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Illumination and Concursus

I wrote this post on Facebook last week and had some fruitful engagement in the comments. Here is the post and discussion.

Enjoying my time in Holland so far. The town is lovely, my new seminary community has been so welcoming, and my academic research is challenging me and keeping me busy.

Quick thought prompted by a discussion in class today, though I’ve mulled it over for years now. There are (at least) three ways that we say the Holy Spirit cooperated with the human authors of Scripture to produce a divine-human text. First, the Spirit could expressly, actively declare something to be written down. These are the “thus saith the LORD” moments. Second, the Spirit could provide a spark of inspiration, a sudden clarity, an epiphany, which the writer then develops. In these cases the Spirit acts first, and the writer second, but the composition in total can be understood as the product of both authors. Third, the Spirit by divine providence can guide the writer into life circumstances that in total result in the author writing the kind and substance of texts that the Spirit wanted all along. This is like how Paul studied under Gamaliel, which gave Paul training in scriptural interpretation he would later use to great effect. The Spirit and the human author are still both writing the text, but in this case the circumstances of the composition would appear to be totally “natural” from an outsider’s view and probably even from the human author’s own view.

My doctrinal suggestion is that the same ways the Spirit cooperates with humans in writing Scripture can explain how the Spirit cooperates with humans in interpreting Scripture. There is a direct and necessary parallel between Scripture’s inspiration and illumination. Sometimes, I guess, the Spirit can explicitly and verbally explain what a passage of Scripture means. Other times the Spirit can provide a kind of prompting or epiphany which the human interpreter then carries forward into interpretation through ordinary means. Still other times the process appears to be entirely human, but actually the Spirit’s providential guidance of the interpreter (to go to this school or that school, to sit under the preaching of this pastor or that one, to be involved in these circumstances of life or others) has formed their default interpretive tendencies so that they naturally read a certain way. The same Spirit, using the same providential guidance of history, has caused this text to be written as is, and then caused you to interpret it as you have.

(This third option, where nature and providence meet, has been called “inscripturation” for the composition of Scripture, but I am still trying to think of a good word for this when it comes to the illumination of Scripture.)

On the hand, this model of illumination requires us to ask careful questions about the operation and meaning of history itself. Why is God directing these texts to be written in such a particular way if God is just later going to direct us to read them in another particular way? Couldn’t God skip the Scriptures and make us do what he wants here and now? But we are well reminded that God always and everywhere uses ordinary means to achieve later purposes, like how God truly does use our prayers to effect change in the world even though he could just as well ignore our prayers and do it anyways. God is directing not only our lives but all of history toward something… or someone… and he is using these very human, often cryptic, often historically bound, texts along the way to guide us there.

On the other hand, this model of illumination makes a good foundation for “identity readings” of Scripture, i.e. Black interpretation of Scripture, Feminist interpretation of Scripture, Queer interpretation of Scripture, etc. which often otherwise lack much systematic ground for their interpretive method. God made this interpreter (say, a Black woman) who she is, by means of divine providential guidance, and now uses this identity and life situation to allow readings of Scripture which are natural to her to emerge as she studies. This process is not actually different from the way that the Spirit in the first place used some ancient author’s identity as an Israelite man subjugated by the Roman Empire (or etc) to produce the text. The diversity of identities contributing to the Church’s interpretive work is itself one of the unnecessary (you could say ‘graced’) ways that God is guiding the Church into all truth and ultimately towards the end of history itself, which is, himself.

Sean replied: My main worry with this model probably comes as no surprise: how would you distinguish the illumination of the Spirit from inscripturation such that the latter is authoritative, infallible, and truthful in all it affirms, whereas we are not in our interpretations? And what norms interpretation if interpretation is illumined in the same way that scripture is inspired?

I said: The Spirit using the same mechanism does not mean that we know what the Spirit is doing (behind the scenes). That is the problem with God’s providential direction of history in general. You never quite know. 

As to authority, infallibility, and truthfulness, I would probably have to nuance these with respect to composition first. All of these have to be submitted to our Christological rule of faith. Scripture is authoritative, infallible, and truthful only when we read it according to “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning him” (Luke 24). (This is my claim based on Luke 24, not per se what that passage says according to a literal interpretation). 

What would it look like for my “inscripturation” metaphor for illumination, to be regulated by Christ? Here I would introduce the concept of “paradigmatic events” (from Grenz and Franke, Beyond Foundationalism, 79). They write: 

“A paradigmatic event may be defined as a historical occurrence that captures the imagination of a community in a such a manner as to shape or form the community’s way of conceiving the totality of reality and its understanding of its ongoing experience of reality. Because of the event’s wide-ranging influence, the community preserves its memory, while both reinterpreting the event in the light of subsequent situations in which the community finds itself and discovering in it the source of renewed hope for the future. Hence, paradigmatic events connect the community and its participants with the past and the future. Through their appropriation of these events, succeeding generations understand themselves in relationship to the experiences of the past history of the community and in anticipation of a future that will bring about the actualization of the community’s ideals.” 

For some reason Grenz and Franke don’t draw this into its obvious Christological significance, but I will. Jesus’s incarnation, death and resurrection are a paradigmatic event in this same sense. The events of the Gospel are so pivotal, so paradigmatic, that it comes to norm all future Christian practice, reflection, identity, and interpretation. So while I mentioned Black interpretation of Scripture, and this is a valid interpretive positionality imo, we should remember that it is always already Black Christian interpretation of Scripture. The same thing for Queer interpretation of Scripture, it is always already Queer Christian interpretation of Scripture. If these secondary identities (and the material conditions that produced them) are not understood in light of their primary identity (Christian) (and the material conditions that produced that, the Cross and Resurrection) then it fails to be Christologically normed illumination of Scripture. More to the point, the most crucial providential guidance the Spirit has wrought in my life is opening me to the grace of God in Christ. 

Okay, but even given all this, how would an “inscripturation” metaphor for illumination, normed by the paradigmatic event of Christ’s death and resurrection and the Spirit’s regenereation of the believer given Christ’s death and resurrection — how would this correspond to authority, infallibility, and truthfulness? I would tentatively suggest a few thoughts on authority. 

Here the redefinition of authority suggested by Walter Brueggemann in his first essay in “The Book that Breathes New Life.” (Unfortch I don’t have this book with me in Holland so I can’t quote it). He suggests that texts have authority by their sheer weight. Romans has authority not because anyone “gave it” authority, and not because it “authorizes” the community to exist which reads it, but because Romans is written in such a way that it demands to be read and responded to. More or less this amounts to defining authority of texts as their status as the “locus classicus” for the conversations which they have generated. I would say that our illuminated interpretation of Scripture actually does have this same status. For example, we are still reading 16th century biblical interpretation five hundred years later because it carries authoritative weight for the traditions it spawned which continue today. Every generation of Christians forms an entry in the democracy of the dead which later generations must consider for their own ways. 

With infalibility and especially truthfulness, though, the metaphor stretches beyond use. I could say that my interpretation “truthfully” communicates what I am interpreting but this is mostly tautologous. The most I would say here is that the Spirit is always illuminating our reading of Scripture “for” some other purpose, not just our own giddiness, and the Spirit will “infallibly” achieve this purpose as the Spirit intended.

Thanks for engaging, I always appreciate your thoughts Sean.

Sean responded: likewise brother–i appreciate your thoughtfulness and thoroughness! So it sounds like (correct me if I’m wrong) you’re saying that the paradigmatic Christ-event is such that it’s the norm through which we interpret and evaluate all reality–and that the event stands over and above even Scripture as a norm? And because authority is a function of how the text demands to be read, our interpretations can carry the same kind of authority (which doesn’t entail total truthfulness either for Scripture or our interpretation)?

I answered: I would nuance “stands over and above” and probably say instead that the Gospel narrative (Christ’s incarnation, life, death, etc.) is the only access we have back to Scripture “by nature,” meaning by what is natural to us as readers of Scripture. We can try, through some imaginative exercise, to imagine how we would interpret these texts if we weren’t Christians. And better yet we can just ask non-Christians how they in fact do interpret these texts (Robert Alter’s HB edition is great for this). But we have no way that is congruent with our reading selves to access these texts outside of Christ. 

I would also qualify that interpretation only carries this kind of authority when it is done with the entire church catholic, extending across denominational contexts, geographic space, and back into the history of the tradition itself. 

This is not an epistemic claim for religious certainty either, but a confession of faith, trusting in Christ who had more to say than the disciples could bear, so he has sent his Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16)

In a separate response, Taylor said: I’m not sure it’s an identity reading of scripture. It seems to be more of a cultural reading of scripture, or at least that’s what I’m seeing in global theologies. 

However, the caution in this understanding, and to what Sean is hinting towards, is what happens when an “identity or cultural reading” contradicts other passages of scripture?

I said: Yeah, identity in quotes because I am not sure what unites these various reading strategies or what distinguishes them from (extreme air quotes) traditional readings of Scripture. But identity vs culture is an even more tendentious distinction imo since identities are culturally shaped and cultures themselves are produced in spaces where some identities are allowed to develop and others are not. So I am going to stick with vague language on this point to avoid overspeaking…

On contradicting Scripture, they would have to find some way to negotiate that difference, though it is too detailed to answer all at once how each group would do that. I assume the group you have in mind is Queer interpretation of Scripture, and yes I agree this will have to address substantively the passages that would a priori rule such an identity out (Gen 2, Lev 18, Romans 1, etc). But this can be done… People have done this. So I’m agnostic on that point.

Taylor responded: thank you for the response. A queer reading of scripture is one aspect I was thinking about, but not soloing it out. There are broader issues to reconcile. For example, take the current passible vs. impassible debate into consideration. This is an element central to God’s character, but is disagreed upon. Which side is correct? Or are we allowed to think differently about God given our presuppositions? And if we do think differently about God, doctrinally speaking, are we accidentally creating a god that doesn’t exist?

I responded: I am willing to hold to doctrinal pluralism only in the short-term, provisional sense. I don’t think we can go on disagreeing forever. Oliver O’Donovan put it well in an essay from 2006 (titled “The Care of Churches”). 

“When really serious issues are at stake and talk of a status stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure. But that is all a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape – a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think – and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject! – is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.”

In another comment, Carl said: This sounds very similar to the perspective that BB Warfield settled on in his final article on inspiration in 1915, distinguishing between modes of revelation and the concursive operation of the Spirit.

I responded:  Interesting… would love the link or pdf if you have it. Actually now that I think about it, I might have first thought of this idea when reading something by Warfield. It rings a certain bell.

And Carl sent these: link one, link two.

Photo by Henki on Unsplash

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