A Harmony of Opposing Voices: Testing the Limits of Scriptural Reasoning

Kris Lindbeck, Trinity University


Two rich and challenging papers, by Elliot Wolfson and Francis Watson, formed the basis for our meeting of November 2001 in Denver. The papers both comment on Genesis eighteen. This chapter begins with three angels (and in some sense also God) visiting Abraham and Sarah and promising them a son, and ends with Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom. Each of the papers takes a very different approach to this passage, answering some questions and raising new ones about God and Abraham, about Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and about the nature of scriptural reasoning. In different ways, each paper also tests the limits of scriptural reasoning, particularly as far as scriptural reasoning is a meeting ground for Jews, Christians and Muslims. This testing of limits is far from a drawback. On the contrary, it can further our understanding of what scriptural reasoning is, and what it may become.

For me, “Scriptural reasoning,” implies two things. First, unlike the reasonings of modernity, it is scriptural, drawing subject matter and techniques of reasoning from the revealed texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and from their traditional commentaries and methods of interpretation, and, even more fundamentally, accepting the concept of historical and ongoing revelation and of a Revealer to whom we must answer. Second, scriptural reasoning is reasoning ; it does not pretend that revealed texts or traditional commentaries are transparent, univocal, or self-explanatory; it recognizes that an astounding range of wise and life-giving interpretations are possible within and among traditions, and recognizes as well that sacred texts can be perverted to serve causes of hatred and death. Hence scriptural reasoning is necessarily an ethical endeavor, both in seeking to celebrate the religious insight of participants rather than engaging in academic one-upmanship or divisiveness, and even more importantly in attempting to gather old and new religious tools to address the suffering and evil present within the world and within each community of faith.

Thus, interfaith scriptural reasoning is not merely a fascinating endeavor in itself: its goal is to help people in the three communities to reason better from and with scripture. This means that participants in scriptural reasoning will learn and teach theological and philosophical concepts and interpretive techniques, old and new; and at the same time will find themselves recognizing anew in dialogue each tradition’s unique insights and irreducible particularity. To make this recognition possible, each tradition must represent its uniqueness frankly, without papering over real differences. This will inevitably bring up divisive issues, but the paradoxical reality of scriptural reasoning is that it must take this risk of defeating its purpose in order to achieve its goal of deep understanding of oneself and the other. As Francis Watson remarked at the meeting in Denver, mere celebration of multiplicity is too simple; the real disagreements should not be forgotten.

This year’s session, taking as a whole the papers, the commentaries, and the discussion in Denver, seemed to be marked more by diversity, disagreement, and at times mutual incomprehension. [5] Nevertheless, having had the advantage of going through the papers and commentaries, as well as the meeting notes, I have become conscious of four interlinked themes which unify the session: the meaning of interpretive disagreement; the problem of eisegesis (and the issue of whether eisegesis is in fact a relevant category); the right use of traditional interpretation; and the understanding of particularity and universality in the Abrahamic traditions. One or more of these themes appeared in almost all participants’ contributions, and all are vitally important for the enterprise of scriptural reasoning. Furthermore, the whole process of the session enacted many of the virtues of scriptural reasoning. Though religious and academic traditions varied widely, everyone who participated cared about the truth; each of us respected the other; no one was afraid to raise potentially divisive issues. While the session left many loose ends and unanswered questions, it also had a harmony of its own: a harmony of opposing voices.

The Papers

Elliott Wolfson’s paper, “From My Flesh I would Behold God,” begins by discussing how “the revealed word must always be heard anew.” It then moves to examine the Rabbinic and Kabalistic interpretation of Genesis Eighteen and the preceding chapter on Abraham’s circumcision, together with complex detours into Christian and especially Qur’anic treatments of Abraham. Finally, the paper finishes with an evocative discussion of the relationship between the particular and the universal, and the relationship of both to ethics and justice in Judaism and, by implication, in other faiths.

Wolfson’s first section, on scriptural interpretation, and his ending remarks, on human and religious particularity as the field in which God is encountered and as the ground for ethics, are clearly valuable for scriptural reasoning. Wolfson’s insights here potentially enable religious discourse through the shared reading of scripture in order to repair the fragmentation and suffering of our world. Wolfson begins by bringing together modern and postmodern philosophical thinking on the uniqueness of each encounter between reader and text with Moses Cordevero’s kabalistic insight that Torah has multiple meanings because it reflects (as in mirror, darkly, Paul might say) the infinite light of the Transcendent that cannot be fully captured by any particular reader or moment (but cf. the questions of Jon Cooley about Wolfson’s choice to use Heidegger). In so doing, he enacts the movement “beyond the polarity of new and old, even beyond the need to move beyond the polarity,” a movement he argues is essential to scriptural reasoning.

In the last section, Wolfson returns to the apparent dichotomy between universality and particularity, which are both concretely expressed in the scriptural text itself. In Genesis, God announces the destiny of Abraham’s physical descendents to be a great nation, through which all nations will be blessed, and it is this particular destiny that gives Abraham (and typologically Israelites and later Jews) direct concern for humanity at large — being “a blessing to the nations” is not a passive quality, but an active endeavor. Thus, Wolfson argues, “Scripture evinces that respect for the other cannot come about without genuine recognition of the selfhood of the other, but recognition of the selfhood of the other is predicated on discerning the otherness of the self.” This, for the Jewish people, means recognizing that their unique ethical calling arises from the election of Abraham. In bringing up the relationship between universality and particularity, Wolfson begins a discussion key to this year’s session, and to scriptural reasoning in general (and cf. some interesting elaboration on this in Kepnes.

However, Wolfson’s paper tests the limits of scriptural reasoning as an interfaith enterprise. It does this by focusing strongly on the inseparability of circumcision, election, and theophany in Judaism, articulating the very nexus of issues that separates Judaism from the other faiths that claim descent from Abraham. In so doing, he emphasizes what divides Judaism from Islam and Christianity, without also speaking of points that the three faiths share. Furthermore, he explicitly addresses and apparently challenges the adoption — or should one say co-option? –and universalization of Abraham by Christianity and Islam, both of which claim him as an ancestor. In this, as he himself remarks, he emphasizes the sticking point at which “the distinctiveness of the three monotheistic faiths becomes most evident or . . .the three rings become undone.”

Wolfson also tests the limits of scriptural reasoning by presenting a complex kabbalistic argument, for which he finds precursors in rabbinic texts. He argues that circumcision, and Jewish circumcision particularly, enables theophany, in that it removes an imperfect part, the foreskin, which serves a barrier to seeing God (cf. Nelkin’s comments on Wolfson’s use Rabbinic midrash). Thus, various kabalistic sources assume that the circumcised Jewish male is the most, or even the only, fully human being, fully reflecting the Divine image. As Wolfson implies in his paper, and said explicitly in our meeting in Denver, he himself finds this phallocentricism devoid of religious meaning, and, more than that, troubling and distasteful. Nevertheless, he argued at the conference that this issue cannot be overlooked or forgotten, because it is only one instance of the problem of religious particularity, a problem for which he sees no definitive practical solution, despite his enlightening philosophical approach to the issue at the conclusion of his paper.

Like Elliot Wolfson’s paper, Francis Watson’s essay, “Abraham’s Visitors: Prolegomena to a Christian Theological Exegesis of Genesis 18-19,” both enriches scriptural reasoning and tests its limits. He focuses on the first half of Genesis eighteen, first pointing out the key fault lines of the original Hebrew text, particularly the way in which the visitors in speaking, and Abraham in speaking to them, use sometimes singular and sometimes plural locutions. The body of his paper is a reading of various interpreters of the text, two patristic, Justin Martyr and Augustine, and two very different later writers, John Calvin and Hermann Gunkel. Finally, he closes with his own brief evaluations of the four interpreters.

Watson’s paper is valuable for scriptural reasoning as a lucid example of how one may recover and juxtapose traditional interpretations of scripture, giving the reader a feel for a truly intriguing range of older exegesis. He also, by example rather than argument, neatly refutes the all-too-common modernist Christian – and particularly Protestant – fallacy that each scriptural text has only one right meaning. This is a fallacy that those already interested in scriptural reasoning are unlikely to believe, but which still may manifest as a kind of mental undertow when contemporary Christians read scripture. More concretely, Watson’s chosen exegetes also exemplify how different interpreters draw from a text to address specific theological or communal issues of their day, much as scriptural reasoning seeks to do in the present, a point implied by Ochs in his commentary.

In reference to his various and very different interpretations, Watson also raises a pertinent point about the nature of truth in interpretation: “Interpretative disagreement presupposes a shared framework which enables further dialogue; pure interpretative difference without disagreement represents the breakdown of dialogue” (see link to context). Watson expanded on this point in his introductory summary at Denver, pointing out that disagreements are signs of hope, precisely because they mean conversation is taking place. Disagreements, he continued, happen within traditions, not just between the three traditions, and, conversely, when dialogue occurs across religious boundaries there may be convergences as well as divergences, not dissimilar to dialogue within one’s own tradition. Watson’s point about how disagreements are signs that conversation is taking place helps us to appreciate Wolfson’s treatment of Abraham in the three faiths. It is precisely because Abraham’s identity is a contested issue that scriptures concerning Abraham lead the way to better understanding the shared framework of the three faiths, a framework which includes a transcendent God who chooses particular people, and peoples, for certain missions.

Finally, Watson, in his all-too-brief concluding comments on Justin, addresses the crucial issue of universality and particularity from the perspective of God’s action in the world. Justin’s idea that God is transcendent in the First Person, and immanent through/as Christ, even in the Hebrew Scriptures, suggests to Watson that “Since divine transcendence is also divine freedom, it can embrace particularity rather than dissolving it.” As I understand him, he suggests that though divine transcendence exceeds human understanding, it is not thereby distant from the created world. It is rather deeply manifest in creation (“below” as well as “above” human thought) as that which is free to connect to individuals and peoples beyond the limits of human divisions.

Nevertheless, Watson also tests the limits of scriptural reasoning. One way he does so is comparable to Wolfson’s insistence on discussing Kabalistic theories of circumcision: Watson chooses two exegetes who present complex Trinitarian readings of the text at hand in a tri-faith setting. These readings, in their apparent theological eisegesis, are alienating to some modern Christians, and even more so to Muslims and Jews whose faiths have historically regarded the concept of a trinity as at the best peculiar and at the worst dangerously misguided. In addition, like Wolfson’s sources on circumcision, Justin and Augustine’s Trinitarian readings are difficult to understand without prior study of specialized religious history, and hence tend to close rather than open a window to dialogue.

Watson tests the limits of scriptural reasoning in another way as well, by bringing to our dialogue a more historical approach to exegesis. Watson’s paper, in emphasizing the individuality and incommensurability of two Patristic, one Reformation and one modern interpretation, reminds us how the historian’s task is necessary for scriptural reasoning. Just as scriptural reasoning must not overlook the differences between faiths, it must not overlook real differences among a single faith’s exegetes and traditions of interpretation. Overlooking such differences could lead scriptural reasoners to superficially mining the past for the “relevant bits” rather than seriously engaging their traditions ( Pecknold treats a related problem in his remarks on Watson). Some readers may be surprised by how briefly Watson discusses the theological issues raised by his sources, leaving many unanswered questions about why these particular sources were chosen, and what can be learned from their juxtaposition. For the session as a whole, however, this did not prove problematic. Several commentaries rose fruitfully to the challenge of interpreting Watson’s presentation of Justin and Augustine, for example Young’s comparison of quinas to the Patristic exegetes. Furthermore, Watson’s transparent presentation of divergent sources in his paper and his verbal comments on the issue of interpretive difference in Denver sparked valuable discussion – see my concluding essay for more on this.

In sum, these two papers, as well as being fascinating and valuable in themselves, raise important questions about how to do scriptural reasoning, especially in an interfaith setting. How do we read with rather than against the other without watering down the complexity and particularity of our own faith? How do we choose from and present our own tradition’s history of exegesis in order to both challenge and inspire present theology, faith, and action? How do we learn from the other’s tradition and apply its insights to our own?

The Practice of Scriptural Reasoning

There are a number of possible practices of tri-faith scriptural reasoning that one can adopt in response to these questions, and I believe that scriptural reasoning does and should contain a range of them, including those described in the incomplete list below.

1) In certain circumstances scriptural reasoning must focus on explaining and justifying its value, and therefore focus on texts and ways of reading which provide a basis for peaceful dialogue and reconciliation among the Abrahamic faiths. However, to remain exclusively at this stage is unsatisfying and incomplete, particularly as participants in the process come to trust one another, and the process itself, enough to address the very real differences among faiths and/or to explore difficult passages in scripture and traditions of interpretation. Scriptural Reasoning must also address those passages that seem alienating to people of other faiths, or in their plain sense reading counsel intolerance or violence

2) Another kind of scriptural reasoning, one well in evidence in this session of the Society, seeks out and develops new readings of scripture that illuminate key ideas within and among the various faiths. These may be religious/mystical insights, theological/philosophical concepts, or pressing exegetical issues. Looking for shared religious insights, I believe, is particularly key to the process and purpose of scriptural reasoning, and is exemplified well by Daniel Hardy in the concluding paragraphs of his commentary. The philosophical/theological relationship between universality and particularity raised by Wolfson is also clearly germane to interfaith scriptural reasoning, and was taken up by Christians such as Bill Elkins in his discussion of circumcision and embodiment. Finally, as mentioned above, the issue of exegesis and eisegesis, both the philosophical issue of whether the conventional dichotomy between them is helpful, and also the question of whether a particular interpretation nevertheless “reads in” too much, arose both in the commentaries and at the meeting in Denver.

3) A related kind of reasoning from scripture focuses on the shared ethical insights of the scriptures and traditions of the three Abrahamic faiths. This approach is particularly rich because it can draw both on the Biblical and Qur’anic ethics of commandment, sin and gracious Divine forgiveness, as well as Greek philosophical traditions of virtue and natural law that were taken up by all three religions. Among the commentaries for this session that address ethical questions, Brantley Craig explores the relationship among theophany, community, and ethics, while Dov Nelkin considers the idea of virtue ethics in Abraham’s appeal to God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do Justice?” (Gen. 18:25). Additionally, emphasis on ethics in scriptural reasoning can at times lead to satisfying intellectual and even practical agreements among participants on pressing ethical issues. This aspect of scriptural reasoning was perhaps short-changed at our meeting despite (or perhaps because of) the urgent ethical/political situation of the United States after September 11 th; I will speak more on this in my concluding essay.

4) A fourth approach, exemplified to some extent in Francis Watson’s paper, tests the limits of scriptural reasoning in useful ways. This is the practice of examining texts that express concepts unique to one’s faith in the presence of members of the other faith communities. This must be done with a consciousness that it is public discourse, in other words, with the awareness that one enters dialogue by the very act of recounting the particularity of one’s faith in the presence of the other. The ability of this approach to enrich scriptural reasoning rests as much on those who respond as those who begin the conversation. An excellent example of such a creative response is Basit Koshul’s willingness to take up Watson’s discussion on the issue of the horizontal and vertical in the appearance of Abraham’s visitors as angels and/or God by successfully finding traces of it in Qur’anic interpretation.

5) A fifth possible approach to scriptural reasoning involves directly addressing the historic points of dispute among the three Abrahamic faiths, as Wolfson did this year. While such discussion may appear superficially comparable to traditional disputation (though moderate and respectful as disputation goes), its purpose in the context of scriptural reasoning is neither to proselytize the other, nor sing a trimumphalist song for the benefit of one’s home community. I am still unsure precisely how scriptural reasoning as a discipline can logically justify the value of emphasizing difference for its mission of recovering scriptural insight for post-modernity. I am sure, however, that scriptural reasoning which attempts deliberately to overlook or ignore important points of dispute among faiths will be the weaker for it. It is also clear that such discussion of difference within scriptural reasoning departs from traditional disputation because scriptural reasoners will not only argue their case, but also listen respectfully to the answers of their partners in debate. Furthermore, the answers will be likely to be based on the respondents’ interpretation of their own faith tradition, correcting misconceptions and complicating issues, rather than critiquing the position of the other, as Koshul deepens our understanding of Abraham in the Qur’an in his response to Wolfson, and Elkins responds to Wolfson’s presentation of Paul.

Among the commentaries written before the meeting, some address, either explicitly or implicitly, what it means to test the limits of scriptural reasoning. Others address one or more of the conceptual issues mentioned earlier: the meaning of interpretive disagreement; the problem of eisegesis; the right use of traditional interpretation; and relationship between particularity and universality. The commentaries begin to weave the papers together – a process continued but not completed at the November meeting – and also present an amazing diversity of new ideas about the texts at hand. They appear in all sizes and shapes, including evocative notes, carefully constructed essays, meditations on the scriptural text, and other forms. I have arranged them in an order that seemed interesting to read sequentially, and in roughly ascending order of size.

In the discussion below on the meeting in Denver, I will continue to reference the commentaries, focusing on how they address the four key conceptual issues above and on what they say or imply about scriptural reasoning as a communal practice. In addition, two participants, Chad Pecknold and Jon Cooley, wrote on issues raised by the meeting itself as well as by papers and commentaries together, and their essays serve to supplement my own description of the meeting.

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