Spring 2007 | Volume 30, Number 1
Reading the Bible With Eyes of Faith
and the practice
Richard B. Hays, keynote speaker for the SPU President's Symposium on Embracing the Christian Story.
The title of this article recalls and celebrates the work of
Paul Minear, the extraordinary biblical theologian who reached his 100th birthday in 2006. It has now been exactly 60 years since Minear, who taught New Testament for many years at Yale Divinity School, published a challenging book titled Eyes of Faith: A Study in the Biblical Point of View.
At the heart of Minear’s work lies one luminous insight: What we ordinarily take to be “real” is in fact a
distorted picture of the world, and it is only the revelatory power of God’s word that casts a true light on the landscape of human experience and, at the same time, heals our capacity to see.
Minear prefaces his work with an epigraph from the poet William Blake that describes the eyes, the human organs of vision, as “dim windows.”
This Life’s dim windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro’ the Eye
One could take Blake’s verse as an invitation to renounce sensory experience in favor of some ethereal realm of ideas. Minear, however, has something quite different in mind: When he speaks of what we see through “eyes of faith,” he refers to the very concrete and disturbing vision of the world offered us in Scripture’s story of Israel and Jesus, a vision that reshapes our perceptions of reality.
Minear’s insight reminds us of the story in Mark’s
Gospel in which Jesus performs a peculiar two-stage
healing of a blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22–26). After putting saliva on the blind man’s eyes and laying hands on him, Jesus asks, “Can you see anything?” The man replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking around.” Then Jesus lays hands a second time on the man’s eyes, “and he looked intently” and “his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
I fear that when we biblical scholars look at the text of Scripture, even after we have been touched by Jesus, we see “trees walking” — or perhaps, in some cases, chopped down, split, and stacked into piles of firewood! It is my devout hope, however, that we are entering a new historical moment in which we will again be touched by Jesus so as to find our sight clarified.
Blurry Vision, Diverging Roads
A clarification of sight is urgently necessary, because the past two centuries of critical study of the Bible have brought us to a fork in the road, and we need to be able to read the road signs before us. The Finnish New Testament scholar Heikki Räisänen describes the diverging paths as follows: “Will [biblical scholars] remain guardians of cherished confessional traditions, anxious to provide modern man with whatever normative guidance they still manage to squeeze out of the sacred texts? Or will they follow those pioneering theologians … fearlessly reflecting on the biblical material from a truly ecumenical, global point of view?”
It is not hard to see where Räisänen’s own sympathies lie. He bemoans that a truly historical approach to New Testament interpretation got sidetracked in the 20th century by the influence of “cherished confessional traditions,” and he bids biblical scholars to enter a bright “new” world by returning to historical methods pioneered in the 19th century — a world in which biblical interpretation is liberated from the constraints of dogma.
The prospect of a fruitful synthesis of historical and theological inquiry in biblical studies is increasingly challenged by those who seek to exclude “faith-based study” of the Bible from the community of interpretation. In his 2004 presidential address
to the major international society of New Testament scholars, Yale University Professor Wayne Meeks encouraged biblical scholars to abandon their role as teachers of the church. Rather than seeking to secure the church’s beliefs, he argued, scholars should address “the non-Christian majority of the world” as their “most important challenge.”
The inevitable result of Meeks’ position is correctly described by Professor Hector Avalos of Iowa State University. Biblical scholarship, he says, becomes a doomed enterprise since “the Bible has no intrinsic value or merit” for those outside of faith communities. Once one starts down the fork in the road to which Räisänen and Meeks beckon scholars, one ultimately and inevitably will arrive at the dead end portrayed in Avalos’ gloomy assessment. As Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has incisively remarked, “Outside the church, no such entity as the Christian Bible has any reason to exist.”
Precisely because the dead-end character of secularistic study of the Bible has become increasingly apparent, many thoughtful interpreters have begun to explore the other fork in the road.
I am happy to report an extraordinary resurgence of interest and energy being poured into the theological interpretation of Scripture for the church. Several fascinating new projects are in the early stages of development. One component of many of these initiatives has been an effort to recover a sympathetic understanding of the church’s ancient traditions of interpreting Scripture. Although mixed in quality, there are many offerings that
are nuanced in their attention to textual detail and simultaneously nourishing for the church.
It is, however, not always clear exactly what is meant by
the catchall terms “theological interpretation” or “theological
exegesis.” Some might suggest that we simply know it when we see it. But I think there is value in characterizing the sort of scholarship we are seeking to encourage and recover.
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