I Am the Truth’ – Text, Hermeneutics and the Person of Christ – An essay by Maggi Dawn

Maggi Dawn, adding her voice to the mix of seven other Cambridge University deans or chaplains, has crafted a significant essay entitled – ‘I Am the Truth’: Text, Hermeneutics and the Person of Christ. Whilst not available on-line it can be found in the 2003 published book: Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity (ed. Duncan Dormor, Jack McDonald and Jeremy Caddick, published by Continuum).

Dawn, writing this essay on hermeneutics – one would imagine during 2002 / 2003 – hopes that as a religion ‘of the book,’ Christianity will maintain ‘confidence in its holy Scriptures,’ and that rather than taking up defensive positions to protect the Christian tradition ‘against the ingress of new and apparently dangerous ideas,’ will choose instead to regard our Christian tradition as one that is living and growing. Dawn’s hope is that we will adopt a position in which we ‘focus our vision, not short-sightedly on the tradition’ as it has been handed to us, ‘but on the living God whom text and tradition convey (emphasis, mine).’

She encourages us to dare ‘to step towards God on the shifting ground of intellectual enquiry,’ and one could also add, upon the shifting ground of significant discontinuous cultural change. Dawn writes that ‘for Christian hermeneutics to remain truly Christian, we must avoid treating [the] text [of Scripture] as a means of preserving a historical religion in terminal decline, and instead expect it to voice the living truth of Christ.’ This is an important statement, one that for this reader highlights the necessary and important linkage between the serious practice of Christian hermeneutics, in which we engage with the living voice of Christ, and any talk of reforming and/or renovating historical models and ways of being church. How we both hear and enter into dialogue with Christian Scripture seems vitally important to how we are in turn the faithful people of God in our various contemporary contexts.

We must resist these positions for Descartes warns that they lead only to death. While we still have space to think and dream, we must still believe that change is possible. And while we still believe that it is both possible and necessary, we must urgently apply ourselves to the key question that springs immediately from it: how does change occur? It is a question that has taxed the minds of philosophers, politicians, scientists and sociologists for as long as thinking has been recorded.

In what will prove both timely and prophetic, given the great pressure currently being bought to bear on her denomination and academy, Dawn reminds us that ‘it is essential for the survival of each that we maintain the advance of Christian theology as a joint endeavour. Academic theology that loses its connection to a confessional faith becomes self-consciously exclusive; Church theology, if it loses a rigorous approach to difficult questions championed by the Academy, will find its theology gradually reduced and simplified until it can no longer approach the searching questions of life in the world it inhabits (emphasis, mine).’

Writing about the Anglican Church’s ‘three-cornered foundation – an equal appeal to Scripture, to tradition and to reason’ Dawn notes that a ‘dependence on Scripture keeps our faith rooted in the faith of ancient Israel and in the story of Jesus Christ. The dependence upon tradition gives [the Church] continuity – a steady and measured development, in step with, but not eclipsed by that of the culture it is a part of. Its dependence upon reason – it’s commitment to make the faith make sense in the light of human thought – prevents it from becoming a religious ghetto: the commitment to reason is a commitment to interact with the thoughts, ideas, and cultural development of [the] world we inhabit.’ Further, ‘the commitment to reason and to tradition means that our tradition must always be subjected to historical analysis.’ Our ‘commitment to tradition and to Scripture means that new ways of reading – new hermeneutical theories – are embraced, but always with an eye to the continuity of the faith we profess.’ Finally, ‘the commitment to both Scripture and reason means that we have to account for our hermeneutical method: we cannot simply say ‘the Bible says’; we need to account for our interpretation, and its application to the life of the Church in its present setting (emphasis, mine).’

Much in this essay resonates with an equally significant earlier essay written by Dawn (You have to change to stay the same’ – published in 1997 by SPCK in their book The Post-Evangelical Debate). Some will no doubt also read much in ‘I Am the Truth’ that resonates with the very recently published Windsor Report, particularly with its opening two sections, and certainly from within the sub-sections that reflect on ‘the authority of scripture’ and ‘Scripture and interpretation.’ Here, for me, are three good examples taken from the aforementioned report; they are illustrative of the kind of helpful resonances to be found in Dawn’s essay:

Virtually all Christians agree on the necessity for theological development, including radical innovation, and on the fact that the Holy Spirit enables the church to undertake such development…

Healthy theological development normally takes place within the missionary imperative to articulate the faith afresh in different cultures…

A mention of scripture today can sometimes seem actually divisive, so aware are we of the bewildering range of available interpretative strategies and results. This is tragic, since, as with the Spirit who inspired scripture, we should expect that the Bible would be a means of unity, not division. In fact, our shared reading of scripture across boundaries of culture, region and tradition ought to be the central feature of our common life, guiding us together into an appropriately rich and diverse unity by leading us forward from entrenched positions into fresh appreciation of the riches of the gospel as articulated in the scriptures.

Dawn’s essay is divided into six broad sections:

1. Introduction.

2. The Church, the Academy and the Written Word.

3. The Church, the Academy and the Anglican Tradition.

4. Coleridge: Romantic Inspiration for Postmodern Hermeneutics.

5. Dynamism and ‘Voice’ in Text.

6. Conclusion: Christian Hermeneutics is about Development, not Defensiveness.

Perhaps of most interest for Anglican and non-Anglican hermeneutical conversations will be sections 3, 4, and 5. These sections whilst drawing from Dawn’s doctoral work have a more general audience in mind. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, through Dawn’s interaction with him and our so-called postmodern or late-modern western context, proves to be a ‘prophetic,’ lively, and engaging conversation partner.

Dawn’s longstanding “conversation” with Coleridge mines some important insights. Not least of which are his ideas developed in the posthumously edited and published Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit. In this work he addresses ‘directly the problem of treating the Bible as a special or unique text;’ doing so, he proposes, renders the text lifeless and voiceless. Coleridge’s solution to this problem is to develop what he calls ‘a dynamic view of the Biblical text,’ challenging in the process the notion that the ‘written word’ was merely a container – a neutral means of conveying ideas’ or doctrines.

For Coleridge, the text had, in some sense, a life of its own – the text became part of the meaning of what was conveyed…How the text is presented has everything to do with the meaning it conveys, and this invests a dynamic quality to it.’ Coleridge, Dawn notes, treated texts, including the Biblical text, ‘as if it has some power for growth and creativity residing in it.’ Further, she adds, for Coleridge, ‘the written word has the capacity to “live” and speak, but it can be petrified into silence through a non-dynamic view of Scripture.’ Coleridge’s perspective is useful given the current prevalence of much naive fundamentalist and conservative thought that sees Christian Scripture as having been dictated word-for-word by God, its writers and their contexts having no part in the compositional process, and its meaning now unchangingly fixed, set as it were “in stone.”

As Dawn notes, ‘the opening up of a hermeneutic approach to Scripture allows the words the freedom to be interpreted, and in a sense, “written” by the reader.’ Instead of ‘a static view of text [which] restricts the possibility of [the] text to allow for the personal revelation of God,’ Coleridge’s hermeneutic ‘enlivens the text – enables it to be the means through which God speaks again and again.’ This hermeneutic approach recognises ‘a dynamic relationship between the author, the text and the reader.’ It recognises also ‘that the role of God’s Spirit is not to dictate the text, but to interact with human minds in the writing, the translating and the reading of the biblical texts. It restores a “voice” to the text, enabling it once again to embody God’s voice.’

Dawn importantly recognises ‘that the ‘Word of God’ is not primarily expressed in the words of Scripture, but in the incarnation of Christ. For the Word of God is not primarily the written word, but the Living Word – Christ himself.’ With this view, Dawn adds her voice to that of Anglican Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, who has pithily written, ‘the Word became flesh and the church has turned it back into words.’

At its heart then, Dawn’s essay is both a call to serious Christian hermeneutical practice and an important plea to the Church that Christian hermeneutics should be about development, not defensiveness.’ She emboldens us to agree.

While not setting out to provide practical guidelines as to how we might interpret and “read” Scripture (or for that matter, how Scripture might read us!), this essay, together with Dawn’s earlier one, mentioned above, helpfully frames and points toward a number of practical hermeneutical questions many so-called mainline, evangelical, alt-worship, emerging, and missional church congregations are grappling with. Questions that might include, develop, and/or expand on the following starters:

If, as Dawn writes, ‘since medieval times…reading has gradually changed, to become predominantly a solitary, silent and visual activity…’ how are we practically, at the level of congregation, to “read” Scripture in ways that are communal, that are more than just a ‘silent and visual activity’? How can we seriously and creatively allow Scripture to be ‘heard’ and engaged with in ways that encourage our communal life, ministry and mission to be Scripture shaped and nourished?

Dawn notes that ‘while theology faculties wrestle with [the problems of doing theology at the turn of the twenty-first century] the Church, week by week, is dealing with another set of problems also produced by cultural shift.’ One such problem is how, at a congregational level, we might practically engage (given low levels of biblical & theological literacy) in a vigorous hermeneutical conversation, such that Scripture and tradition are seriously heard, communally discussed, sifted, evaluated and beautifully woven into every dimension of what it means to be church in our various contexts?

There is much in Dawn’s essay to reflect upon, discuss, and explore. Dawn’s is a heartfelt, passionate little essay that deserves to be read more widely than the Anglican tradition out of which it emerges. The invitation to enter into dialogue with the text of Scripture and the Living Word, Jesus Christ himself, will prove to be a vital and necessary one for any congregation that takes seriously its vocation to be, through the work of the Spirit, what the Windsor report refers to ‘as an anticipatory sign of God’s healing and restorative future for the world.’ I warmly commend Maggi’s voice to that end.

Paul Fromont is a founder member of SPACE, New Zealand