This is a brief response to the Joint Statement of Seminar on the “Use and Abuse of the Bible” held at ECC, Whitfield (near Bangalore), India, from December 5-8, 2007. The statement is found on the previous post (click here to read it)

Briefly, I want to start by saying that while I do not have much experience in attending conferences, out of the four conferences I have attended in the past two months (heavens!!!), this was the best in terms of possibilities of involving the participants. Each day ended with a small group discussion on some of the days proceedings. The small groups had then to make a statement of the discussion that would be shared with the whole group. While there is room for improvement–for instance, the joint statements tended to be non-controversial (regardless of personal convictions), and so there was no discussion about the statements, only a gentle acquiescence–still, it was great that it practically (realistically) encouraged participation.

On to the comments.

My main grouse with the final statement is that it could be drafted before the seminar was conducted. It has hardly anything that was not written or known before. In fact, much of the phraseology is quite similar to the hermeneutics papers that I have read during class and even written. This is not to say that the conclusions are simplistic; they are profound in implications. But still, the fact that there is nothing new, suggests that many people attending the conference came with predispositions that were confirmed (not challenged) during the conference.

The other main grouse with the unclear distinction between biblical text and the Word of God; a statement that is not different from what many scholars have propounded, including Karl Barth who famously made this distinction. It is not clear, in the statement, whether we are believing theologians like Karl Barth and thus restating their point, or actually saying something unique about God and His Word.

Personally, I accept the view that the biblical text is different from the Word of God, especially if we accept that Jesus Christ is the Word of God; the biblical text in effect is a witness to the Word of God, and thus is derivatively the “word of God” (notice the small case). Now this is simply accepting Karl Barth’s view, and I admit to the influence.

What the scholars in the ECC Seminar however were saying (from my understanding) was that “within” the biblical text, in a mysterious way, lies the “Word of God”, a unique, pure, truth, that is like a wheat covered by a contextual-cultural chaff (and thus oppressive conditioned words and forms). Basically, I have a feeling that many of the people in the room wanted to hold on to faith in the “true” Bible, a hidden subtext or even a resonating truth which is contained in the text, but is not clearly seen (and therefore not clearly known in the Church) because it it is trapped in a cultural and contextual prison. We admit that the biblical text is not only a God-inspired response and witness to the Word of God, but is inadvertently also a political, historical, ideological, social and even gender-biased collection of texts. As a result, we recognize that the Bible has been used to oppress subalterns such as women, Dalits, tribals and other socially ostracized communities.”

Therefore, a few scholars at that table may argue that the Bible as we have it today is corrupted. And more importantly, we must make an effort to recover the truth behind the corruption. “We seek to recover the Word of God from the biblical text.” This is quite akin to the hermeneutics of suspicion project evidenced especially in Liberation, Black, Feminist, Queer (et al) Theologies; especially the conservative kind that do not want to throw the proverbial baby with the bath water.

The problem with this belief is that it assumes that the Word of God can be known outside the cultural embellishments, or at least believes that our own cultural constructs of the “pure” Bible are better than our predecessors, especially the biblical writers/editors. It is not hard to see the irony behind such assertions; especially since our own constructs tend to be “oppressive” and “narrow”, the very thing that we accuse the biblical writers of being. It also fails to recognise recent studies in literary and narrative criticism that assert that the meaning of the text lies exactly in the WAY the text is constructed, ESPECIALLY in its cultural/literary context.

Nevertheless, instead of giving the author or text to determine the meaning of the text, the proposal seems to suggest that the “true” meaning of scripture lies in the reconstruction of the text, especially through the eyes of a hermeneutical key which they “believe” is normative for all readings (thus limiting a free-for-all reader response reading). We look to liberate the Bible from these oppressive tendencies. We do not reject the text but employ liberative re-readings of the text to encourage the emancipation and empowerment of the oppressed.”

Yet what does “liberation” even mean? And the answer, is again a disappointingly mysterious Christic-sensitivity. Most importantly, however, we recognize the need for ‘Christic sensitivity’ in our readings of the text especially as guides to our liberative and contextual readings.” By this thing called Christic-sensitivity some of the scholars from the seminar seem to believe that our “liberative motif” will have a direction that is both correct and helpful.

The problem with a Christic-sensitivity is that there is little understanding of what is actually means, and particularly which Christic-sensitivity are we talking about (especially in view of the fact that different traditions have differing versions of who Christ is). In effect, it is not a far-cry to think that the Christic-sensitivity being promoted is actually a Christ of justice. And yet, that Christ of justice is used to guide our liberative motif. Certainly a cyclical and unhelpful defense.

Finally, the proposal that we make a “lay peoples” commentary is commendable; especially in the context of William Barclay’s own work (since the Seminar was held in his honour). “We feel the need to integrate the findings of the Conference with Christian institutions and lay people in a language that is clear and meaningful. In this regard, we look forward to the development of a ‘People’s Bible Commentary’ in the near future.” And yet, I wonder what that commentary would look like. What re-reading would we be offering? What would be the guiding principle among various denominations? Would we all agree about what makes something liberative and what does not? How would this mysterious “Christic-sensitivity” be manifest?

In actual fact, the entire project would hang on the modern-day authors’ contextual conditioning. Our own assertions would be coloured by our own cultural leanings; and would they be oppressive to others, for instance to lay people who subscribe to fundamentalist liberative readings?

Anyway, all these comments are not to be negative about the conference. The conference was extremely stimulating and even helpful in many ways. In fact, I believe that the conference was a step forward in that the final statement reflected the hermeneutical struggles that the Church, even the Indian church, faces. Even though many of the concerns and solutions have already been referenced in western literature, at least we can see that we are not that isolated in our questions and in our answers from the rest of the world.

More importantly, the conference also got us talking about hermeneutics as an important thing for lay people to understand; no one can escape its implications. Whether we accept or reject the implications of the “statement,” at least we can all agree that hermeneutics of the biblical text is prevalent at a sub-conscious level; and need to think more deeply, consciously, and all of us together, on how the way we read the affects (and should affect) our understanding of what God is REALLY telling the world.