Voices from the Desert

Insofar as Christians are committed to the pursuit of individual and corporate holiness, it is certainly to be hoped that their interaction with the Bible will effect significant moral and physical transformations. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that the extent to which this community’s constructs will be conditioned by the Bible’s own language is ultimately dependent on the degree to which the church and her members are willing to subject themselves to such a challenge. As evidenced by the dismissive comments of secular scholars such as Michael Fox, the mere act of reading the Bible is not in itself sufficient to obligate one to seek such ends; however, the challenge, for Christian interpreters of the Bible, is to discern from the cacophony of voices crying out in the wilderness those which proclaim the way of the Lord.

The danger facing theological readers throughout this task is that of reducing biblical authority to being solely a byproduct of some singular, determinable ontological property of the texts themselves, such as the nebulous intent of an original author. Instead, a more helpful understanding is to identify in the church’s corporate attempts to engage the Bible critically a process of continual canonization in which the biblical texts are affirmed by means of their use as privileged for the worshipping life and identity of each succeeding generation of the body catholic. To this end, I suggest that the Bible may be understood as gaining its authority to a significant degree from the actions of its readers, who, within the constraints imposed by the theological outlook of their community, choose whether to acknowledge a particular work as corporately meaningful.

Aside from the obvious historical disputes over the Bible’s scope that evidence the role of an interpreter’s community in dictating the authority of particular texts, the descriptive power of this model is illustrated within the contemporary Christian world by the contrasting views offered by Protestant and Ethiopian Orthodox interpreters with respect to the canonical importance of 1 Enoch vis-à-vis the patriarchal narratives in Genesis. However, while this example highlights an instance of explicit disagreement, in most instances the process of recurrent canonization that I have introduced here takes place more subtly, as when members of the clergy preach exclusively from some portions of the Bible (usually the New Testament) at the expense of others.

With respect to this latter phenomenon, such Marcionite tendencies, which are a particular danger in those traditions that eschew the use of the lectionary, should be rooted out wherever they manifest themselves. Nevertheless, the fact that there are pastors who preach texts like John’s Gospel on a regular basis yet never mention works such as Obadiah or passages like Judges 19, and that there are congregations who will tolerate such practices, suggests both the need to account for contemporary attempts to reconstitute the canon and that this process does not always obtain in a transparent fashion.

It is my hope that in drawing attention to this way of understanding biblical authority that believers will pursue serious self-reflection so as to be in a better position to evaluate the implicit acts of canonization that they will inevitably encounter in their experience of the church. Ultimately, it is by situating themselves more deliberately within the church’s historic identity, which includes the story of Israel recounted in the Old Testament, that believers will be best suited to appreciate each of the formally canonical books as authoritative for their lives. In either case, by understanding their own place in the process I have outlined here, Christians will be forced to recognize the impossibility of abrogating their interpretive responsibilities whilst still claiming the Bible as authoritative Scripture.

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