Why read Scripture? Modern illness, premodern cure

August 10th, 2016

To understand why a Christian ought desire to read, kiss, taste and drink the words of Scripture is to transcend the terms under which we live and speak in modernity.

To show why this is so and how it bears on reading and interpreting Scripture, I need to say something about Christian characterizations of what a human being is, and also what it is to be fallen. Our fallen state is the the arena in which inspired Scripture is a salutary gift; our sinfulness is the sickness in which reading and interpreting Scripture is a healing medicine.

The human person in spiritual health, sickness and healing

In a lively and deep stream of Christian thought running through the tradition, sin is figured as sickness and God/Christ as physician. In our sickness, we are unable to raise our minds, hearts, lives in offering to the glory of the Holy Trinity as we ought.

Humans, formed as we are of spiritual soul and material body, are in one way a midpoint between the spiritual/angelic and material parts of creation, while in a similar way we are happily situated between material creation and the immaterial Creator. Picture the Genesis 2 story in which "the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life" (2:7). To spring upward from the material toward the divine like a rose bush or tomato vine straining toward the sun is our health. The fallen contrast to this Godward orientation, the state of sin, is by definition a state of some kind and degree of idolatry. Rather than reaching doxologically upward to God, we are turned in on ourselves (as Augustine will say) and turned downward toward creation. We are desiring self or the material creation, and almost always both, the way we ought desire God. The result is that we are darkened in intellect and disordered in will. (Think Romans 1:21 and following.)

Idolatry, then, is our problem, and we become addicted to idolatry like I intermittently become addicted to checking Twitter on my phone first thing in the morning rather than praying to God. The disordered lust for created things and material things becomes reflexive, habitual, second nature to us.

Yet God, in love for humankind, devises a fitting medicine for our sickness. In taking on flesh — the very kind of material that has become the snare of our idolatry — God lovingly enfolds our idolatrous addiction and weakened nature in order to nurture us back to health. In adoring Jesus Christ, who is at once human (and so spiritual and material) and divine (and so utterly immaterial), we are adoring God, even as we adore him in his fleshly birth, his life with each of his prophetic deeds, his fleshly sufferings and death upon the cross, his resurrection and ascension. (See Athanasius' On the Incarnation, or Augustine's The Trinity book 4, to reflect on how God in Christ enfolds and surpasses our idolatry problem.)

We are too weak to contemplate and adore the immaterial Trinity, but not too weak to worship a human or an idol. And so God saves us by compassionately giving us a human to worship who is not an idol, but is true God, God in person. Here and now, as Augustine would have us notice, there is no pure nature, only fallen nature and the Church's biblical and liturgical regimen for healing fallen nature.

And this brings us to the healing function of reading and interpreting Scripture.

Reading Scripture: Modern illness, premodern cure

Secular modernity, from one perspective, is the project of attending and giving priority in our shared/public/civic/professional lives to matters which, when given this social-constitutive priority, the Christian tradition diagnoses as idols. Plenty of caveats and asterisks apply to a sweeping statement like this, yet they don't fundamentally invalidate it: when attending to "the immanent frame" we are by definition not attending to the Creator God who transcends the world even in his manifestation within it. (If you have time, there is much to be learned from Cyril O'Regan in this lecture.) And the project of attending exclusively to the immanent can't help being idolatrous. The result is that modernity is that age in which we can mobilize power in unprecedented ways to combat and overcome some specific symptoms of idolatry (which we also sometimes misdiagnose with wildly destructive results), yet with each intervention reinfect ourselves with the sickness. Modernity lacks the cure for what ails it.

This agenda of immanence, as has been illustrated in recent years in a volcanic eruption of academic literature, has misshaped the ways we approach Scripture in modernity. This has been most pervasive in the academy, but has also infected the life of the Church. (Think of the veneration of the historical critical method, now somewhat on the wane, and also to some extent the varieties of Marxist, feminist, and postmodern criticism. Each of these styles of scholarship exist in Christian varieties as well as immanentist varieties: one need not reject any of them, only recognize that singly and together they are all on their own terms inadequate to Christian biblical interpretation.)

I once served as an associate pastor in a once-large, once-prominent congregation that, in the second half of the 20th century, was served for about a decade by a senior pastor who periodically assured the congregation from the pulpit that one doesn't have to believe in Jesus Christ's resurrection to be a Christian. This is the immanentist project simultaneously disemboweling Christian biblical interpretation and, indeed, the Christian faith altogether.

Reduced to an immanent frame, the modern study of Scripture, all too often, misses the point. Absent a theological account of how Scripture operates "for us and for our salvation", there is no apparent reason the individual books of Scripture should be published together, and no reason individual books, of the Pentateuch, say, should have been laboriously and intergenerationally stitched together in the first place. (See Robert Jenson's chapter in The Art of Reading Scripture for a succinct reflection.)

As it happens, the wide and deep theological stream discussed above, which is in the Western medieval church an Augustinian stream, can offer elegant accounts of the way Scripture operates for the restoration of our health.

Scripture, like our own flesh, and like the flesh of Jesus Christ, is material, the stuff of creation. Inasmuch as it is material, it is 'below' the human person, who is spirit and matter. Yet, exactly because it is 'below' us, Scripture is accessible to our sin-sick and idol-addicted minds. Just as the Son of God manifests in humble form to be within reach of us at our weakest and worst, so in Scripture the Word of God is given in humble form. By the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), the praises of God are sung in Scripture in the countless natural languages that flourish on the earth, kudzu like, after Babel (Gen 11:1-9). God speaks to us in a humble, even earthy, and sometimes disturbing or outlandishly human manner, in order to meet us where we are and raise us into the fellowship divine:

"It was therefore to purify the human mind of such falsehoods that holy scripture, adapting itself to babes, did not shun any words, proper to any kind of thing whatever, that might nourish our understanding and enable it to rise up to the sublimities of divine things. Thus it would use words taken from corporeal things to speak about God with, as when it says Shelter me under the shadow of your wings (Ps 17:8); and from the sphere of created spirit it has transposed many words to signify what was not in fact like that, but had to be expressed like that; I am a jealous God (Ex 20:5) for example, and I am sorry I made man (Gn 6:7).... The divine scriptures then are in the habit of making something like children's toys out of things that occur in creation, by which to entice our sickly gaze and get us step by step to seek as best we can the things that are above and forsake the things that are below." — Augustine, The Trinity, 1.1.2

Even when our soul is bowed down to the dust, licking the bitter dust of our sinfulness and mortality, Scripture is within reach, its cadences within earshot. Like the Lord who, in public spectacle, let the prostitute slather costly perfume on his feet, and wash them with her hair, so Scripture gives us countless ways to adore and caress the body of the Lord. "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord" (Dei Verbum 6.21).

Reduced 'downward' to the immanent frame, Scripture ceases to be medicinal. It has no healing power. Yet, reduced 'upward' to the active and loving omniscience of the Trinity, Scripture is precious medicine to reinvigorate and restore health. Received as gift and divine communication, Scripture draws us at length upward, empowering us by its Christ-imitating path of descent and ascent to do likewise.

The humble words of Scripture let the sick and fallen speak truly of the transcendent Lord, lovingly read, kiss, taste and drink the Word of the Lord.

When the infinite surpasses and enfolds the finite, the immanent terms of modernity cease to obtain and fail to restrain.


Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of Christ the Lightgiver in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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