What does it mean to read Scripture as the church? What’s going on when we read the Bible? And do our tidy hermeneutical systems box in Scripture so that God’s voice never judges us, never surprises us, and we miss what the Holy Spirit is saying to the churches now?
In his book Reading Scripture as the Church, Derek Taylor addresses the heart of the issue concerning biblical interpretation. Of course, with our questions above we need to talk about methods of interpretation. We also need to talk about how we encounter meaning in the text, and even how that affects our own understanding of human existence. But the heart of the issue is how this all harmonizes under the framework of the church’s relationship with the risen Christ. So, Taylor distinguishes between the practice of tackling the text to interpret its linguistic sense and actually “’hearing it correctly’ as the concrete word of the present Christ” (10). He states:
In this book I embark on a more properly theological project of Christ’s ongoing work of calling and shaping his community and what implications this has for the process of pursuing this meaning through the act of reading” (11).
Hermeneutics is a practice of the church, and so Taylor dialogues with leading thinkers regarding the church as creature of the word, as institution, as congregation, and as missional community. He draws from the Dietrich Bonhoeffer while both generously and critically dialoguing with the works of John Webster, Robert Jensen, Stanley Hauerwas. I have only read the first half so far, and I already see that a full review would be very lengthy, as I would then be interacting with Taylor, Bonhoeffer, Webster, Jensen, Hauerwas, and Taylor’s interaction with the whole gang. It’s an academic work that has much value for the everyday lay person. My aim in writing about it is to bring some of his academic thinking to us regular people who want to understand the church better, what it means to be a disciple, and how to engage God’s word. So I may do a few forthcoming posts.
As disciples, we are followers of Christ. Taylor points us to the Gospels, where “Jesus calls, the disciples relocate their bodies behind him, and their lives come to bear the impression of his ongoing movement as they are drawn along into his walking path” (12). This structures everything as we think about the church in relationship to Christ, as well as to the church’s historical past in walking behind him, our local, concrete body, and in relationship to the world.
The Telos of Interpretation
I’ve spent too long setting this up—there are so many wonderful avenues to explore. I’m still in the Introduction here. So I will stay there today and write briefly on how in Luke 24 we see that Jesus’ resurrection orients the way we read Scripture. Here, at the close of Luke’s Gospel, we’ve got the women at the tomb hearing about and reporting on the risen Christ, the resurrected Jesus walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and Jesus appearing to the eleven. And significantly, we have quite the hermeneutical lesson from Jesus himself. Note that the disciples were “prevented from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16) during their walk. Jesus rebukes their unbelief in what the prophets have spoken in the word, and “Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27). Taylor notes how Jesus, as the chief hermeneutical agent, shows how he is also the ultimate goal of the hermeneutical process:
We do not read Scripture in order to know Scripture. We read Scripture in order to come to Jesus. (17)
Even while Jesus is interpreting the Scriptures for them, they still lack understanding. They still can’t recognize him. Their eyes had to be opened, and this is a gift from the Lord. This is his grace to his disciples. And that doesn’t happen until he becomes the host, breaking the bread, blessing it, and giving it to them (30-31). You see, Taylor explains that Jesus isn’t just some interpretive key that we import into the text. We can easily fall into that way of reading. Jesus didn’t do that, he rather shined the resurrection light on the disciple’s inherited past and brought it to life (95). Taylor emphasizes how the disciples had to move from the text to Jesus. “The moment of illumination is not about knowing Scripture as much as it is about knowing Christ himself” (17).
Taylor notes how this process of understanding is both a Christological and multidimensional process of understanding:
Christ’s gift of understanding occurs within the context of a historical narrative that gives it shape. Understanding arises in conversation with knowledge, hopes, and traditions inherited from the past. The memory of the women at the tomb is an integral component of their newfound understanding (Lk. 24:6,8). And along with recalling the written traditions, the Emmaus disciples bring a particular historical narrative to the event of understanding—“we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk. 24:21).
At the same time, the event of understanding is communal, emerging from concrete acts of togetherness, friendship, and hospitality. For the Emmaus disciples, understanding arises as Christ’s own presence and their inherited hopes coalesce in a concrete act of bodily togetherness. The hermeneutical significance of the first two relational dynamics is actualized in a shared space around a shared meal. (17-18)
And what do they do? Immediately, they are set in motion, in mission, to tell the eleven, even as they expressed how their hearts burned within them while Jesus explained the Scriptures to them.
A hermeneutic of discipleship puts Christ in the foreground. What happens when we, as an embodied community located in a particular place and time, are postured to hear Jesus correctly, expecting his personal presence in the church through proclamation and sacrament? Are we placing ourselves above the text, thinking we can regulate it, or are we searching together, with the knowledge passed down to us, hoping for God to meet us as the person of the risen Christ? How does this change our expectation for reading? God wants to give us himself! Let that sink in. It doesn’t just change our reading. It changes us.