The concept of salvation history encompasses biblical interpretation Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
The Bible not only records history; it also creates history. By this I mean that the Bible, as written down, read and proclaimed in the ongoing community of faith (the Church of both Testaments), influences and directs the course of history. We ourselves are part of the history created by holy Scripture. We are the qahal, the ecdesia, the gathering of those who in the Holy Spirit are assembled to attend to God’s Word. In the history that it records, the Bible itself prolongs that history in those who receive it in faith.
This unified history, comprised of what the Bible records and what the Bible creates, is a single, living, ongoing reality, in which there is a continuity between the words of holy Scripture and the Church’s understanding of those words. If there were to be a break between the Bible and its interpretation, that continuity would be lost. There would be a disruption in Salvation History. This is the tragedy known as ‘heresy’.
Inner sense of Scripture
The correct understanding of holy Scripture includes what some of the Church Fathers called theoria, meaning the spiritual discernment of the inner meaning of the Bible through the lens of Christ. This inner sense of Scripture is not abstract; it pertains to one’s personal life in Christ. The Bible becomes the mirror in which we see our true faces [James 1.23]. It is not only an understanding of the Bible, but also an understanding of ourselves in relation to God. It entails the reading of the Bible as a path of self-knowledge and growth in the Holy Spirit. Theoria includes the perception of historical analogies between our own lives and the history recorded in God’s Word. What in the Bible is called theoria is in our souls called the image of God. Through the contemplation of these analogies, we understand our own life and grasp both what God is doing in those lives and also what we ourselves are supposed to do. In these perceptions the past of the Bible is rendered effective in the life of the Christian, because both are parts of a single history.
The Bible is not a reservoir of truths that can be removed from an historical shape. Understanding of the Bible must not become something abstracted from the historical movement of the Bible itself. Its continuous line, which records history, is recorded within history, and gives form and shape to future history.
Importance of historical context
What, then, should be said about dogmatic pronouncements by which the Church seems to ‘fix’ doctrine, to remove biblical teaching from its historical context? First, such dogmatic pronouncements, far from being an abstraction from history, also take place within history. Therefore, they ‘fix’ doctrine only in the sense that divine revelation itself’fixes’ doctrine. That is, they testify to the fullness of wisdom and knowledge that abide in the Word incarnate [Col. 1.19; 2.3, 9].
Second, such dogmatic pronouncements, even when they are formulated in a positive way, tend essentially to serve a negative purpose. They are ‘definitions’ in the sense of setting limits (fines), lines to exclude heresy. They do not ‘clarify’ divine revelation by adding extra light, as it were, to what is already the fullness of light.
Finally, there can be no real understanding of the Bible in the present without an understanding of the Bible in the past, both the past as recorded in the Bible itself and the past in the sense of the Church’s own historical understanding of the Sacred Text. The attempt to come to holy Scripture outside of that long historical context is not only presumptuous; it also separates the reader from the Bibles own history. This can be hard work, but in the study of the Bible there is no substitute for the knowledge of history. |