Friday, July 01, 2005

Controlling models and images

“Doctrinal thinking commonly involves the use of models. The task of doctrine is to aid our understanding of key realities of Christian faith such as God, salvation, the church, and the Bible. Many of these realities are by their very nature formidably deep or complex. A model is an image or a construct that helps us grasp aspects of these realities by providing us with something we can understand that has points of comparison with the object we wish to understand, thus helping us t get our mind round its nature.” [1]

Here John Goldingay highlights the usefulness, in fact necessity of the use of models for doctrine. When the right models are used, they are most useful for grasping aspects of biblical truth. [2] Models can also be employed to grasp the nature of Scripture, and this is what Goldingay attempts in his book.

He alerts us to the problem of using models to describe the whole of Scripture. Scripture consists of a diversity of literary types and models often employed such as “authority”, “revelation”, and “inspiration”, do not naturally correspond with all these types. [3] “To speak in terms of the authority of scripture, of scripture as God’s revelation, or of scriptural inspiration is not so much untrue as a not especially plausible way to go about crystallizing a scriptural way of understanding scripture.” [4].

Although the models come Scripture, in the attempt to use them to characterize the whole from within, they have been lifted out of Scripture only to be reshaped and imposed back upon it, forcing it to be and do what it is not and was not meant to. In the attempt to touch base with the text once more, the models take their shape not from Scripture itself but from abstract philosophical and linguistic debate over what “authority” is or how the term can be used. For instance, when the model of “authority” is applied to the whole Bible, when it “is treated as an indispensable theological category” (p8) for understanding Scripture, we find ourselves effectively working backwards. We are no longer moving from Scripture to description and function, but from presumed function (“authoritative”) to Scripture. In this process in end up treating Scripture as something it is not. [5]

Because of this, we should avoid treating “authority” or any other model as the ‘indispensable theological category’ and then seeing how Scripture may fit it. We must not proceed from the assumption that the Bible is in some sense “authoritative” and then seek to discover how.

It must be made clear that in my research I am not seeking to establish “story” as a model to “over-arch the whole”. The story that underlies Scripture and that can rightly be said to be the centre of the Christian faith, is not a model in the sense discussed above. It is not a description of the nature of the scriptural documents, [6] but of the faith that unifies them. It is the content and ground of the faith. However, I do see the need for a controlling concept through which to view the Bible as a whole and propose that “story” is most appropriate to fill the position. As the controlling concept it is not intended to highlight the nature or function of any one set of documents or literary forms within Scripture (as Goldingay’s models do, see n3). Nor is it meant to be used in the way “authority” often has either, being a function imposed upon all scriptural forms and documents. Rather, it acts more like an image and serves to orient the reader.

As mentioned in a previous post, Images of the Bible, the images or metaphors we use to describe and understand the Bible have a profound effect on how we approach it. This is true for models also. When we hold to the model of authority, we see the Bible as a source of teaching that must be conformed to. We thus neglect aspects of Scripture that are not teaching to be believed or instructions to be obeyed, or we distort them in our attempts to use them as such. Hence, the ideas we have about the Bible and its purpose when we come to Scripture can creates problems.

All of us come to Scripture with some set of preconceptions about it, what is in it, what its for, and how we should use it. These are often summed up or flow from an image or model that we take to be the controlling model, the one that best describes Scripture. Although not all approaches and understandings are completely off, the wrong aspects are often over emphasized. If not out of inescapability, we need a controlling concept for simplicity and orientation. I find that often peoples understanding of Scripture shapes their understanding of Christianity, the two coincide. And so they should, it is only logical. But what this shows is how important our understanding of Scripture truly is.

By proposing story as the controlling concept, I am suggesting that it be used as our controlling image. What I am seeking is a critical realist approach that consciously seeks to avoid employing Scripture for an agenda foreign to itself, but which apprehends Scripture’s own various natures and purposes and aligns our use of it with these. Thus I propose story because it lies at the centre of Scripture and scriptural faith. It strikes at the heart of what the Christian faith is, that God loves, and is acting in and with this world for its salvation. To be a Christian is to be part of the ‘with’, to participate in this work of salvation both as an agent and as a patient. But in order to do so well, we need to understand Scripture, so lets get to work!

[1] Models for Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p.7
[2] This task is different than describing the theologies of the biblical documents using their own categories and concepts.
[3] Thus, in his book he makes use of four models that reflect the variety of scriptural forms: witnessing tradition (narrative), authoritative canon (command material in Torah and elsewhere), inspired word (prophecy), and experienced revelation (Psalms, apocalypses, wisdom books, and letters). In each section he does go on to “stretch” these models to cover the whole of Scripture.
[4] Models, p.5
[5] There are of course forms within Scripture where the concept of ‘authority’ is appropriate. E.g. The Law given at Mt Sinai.
[6] I reserve the term ‘narrative’ for the stories in Scripture in an attempt to avoid confusion.

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