Sunday, September 16, 2007

Spoken word, sacred text

1. Spoken words:
The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
(Jesus, John 6:63)1
The above verse from John's Gospel establishes a correlation between (1) words, (2) spirit, and (3) life. But note that the verse refers explicitly to spoken words.

Like many bloggers, I love books and texts in general. But in this post I wish to argue for the primacy of the spoken word in Christianity. (Perhaps in other religions also, but it is not my place to make such a judgement.)

The spoken word has a unique spiritual power — greater than the spiritual power of the written word. The spoken word is quasi-magical in its capacity to impart life to the hearer. These are the three elements brought together in John 6:63:  spoken words; spirit; life.

2. Sacred text:

This post was inspired by an essay by philosopher Paul Ricoeur, "The 'Sacred' Text and the Community".2 Ricoeur confesses that he is frightened by the notion of a sacred text (p. 72). In Ricoeur's view, any text that is closed (immutable) ceases to be revelatory.

Ricoeur comments, "The notion of sacred text may have been alien to the Hebraic and pre-Christian tradition" (p. 71). No doubt he is thinking of the fact that both communities were initially founded on oral tradition which was later reduced to a fixed, "sacred" text. He points out that Christians (in particular, Protestants) continually redirect us away from the written word back to the oral:
It is the function of preaching to reverse the relation from written to spoken. In that sense preaching is more fundamental to Hebrew and Christian tradition because of the nature of the text that has to be reconverted to word, in contrast with Scripture; and therefore it is a kind of desacralization of the written as such, by the return to the spoken word. (p. 71)
Thus Ricoeur depicts an arc, a movement from the spoken word to the sacred text and back to the spoken word again.

Ricoeur looks back, yearningly, to the early decades of the Church, when the community was highly creative in generating novel interpretations of the life of Christ:
The text was frozen and the process of interpretation stopped because of the fight against heresies; this was, I think, a very destructive activity. (p. 69)
Thus Ricoeur laments the closing of the New Testament canon.

3. Letter vs. spirit:

Having closed the canon, the Church then fixed its interpretation of scripture. Ricoeur doesn't note (at this point I move beyond Ricoeur and offer my response to his provocative essay) that this development constitutes a betrayal of the Protestant ideal. The Reformers had a motto, semper reformandaalways reforming:
A shortened form of a motto of the Protestant Reformation, Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est secundu Verbum Dei ("the reformed Church must be always reforming according to the Word of God"), which refers to the Protestant position that the church must continually re-examine itself, reconsider its doctrines, and be prepared to accept change, in order to conform more closely to orthodox Christian belief as revealed in the Bible. The shortened form, semper reformanda, literally means "always about to be reformed", but the usual translation ["always reforming"] is taken from the full sentence.
First the text was fixed (the canon was closed) and then the interpretation of the text was fixed. The result, in many churches, is the preservation of a dead word. As St. Paul put it,
For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
(2Co. 3:6)
Here is an echo of the scripture with which I opened this post; Paul (like John) asserts a positive correlation between spirit and life. Moreover, Paul assigns the written text (the letter) to the "death" side of the ledger.

The written word correlates with death because it is fixed and therefore static. It cannot respond to the express needs of the community; a closed canon is, by definition, unresponsive. Here Ricoeur can claim a biblical ground for his observation that a closed, immutable text is incapable of revealing God.


My response to this problem is certainly not to repudiate the Bible. Rather, I would argue, with Brueggemann, that the biblical witness is multivocal; pluriform.

Let us begin by recognizing that the biblical authors do not all represent a single perspective. Then we can find the right biblical text, the right voice, to address the express needs of the community in any given instance. Thus we preserve the life-giving power of scripture; whereas those who would collapse the multivocal testimony of scripture into a single, harmonious system effectively neuter the text. In many instances, well-intentioned believers shut out the very voice of God.

I share Ricoeur's regret that the interpretation of scripture is essentially fixed. Certainly among evangelical Christians, it is, as we see (for example) in the backlash to the "new perspective" on Paul. Human knowledge advances, but the Church's first instinct is always to resist new insights. As Ricoeur puts it, "Revelation is a historical process, but the notion of sacred text is something antihistorical" (p. 72).

As a preacher, I have observed the life-giving power of the spoken word. Admittedly, there have been stages of my (rather convoluted) pilgrimage when I have not been very effective from the pulpit. But on numerous occasions, the response to my preaching has actually startled me:  my words were clearly "life" to the congregation to an extent that seemed to go beyond the content of anything I had said.

Those are humbling experiences, when the preacher realizes that s/he is not responsible for the spiritual dynamic. The preacher has been the conduit for a mysterious external force:  a power (ruach) that cannot be summoned at will, but comes and goes at the pleasure of Another. And then the preacher shares in the experience of Jesus, delivering spoken words which are spirit and life.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2In Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, Fortress Press, 1995, pp. 68-72.


Cliff Martin said...

“... whereas those who would collapse the multivocal testimony of scripture into a single, harmonious system effectively neuter the text. In many instances, well-intentioned believers shut out the very voice of God.”

I’ve often thought that one of the greatest enemies of Truth are the many attempts at what are called “Systematic Theology” texts. When we try to dovetail James so he harmonizes nicely with Paul, we rob both of them of their impact. When we “soften” the hard sayings of Jesus with the more palatable epistles, we emasculate his words.

Thanks for this post. I concur with what you are saying ... I think. But wow! what a burden it places on those of us who venture to teach or preach on behalf of the Kingdom. James 3:1!

Stephen (aka Q) said...


I forgot to respond to your comment on this post. (I made an overnight trip to Halifax on Monday).

Your response is interesting. Preachers and teachers do indeed carry a lot of responsibility on our shoulders. However, I think God moves in inscrutable ways that sometimes don't correspond to how well prepared we are, or how insightful we are, or whatever.

Not that we should take that as license not to prepare carefully! But I think the single most important element of preparation is to take our own egos out of the equation, which is a constant struggle. We all want to come across well in any public activity, but that isn't God's primary concern!

Jamie said...

Really interesting post, Stephen; I'd never thought about this before.

Having closed the canon, the Church then fixed its interpretation of scripture....[T]his development constitutes a betrayal of the Protestant ideal. The Reformers had a motto, semper reformanda — always reforming:

Hmm...I'm not totally sure about this being a betrayal of the Protestant ideal. On one hand, I can see why you'd say that; on the other, perhaps the purpose of closing of the canon and fixing the interpretation is precisely to preserve those words of Jesus which are so important to you and Ricoeur. If his words really are life-giving, then it would be important to keep one's hold on them and not be swayed by other words that might lack such power. From that perspective, we should be very careful about revising what has been handed down to us.

Generally, though, I think I agree with what you're saying; fixing the text results in stagnation and loss of the power of the words, which is never a good thing.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'm pleased that you weren't scandalized by this post. Ricoeur's position is downright radical, and I'm not in complete agreement with it myself.

In particular, I can't imagine not closing the canon! I suppose it could have been left open a little longer, but even that would have been a mistake, in my opinion. I know enough about the apocryphal gospels to suggest that they don't add anything constructive to our knowledge of Jesus. Even the later elements of the canonical Gospels were beginning to lose contact with the historical facts, in my view.

But I think Ricoeur makes a superb point about Protestantism's continual return to the spoken word. A close reading of Paul's epistles shows an emphasis on preaching as the vehicle for saving people. I think we tend to gloss over that and assume that the written text is equivalent to the apostolic preaching.

And of course, preaching must be grounded in the canonical texts. But Ricoeur's observation that the spoken word has a unique spiritual efficacy seems well-founded to me.

I take your point about a fixed interpretation of the texts; or rather that we should be cautious about departing from the tradition passed down to us. Of course, Protestants are notoriously schismatic, so in that sense we seem very good at "always re-forming"!

However, it's also clear that the Church sometimes digs in its heels as its reflexive response to any novel interpretation of scripture. It's the old business of correctly distingushing what is crucial from other points where we can be flexible.

Obviously different people will draw that line at different points. If conservatives go to one extreme, liberals often go to the other extreme.