Elmer Colyer, Theology and the Bible
Elmer Colyer is professor of systematic theology at
the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and pastor of a Methodist congregation. Dr. Colyer received his Ph.D. from Boston College/Andover Newton in 1992.
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Michael Morrison: We wanted to talk with you today a little bit about the relationship between the Bible and theology. I teach Bible at a seminary, you teach theology. One question that some students have: Is theology based on the Bible, or is our understanding of the Bible based on theology? Which needs to come first in our understanding?
EC: That’s a great question, and I’m glad they have this on tape. A biblical scholar and a theologian sitting down at the same table and having a conversation about it! This is unusual in and of itself.
You have to have both. You have to have a theology to rightly interpret the Bible, but it can’t be any theology. It has to be a theology that arises out of Scripture. So we’re faced with the age-old dilemma of “the hermeneutical circle.” How do you enter the hermeneutical circle, if Scripture generates the appropriate theology, but you can’t rightly understand Scripture unless you have the appropriate theology?
We all begin in communities, and we’re not the first Christians that started reading the Bible. Everybody already reads Scripture out of a community, and for you and for me, we’re doing it as Christians who believe in the Triune God. That provides us an initial frame of reference, a theological frame of reference that allows us to read Scripture in a certain way. We ought to hold that theology loosely, in that we always allow our theology to be checked by Scripture, but it will also illuminate Scripture and enable us to interpret it in a way that we couldn’t if we didn’t have it. So we have to hold our theology critically, and allow Scripture to challenge it, while at the same time we use that theology in order to interpret it. It’s a messy process. The church has had all kinds of heresy trials and everything else as it has debated the relationship between theology and Scripture.
MM: So there’s this little back-and-forth relationship of each speaking to the other. Historically, how has that relationship developed? It changed quite a bit during the Enlightenment, for example. Has that been good? Has that helped us understand?
EC: In some respects it has been. There have been some good things and some bad things. You’re right. The Enlightenment forever changed how we approach the Bible.
One of the first pieces written in the Enlightenment was Benedict Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, and he was one of the first persons to interpret the Bible as a historical text purposefully to undermine its authority, because Spinoza lived through the 30 Years War, when Protestants and Catholics were bloodying Europe with the religious battles, and both doing what? Appealing to the Bible and its theological perspective to legitimate their warring against one another.
Spinoza, being an enlightened Jew, realized there’s something funky about Christians appealing to a crucified messiah who called them to love one another and love the world, and then bloodying Europe. He was concerned that, with both sides appealing to the authority of Scripture, one of the ways he could undermine it would be to interpret the Bible as a historical text. That started a trajectory that developed in the Enlightenment, and early Enlightenment exegesis of Scripture, the historical-critical approach to Scripture, like the early history of historical theology. Both started out negative toward the church’s theological way of reading Scripture. So, the first critical histories of dogma were designed to undermine it.
MM: Their goal was to take interpretation away from the church.
EC: Yes, to set it free from the prejudice, so that Scripture could be interpreted without any kind of theological prejudices. This is precisely what the problem is, though. Can anybody ever interpret the Bible without some kind of theoretical framework? The answer is no, because the Bible is already there, and you have to have certain presuppositions about what it is.
Part of the fundamental divide in the church and outside the church when it comes to interpreting the Bible is that we don’t all agree on what Scripture is, and therefore we have a multitude of different ways of approaching it. In the Enlightenment, the historical-critical approach was first designed to treat Scripture not as a privileged sacred text, but like any other historical text, subject to the same rigors of historical criticism that we would subject Plato or Aristotle or anything else in history to.
MM: Instead of looking at the Bible as a word from God, they were viewing it as words from men about God.
EC: Yes. It was simply the religious theological perspective of Jews in the Old Testament and of Christians in the New Testament. There was an ongoing hope that if you could get back behind the dogma of the early church, this is where the critical dogmas, critiquing Nicea and Chalcedon as a writing out of Christianity’s influence coming into contact with Greco-Roman philosophy, and that led to this high theology of the Trinity and the Incarnation. It was hoped that if you could get back, if you got back to the New Testament, apart from this dogmatic tradition of the church, that Jesus still might have something hopeful to say to modern humanity.
The problem was that scholars began to critically go back first through the early centuries of the church and cut away the theology. They began to look at the New Testament, and guess what? They found that even the Gospels are already theological texts. Being a New Testament scholar, you’ll remember that great long-standing “quest for the historical Jesus” throughout the 19th century, where scholar after scholar went back, particularly to the Synoptic Gospels, tried to cut away the theology of the redactors and others that manipulated the text, to get back behind the texts to the data, the raw historical Jesus apart from any kind of theological presupposition.
When they would finally get back to the historical Jesus, cut away from the theology, they’d reconstruct the historical Jesus, every one different than the previous one, until Albert Schweitzer came along and went back and reviewed that whole history in his Quest for the Historical Jesus, and demonstrated the uncanny absolute miracle that every one of those scholars which he likened to looking down deep in a well, cutting away the theology of the church until it finally saw the picture of Jesus. And in every case it turned out to be a self-portrait of the scholar who did the study. Schweitzer’s book put an end to the quest of the historical Jesus for a while. Now, if you remember Schweitzer’s conclusion – what was Jesus?
MM: Jesus was mistaken; Schweitzer’s view was not like himself.
EC: Yeah, that he is a first-century apocalyptic Jew, and he has nothing to say to modern humanity. Do you know the rest of the story? He was one of the most outstanding biblical scholars and theologians in the world at this time, but if Jesus is simply a first-century apocalyptic Jew who has nothing to say to modern humanity, this sort of puts us out of business in a hurry, doesn’t it? You know what Schweitzer did? He gave up his position as a New Testament scholar and theologian, went back to medical school to do something worthwhile in his life.
MM: To be a missionary.
EC: To be a missionary where he would go and meet people’s real needs in Africa, serving as a medical missionary. That quest for the historical Jesus had all kinds of ramifications. It led Schweitzer completely out of New Testament study and theology and into a different vocation. If Jesus is simply a first-century apocalyptic Jew and has nothing to say to us, we might as well close our book and do something else.
MM: Do something good for humanity.
MM: You said earlier that this historical method did have some good effects – in taking theology away from the private domain of the church, perhaps?
EC: Yes. One of the good effects is that it helped the church begin to face the fact that it did have, sometimes, a tyrannical theology that it was imposing upon the text. You cannot understand the ecumenical movement and the desire of Christians to re-unify one another, apart from the Enlightenment critique of the warring character of Protestants and Catholics. The ecumenical movement didn’t arise because Christians decided one day, “Jesus said we should love one another and we should clean up our act and stop having wars against one another – not only that, stop treating one another badly.”
The reason the ecumenical movement began was because our disunity was such a scandal to the world, to modern Western culture – that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this kind of Christianity that leads to this kind of in-fighting in the name of a Messiah who proclaimed the love of God in Christ. So it enabled the church to begin to be self-critical about its own practices and its own interpretation, that it had internal feuds within Christian faith. It was the external feud of the Enlightenment and the critique from the world on the church that really forced the church to face its disunity and generated the ecumenical movement.
The other side of the thing is, the Enlightenment was always a movement toward universality. Science was hoped to be the unifying rationality that could unify all various cultures. There’s a kind of a movement toward universality in the Enlightenment and the rise of modernity. That led to that in Christian faith, and began to focus on the things we hold in common.
In postmodernity, where the Enlightenment itself is now being critiqued, and its so-called universal rationality has proved to be historically located and therefore as culturally conditioned as any other, we no longer hope for a universal rationality, and so now we tend to focus on what we call local realities or local communities. Ecumenicity doesn’t fare well in that kind of environment. So in our postmodern world, the ecumenical movement has begun to wane. Christians, in attempting to identify what makes them distinctive, as over against the world and over against other Christians, are beginning to focus on their individual traditions again, which in some respects is tragic, that we’re forgetting the ecumenical movement. That’s something that Christians ought to work for – more unity.
MM: You mentioned postmodernity. Maybe you could explain briefly what that is, and has that had a good effect on the church and our understanding of the Bible?
EC: The church always has to take into consideration the context in which it finds itself, so we have to do that. One way that postmodernity has done good is helped the church realize that it doesn’t, it can’t, and it doesn’t have to measure up to somebody else’s standard of rationality. I find it somewhat ironic that those on the theological left and those on the theological right, despite all the things they think are wrong about one another, share some characteristics in the modern period that I think are illuminating, and one of them is that both of them want to somehow speak to the universal rationality of the world and demonstrate that Christian faith is credible in light of that universal rationality. Conservatives and liberals have both been very concerned about apologetics and how we answer objections.
In postmodernity, when there’s no longer a universal human rationality to appeal to, it makes apologetics difficult. Because no longer are we appealing to a single rationality and so apologetics is suffering a bit. It’s less avant-garde than it used to be, and now Christians are again attempting to go back and learn its own rationality, its own discourse. The radical orthodoxy movement is an example of this in theology. The emerging church movement is an example of this, of a postmodern movement that is attempting to restate Christian faith, to live it well, and thinking that it will attract “cultured despisers of religion” without having to go and prove it to them on their grounds.
MM: They are not arguing – they’re showing an example.
EC: Yes. Throughout the modern period, the Holy Grail in philosophy and theology and science has been what we call foundationalism. It’s the attempt to render indubitable knowledge entirely explicit. We want a method in science and philosophy and theology that will allow us to arrive at absolutely true truth. So we’re going to render the conditions of arriving at indubitable knowledge entirely explicit.
The problem is that most philosophers, most natural sciences, and many theologians now think that foundationalism is impossible. The reason is that you always have to account for one fundamental problem in the equation – a human knower who is finite and historical. How can a finite, historical human being ever render the conditions of an indubitable knowledge entirely explicit? What seems to take place is when we try to render the conditions of indubitable knowledge entirely explicit, we end in skepticism – that we finally cannot know truth with a capital T.
MM: Right. Some philosophers reach that point.
EC: The radical orthodoxy movement manifests some of that. The emerging church movement manifests some of that, and has impacted Christian faith in some helpful ways, in that it’s gotten us to the point where we’re not as embarrassed about talking about our ultimate beliefs, and feeling like we always have to defend the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Atonement against cultured despisers of religion who want to critique it for one reason or another.
MM: Each person has somewhat a different background. They’re bringing their different context when they read Scripture, so they’re going to understand it in a different way. How are we to adjudicate between these different readings?
EC: It isn’t simply that Christians with the Bible and theology have this problem; all human beings have this problem in whatever area of discourse they’re in. Scientists have this problem. Not all scientists agree. It’s a messy process by which scientific theories come to be accepted by the scientific community. When Albert Einstein posited his theory of general and special relativity, the scientific community thought he was crazy. There were only probably five or six people in the entire world that could even understand him. Many people contended that he was wrong. It was a long messy process over a number of years before Einstein’s theories finally became accepted within the community of science, because they operated with a different set of presuppositions, different standards, different background, different community.
There’s nobody that comes to the Bible any different. If there’s anybody, no matter how critical the scholar is, who claims that he or she has a privileged “neutral” position, don’t believe them, because everybody comes with presuppositions. We always start already within the knowing relation, and we have to adjust our knowledge gradually, whether in any field or discipline, as we go along.
MM: You used the word messy. This process of reading the Bible and trying to figure out what’s right is messy. But we don’t have time for that. We have to live right now.
EC: That’s another interesting thing. The wonderful thing – this is the wonderful thing about being a human being – is that we cannot exempt ourselves from making fundamental decisions about our ultimate beliefs upon which we stake our lives, even though we don’t have that absolute certainty that was the quest in the modern period of foundationalism.
We apply different standards to ourselves. When we talk about faith and religion, it’s like we want to have a higher level of certainty than we do in normal life. But anybody who’s been married knows that even when you go through the process of courting and finally coming to the point where you agree to get married, do you have an absolute certainty that your marriage is going to turn out the way you hope it is going to be? You don’t! And yet you stake your whole life on it. That’s part of the condition of being a human being.
People like Thomas F. Torrance and Alister McGrath have begun to try to sort out all these questions of how we know God, of what we call epistemology, theory of knowledge, how we approach Scripture after the collapse of foundationalism, without falling into postmodern relativism. That’s a helpful conversation. T.F. Torrance and Alister McGrath are two scholars inside a Christian faith that have gone a long way to help us, as Christians, get beyond being ashamed that we have fundamental ultimate beliefs about God, about Christ and the gospel on which we’re willing to stake our life, even if we can’t prove them with the kind of proof that we wanted throughout the modern period.
MM: Because everybody has beliefs of one sort or another. We’ve been socialized to have certain things. Can we escape that? Are we socialized to be Bible-believers?
EC: There are some scholars who think we should simply get over the idea that we can ever arrive at any kind of even approximate objectivity, and we should simply read the Bible in light of our own wish-fulfilling fantasies. If you’re a hyper-postmodern, why simply do that with one sacred text? Why not “the more the merrier”? Read the Bible one day, the Koran another day – and there’s something about this that doesn’t work very well.
Even scholars who claim to be the most absolute relativist, who say that we never can get beyond our social/cultural horizon, and therefore the best we can do is deconstruct any of those that presume to make any kind of objective claims, I have watched them after they come out of their lectures, like in the AAR/SBL meetings, and I’ve noticed that when they go up to the street before they cross, they look carefully left and right. They do it several times, because no matter how subjective they view reality, they view drivers in cities like Los Angeles as having objective reality, and not only are they realists, they’re critical realists. They realize they might be mistaken, and so they look twice, because they know if they’re mistaken and step out, they’ll probably be dead.
MM: And when they give their lecture, they hope that people understand what they’ve intended.
EC: That’s an astute observation. If they really believe that, they should stop lecturing. So it seems that we’re caught in this dilemma, that we can’t have this absolute certainty that has been the paradigm in modernity, and yet human life, by its very core character, forces us to stake our lives on our ultimate beliefs. Even in something as mundane as looking at a street, we’re forced to be critical realists and say, what are the best options that are available?
As Christians, when it comes to Scripture, we’re not the first ones who read the Bible. We stand in a long tradition of the church. I came to faith because people in the church… I knew hardly anything about the Bible. They led me to Christ and into a relationship with God, and they told me that Scripture was a text by which we learn and grow as Christians, and I started reading the Bible with probably a very inadequate understanding of the theological framework, but nonetheless I did it within a community that already had some ultimate beliefs. I don’t think we should be apologetic about that – we stand in the great tradition of the church, and we read the Bible from a theological perspective.
We don’t think the Bible is a collection of sacred texts that simply reflect human perspective. We believe that the hand of God was involved in the shaping of that Scripture. Those are ultimate beliefs, and we stake our lives on it. You’ve staked your life on it, I’m willing to continue to do that, and up to this point it’s enabled me to live fairly well. I have no reason to turn my back on that. But you’re right in calling attention to the fact that we have different theological perspectives that influence how we read the Bible.
That’s why, in the history of the church, whenever there’s been a theological debate about a major point, it’s virtually never been solved by an appeal to the Bible, because each community appeals to certain texts over other texts and therefore they simply retrench into defensive positions, and they’re not able to get beyond those because of the theological framework that they bring to the table.
MM: So the church overall is a community that has grown up with Scripture and theology side by side influencing one another, and then we can be socialized in that community, read the Scripture, find congruence in terms of what it tells us about ourselves and about life. That gives us an internal experiential validation of its accuracy, at least its usefulness for us. And it describes to us a God, not necessarily the one that we were looking for, but one that’s better.
EC: That’s a good way to say it. In the postmodern period we spend a lot of time apologizing about the fact that we have a theological perspective, and that we have all these different perspectives. The other side of the coin is also true. We need a perspective to be able to rightly see reality. You can’t avoid this. Let me give you some examples of the way in which the human mind always has categories that it uses in seeing anything. You’re familiar with Magic Eyes? They are wonderful pictures that have a maddening plurality of little detail and you look at it and you just think it’s a bunch of detail.
MM: Other people say there’s something in there.
EC: Yeah, they say there’s a 3-D image in there. If you hold the Magic Eye picture close to your face and you gradually move it away without focusing on anything, all of a sudden you’ll see a 3-D picture that the creators of the Magic Eye have hidden in the picture, in the relations between the details. What the Magic Eye shows us is that we don’t simply see things with our eyes, we see them with our mind. Because two people can look at it just with their eyes and one person sees the Magic Eye and the other person doesn’t.
MM: The brain has to interpret.
EC: It isn’t till the brain integrates, due to the subliminal clues, integrates the pattern in the images, that we see the 3-D image. There already is form and being. There is a pattern in the Magic Eye, but there has to be an integration of form in our knowing – and one that’s not innate. The mind has to create it in order for us to see it.
You could say that the Bible, if you think of it as a massive Magic Eye, is a huge mass of detail written over thousands of years, inspired by God, for us to be able to behold the reality, the verities of the gospel, the Triune God. But I don’t think you can perceive the theological verities unless you indwell all of Scripture and assimilate the form that’s already in Scripture and have an integration of form and knowing. The same way that you can’t see the Magic Eye without some way integrating the form that’s there in your mind, I don’t think you can rightly understand Scripture until you have the right theological perspective. I think that’s why God developed the Scripture to begin with.
Think for a moment, if we had nothing of the Bible. You don’t know anything about Israel, nothing about the Passover, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, and we know none of the Old Testament, we don’t have the New Testament… Jesus all of a sudden beams down into the middle of New York City, stands on the street corner, and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” What do you think we would do with him? We would lock him up. We would think he’s crazy. We would not have a clue of what he’s talking about. Our general human experience wouldn’t help us very well. If we looked at what lambs are, fleecy white creatures that walk along the shore of a stream and eat grass and drink water, we wouldn’t know what the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world is.
MM: Nothing to do with sin.
EC: We wouldn’t know anything at all. We only know things through the categories of the mind. If to rightly know God in Christ we need to have theological categories, and we don’t possess them, how is God ever going to reveal God’s self to us? God has to start somewhere and take the categories that we already have and gradually mold and shape them, which is a long painful process in our lives. Just for you and me to begin to study Scripture, we spend years learning the theology of the church, learning all about biblical studies to be able to interpret the text.
Think about if we had none of that background and God was starting with us as blank tablets. All we have is a bunch of sinful people with their individual culture who know nothing accurately about God. What would God do? Wouldn’t you expect that God would elect one people from all the people and begin to subject them to a molding and shaping process through history to prepare for God’s final revelation in Christ so that Christ will be intelligible? Tell me a single image in the New Testament that interprets the significance of Christ that isn’t partly rooted for its meaning in the Old Testament, like the Lamb of God.
When John says of Jesus, “He’s the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world,” what holds that in place, that enables us to understand something that he’s pointing towards the cross as an atonement for sin? It goes back to the entire dealing of God with the Old Testament – the election of Israel, the circumcision, to the spreading of blood over the doorposts of the house when the angel of death passes over and the Israelites are rescued from Egypt. It has to do with the temple worship and the sacrificing of lambs there every year for the sins of Israel. That provides a religious-moral theological framework that God built into the Israelites, gradually, over thousands of years. That is the presupposition of the New Testament and the coming of Christ. Without the Old Testament, we wouldn’t have understood who Jesus is.
As Christians, we can’t rightly understand the Old Testament apart from the New Testament. That’s why you all in Grace Communion International stopped practicing many of the feasts in the Old Testament that you used to practice, because you believe now that you’re under the new covenant and those things no longer hold. The Lamb of God has come! At my United Methodist Church and at Grace Communion International, we don’t sacrifice lambs anymore.
If conservative Jews could get the temple rebuilt on the place where it was meant to be in Jerusalem, what would they do? They’d restart sacrificing again, because conservative Jews don’t think that that dispensation has passed away. But we as Christians think that all points forward to Christ, and that we can’t accurately understand the Old Testament apart from Christ, in the same way we can’t understand the New Testament apart from the Old Testament.
I’ve already given you a huge set of ultimate beliefs that Christian faith through history has said is extraordinarily important if you’re ever going to begin to read the Bible. In biblical studies today, when people do not want to allow any kind of theological unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament (they don’t even call it the Old Testament anymore, they call it the Hebrew Bible), they go back and they interpret it very differently than even Jesus in the New Testament interprets it. Jesus wasn’t a very good historical-critical biblical scholar in the way he interpreted the Old Testament, was he?
In closing, I want to say that as Christians, we come with a theological tradition from the communions that we’re in, but we don’t hold those sacrosanct over Scripture. Scripture always has to critique those and modify those, and you all in Grace Communion know that as well as any of us do. You’ve gone through a tremendous transition because you’ve taken this book seriously and you’ve gone back and you’ve indwelt it and you’ve read it again. You’ve said that this book is the one that helps us develop the right theology, and where you have been amiss you have done the hard steps, and you’ve changed some of your ultimate beliefs and how you go about it, and you all are a witness to the rest of the church that we ought to take Scripture that seriously, that we come to it with our theology, but we always allow it to challenge our theology to mold us and shape us. We’re all imperfect theologically.
And finally, Scripture is the one place that puts us in touch with the living word of God that alone can reform the church and lead us forward in mission and theology and ministry.