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The phenomenology of Scripture and the Word of God

The phenomenology of Scripture and the Word of God
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   1 The phenomenology of Scripture and the Word of God Steven Nemes, Fuller Theological Seminary My object in this brief paper is to present a few remarks and arguments towards the development of a proper phenomenology of Scripture. From the very beginning it is imperative to provide some clarifying remarks regarding my understanding of the nature of “phenomenology”, “Scripture”, and the precise sense intended by the phrase “phenomenology of Scripture”.   I.   Introduction: what is a phenomenology of Scripture? What do I mean by “phenomenology”? I will take for granted Robert Sokolowski’s definition: “Phenomenology is the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through such experience” (2000, 2). Phenomenolopy operates by means of a method, namely the “phenomenological reduction”, in which the intentionalities operative in the “natural attitude” are suspended . One no longer engages in them but removes oneself from them through a kind of bracketing operation, this suspension making possible an ascent into the “phenomenological attitude” from which these intentionalities can be recognized for what they are, distinguished from each other, and so on (2000, 42ff.). Phenomenology, in other words, is a way of becoming aware of our “default” engagement with the world in experience by a kind of suspension of that engagement by which we can see it for what it is. Especially important for Sokolowski’s definition of phenomenology is that phenomenology, which studies experiences and appearances, is a means for gaining knowledge of things , because our experiences are of things and things give themselves to us to be known in and through experience. This particular aspect of Sokolowski’s phenomenology will also be taken for granted in the disc ussion to follow. What do I mean by “scripture”? I think the notion of “scripture” can be very succinctly defined by appeal to what St. Paul says in the Second Epistle to Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired  by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, the term “scripture” is used in reference to text which is taken to be divinely inspired, i.e. text the ultimate author of which is God, beyond its more  proximate human authors. In my own context of broadly Protestant Western Christianity, the designation “scripture” is used with reference to the canonical texts of the Bible as much individually as also collectively. “Scripture” refers to text which is taken to be a medium of divine communication; God speaks through Scripture.  Now, if phenomenology is the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through such experience, and if Scripture is text which is taken to be inspired by God and thus a medium of divine communication, then a “phenomenology of Scripture” is a phenomenologi cal investigation in pursuit of an answer to the question: Is there an experience of God’s Word, of God’s address to us, in Scripture? In other words, beyond the fact that we take Scripture to be divine address, is there also an experience of Scripture in which its distinct quality as divine communication somehow comes to light? Is there an experience of God speaking to us through the words of Scripture, and how is this experience to be described? This is the question that, in my opinion, a phenomenology of Scripture must answer.   2 What have others said about these things? It should be noted from the outset that Scripture does not seem to have been a particularly prominent object of phenomenological inquiry in  precisely this sense. Of all the essays in Adam W ells’s recent anthology  Phenomenologies of Scripture , only that of Robert Sokolowski comes close to being a “phenomenology of Scripture” in the proper sense, understood as a  genitivus objectivus . Many of the other essays are sooner “phenomenologies of Scripture” in the subjective genitive sense, i.e. interpretations of scriptural themes in the light of phenomenological philosophy, or identifications of proto-phenomenological insights in Scripture, etc. In my opinion, these are not yet phenomenologies of Scripture in the strict sense. Even Sokolowski’s essay does not address the question of an experience of divine speech in the text of Scripture with sufficient phenomenological rigor, as I will argue later on. As for Chrétien’s notion of “being read by the Bible” in the act of scriptural reading, I will only note here that he does not engage in a strict epoché  and for this reason, in my opinion, his analysis leaves something to be desired. In light of these remarks, the intention of the present essay can be more clearly understood. My goal is to propose a phenomenological investigation into that experience  —   if there is such an experience  —    in which the distinctly divine quality of the texts which we call “Scripture” comes to light, i.e. that experience  —   if there is such an experience  —   in which not only do we take it as dogma that God speaks to us in Scripture, but our experience of Scripture itself is of such a nature that it is evident to us that God is speaking. Put yet another way, I am going to be investigating the  possible existence of an experience of the “Word of God”, i.e. the address of God to us, in Scripture on phenomenological lines. The discussion will proceed in two stages. First, I will reject a particular interpretation of the experience of Scripture as the Word of God proposed by Calvin. The basis for rejecting Calvin’s proposal will make clear that the question of the experience of God’s Word in Scripture cannot be approached qualitatively but quantitatively  —   in other words, what is at stake is not an experience which is imposing or striking or weighty or impressive, but rather it is a question of what I have called elsewhere the making-itself- known of a “Third Voice” between that of the reader and the human author of the biblical text. This notion will be explained in greater detail in the concluding section of this paper. II.   Against Calvin on the experience of Scripture as God’s Word   According to Calvin, the firm conviction that the Bible is the Word of God is an absolute necessity for a proper Christian faith which submits to the authority of Scripture in everything. This conviction arises spontaneously in the act of scriptural reading and its advent is interpreted theologically as a result of the operation of the Holy Spirit. Though various evidences and arguments in favor of the authority of Scripture can be given, these are at best only ever probable and cannot produce the kind of firm conviction that is really necessary for properly relating ourselves to the Scriptures as God’s Word. Fa r less does the authority of the Church establish the divinity of the Scriptures, since human reason and consensus cannot stand as judge over God’s Word. Rather, our conviction that the Bible is God’s Word must proceed from the thing itself, through a kind of spontaneous experience of its divinity through the help of the Holy Spirit. This notion of the spontaneous advent of faith in the divinity of the Bible has been analyzed  philosophically and situated within the context of a more sophisticated epistemological system by   3 Kevin Diller in his recent work, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin  Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (2014) . Diller’s account is this. On the theological side, Diller draws from Karl Barth the idea that theological knowledge is received from its object, namely the Word of God, i.e. the Logos, and cannot be achieved by ordinary means such as reasoned argument or sense experience. Theological knowledge arises through the self-gift of its object, which is entirely inaccessible to human knowledge by any other means. From Plantinga, Diller retrieves an externalist proper-functionalist epistemological system that provides certain criteria for knowledge and explains how these might be fulfilled in the case of theological knowledge. Especially important for Diller is Plantinga’s notion of “doxastic experience,” which refers to experiences in which a certain proposition seems to impose itself upon a person as being true independently of sense experience and reasoned argument. Plantinga reflects on the way different propositions “seem” to him and some of them seem to him to be true  and others false. For Diller as also for Calvin, we can come to realize that the Bible is God’s Word by means of one of these doxastic experiences, in which the proposition simply seems true to us, independently of anything else accessible to our consciousness, that the text is from God. I argue against Diller’s proposal in a paper forthcoming in the  Journal of Analytic Theology . Essentially, my argument is that “doxastic experience” of the truth of a proposition is impossible in the absence of the referent of the proposition. Now i t is possible to “see” that a  proposition is true if the thing it is about is in front of me. For example, if I tell you that Pat Metheny makes use of a particular chord progression at some point in a certain piece, you can listen to the song and see whether the proposition I have uttered is true or not. But in the absence of the referent of a proposition, there is no way to “see” that it is true. All that I can detect is whether or not I am inclined to believe it, for whatever reasons. We certainly have experiences in which it seems to us that such and such a proposition is true, but I think Plantinga’s description of these “doxastic experiences” is insufficiently rigorous  from the phenomenological point of view. An exercise in imaginative variation can help to illustrate the point that what Plantinga is detecting in his reflections on these experiences is not a “  perception of the truth of a proposition ”  so much as the presence of an inclination within him to construe the world in a certain way, to believe that reality is a certain way. In support of this interpretation of the phenomenon, I point to the fact that one can have a strong conviction of the truth of a proposition at one time and at a later time have a strong conviction of its falsehood, or else lose the conviction of its truth, or else have the strong conviction of the truth of a proposition with which it is mutually incompatible  —   even though the truth of the first proposition cannot itself have changed in the meantime. This sort of experience occurs especially with respect to propositions whose referents are essentially invisible, for example  propositions about metaphysical or ethical realities. Therefore, I conclude that it is impossible to “see the truth of a proposition” in the absenc e of its referent. That is not what is going on in the cases Plantinga describes. This is bad news for Diller’s proposal,  unfortunately, since his account of theological knowledge presupposes the possibility of such “doxastic experience” . Let us return now to Calvin. A person reads the Bible  —    for example, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans  —   and finds herself inclined to believe that it is the Word of God. If this is to count as an experience of the Word of God in the words of Scripture, presumably there must be something about the words themselves that suggests their srcins in divine inspiration. Although many qualities of the text might be adduced  —   for example, the impact or weight with which they hit the conscience of the reader, the way in which her entire life is brought into question and she must make a decision about the way she will live thenceforth, etc.,  —    all of these “qualitative”   4 approaches to the nature of divine speech are in the end inadequate. From the fact that someone calls my attention to s omething by striking me in the face, it doesn’t follow that God has spoken to me through her, nor does the experience by itself impose upon me such an interpretation. Only if I already believe in God and have a general notion of providence might I consider such an experience ultimately to have been a instance of divine intervention, but in this case it is not the experience itself that demands this interpretation but rather my own beliefs about God and the world. The experience considered in itself, in abstraction from my beliefs about God, does not require me to describe it as an encounter with God’s Word.  In any case, the “impact” of speech is closely connected to a sense of the truth of the impactful words themselves. Perhaps it is only the  perceived truth of the words that gives them their impact. Thus, if the words of the Bible are to be experienced as divine, at the very least they must be taken to be truthful. But I have already argued that we cannot have a perception of the truth of a proposition the referent of which is absent, and many of the propositions of the Bible are of this sort  —   e.g., the proposition that God loves us, or that Christ died in atonement for the sins of the whole world. I may find myself spontaneously inclined to believe Paul when he tells me this, but it doesn’t follow from this that I have somehow  perceived the truth of the respective proposition he uttered. Furthermore, I may find myself to be inclined to believe any number of propositions that people assert in writing, for instance various things asserted in the writings of Aristotle, but I do not for that reason suppose the respective  person to have spoken under divine inspiration. Once more, it is a belief in God and in divine  providence that inclines me to interpret supposed encounters with the truth as connected with God; it is not the “sense of truth” by itself that reveals itself as coming from God, if there is any such sense. To summarize the argument, then: a “qualitative” approach to the question of the expe rience of God’s Word in Scripture, such as one might construct on the basis of what Calvin, Barth, and Plantinga say, falls short for the following reasons. First, it is not actually possible to “perceive the truth of a proposition” in the absence of its r  eferent. What one discovers when one reflects on the “ apparent truth ” of a proposition whose referent is absent is actually one’s own inclination one feels to believe it. Second, even if I find myself inclined to believe what Paul, John, Luke, and the rest of the biblical authors say , it doesn’t follow that I have perceived their word to come from God. I am not similarly disposed to attribute to divine inspiration to other truthful writers I encounter  —   except if I already admit the existence of God and a certain doctrine of  providence which independently inclines me to interpret my experiences this way. (Although I cannot get into detail about this now, the same arguments apply to Sokolowski’s chapter in the  Phenomenologies of Scripture  volume.) III.   Case studi es in the encounter of God’s Word: Anthony, Augustine, and Bonhoeffer Instead of a “qualitative” approach, it would seem more promising to search for an experience of the Word of God according to a “quantitative” approach. Whereas a “qualitative” approach seeks to justify the description of some experience as being of God’s Word on the basis of the qualities of a text, the “quantitative” approach grounds the description on the number of voices present in the experience. The experience of the Word of God takes place in what I have called the  phenomenon of the “Third Voice.” 1   1   See my paper “On aspects of a proto -  phenomenology of Scripture in Origen.”     5 Here are three brief and famous examples of the phenomenon of the Third Voice. First: St. Anthony goes to church one day and hears the gospel passage being read during the liturgy in wh ich Christ bids the rich young ruler to “sell everything you have and follow me.” It seems to Anthony as if Christ were speaking to him directly in these words and so he sells his possessions and retreats into the desert. Second: In the midst of an existential crisis about whether he ought to  become a Christian and take up the celibate life, St. Augustine hears the famous words “ tolle lege , tolle lege ” and understands that he must pick up a copy of the Scriptures and read the first words he encounters. He h appens upon the passage in the Epistle to the Romans where Paul says “Let us  behave decently in the daytime, etc.” He understands that that God is speaking to him through these words to do precisely what was so difficult for him. Third: Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to America as things become quite ugly in Germany and he feels bad about it. Reading Scripture every day, he encounters two passages which seem to speak to him directly. One of them is from the prophet Isaiah  —    “The one who believes will not flee” —    and the other is from Paul’s second letter to Timothy: “Come before the winter.” Particularly this latter verse stands out to him and he is inclined to think that God is telling him to return to Germany as soon as possible, in spite of the fact that, as he notes in his journal, such an interpretation is contrary to his own hermeneutical tendencies. These experiences are likelier candidates, in my mind, to be considered encounters of the Word of God, for the following reason. In each case, within the experience itself, it is possible to distinguish between (i) the reader’s own voice, which interprets the text according to his own training; (ii) the human author’s voice, whose meaning is bound to the srcinal context in which he wrote; and (iii) a Third Voi ce which takes the human author’s words and makes use of them in a different context to speak to the human reader in a way that is independent of her natural hermeneutical inclinations. In each case, what the human reader “hears” in the text —   sell all of your possessions and go into the desert; take up a life of celibacy in service to the church; return to Germany as soon as possible  —   is strictly not   what the text says considered in itself, but for each reader the text seems to say this with a kind of pointed particularity that is impossible to ignore. This “third sense” sticks out and floats in midair, so to speak, distinguishable both from what the text says on its own and what the reader is inclined to interpret within it. It is as if the speech of a Third Voice is being encountered here  —    hence the notion of a “quantitative” approach to the question. IV.   Scripture and the phenomenon of the Third Voice It is these  such experiences which are likelier candidates for the description of an encounter with the Word of God in the words of Scripture. The phenomenon of the Third Voice seems to be something like a saturated phenomenon in its pure self-givenness and transcendence of the horizon of ordinary textual interpretation and the physical possibilities of the meaning of a text written so many thousands of years ago. Many questions still remain which I cannot address here  —   for example, is this encounter with divine speech theologically informative? Is there still a need for interpretation even here? Can the phenomenon of the Third Voice be sought out or must we simply wait for it to happen on its own? What is the relation between the Third Voice and the voice of one’s own conscience? These are interesting questions and might make for fruitful discussion in the allotted period after I finish reading this paper.
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