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A Playground for the Formation of a Scriptural Imagination

Lessons from Church History
Church history can instruct us in the parameters as well as the flexibility of a scriptural imagination

John Calvin stated: “God has never so blessed God’s servants that they each possessed full and perfect knowledge of every part of their subject. God’s purpose in limiting our knowledge was first that we should be kept humble and also that we should continue to have dealings with our fellow brothers [and sisters]” (dedication, Romans commentary). Calvin’s emphasis on both humility and community provides a corrective to the way that some modern scholars and readers approach Scripture today, especially the tendencies toward arrogance and individualism. It also calls us to embrace conversations about Scripture with Christian brothers and sisters across time and place.

Christian church history—especially pre-modern church history—can shed helpful light upon what it means to form a Christian scriptural imagination and its practices. This may require a reexamination of some basic assumptions in our modern context. For example, the disciplines of history, biblical studies, theology, and ministerial practice have been separated and professionalized in the majority of divinity schools and seminaries today. The study of the Bible is viewed as a separate academic subject, distinct from the branches of theology, history, and ministry. Yet the pre-modern Christian world did not assume that these disciplines should be separated. Scripture profoundly shaped Christian theology and ministerial practices as well as understandings of Christian history; all of these disciplines worked cooperatively together with Scripture as their chief guide.

It follows, then, that the formation of a scriptural imagination is not necessarily the sole province of biblical studies; it requires interdisciplinary conversations with theologians, church historians, and ministerial practitioners. As a church historian, I want to examine pre-modern church history for ways to define scriptural imagination and its practice. To begin, we might imagine scriptural imagination as a large, beautiful playground. There are different play areas and an array of different equipment. Boundaries identify the limits of the playground, but there is plenty of room to run and play. In a similar way, we can learn from church history the appropriate boundaries for forming scriptural imagination and, within those boundaries, see possibilities for faithful flexibility. This is not a “playground” filled with narrow, rigid strictures, nor is it characterized by unbounded imagination. The goal is faithfulness, and church history helps us to understand and identify the boundaries, practices, and contexts for forming a faithful scriptural imagination. 

Boundaries for a Christian Scriptural Imagination 

A study of how Christian leaders have interpreted Scripture across time and the ways in which Christian churches have discerned faithful interpretation reveals at least five important boundary lines for the “playground”—the formation of a Christian scriptural imagination. To be clear, Christians may disagree about how exactly to define and apply these boundaries, but an overall commitment to them is readily discernible in Christian history. Furthermore, it is important to note that ultimately the affirmation of these boundaries is an act of faith rather than a proposition to be proven (or disproven). It is a faith commitment advocated by Christians as part of understanding the Bible as Scripture—namely, as the sacred text of a particular faith community.

1. A commitment to the authority of Scripture for the Christian life. The first boundary addresses the key issue of what Christians actually believe Scripture to be. Note that this statement does not advocate a particular vision of how Scripture is authoritative. Throughout Christian history, Christians have affirmed this tenet in a variety of ways. But to assert the importance of scriptural imagination requires the assertion (and understanding) of Scripture’s authority for Christian life. For many—and certainly for most pre-modern Christian thinkers—this included an assertion of the divine character of Scripture. Church leaders such as Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, John Wesley, and Karl Barth maintained the necessity of affirming the possibility of divine revelation and, specifically, the importance of affirming Scripture as God’s revelation.

2. Scripture has a trinitarian scope and character . Each of these boundaries is built into the others and reinforces the others. Hence, the commitment to Scripture’s authority is bound in some way to the recognition that the primary goal of Scripture—as a sacred text of the Christian community—is to reveal God. More specifically, for Christians the Triune God is revealed in Scripture—Scripture has a trinitarian shape, character, and scope. Origen, in his treatise On First Principles (IV.2.7), stated that all right reading of Scripture is “chiefly the doctrine about God, that is, about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Even with a commitment to the trinitarian shape of Scripture, there is room (and need) for further conversations about various understandings of God as Trinity and the specific language used for the Trinity.

3. The central purpose of Scripture is to edify the church. This boundary recognizes that Scripture as a sacred text is deeply tied to a faith community. Scripture should be read in, with, and for the faith community. In Christian history, the assertion is that the interpretation of Scripture should edify the church. This commitment to edification includes the understanding that Scripture not only reveals the Triune God; it is also the vehicle given by God by which Christians might journey toward God so that they might increasingly embody God’s righteousness. Augustine wrote: “The end of all sacred Scriptures is the love of a being who is to be enjoyed and of a being who can share that enjoyment with us. Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbors does not understand it at all” (De doctrina, I.35.39). The claim that Scripture should edify the church entails the assertion that readings should promote ethical conduct and character. Such readings should produce the fruits of the Spirit. Edifying the church also includes elements of accountability, comfort, strengthening, and correction.

4. Scripture has a christological center. The Christian church across the centuries has recognized the deep tie between the incarnation of Christ and the material and divine aspects of Scripture. One biblical passage often invoked is John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This parallel between Christ and Scripture includes the dual assertion that God reveals God’s self in Christ, and God reveals God’s self in Scripture—and that these are deeply bound together. Thus when Origen and Augustine described Scripture as a vehicle of salvation (leading to knowledge of God and righteousness), they also connected this to the vision of Christ as the way, the path of salvation. The basic commitment is this: all of Scripture ultimately points to Christ. Yet there is also flexibility built into this assertion, for Christians over the centuries express a number of ways—sometimes divergent—of practicing christological exegesis of Scripture.

5. Scripture has a narrative scope that entails a commitment to the unity of the two Testaments. The affirmations of Scripture’s trinitarian and christological character are deeply connected to a commitment to the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Christian scholars have identified this as a commitment to the canonical reading of Scripture: that Christians accept and employ the canon handed down by faith communities, read Scripture in conversation with itself across the Testaments (Scripture interpreting Scripture), and operate with a metanarrative that prioritizes the convictions of Scripture’s trinitarian and christological character.  Again, flexibility within this boundary is evident. Christians have identified this unifying narrative in different ways while still retaining these commitments. For example, Martin Luther identified the unifying narrative of the Testaments as the saving events of Christ’s life (incarnation, passion, resurrection, ascension). Consequently, he interpreted many Old Testament passages as prophecies of Christ. The unifying narrative of the Testaments for John Calvin, however, is the story of divine providence—God’s great faithfulness and beneficence toward God’s people across time. In this way, Calvin’s christological readings were equally ecclesial readings, pointing to God’s faithful activity with the church (Christ’s body) across the Testaments.

The Christian Scriptural Imagination in Practice

Christian history provides several depictions of what scriptural imagination looks like in practice. This includes a variety of Christian exegetical methods and techniques, as well as ways Scripture has shaped Christian preaching, ethics, worship, theology, and history.

Practically speaking, the playground of scriptural imagination, with both its boundaries and flexibility, affirms that Scripture does not have only one correct interpretation. Multiple faithful readings of Scripture are possible. The pre-modern church expressed this most clearly in describing the four senses of Scripture. Scripture has a historical (or plain) sense and a spiritual sense. This spiritual sense was further divided according to the three cardinal virtues: an allegorical sense (faith), a tropological sense (love), and an anagogical sense (hope). Pre-modern readings of Scripture yielded at least four potentially different meanings of any given passage: (1) what it means historically (its plain sense),  (2) what it teaches a Christian to believe (allegorical), (3) what it teaches a Christian to do to live ethically (tropological), and (4) what it teaches a Christian to hope—that is, the telos toward which a Christian should journey (anagogical). A variety of faithful exegetical methods are possible, but the possibilities are not unbounded. They are “disciplined” by certain faith commitments, such as the five boundaries previously discussed.

Christian history has numerous examples of an openness to the various exegetical tools provided in different contexts and historical eras. Any tool may be useful, but it also is disciplined by the boundaries of a scriptural imagination. Scripture is the locus of authority, not the tool itself; therefore, no tool should limit the possible interpretations of Scripture. A commitment to the authority of Scripture entailed for most pre-modern Christians an understanding of Scripture as self-interpreting and self-authenticating. In practice, the subject matter and authority of Scripture is set by Scripture itself and not by any external tool or body of knowledge (e.g., historical facts or moral philosophy).

Much more could be written about the ways that Scripture has shaped the practices of Christian churches across time. Briefly, the formation of a Christian scriptural imagination means that Scripture deeply shapes and informs the central practices of the Christian life, such as worship, liturgy, preaching, doctrine, ethics, and polity. Scripture provides a language and a grammar for these practices. Scripture provides their vision and character.

The Significance of Context

Finally, understanding the formation of a scriptural imagination in the light of Christian history enables a deeper understanding of the role of context—that each Christian’s particular location (historical, cultural, ethnic, philosophical, theological, political) has always carried particular implications for the formation and practices of a scriptural imagination that cannot be ignored but also cannot become an end in itself.

Every interpreter reads Scripture from a particular location. Indeed, this is potentially a good thing. It calls Christians to recognize that acknowledgment of one’s own particular location is part of faithfulness, just as attending to other voices and contexts is also part of faithfulness. It affirms the possibilities of faithful readings in various locations while also calling Christians to guard against making their own perspective or location an idol. Acknowledging our own located-ness and the different locations of fellow Christians helps Christians to recognize better what God may be doing in us, beyond us, and even in spite of us.

This means that Christians need not fear readings that are explicit about their locatedness, such as feminist, womanist, African-American, African, Asian, or liberationist readings of Scripture. Rather, these are all possible faithful readings of Scripture that are not to be constrained by another particular perspective that deems itself determinative—such as when, say, African readings are judged (and rejected) on the basis of North American or European criteria. The situation of global Christianity today is much like the situation faced by the Jewish Christian church in the book of Acts concerning the question of Gentile inclusion. The Jewish Christians thought their views and practices were the defining perspective for this Christian church. But God had other plans that required a process of faithful communal discernment so that they could participate in God’s actions among the Gentiles. Likewise, though North American and European views have strongly shaped understandings of Christianity for several centuries, God again has other plans with and beyond us, for the places where Christianity is thriving most in our world today is in the Global South (Latin American, Africa, and Asia).

Faithful boundaries are necessary on the playground of scriptural imagination lest our individual perspectives and contexts become self-serving and idols unto themselves. They “discipline” our particular, located readings of Scripture and understandings of Christianity. This playground also offers flexibility, recognizing the importance of particular location and perspective. The hope is that we might gain some shared sense of what it means to be Christian while acknowledging that no one of us can fully grasp God’s truth. Church history can provide a portrait of Christian scriptural imagination while affirming that God, the Creator of all, may speak through Scripture in many diverse, even surprising, ways.