Saturday, February 14, 2015

Reading: Encountering Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

My Sunday reading the past few weeks has been coming from the book Encountering Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, by John Polkinghorne. The Rev Dr John Charlton Polkinghorne, is an English theoretical physicist, theologian, writer, and Anglican priest. The first book of his that I picked up was Theology in the Context of Science, which I found to be fascinating. This book is more of an introductory work into a critical-conservative view (I hate these kinds of labels because they don’t do justice to anyone’s view so take this as a not so helpful generalization, but it is the best shorthand label I could come up with) of a doctrine of scripture. As always if you would like to discuss this, the best place to make comment is on my Facebook page.

He begins by pointing out that the ultimate truth about God is found in Jesus Christ. The Bible is not that ultimate truth, but is the authoritative witness to that truth.

At the heart of Christian faith lies the mysterious and exciting idea that the infinite and invisible God, beyond finite human powers to conceive adequately, has acted to make the divine nature known in the most fitting and accessible manner possible through the life of a first-century Jew in whom humanity and divinity were both truly present.  2.

The Bible is a progressive revelation of the Creator God which culminates in the revelation of Jesus Christ. It comes in many forms or genres and the reader must be careful to discern what he/she is reading. We also need to remember that, although all scripture was written for us, none of it was written directly to us.

A central task for the Christian interpreter of Scripture is to discern what in the Bible has lasting truthful authority, rightly commanding the continuing respect of successive generations, and what is simply time-bound cultural expression, demanding no necessary continuing allegiance from us today. 3.

The record of revelation contained in Scripture is one of a developing understanding of the divine will and nature, continuously growing over time but never complete, and quite primitive in its earliest stages. Only slowly and falteringly could progress be made in Israel towards gaining a fuller comprehension of the reality of God. 12.

The Fathers had sought to draw the boundaries within which they believed orthodox Christian thinking needed to be contained if it were to be a true witness, but there has remained a need for further exploration and reflection. Those who believe in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13) will not find this surprising. The role of development, within Scripture and after it, depends upon the fact that revelational disclosure is primarily personal rather than propositional, living and not petrified. 19.

Chapter 3 is an exploration of the creation and fall. I would see the stories as going back to a much earlier time than Polkinghorne, but I think that he is correct that modern Christians often misread the genre of Genesis 1-3. I would see the story here as a polemic against ancient pagan polytheism that tied every phenomenon in nature to some kind of personal deity. In many ways the early chapters of Genesis demythologized the ancient near eastern view, using their own types of stories, to teach us that there is one God, who created everything that exists in the universe and is absolutely sovereign over all of it. 

The sad irony of so-called ‘creationism’, based on a fundamentalist biblical literalism, is that in fact it abuses the very text that it seeks to respect, missing the point of what is written by mistaking its genre. For example, Genesis 1 does not give us a quasi-scientific account of a hectic six days of divine activity, but is something altogether deeper and more interesting than that. It is a theological text whose principal purpose is to assert that nothing exists except through the will of God. 22

Surely that image is to be found in the mentally handicapped as well as in the academically brilliant. Its presence is the theological basis for a fundamental belief in the worth of every individual human being. To my mind, it is the love of God bestowed on each individual, and the implicit ability to be aware of the divine presence, that constitute the essence of the imago dei. 24–25.

This declaration of complete human autonomy, the assertion that we can simply ‘do it my way’, is the root meaning of sin. The refusal to acknowledge that we are creatures in need of the grace of our Creator is the source of subsequent human sins, those deeds of selfishness and deceit that mar our lives as the result of believing the false claim to be completely independent of the assistance of divine grace. 29–30.

Scripture is not a dead deposit of unchanging meaning, the repository of assertions that have to be accepted at face value without question, but a living spring from which new truths and insight can be expected to continue to flow. 31.

Chapter 4 deals with the ambiguity of scripture. By this, Polkinghorne is talking about the messiness of relationship. God reveals himself in stories about real people who encountered him. God started with them right where they were at and was often misunderstood. Nevertheless he kept moving toward his goal of full revelation in Jesus.

The Christian God is not simply a compassionate spectator looking down from the invulnerability of heaven onto the strange bitterness of creation but, in the incarnate Christ, is seen as a fellow sufferer in the travail of the world. 34.

Yet another kind of ambiguity appears in the Gospels, an ambiguity not of character but of circumstances. Life is such that there is often no single ideal choice to be made, but all possible actions have an inescapable shadow side of one kind or another. The decision to be made is not the unambiguous choice between black and white, but the much more difficult matter of the selection of the least dark shade of grey. 37.

Chapter 5 focuses on the fact that the Old Testament is the story of God’s revelation of himself within his relationship to Israel. Again, it is a real history, with real culture and language into which God revealed himself. In the Psalms we see the real responses of these people and in the prophets we hear how God spoke to this very real nation through men and women he chose. Again it is God’s word revealed within human relationship and in human words.

If God chose to reveal the divine nature through a particular relationship with a chosen nation, then gaining knowledge of the actual history of that people must be of considerable importance. Scripture is more than a symbolic story-book. 41

The prophets do not foretell but they forthtell. They have not been given a cinematic preview of the details of future history, but they have been afforded insight into the way that history is moving which enables them to warn of the consequences of disobedience to God and to offer promises of deliverance to those who will commit themselves to following the divine will. 48–49. (I would not say it this strongly. There is foretelling, but the prophets are PRIMARILY about forthtelling)

In the section on the Gospels one can clearly see Polkinghorne’s scientific mind coming out. It seems to me that he take a “critical realist” position. We can’t prove that the Gospels are true but we can be reasonably sure based on the evidence that we have.

People sometimes say that scientists doubt everything. To adopt such a stance would in fact be disastrous, for it would induce a kind of intellectual paralysis. The rational strategy is to commit oneself to what one considers to be well-motivated belief, while being aware that sometimes it may need revision in the light of further evidence and insight. 53

I think that we have good reason to believe that the evangelists were seeking to tell a reliable story of what happened, expressed within the historical conventions of their time. One sign of this is that they record sayings of Jesus which must have been problematic for them, but which had to be included in a truthful account. 57

It is understandable that the early Church sought to connect its knowledge of Christ with what it read in the Hebrew scriptures, but my impression is that it is the actual life of Jesus that shapes the evangelists’ use of the Hebrew Bible, rather than the story being forced to conform to this oddly eclectic selection of Old Testament texts. 63

John’s Gospel insists that miraculous acts are to be understood as ‘signs’, that is, they are windows through which one can look more deeply into the reality of what God was doing in Christ. They are not to be treated as if they were simply a series of stories of wonder-working. To be theologically credible, miracles must be revelatory events, not capricious conjuring tricks. 66

The next section deals with the central event of Christianity: the cross and resurrection. Again, Polkinghorne places these solidly in the historical realm. To me, the only thing that could explain the beginning of the church would be the miracle of the resurrection.

If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead to a life of unending glory, then the centurion was right, the transformation of the frightened disciples into fearless proclaimers of the Lordship of Jesus is explained, and we can understand why the story of Jesus has continued so powerfully down to the present day. 72

But the most powerful argument for the authenticity of the empty tomb is that it is the women who are the witnesses. In the ancient world women were not regarded as being reliable witnesses in a court of law and anyone simply making up a tale would make sure it was men who played the key role in it. 77

Those who are committed to an unrevisable belief in the absolute uniformity of nature will be driven to invoke the category of legend as the only way to interpret the gospel stories. However, to take this stance is to approach the scripture with a mind already closed to what it has to say. The whole of the New Testament is predicated upon the understanding that there is something unique about Jesus. 77–78.

For the Christian believer, the Resurrection makes sense because it represents a triple vindication. It is the vindication of Jesus, for his life had a character that meant that it should not have ended in rejection and failure. It is a vindication of God, who was not found after all to have abandoned the one who had wholly committed himself to doing his Father’s will. It is a vindication of a deep-seated human intuition that in the end the last word does not lie with death and futility, but we live in a world that is a meaningful cosmos and not ultimately a meaningless chaos. 78.

In the section on the Pauline literature he rightly notes that Paul is probably our earliest written witness to the life and teachings of Jesus. He sees development in the theological understanding of Paul as he comes to terms, in the fire of practical ministry, with what he knows about what Jesus said and did and what he sees happening in the church. He also notes that Paul also sometimes indulged in creative use of the Old Testament texts – that is he did not always use grammatical-historical exegesis.

The Pauline witness is absolutely clear, both about the presence of human and divine attributes in Jesus and about the reconciliation (atonement) he has effected between a righteous God and sinful humanity, but in neither case are we given, in Paul or elsewhere in the New Testament, a detailed theological theory of how these things can be. Experience was everything; theorizing could wait. 84.

The early Church, while respectful of Scripture and wishing to make clear its belief that Jesus fulfilled the expectations and hopes of Hebrew prophecy, felt able to use that Scripture in a manner that was free from a slavish dependence on original use and meaning. It allowed itself to manipulate what had been written in order to conform what was being said to what it had learned by its actual experience of the new life that had been given to it in Christ. There is no warrant in the New Testament for a narrow fundamentalist literalism in our approach to Scripture. 86.

In the last couple chapters of the book Polkinghorne discusses the general epistles and brings the book to a close with a discussion of three passages that he considers to be very profound. He sees these passages as evidence that scripture can create insights that go far beyond the knowledge in the culture and time which they were written. The first of these is the prologue of the Gospel of John (1.1-18)

In its rational transparency and rational beauty, the universe that physics explores could well be described as a world shot through with signs of mind and so it does not seem unnatural to a physicist like myself to believe that it was through the Word that all things came into being. 97.

The fusion of the ideas of enabling order and unfolding dynamic process, suggested by the double linguistic reference of John’s use of Word, is highly consonant with science’s understanding of cosmic history...It took ten billion years for life to appear in our universe, but the cosmos was pregnant with the possibility of life from the very beginning, because its laws took the specific form that was a necessary precondition for life to be able eventually to emerge. 97–98.

The second passage is the Christological hymn in Colossians 1.15-20.

Redemption is proclaimed to be cosmic in scope. Here is a clear statement that the whole of creation matters to its Creator. The universe is not just there to be the backdrop to the human drama taking place after an overture lasting 13.7 billion years. All creatures have value, and all creatures must have an appropriate destiny of fulfilment. 100.

The final passage he looks at is Romans 8.19-23 which describes the “groaning” of creation in the face of its “futility” and longing for redemption. This is where the message of the Bible truly counters the message of naturalism that all is ultimately meaningless. As Polkinghorne concludes…

The last word does not lie with death and futility, but with God. It is the Christian hope and belief that the divine faithfulness will not allow anything of good eventually to be lost, but God will give to all creatures an appropriate destiny beyond their deaths, as the old creation is ultimately transformed in Christ into the new creation. Christians believe that this process has, in fact, already begun in the seed event of the resurrection of Jesus. 102.

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