“Probably nothing has contributed more to the misinterpretation of the biblical doctrine of the Word than the identification of the Word with the Bible.” – Paul Tillich
“We must then repeat that Scripture is not the Word itself, but rather the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Word.” – Hans Urs von Balthasar
When it comes to the place of the Bible in the 21st Century North American cultural landscape, one problem is obvious: Conventional Evangelical beliefs about it do not seem to stand up to intellectual scrutiny. Many Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, have long been accused of conceding too much of the Bible’s authority to its scholarly critics. With Christendom in the past and the promises of modernity now arguably in shambles, whether and how people of faith can restore sustainable confidence in their sacred scripture for the future remains a critical and mostly unanswered question. In response, I propose that one promising path forward may be found in the post-critical biblical hermeneutics of the 20th Century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
In von Balthasar’s “theodramatic” imagination, the Christian life is likened to the theater. History is a performance on the world stage. God is the author, the Holy Spirit the director, and Christ the lead actor. Human beings too have an important supportive role to play, as they are called to participate in God’s mission of redemption – to “dramatize,” as it were, God’s will on earth as it is heaven.
As has been suggested by others, I think the Bible should be read and seen as drama as well. In literary terms, the Bible is indeed a great narrative, and like any story, there are key moments that set the tone and determine the way that future events will unfold. The analogy isn’t perfect, but in this light, it can be argued that, while no less inspired or authoritative, the Bible and its interpretation can begin to function in a more dynamic, subtle and compelling way. And when this happens – remarkably! – whether one problematic verse or passage appears to conflict with the character of God as revealed in Christ no longer has the power to undermine the credibility of the entire biblical canon.
One of the main reasons for this is that, viewed as drama, the Bible takes on a shape and an organizing form rather than just a status (inerrant, infallible, etc). Hence, instead of predominately being read as a collection of propositional truth statements or moral guidelines, the structure of the Bible itself and the big story it tells becomes an enriching tapestry into which people get to be woven for the purpose of creating something beautiful and transformative. The problem though is that, without a key or high point to help us discern its overarching pattern, the otherwise revelatory, admonishing and redemptive texts of the Bible can become blurred and confused with the tragic, comic and obscure elements that are also strung throughout. This is why the climax of a drama is so crucial for distilling its most fundamental meaning.
Of course the climax is not all that matters. In fact, the other parts are essential for forming the whole, but the heart and the rhythm that tells us the story’s central significance is utterly lost without its culminating moment. The climax of a drama, therefore, is like the axis of a wheel out of which the supporting characters and events shoot like spokes in every direction. The climax is the key event that captures all others and reorients them into its orbit.
In the case of the Bible’s drama in particular, the climax occurs in the event of God’s self-revelation and dramatic action in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this claim is also what distinguishes the Christian understanding of revelation from that of most other religions, but especially Judaism and Islam. God is shown, and God’s love is demonstrated, by dwelling fully in a human being (Colossians 1), and not first and foremost through a sacred text or law.
Balthasar is also fond of saying that “truth is symphonic.” That is, truth can only be wholly experienced and perceived when presented in more than one form. Hence, there are four Gospels, not one, and they can’t just be synthesized together without compromising the integrity of each one. As symphonic, however, there is a musical key, and therefore a harmony that can be heard between them. According to Balthasar, then, we must bring all of our aesthetic senses to the Bible for an adequate hearing and viewing. Furthermore, just as we must tune in our ears to hear the truth, we need the right scope and lenses for proper vision of it. The form of the Word of God has “plasticity,” Balthasar insists, and such that is only appreciated through a “field” of view:
Only Scripture itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself. But a body is itself a ‘field’, and it requires another ‘field’ in which to expand, a field part of whose form it must already be if it is to stand in contrast to it. Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God. Even Scripture is not an isolated book, but rather is embedded in the context of everything created, established, and affected by Christ – the total reality constituted by his work and activity in the world. Only in this context is the form of Scripture perceivable. 1
But how will we know this form when we see it? How do we avoid arbitrarily relying on our own reason and experience when interpreting Scripture? Reason and experience are crucial, but they can’t be the highest measure of our faith. Something else has to function as a hermeneutical key. As already indicated, and as Balthasar has answered for us, the key is the climax of the drama itself: the person and teachings of Jesus, the one who fulfilled the letter of the written law by going beyond it in divine and human form.
In other words, because there are human and cultural fingerprints all over the Bible, there has to be a climactic light that illuminates each passage to show us the difference between its human and divine components. Karl Barth was another giant figure who stressed that the Bible must become the Word of God, which occurs when it is read and exposited by a faithful, worshiping community. Revelation is an event. It never belongs to an object or text as such. It approaches us more so than the reverse. This would partly help to explain why people are able to use and abuse the Bible for all kinds of distorted ends. Thus – and this is what has been so difficult for modern people – interpreting the Bible is not just an intellectual activity. It is the activity of the eyes, ears and heart in the light of faith, guided by the Holy Spirit and the key of the Incarnate Word. In this way, the church can learn to see and discern its role in God’s drama.
1. H. U. von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics I: Seeing the Form, 2nd ed., trans. E. Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco; New York: Ignatius Press, 2009), 32.