The Hope-Fulness of Scriptural Reasoning

William Young
Loyola College of Maryland

This issue of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning centers around the 1998 National Meeting for the Society of Scriptural Reasoning which focused on the central theme of mysticism. Scholars from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities discussed mysticism’s place within their respective traditions of scriptural exegesis and interpretation, and explored how mysticism’s esoteric wisdom and practice transform the boundaries and relations between communities. For example, in his reading of the letter to Ephesians, David Ford’s paper argues that a non-supercessionist reading of the mystical “fullness” (pleroma) of God in Christ provides a way to repair the suffering Christian scriptural interpretation has inflicted upon Jews. Ford develops this non-supercessionist reading through an application of the hermeneutics of Peter Ochs. Moving along the boundary between Jewish and Christian practices of interpretation, Ford uses Ochs’ rabbinic pragmatism (as developed in Peirce, Pragmatism, and the Logic of Scripture) to articulate a reading of Christ’s “fullness” that embraces the particularity of God’s revelation in Judaism or Islam. A christocentric view of pleroma, he argues, seeks to establish peaceful relations between these communities as a sign of God’s superabundant love. Ford places special emphasis on Ochs’ notion of “irremediable vagueness,” because such vagueness allows interpretation to retain a certain openness even within the interpretations of particular communities. He highlights the pragmatic importance of such vagueness in considering mystical interpretation and its effects on these communities.

In a similarly boundary-crossing argument, Elliot Wolfson explores the work of Johann Kemper. Kemper, a convert to Christianity from Judaism, read Jewish kabbalah as a secret allegory of Christ. He sought to incorporate Jewish hermeneutics into Christian discourse through his study of the kabbalistic writings. Kemper saw his own hybrid interpretation, which combined Christian allegory with rabbinic interpretation, as carrying messianic significance for both the Jewish and Christian communities. As Wolfson explains, Kemper saw the kabbalah as revealing that Christ was the true meaning of the law, thus fulfilling (and replacing) the faith of Judaism. At the same time, Kemper’s work demonstrates to Christianity its continuity with Jewish ritual and practice, thereby deepening Christian self-understanding, and perhaps bringing it closer to Judaism. On another level of interpretation, Wolfson appropriates Kemper’s work from a Jewish perspective, demonstrating how Kemper continues to depend upon the practices and community that he seems to reject. Much as Ford’s paper interprets Ephesians in light of Ochs’ rabbinic pragmatism, so too Wolfson explores the rabbinic and kabbalistic basis for Kemper’s mystical view of Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism. In these works, “mysticism” marks the event or encounter between Jewish and Christian traditions and practices of interpretation, and often carries with it unforeseeable and varying consequences for the communities involved.

Within the context of this discussion of mysticism, the SSR deepened its own practices of reasoning through an encounter with Muslim exegesis and theology, as found in the work and community of Dr. Israr Ahmad. Dr. Ahmad’s work on Islamic mysticism, and particularly on what he terms “Qur’anic mysticism,” strengthened the Islamic voice within the SSR’s conversation. While Muslim members previously had been key participants in the discussion in the past, this marked the first time Muslim texts and traditions had been the central object of study for the SSR. The group thus began a new chapter in its reflections upon Dr. Ahmad’s work, which raises intriguing issues regarding the relation between mystical esotericism and exoteric practice.

The papers and the responses from November 1998 point to several issues that are central for scriptural reasoning. The first issue is supercessionism. If esoteric practice transvalues and reinterprets ritual practice and exegesis—both of its own community and of others— then it always risks replacing and excluding those practices it seeks to transform. The second issue is the interpretation of “fullness” in mystical discourses. Does fullness necessarily result in a “determinate” and rigid interpretation of the eschaton, or does it permit a vagueness that enables openness to other religious communities and their modes of reasoning?

In many ways, these issues are intertwined; to clarify each issue and to demonstrate this intertwining, I will briefly rehearse one of the exchanges found below. David Ford valorizes vagueness in his interpretation of God’s fullness (pleroma) in Christ. He does so for two pragmatic reasons: first, so as to “take into account the infinite dynamic abundance of a God of love,” and second as a condition for conversation. On both counts, his reading thereby avoids supercessionist attitudes toward Judaism. Ford’s paper gives an expansive understanding of fullness that sees the particular, determinate expression of God’s fullness as definitively embodied in Christ, without taking that embodiment as exhaustive. His account of “vagueness” allows for the development of determinate interpretations without fixing one interpretation as the meaning of “fullness.” [1]

In the discussion, Ford’s essay encountered its strongest challenges from within the Christian community. In their responses, both Lewis Ayres and Stephen Fowl raise intriguing questions regarding the importance of vagueness. As Fowl writes in response to Ford, “Christians believe that they have a privileged perspective on the manner in which the Son will bring all things under the reign of God.” Fowl’s concern is that an emphasis on vagueness risks ignoring or excluding particular, determinate aspects of Christian interpretation of the eschaton in Christ. Moreover, Ayres questions whether vagueness, in and of itself, provides an antidote to supersecessionism. Other criticisms were raised as well: as William Stacy Johnson’s response suggests, does pragmatism commit scriptural reasoning to a worldview foreign to the gospel (see Robert Cathey’s defense of Ford on this point)?

I highlight this exchange because it illustrates clearly the tension between scriptural reasoning and established communal practices. The responses mentioned above demonstrate that vagueness may be seen as at variance with the interpretive practices of many Christians. While this tension exists, Ford argues that his “vague” interpretation of pleroma intends to develop and deepen the understanding of God’s eschatological presence within Christian communities. His reasoning serves these communities (and others), even while diverging from their views. As embodied in Ford’s paper, the esoteric practice of the SSR repairs and strengthens the reasoning of the community while remaining distinct from it. This exchange of scriptural reasoning thus becomes an occasion of esoteric conversation, as the authors speak from within Judaism, Christianity or Islam and yet also move beyond the limits of any one of these communities. As Robert Gibbs suggests, scriptural reasoning’s movement forward occurs in tandem with its negotiation and struggle with patristic and traditional interpretations of these texts; engagement with the past and present help to constitute the futural discourse of the SSR. The discussion of Ford’s paper embodies this temporal movement.

Wolfson’s and Ahmad’s papers likewise contribute to the activity of scriptural reasoning, albeit in different ways. Wolfson’s paper negotiates the subtle and complex levels of interpretation in Kemper’s work, exploring the paradoxical and often contradictory ways that Kemper uses rabbinic and kabbalistic interpretation. Kemper’s dependence upon a tradition which he repudiates can be seen as one form of esotericism, and Wolfson highlights the distance of Kemper’s project from both the extant Jewish and Christian communities of his time. He must have been, as Kris Lindbeck suggests, incredibly alone. Moreover, Wolfson explores in detail the relation of esoteric wisdom to the practice of the law, and its implications for both Christian and Jewish interpretation, through the work of this complex, solitary figure.

Ahmad’s paper and his presentation in Orlando provide an intriguing third voice in response to both Wolfson and Ford. Where both Ford’s and Wolfson’s papers illustrate a tension between mysticism’s esoteric wisdom and exoteric practice, Ahmad makes the case that Qur’anic mysticism, as directed toward the beatific state of Ihsan, sees the height of mysticism in its practice and concern for the world. For Islam, the state of Ihsan is at once a friendship with God and the practice of justice in the world. Here, esotericism informs and transfuses exoteric practice, rather than leading away from it. This fusion of blessedness and practice, and its difference from both the Jewish and Christian perspectives, has deepened the reflection of the group on this issue. This will be discussed further in the report (Encountering Mysticism) on the meeting itself, which develops the discussion and response to the papers and articles included in this issue.

To close, I would suggest that by operating at the boundary of faith communities, speaking both at once within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and beyond, scriptural reasoning acts as a practice of hope. Aware of how the differing practices and beliefs of these faith communities have led to conflict and hatred, the SSR examines the practices more closely in the hope that new forms of encounter will emerge, leading faith towards a fullness of love. Such a practice, undoubtedly, carries risks, and one should recognize the risk taken by Dr. Ahmad and his students in joining this discussion. In recognizing the risks, one can thereby better welcome the other in hospitality and openness, ready to be transformed from host to guest; in each other’s eyes, we may begin to know as we are known.

[1] In this way, one might see parallels between Ford’s discussion of pragmatic vagueness as a condition for interpretation and Fowl’s own account of “underdetermined” interpretation as occurring within the practices of particular communities, rather than being a function of the text itself. Interestingly, Fowl there draws connections between his approach and that of Ochs. See Engaging Scripture (Oxford: Blackwell’s, 1999), esp.  57-61.

Editor’s Note: An expanded and revised version of Ford’s argument has been published in Modern Theology; see David F. Ford, “A Messiah for the Third Millenium,” Modern Theology 16 (2000): 75-90.