Turnings Within the Society for Scriptural Reasoning: A Response to Ford, Wolfson, et al.

Robert A. Cathey
McCormick Theological Seminary

In November 1997 at the SSR meeting in San Francisco, Donald Dayton of Drew Theological Seminary asked what was different about the way SSR members were reading scriptural texts in comparison to the Textual Reasoning group. Dayton wondered if Christians in the SSR were willing to read and discuss Scripture christocentrically, or if distinctively christocentric readings were “checked at the door” in favor of less offensive readings controlled by postmodern textual strategies that Christians and Jews in the SSR share in common. As I reflected on the statement of The Aims and Open Issues of the SSR that we publish in our agenda at each year’s meeting (most of which I wrote in draft form), I wondered how I would account for what I do in the SSR to my own community of faith, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). For in our community christocentric and trinitarian readings of the Bible are the confessional norm, yet historical and literary-criticism, feminist, and liberationist readings are allowed to challenge that norm in the name of theological freedom and democratic pluralism. In fact, a good case could be made for the claim that the readings that challenge the norm dominate while the confessional readings are experienced as burden and impediment in need of apologetic defense (by evangelicals) or revision (by neo-liberals).

I was reminded of Dayton’s question as I read the abstracts in response to Ford and Wolfson’s papers. For the first time in our abstracts, I noticed a concern on the part of some Christians that perhaps the price of admission to scriptural reasoning (as practiced by David Ford and Peter Ochs) is too high! Thus Steve Fowl states, “Jews cannot expect me to give up christological convictions about the end for the sake of dialogue any more than I can expect them to put aside skepticism and doubts about Christ.” And Kris Lindbeck claims, “Without the resurrection, precisely what Christ would have seemed is a noble failed messiah, like the great Baal Shem Tov of blessed memory.” And Lewis Ayres bluntly criticizes, “David’s argument attempts to open a space for rejecting supercessionism largely by resisting any attempt to characterize the eschaton through close attention to the details of the scriptural text.” Ayres goes on to argue that the New Testament texts are implicitly christocentric and trinitarian on a deep and persistent level of meaning. And Johnson wonders whether Ochs’ Peircian hermeneutic, as employed by Ford, commits us to a “particular worldview” that would revise and correct “the plain sense of scripture.”

Further, I noted that some Christians now refer to what we do in the SSR as “dialogue” (e.g., see Barry Harvey’s abstract). I, for one, do not engage in SSR for “dialogue” in its conventional sense. There are many interfaith societies I could belong to that have been in dialogue for decades. My understanding of what we intend to do is constructive philosophical and theological work together as Jews, Christians, and (now) Muslim scholars who have turned away from modern, liberal discourse to listen anew to Scripture. I engage in SSR to hear the word of God in Scripture in the different voices of my colleagues in this koinonia . It is the very difference in the voices that, in part, enable the Spirit of God to liberate me from liberal and conventional readings, provoking and calling me into new ways of reading and koinonia I can neither predict nor control. That is what I understand David Ford to mean, in part, by the logic of superabundant joy and pleroma in Ephesians.

I was also reminded of Donald Dayton’s question as I reviewed the turning in our topic for this year. The original announcement read “Messianism and Messianic Exegesis in Abraham Cardoso and the Letter to the Ephesians.” Once again we seemed to approach a topic that deeply divides Jews, Christians (and Muslims), like our initial discussion of the unity of God in 1996. I was eager to discover how we would approach this topic through scriptural reasoning. The revised program topic was published as “Mysticism: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.” Have we turned from the exoteric (Scripture) to the esoteric (mysticism)? Are esoteric ways of reading Scripture a way to escape (even deny) the obvious contradictions and conflicts in doctrine and practice between Jews, Christians, and Muslims? Are they a way of avoiding issues of differences in canon, and differences in interpretation over covenant? (A great postliberal theologian once said to me that Jews and Christians share a common scriptural covenant tradition that we do not share with Islam.) Are they a way to construct a special SSR form of discourse that is not reducible to conventional discourse in either the academy or our own faith traditions?

These initial questions and concerns were subverted for me by my reading of Wolfson and Ford’s papers. In one summary passage Wolfson writes, “The force of Kemper’s logic is that the Jewish ritual, particularly as it appears in the kabbalistic tradition, reflects the Christological truth that the Jews reject. The Jewish people, therefore, preserve a religious custom whose meaning escapes them.” Recalling Barth’s reading of Romans 9-11 in Römerbrief where he reads Paul on Israel as the word of God against latter-day Christendom, I think that Kemper’s statements could be applied to Christianity today. The Christian people preserve a religious custom whose meaning escapes them. Recall what I said earlier about the christological and trinitarian norms called into questioned by a variety of readings of Scripture in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Talk with conventional Christians (indeed, talk with Christian seminarians) about their understanding of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, ministry, christology, Trinity, and Scripture, and one will discover that the meaning, truth, and power of these practices and norms escape our people time and again.

Thus, when applied to Christianity, Kemper’s critique of Judaism opens another reason for engaging in costly Scriptural reasoning. Until Christians find the roots of our practices (e.g., the Lord’s Supper) in the covenant with Israel (e.g., a ritual meal celebrating Passover), the meaning, truth, and power of these practices remain hidden to us. Our readings of Scripture and our doctrines (e.g., christology and Trinity) remain open to supercessionist distortion and neo-liberal accommodation without the encounter with Jewish textual practices.

In this regard, I don’t think we can underestimate Ford’s references to the Shoah in his paper. Just as the shadows of the cross and Jesus as Messiah figure into Christian readings of TaNaKh, so the shadows of the Shoah hang over our christocentrism and trinitarianism. In Arthur Cohen’s The Tremendum , he compares the time-dividing power of the cross for Christians (B.C./A.D.) and the Shoah for Jews today. Despite the fact that christocentric and trinitarian readings of Scripture carry the venerable and Spirit-inspired power of tradition for Christians, I think Ford is right to open up readings of our own Scripture to vagueness in the service of a joy and pleroma we can neither predict nor control. This is not vagueness in service to philosophical pragmati(ci)sm or neo-liberal revisionism. Rather, it is a vagueness that remembers the pragmatic consequences of reading Ephesians in certain christological and trinitarian ways that preceded the Shoah. It is a vagueness in service of the Scriptures “whose meaning escapes them.”

Let me close by mentioning one other subversion. As I reflected on some Christian reticence about engaging in costly Scriptural reasoning, I was reminded of the presence of Islamic readers of Scripture in our midst. The conflicts and contradictions between Jewish and Christian practices and doctrines and the shadows of the cross and the Shoah set the stage for this question: do these two peoples who are promised some kind of eschatological unity in Ephesians not need further revelation, further scripture, further prophetic critique before this unity comes more fully to light? I ask as an open question, how may Islamic scholars of Qur’an and Sufi mysticism subvert us in our different ways of reading Scripture by a triadic third way of reading that I can neither control nor predict?