christian. For higher criticism has ruled the roost in modern biblical studies, shaping the ways that even pastors think of preaching Sunday sermons. 
For several generations, learned preachers have been taught to think primarily as historians, explaining sermon texts by reference to their ancient, social contexts. Only later, if at all, have they been taught to expound their sermon texts in light of the whole canon, or the history of redemption, no matter how far apart the Bible's human authors stood. There are notable exceptions to this homiletical rule. But most of the time, when modern preachers have made theological moves they have become rather nervous. Scholars caution them to scrutinize the structural viability of the bridges that they build between the ancient worlds of Scripture and the worlds of their parishioners. Historians know better than to make great leaps of faith without sufficient natural evidence that one can survive the fall. Better to keep one's sermon fixed upon the lessons of the past than attempt to unite—awkwardly—such patently different worlds. 
But Edwards rarely worried about the bridges he built. He spent a great deal of time doing historical exegesis. He knew the Bible's contents better than most scholars, past or present. He knew the bulk of them by heart, in fact, as evidenced by the constant use of Scripture in his speech as well as the blanks pervading his sermon notes where Bible verses should be. (Rather than take the time to copy Bible verses into his manuscripts, Edwards frequently substituted long, squiggly lines, trusting his memory to provide the missing text while he was preaching.) Nonetheless, he spent the lion's share of his time—every week—interpreting Scripture theologically, preaching it doctrinally (with trust in its transcendence and an unapologetically synthetic methodology), and applying it explicitly to the lives of those around him. 
—Douglas A. Sweeney, "Edwards and the Bible," in Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America's Theologian (ed. Gerald R. McDermott; New York: Oxford University, 2009), 70–71.

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