The Rules of Scriptural Reasoning

Daniel W. Hardy
Cambridge England


First, a word of gratitude to Peter Ochs, not only for his role in initiating the process of Scriptural Reasoning amongst us, but also for now starting our reflection on what we have been doing and guiding us in describing and conducting the process. Much more, he stimulates us–or at least me–to a deep review of our premises and practices as we engage in scriptural reasoning. It is a challenging task.

Operative Conditions

After several years of meeting together, it seems to me that we of the SSR are now in a position to think carefully about the ‘operative conditions’ for what we do. These are not external to what we do, or predetermined, but internal to what we do and there the dynamic of SR emerges. In other words, the operative conditions are the ordering which already gives life to what we do; and embracing them will focus or direct our work and thus further release the “spirit” by which it receives life–the “spirit” of which Ochs speaks. These are simultaneously substantial questions about our work and theological questions.

What are these “operative conditions”? I will list what I think they are, and some of the questions implicit in them:

  • God’s speaking is normative;
  • God’s speaking is embodied in scriptural texts;
  • This ‘speaking in texts’ is historic;
  • God’s speaking has an in-built ‘logos’ and spirit constitutive for humanity;
  • God’s speaking is formative for history and society, and requires an historically-embedded society/community for its interpretation in Scripture;
  • The significance of God’s speaking in texts is primary for history, philosophy, and life;
  • Responding to it has a re-constitutive and redemptive effect on these, enabling human beings to move beyond the damaging effects of other influences, and the suffering involved.

Some of the questions these raise, not always explicitly recognized, are:

  • A)Within these conditions, what forms of reasoning and practice are appropriate?
  • B)How does God’s ‘speaking in these texts’ shape human thought and life in historical and social formation?
  • C)How is this different from lesser or damaging ways by which they are shaped?
  • D)Where does this “speaking in texts” occur? What is the relevant range of texts: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, others? How are they related?
  • E)By what criteria are texts chosen for consideration: that they are held by major religions, that they are primary in significance, etc.?
  • F)What is/are the locus/i of their contribution: as the focus for true worship, for right belief, for right action, for human history?
  • G)What is the substance of their contribution: to reveal God, God’s will, God’s constitution of the conditions for life and its fulfillment, etc.?
  • H)What is the place of particular religious traditions and sub-traditions in dialogical society-formation?
  • I)How do they impact history, philosophy, and life?

By thinking of the conditions for our engagement with God speaking in texts, these are what appear to me as the operative conditions, and attendant questions, which arise within the work of scriptural reasoning. Any answers to the questions are tentative, because we have not yet resolved these matters. In order to further clarify the operative conditions and their implicit or explicit questions, I would like to take up some issues raised by Ochs.

The Notion of Reflection

The early parts of Ochs’ paper suggest “the precedence of action over reflection,” (I) that reasoning is “on something already performed” (3) , and the need to reflect on our actions to discern in them traces of the divine will. I detect in this two of what I consider the major problems of modern understanding. One has to do with “reflection,” the severing of reasoning from what presents itself for and in thought, whether this is object, subject, or text, and the consequent isolation of the thinker, even where corrected by communal interaction. The other is the supposition that intelligence is a human activity that “perform[s] God’s work” and becomes adequate where it bears “traces of the divine will” (I) . That is, it needs to be validated by divine act, what I call “actualism.”

Regarding the first, it is more than likely that the problems with “modern intelligence” derive from attempts to suspend the engagement with object/subject/text while purifying the means of engagement by reflection on their conditions. This is the cause for my deep suspicion of what seems to be an Enlightenment-generated notion of “reflection.” It is possible to have a thoughtful engagement with an object/subject/text human, divine, or the presentation of either in a mediating mode such as text which is non-presumptuous, and prepared to undergo constant correction by “it” in community with those who do likewise. In my view, scriptural reasoning should be this kind of engagement; and specifying the “operative conditions” for doing so should not suspend the engagement. Instead, “rules” should attempt to unfold and support what actually happens during this kind of reasoning amongst us.

As for the second, it seems that this thoughtful engagement is focused by dedication to the God who in speaking is self-giving for us in our engagement with each other through history. Our first task is therefore to worship, which is the primary “placing” of God as the God who self-givingly speaks to us in and through our intelligence and practice. In worship, not only the event when we “get things right” is validated, but also the continuity of intelligent grasping of God’s purposes in history.

One question, therefore, has to do with how we derive the operative conditions for the work of SR. Is the notion of “intelligence [as] the capacity to reflect on our actions and discern in those actions traces of the divine will” adequate to our purposes? Or do we need a conception of “thoughtful engagement with God”–intelligent, practical, and historical–as constitutive of our community?

Dialogical Reasoning

As we know it, of course, “thoughtful engagement with God speaking in texts” is necessarily particular to those whose lives and thought are shaped by it, not least in their social and cultural formation. That is to say, this particular engagement “warrants” a particular socio-cultural formation, which is properly affected by it “all the way down,” becoming a form of life permeated by this engagement. This is important, that engagement with God speaking through a set of texts is deeply interwoven with a particular societal formation. Together, they interact with and are interwoven with (the root meaning of “context” )–special historical circumstances in long continuities of in-folded traditions. The dialogical interpretation of God’s speaking in texts occurs as the active practice by which this societal formation occurs.

These things seem to be true of all religious traditions and sub-traditions. By coming together around the thoughtful engagement with God speaking in texts–warming the hands of our particular traditions by that fire, so to speak–SSR warrants a new socio-cultural formation through the dialogical engagement of differing particular traditions. Unless one of them excludes this kind of engagement in principle, as some sub-traditions do, this new socio-cultural formation does not threaten the particularity of “engaged traditions” by merging them into a monolithic “centralized” culture–shades of the problems of the European community–but opens the possibility of an embracing societal formation from which each particular tradition may benefit.

The worship involving thoughtful engagement with God’speaking in texts, and the formation of a dialogical community, are–it seems to me–the most powerfully positive reason for coming together. Insofar as this dialogical engagement with God in texts occurs between us with our particular traditions, there is the prospect of a primary blessing from God. By comparison, the fact–if fact it is–that we have “overlapping salvation histories,” now threatened by modernity, is a lesser reason for coming together.

As far as I can see, this “thoughtful engagement” is inescapably rational, for there is a primary thoughtful engagement appropriate to God’s speaking–indeed one that is inseparable from it–since God’speaks to and within human reason and not only in action transformed by this speaking. This is important for the dialogue of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, for they may learn from each other how in a very primary sense this is so, and continues to be so despite the vapidity of “new age religion” that has invaded religious practice. It does not depend, however, on the use of particular kinds of philosophical discourse, although they may serve to identify the primary forms of reasoning that are appropriate to thoughtful engagement with God’s speaking–as does C.S. Peirce’s notion of “A-reasonings.”

It is important that we ask ourselves what kinds of reasoning are appropriate to “thoughtful engagement with God speaking,” while also opening the possibility of an embracing societal formation that lives from the primary blessing of God.

The Issue of Modernity

How does this kind of SR–as warranting an embracing dialogically societal formation–differ from and redeem lesser or damaging ways by which individuals and cultures are shaped?

This demands a longer, more critical and theological description of the problems and benefits of modernity that have brought these detours and crises, and what might be ways to move beyond them. In that respect, Ochs’ analysis of modern religious reasoning is very helpful. The contraries he identifies (secular modernism and anti-modern Jewish orthodoxy) are examples of what I consider to be elemental religious responses to modernity in which many of us are unwittingly implicated: a) The conciliation of the modern: aligning or assimilating religious orthodoxy to Enlightenment demands, such as ‘secular’ concepts of universality; b) The replacement of the modern by a “traditional orthodoxy” actually conceived with the tools of modernity. It is a much more difficult historical problem whether these are latter-day examples of pre-existing “dialectical” tendencies as he seems to suppose. What is undoubted, however, is that these induce blindness to: (a) the suffering to which they–as notions of right religion–give rise (both are implicitly totalitarian), clearly seen in the “wars of religion,” for example, and (b) what is an adequate way forward. In particular, they prevent acknowledgement of the “indirectness” of truth (5) , that it heals the human condition by locating and repairing antithetical conditions, including these modern forms of religion. It is important to recognize that, in whatever we do, we are already implicated in inadequate religious responses to modernity, the suffering we/they cause and an inadequate grasp of truth. All these have to be embraced in a deep and far-reaching “practice of redemptions” (6) .

What is an adequate way forward? It seems to lie in a re-crafting of reason within a heuristic vision.

How therefore do we reconstitute the practices of intelligent engagement with God’s speaking, and the healing truth that it brings, free–so far as may be–of the blindness brought by modern thought, both beyond and within religious conceptions?

The Scope of the Task

Any alternative to the two prevailing religious responses mentioned above is a very large task and is, to my way of thinking, the most important one of our era. Full engagement with God speaking must involve embracing such truth as these two include, while also reaching beyond the blindness of each and the suffering they have caused. It must also include opening to the full implications of God speaking for the truth of human life in the world, a task that must eventually embrace all the other “vitalities” of life–even those emerging in association with non-religious understanding.

That is the task with which SSR needs to proceed. In a sense, it must concern itself with an implicitly theological reconstitution of history that anticipates “God speaking again” and reveals resurrection and re-creation beyond the “dialectic of modernity” and the suffering it has brought. (If we look more deeply at this view, it turns out to be Trinitarian: the same God who speaks, gives himself definitively and historically as the truth of human life in the world, while also energizing those who hear for the redeeming of human life in the world.) What informs this “theological reconstitution” is the hope that derives from the anticipation of God speaking again, a hope that is always in an operative mode–to intelligently and obediently hear together, and to act accordingly. After several years of the SSR, presumably we have some grasp of all these. But it is worth noting that we have already narrowed the frame of reference in such a way as to lose touch with those still in the by-ways of modern thought and life–in effect, confining ourselves in modern notions of “religion” as differentiated from most other public forms of thought and practice.

The terms in which we speak of these things differ by our traditions–Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. These are not simply varying languages or ideas unconnected to the realities of life in the world. Both the “languages” or “tropes,” whether “resurrection, hope, re-creation, revelation, etc.,” and the convergence achieved between them by the traditions, need to be understood as reality-involving, as differing ways of identifying the “logic” of reality or (better) of redemptive history. Together, we need to recover the conditions for human flourishing in the dynamic of world-history.

What is the historical-theological task of SSR?

Rules–In What Sense?

Given the different concepts and terminologies with which we of differing traditions work, and with no wish to suspend or supercede them, it is more difficult to specify how the process of mutual opening in engagement with God works, and should work. Ochs, with the assistance of Pierce, has provided one way of specifying it, encouraging us to recognize how hope engenders re-creative activities of hypothesis making based on prior working relations to scriptural texts–through which the text is our “Moses”, the face of the one who will repair modernity. Here is where I have two comments. One derives from my conviction that it is the activity of God announced in scripture that is the unifying sub-text of scripture. Hence, scripture as such is not our Moses, or “the specific source of A-reasoning,” so much as the speaking of God–as ordering logos and spirit–declared in the text: this is what seems to be the consistent (integrating) theme of scripture. The other is to suggest that hypotheses may not be so important as consultative programs or projects (of which SSR may be one) through which–communally–we attempt the transformation of our situation.

The question of how these are best formed remains. It seems to me that they are best formed through intensive “dialogical interaction.” In other words, the “forms” for our continuing work are those “dialogical intensities” that surface in our interaction. They are not antecedent rules, but more the lingua–“rules” in that sense–underlying the dynamics of our mutual interaction as it has come to be, and that which is capable of forming our subsequent work. In this sense, our lingua is, as Ochs hints, comparable to the “idea of the university.” A university location is not accidental to SSR, since universities were begotten for dialogical intensity of the widest range and highest kind attainable, even if this is now largely lost in modernity.

What must not be overlooked, however, is the theological issue implicit in this dialogical formation. Insofar as these forms uncover the deepest characteristics of the God who speaks in scripture, they provide the extraordinary possibility of thinking and living the social form of human freedom as such.

How does our dialogical interaction form its own future, and embody the social form of human freedom?

The Healing of History

While I entirely agree with the need for scriptural reasoning, I always ponder whether the distinctiveness of Jewish-Christian-Muslim contributions to the repair of Western practices lies only in scriptural texts (as “the specific source of A-reasoning”) and textual reasoning. For all its concentration on texts, Ochs’ view is implicitly broader. It seems that he is suggesting that texts and their reading arise from and express the speaking of God, within a variety of histories and traditions, as constituting both the very conditions and burdens for these histories and traditions and also their outworking and transformation in the eschatological purposes of God.

If so, scripture-as-read has a continuing life interwoven with histories and traditions. Hence, “modernity belongs within the life of scripture, as its own burden” (E) , and reading scripture will bring a transformed reading of modernity. For this reason, scriptural reasoning is also “depth historiography,” but one that is normative for the history of human life in order to heal it for its future. The norms are less like principles and more like historical trajectories. While any single reaching for A-reasonings–necessarily contingent on the troubles it is to repair–is always tradition- and time-specific, and may supplement and “clarify the text to its contemporary religious readers and disclose to them the A-reasonings of which they are in need,” it is more likely to provide a heuristic for historical engagement and healing. A continuing effort to engage dialogically in scriptural reasoning, however, has the further benefit of developing a common heuristic for the healing of history past and future.

© 2002, Society for Scriptural Reasoning