Friday, April 5, 2013

Baptist World Alliance General Secretary on Baptists and patristic biblical interpretation

The April 2013 issue of the Baptist World Alliance electronic publication BWA Connect includes a column by Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam in which he reflects on the Baptist tendency to ignore the tradition of biblical interpretation when interpreting the Bible, notes a Baptist project dedicated to the recovery of the tradition of Baptist biblical interpretation, and commends the extension of this tradition beyond Baptist beginnings to include patristic biblical interpretation. Callam points to a new resource published by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches that provides access to the riches of patristic interpretation of the four Gospels as an example of how the earliest interpretations of Scripture after the New Testament serve as important resources for communities that seek to interpret and perform Scripture today. Since I devoted a chapter of my book Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision to how Baptists might make use of patristic biblical interpretation in their contemporary readings of Scripture, I was gratified to see the BWA General Secretary commend this practice. Callam's BWA Connect column appears below.

Finding More Light and Truth
By Neville Callam  

Neville Callam
Neville Callam
Some Baptists have claimed to be "a people of the book." Often, this self-designation is meant to highlight the value we place on the Bible. In We Baptists, published by the BWA in 1999, the priority Baptists assign to the Bible is reflected in a number of ways. Take the following affirmation, for example:

Baptists believe that the Bible is both the true record of God's revelation to our world and the supreme written guide for our faith and practice today. Because it leads us to Jesus Christ the living Word, we speak of it as "the Word of God," and believe it was inspired by God's Spirit. [Baptists regard the Bible as] totally sufficient; that is, all teaching must be in harmony with the Scriptures, and all teaching must be tested by the Scriptures only.

What spurred me to consider again the disputable tag "a people of the book" was a fresh look at one of the many books published in 2009 when Baptists were marking their quadricentennial, the 400th anniversary of Baptist witness. In the introduction to The Acts of the Apostles: Four Centuries of Baptist Interpretation (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009), the editors make a bold claim that should be taken seriously. This is what they say:

Baptists for the most part have shown little interest in recovering Baptist interpretation of Scripture. There are several reasons for this. For one, Baptists have historically spent more time debating the authority of Scripture than engaged in dialogue about what the Bible says, much less what our forebears said it says. For another, Baptists belong to a larger movement of Christians committed to restoring the New Testament church, an endeavor that leaves little room for sustained interest in the intervening and subsequent history of biblical interpretation.

If we believe the accusation is valid -- and it seems that way to me -- we may acknowledge that our churches need to pay more attention to the massive literary output of those who are committed to recovering interpretations of the biblical text, not least those who gave committed service as interpreters of the Bible over the past four centuries of Baptist history -- which is what the Baylor text attempts to do with respect to the Acts of the Apostles. Reading the book, we may be surprised at the wide diversity of hermeneutical approaches used by Baptists and the different conclusions they have drawn from reading a particular section of the Bible.

If we wish to extend this quest beyond Baptist boundaries and go back to the first few centuries of the church's life, much exists to aid this quest. See, for example, a brief and very accessible book, Reading the Gospels with the Early Church: A Guide (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013), prepared by Tamara Grdzelidze and her colleagues in the Faith and Order movement of the World Council of Churches. In six short sections, passages from the New Testament are accompanied by brief comments offered respectively by John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, Ephrem the Syrian, Origen, Pseudo-Macarius and Hippolytus. In each section, the biblical text and commentary are followed by a brief note about the commentators, recommendations for group work and a prayer.

This new guidebook reflects how, during the first 450 years of the church's life, significant biblical interpreters shared the conviction that the biblical text is "a revelation of the truth through the Holy Spirit in the Church." This does not mean, however, that the literary output of these interpreters did not manifest diversity and creativity resulting partly from the interpretive methods employed. While taking the Bible seriously, the interpreters were free to discover horizons of meaning and to develop perspectives on the text of Scripture that provided a rich tapestry that is as diverse as it is enriching.

Perhaps the ancient interpreters of the New Testament model for us how to agree on the essential biblical message while setting forth distinct, though not inconsistent, understandings of particular texts of Scripture. We should be able to do this without having to bear the pejorative labels some contemporary believers love to use to discredit others.

We should reasonably expect that Christians reading the Bible in the context of their communities of faith will continue to search for, and find, "more light and truth" from God's Word!

2013 Baptist World Alliance

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