This past week the Lower Mainland in British Columbia has been abuzz with a visit by N. T. Wright. Wright has thoughtfully challenged the reformed and evangelical clan to be more deeply reformed and evangelical.
Wright’s more catholic approach to the reformed exegetical tradition has challenged a way of doing exegesis. But, has it? I will return to this question shortly. There is no doubt that Wright has taken to task the Packer-Piper position, and he has done so in an informed manner. All are agreed that the Bible is the foundation and authority, but it has become obvious that how the Bible is interpreted is another form of authority. Why are some books in the canon elevated and others subordinated, some texts prized and others demoted, some sections cherished and others ignored? There are, therefore, two levels of authority both within the Old and New Testaments: the Bible and its interpretation. It is this deutero-canonical authority that Wright is, rightly so, questioning. There are those that so equate Bible-interpretation that they do not know the difference between the authority of the one and the questionable authority of the other. But, let us move on.
N.T. Wright and those he dares to question stand within the protestant literal-grammatical-historical exegetical tradition. This tradition is both indebted to the modernist commitment to reason and the much older tradition of Biblical exegesis that dominated Antioch in the Patristic era. John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia are but two of the formidable exegetes and theologians that stand within such a classical heritage. So does, in different ways, N.T.Wright and those he is doing battle with these days. The core of the Antioch-Reformed-Evangelical approach to exegesis is to interpret the text, as faithfully as possible from its original context, then apply, when possible, the truth of the original message to our context. The dilemma, of course, is this: whose interpretation is the truest and most faithful? This is where Wright and Packer-Piper see things in a different way and manner. The issue of ‘justification’ is but the tip of the iceberg in this ongoing and challenging dialogue about the how the text should be interpreted. But, the commitment to the text as the source and fount of authority, and the rational approach to exegesis mean that although Packer-Wright-Piper do differ on their conclusions, they share the same method: Antioch is their guide. I get a sense of déjà vu when I read the method used by Wright-Piper: Antioch lives again.
The publication of Hans Boersma’s recent book, Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery, raises some necessary questions for those committed to Antioch. Hans has some affinity with the more Alexandrian approach to exegesis. The Alexandrian tradition of Clement and Origen was more mystical, more contemplative, more meditative in approach, less sure of answers, more speculative, less debate oriented. The aim was to be still, wait and listen, to quiet the busy mind and be receptive. Alexandria was a major centre of Christianity in the Patristic era, and Origen was the most important theologian and exegete of his time. The goal of the allegorical-mystical approach to the Bible was participation and mystical union with God. Gregory of Nyssa developed and clarified Origen’s approach and highlighted how this mystical approach to the Bible has life giving qualities. The soul longs for depth and reality, and the Bible, when rightly interpreted, is but a portal into such life giving springs. The goal is a stilling of the restless heart and an ongoing experience of peace in God and the church. The Alexandrian approach to exegesis need not collide with the approach of Antioch, but these approaches do differ both in method and destination.
Hans Boersma (and many within the ressourcement movement) is, in different ways, attempting to reclaim the older mystical, contemplative and Alexandrian way of knowing and being. Wright and Piper, although differing in conclusions embody the Antioch way and method. Wright has debated with Marcus Borg about how the Bible should be interpreted, and he now does the same thing with Packer and Piper. But, is a rational debate about how the text should be interpreted in a literal-grammatical-contextual manner the only way to approach the Bible, experience of God and community? The Alexandrian tradition does part paths with the Antioch tradition on this point. It is not a case of either-or, of course, but more a case of the best means to know God and live such a vision in this wild world.
There are reasons that those like Boersma do not enter the sort of fray that Wright and Piper do---much hinges on the site of interior illumination, insight and wisdom. I get a sense of déjà vu when I heed both sides of the exegetical approaches to the Bible: Antioch or Alexandria? Which and why?
There is the possibility of uniting a subtler reformed and evangelical exegetical approach with the more catholic and contemplative approach to exegesis in the writings and life of Eugene Peterson and Thomas Merton. A reading of Peterson’s Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading and Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation or Contemplative Prayer are a fine way to begin this journey.