A Cruciform Hermeneutic: The Passage from Dead Language to the Living Word

In his meditation on a beam of light in a tool shed, C.S. Lewis noted, one can either look at the beam of light and see dust particles and not much else or one can look along the beam of light and see the world the light illumines. The meditation concerned different ways of reading the Bible and of doing Christianity. Looking at may be the peculiar modern temptation to reduce everything to our field of vision while simultaneously constricting our vision to what is right in front of us. We imagine we can reduce Scripture to a theory so as to “know it all.”  Whether this reductionist understanding is fostered by or fosters pride, either way, it is characterized by a willingness to deconstruct and not to be deconstructed by the Word. Scripture is made to fit a modernist foundation and “reality” which precedes and is apprehended apart from Christ and Scripture. Truth, in this understanding, is objective and timeless and, as a result, the historical specifics of the narrative of Scripture are presumed to be secondary. That which is timeless and universally true must be sifted out from the particular, culturally specific, and narrative bound. Ironically, the primary trues of the incarnation are presumed, due to the necessary trues guiding reason, to be disincarnate. As a result, the life of Christ and the Gospels are consigned a secondary role to the doctrinal statements and theological development of the epistles. This disincarnate truth reduces to rules to follow, doctrines to be organized, or simply primary events witnessing to timeless truth (in the fundamentalist, conservative, or liberal, application of the foundational paradigm). Narrative cannot be authoritative in this understanding, as authority is pictured as vertical or top down (as in a monarchy or hierarchy) rather than a horizontal sort of road map which introduces previously uncharted territory. Scripture is thought to inform with rules and propositions rather than guide with example, and Christ is the object of faith (we have faith in him) rather than the subject of a faithfulness we are to enter into and imitate.

The alternative to understanding revelation on the basis of a reductionistic reason is to recognize revelation is the self-presentation of God.  Through the Father’s revealing of the Son through the Spirit, revelation is the opening to our participation in Trinitarian fellowship and love. As Karl Barth has described it, God is the subject, object, and verb of revelation: God the Father is the revealer, God the Son is what God reveals, and God the Spirit is the state of revealedness.  Key to this move is our inclusion in the life of God through revelation, so that our faith in Christ does not simply remain as an object – a faith we observe; rather our entry into Trinitarian life is through repetition/imitation of his faithfulness. There is an inherent dynamism in this picture[1] which not only sets it off from a static notion of revelation but which marks the difference between being stuck in, or liberated from, a particular perception and experience of reality.

The direct way to comprehend the contrast between a static/dead or dynacmic/living Subject and reality is to recognize that human words can function as a displacement of our participation in the Word of God. If the human word is made to function in place of revelation, the revealer, what is revealed, and the state of this revealedness, are all within a tautologous human frame. This self-authorizing word which has itself as object and subject produces pure striving and emptiness.  Where God’s Word conveys God’s own presence, there is no self-presence to be had through human words. We cannot acquire ourselves through ourselves. We cannot think ourselves into existence (which is the counter-truth captured in the cogito), though we can try, and this effort, I would maintain, is not simply the modern project but the human project. The effort is on the order of obtaining the self as the object in the mirror or like Narcissus drowning in an attempt to attain his own reflection.  It is the first couple imagining they can establish being through knowing.  Thought or epistemology is made to strive toward that which cannot be thought – ontology.  Language is the ladder, as in Anselm’s ontological argument, which will deliver beyond language to Being.  It is, as Kant points out, impossible to obtain the “thinking thing” through thought, yet this is the eternal pursuit.  This noumemal realm reified and made absolute in its very absence qualifies as the ultimate object of desire.

Ultimately then, there are two notions of reality and of human subjectivity under contention between a static, propositional, timeless, notion of truth/Scripture and an incarnate, historical, dynamic, narrative bound, notion of truth/Scripture. In the former, creation and the human creature are a finished product on day six and the story Scripture tells is of restoration of a lost primal condition. This static theology is tied to a static psychology and subjectivity in which the self is posited as a fully formed object – an object to which things happen but which passes through time mostly unchanged.  Our own creaturliness, growth, or stagnation, or what we might call our incarnate condition, is lost to us in our isolation and alienation. Our embodied condition in which we are subject to growth and change and which is the place God meets us in the incarnate Christ is closed off to us, as the very structuring principle of the Subject is a disembodied word. This law of sin and death, which we legislate and obey, enforces its own capital punishment.

Where the Word of God binds the Trinitarian subject and object, the word of man cannot close the gap of alienation between self and body or between self as subject and object. The Subject constituted in this gap of alienation “has a body” but is somehow not this body. There is an incapacity to account for change and death as there is a static/visual self-relation in which one desires the self from a point removed from the self. The desire to close the gap enacts a subjectivity defined by alienation between the self as subject and object. The gap separating man from nature, from himself and from God is precisely the gap in which he is constituted. To read Christianity as if it serves to bridge this separation (precisely Anselm of Canterbury’s picture of salvation) is to feed the false notion of self as a subject in pursuit of self as an object.

This pursuit is one of return or restoration, and the work of Christ and atonement are primarily aimed at undoing sin by closing the gap. The incapacity to account for death and change becomes the very definition of salvation. Reality is pictured as complete, static, and sufficient (for knowing, for subjectivity, etc.) so that salvation is primarily aimed at negating sin by fulfilling sinful desire (closing the gap).  The human word and divine revelation are equated, in this static understanding, in that language/revelation is about something else. Revelation is thought to inform about the work of redemption rather than being redemption. Language enables one to apprehend the self but this language is not the substance of self.[2] Theology and Bible reading, like any other human word, are one step removed from the reality of God as they are thought to be about their Subject rather than being equated with the presence of God.

In the dynamic understanding of the Word as God’s presence, reality itself is undergoing the completion of recreation as the Word which spoke the world into existence is to be found within creation remaking and completing this world. Jesus is not a parallel truth to an already discovered truth and world, but God’s unfolding truth claim, not only about how the world really is, but how it is coming to be. As Creator and re-Creator speak, reality is dynamically unfolding from within. The re-Creator is at the center of history and creation, both of which are in process. The human Subject too, is in process of recreation through a capacity for dynamism, death, and change (dying and being reborn).

The Cross provides our point of entry into this revelation, as it is simultaneously an overcoming of a static/dead reality and the opening to our participation in the Trinity.  Our incapacity for death and change (you won’t die) is grounded in our reification of human words (being like God through knowing good and evil) in which we are replacing the words of life with an empty human word. The deep irony is that refusal of death is simultaneously a refusal of life from God. The promise of life through the human word is at the cost of the Word of life. The Cross exposes the end point of this orientation (we would kill the source of life) so as to establish our life (our self-righteousness, life in the law, etc.). In taking up the Cross with Christ our capacity for death opens us to the source of life. As in baptism and the Christian life, death and eternal life must be embraced together.

(If you are Interested in learning more about Hermeneutics sign up for a class with Ploughshares Bible Institute – Beginning March 11th INT 203 – Reading the Bible in Community with Jason Rodenbeck Mar. 11th, 2018 – May. 5th, 2018)

[1] The very reason we were warned off of Barth in seminary.

[2] The Cartesian “I think therefore I am” gets at the separation between the “I” that thinks and the “I” which has being and the role of language to attempt to draw the two together.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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