The Rules of Scriptural Reasoning

James Buckley,
Loyola College in Maryland

Peter Ochs’ “SSR: The Rules of Scriptural Reasoning” invites us not so much to turn his essay-letter into a document for our common use as to be stimulated to respond with ” your own versions or partial versions of rules for SR” (I) as well as to gripe about his claims or make use of them on our own. My own “partial version” will be three sorts of rules, simply borrowed from Ochs, with a couple of gripes thrown in.

1. The most important feature of Ochs` essay-letter is its constant referral to the theological issue of God. The aim of the SSR, he has said, is ” to recover the practice of listening for the speech of God that both preceded and still provides the terms for modern thinking” (I) . Our effort is one of ” reasoning out the consequences of God’s speech to us in scripture” (2) rational reflection being “an attribute of the life of God’s word in our midst” (1) . “If we are not even prepared to acknowledge that our work must be made in relation to God, then we cannot hope to bring about a new life that would follow modernity ” an acknowledgment that must be humble, ” ultimately by listening, alone” (C) . I would call this “The God Rule. ” It is not a simple one, as one can tell by recalling Michael Wyschogrod on the One God of Israel and Dan Hardy’s paper on “the coherence of the abundance of God ” from SSR 1996. But the question of the identity and our identification of God is one I would like to see continue to be on our front burner. In some of my remarks below I am tempted to substitute the traditional Christian monastic term “lectio divina ” for “Scriptural reasoning ” as a way to highlight this theological focus.

2. Significant numbers of all three communities (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) seem to adhere to what we might call the “occasion-comprehensive character of Scriptural performance. ” This mouthful requires some explaining. Scriptures are “performed.” [31] This is not a definition, as if Scripture never corrects performance. It is simply a description of the way Scripture appears in all three communities performed, or used, as we and they pray alone and together, as we and they study and think, as we and they raise up the lowly and humble the powerful in our political lives, etc. Scripture is thus used or performed on a variety of specific occasions. Thus our uses of Scripture are occasion-specific. But at least some members of these communities, without denying that uses of Scripture are thus occasion-specific, might also insist that Scriptures bear on all the specific occasions of our lives our birth and death, our affections and political actions, our thoughts about God as well as inner or outer space. Scriptural performance is “occasion-comprehensive.” This does not mean that, on any of these occasions, all we need to do is understand Scripture. If we bring Scripture to bear on our birth and death, for example, we need to understand Scripture as well as our birth and death.

(William Christian Sr., from whose Doctrines of Religious Communities. A Philosophical Study [32] I have borrowed the notions of “occasion-comprehensiveness and occasion-specificity,” contrasts occasion-comprehensive and occasion-specific claims with “topic-comprehensive claims ” e.g. a claim that all we need to understand any topic like our birth or death is Scripture. In William Christian’s technical argot, occasion-comprehensiveness includes but goes beyond occasion-specificity but does not include topic-comprehensiveness.)

These technicalities aside, for the Christian theologian like myself to understand Scripture in her or his own community is to understand a whole panoply of uses of Scripture in the Church; similarly, if the Christian theologian is to understand Scripture performed in another community, he or she needs to understand a similar range of performances.

If this notion of occasion-comprehensiveness is plausible, we can then read Ochs paper as devoted to thinking out how this occasion-comprehensiveness can fail, or succeed. For example, it fails in the Jewish community, Ochs proposes, in secular universalism (in my terms above: Scripture is virtually irrelevant to any occasion of activity) and its dialectical counterpart: anti-modern Jewish orthodoxy (in my terms above: Scripture is all we need to know and perform, sans any interruptions by modernity). It succeeds when it repairs a suffering, when its thinking is “redemptive reasoning ” (5) in the way Peirce’s A-reasonings correct B-reasonings “redeeming, and not replacing, modernity” (E) . We might call this “The Reparative Rule.” I find all of this rich and suggestive, and will not here quibble about details.

However, I would like to see us pursue this occasion-comprehensive rule (e.g., “Always use Scripture in a way that repairs a suffering” ) in a variety of occasion-specific ways. Ochs mentions our common ground in the university, as well as textual reasoning and depth historiography. Fair enough (although we need to keep in mind the differences between the ancient and the modern university). But I would also like to see how The Reparative Rule (along with The God Rule) is performed on less academic occasions in our different and competing rituals, political theologies, and nurturing of emotions, passions and feelings.

By the way, the necessary conjoining of The Reparative Rule and The God Rule could raise a number of interesting questions about God’s justice and mercy, as well as our own, as Ochs hints.

By “performed comprehensively” I do not mean that all we need on any specific occasion (when we pray alone or together, when we raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty from the pulpit or election booth, when we teach and study, etc.) is Scripture; I simply mean that Scripture bears on all the occasions of our lives, somehow. This “somehow” suggests that there are disputes over how these texts are best performed comprehensively not only performed in our liturgies but also performed in our affectional lives as haughty or disconsolate persons, our political lives as powerful and powerless, our economic lives as rich and poor, our academic lives as historians, philosophers and literary critics, and so forth. Out of this welter of controversies and occasions for mutual rebuke and reparation, let me mention just two examples one challenging a specific occasion of such performance, the other challenging the whole notion of comprehensive Scriptural performance.

The first objection is this. “Occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture” is a theological reading of Scriptural texts not simply on one occasion but at all times, comprehensively. But this seems to exclude a great many people. That is, “occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture” is still “reading,” a practice engaged by educated Christians usually far from the illiteracy that is the fate of most of the world. Whatever differences there are among Jews, Christians and Muslims in this regard, many of their adherents are not readers (theological or otherwise), and never have been. Occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture can never, this counter-argument goes, be performed comprehensively except by the few, the relatively well-educated, and the relatively rich.

This is an understandable objection that I need to repair. “Occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture” is, I have so far presumed, a communal enterprise a set of practices that particular members of the community engage in, in different ways. Precisely because lectio divina is practiced comprehensively, it is not necessary for an individual or even most members of a local church to know how to read to engage in this practice and people who do know how to read may not be able to perform Scripture comprehensively, particularly if they are those Paul Griffiths calls “consumerist” readers who read for self-satisfying or self-devouring ends. [33] This is one reason, I take it, that Christians like St. Clare encouraged her sisters not to be eager to learn how to read, unless they already knew how. Surely some members of the community must know how to read (e.g., how to pick up Scripture and read it out loud to a community), but not everyone does. “Lector” is an order or ministry of the Christian Church but only one of the minor orders, or ministries. I would be interested in knowing what, if any, the theological differences are between Jews, Christians, and Muslims on matters of (il)literacy.

I do think the Church should encourage universal literacy in particular cultures, even at the risk of creating more consumerist readers (much as Scriptural reasoners might encourage reasoning more generally). Abusus non tollit usus . The few illiterate persons I have known have yearned to read and, indeed, insisted on being taught how. But my point here is not to argue for such universal literacy. In fact, the goal of such literacy is not to be confused with the theological literacy that is not simply reading the Scriptures but performing them comprehensively, consuming them like Ezechiel. Here I touch upon and leave unsettled crucial issues with regard to the occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture issues Catholics know as one version of nature and grace. That is, how does lectio divina (occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture) exceed and perfect without destroying lectio humana , especially the humanity of those who are poor or in any way afflicted and here I mean those who cannot read? My point has been to suggest that occasion-comprehensive performance of lectio divina is theologically specific that, for all its common ground with reading as a human practice, it has its own specific shape. But I must forgo further analysis to turn to a second objection to the occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture.

There is a second sort of rebuke to my claim that lectio divina involves the occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture is that it embodies an unacceptable Scriptural pragmatism, reducing texts and their Holy Inspirer to their uses by human communities. [34] The simple answer to the charge of Scriptural pragmatism is this. The occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture is one of three features of Scriptural reasoning I am abstracting from Ochs’ paper. It would be wrong to think it is the whole.

The more important and difficult answer would be to argue, as Ochs has done, that “scriptural pragmatism” (embracing Jewish and Christian readers) is not only or primarily a subspecies of “scriptural pragmatism.” [35] There is no reason Christians cannot use pragmatic gold, suitably distinguished from its dross. For example, one of the theological weaknesses of some American pragmatists is that they seem not to recognize that occasion-comprehensive performance (including their own) is relative to specific communities — Jewish, Christian, pragmatist or other. For example, if Ochs is right, the theist Peirce does not seem to notice that his God is a word that comes from a linguistically-shaped tradition that is neither Jewish nor Christian. [36] For those who insist that how we name God (or how God is a proper name) is the crucial determinant of how we engage in lectio divina , there can be no reduction of lectio divina to its performance, no matter how occasion comprehensive.

3. A third and necessarily brief point. Scriptures are writings and this raises a nest of questions about canonicity that arise in similar as well as different ways for our three communities. “Textual problems are thus like sufferings, and pragmatic readings are like acts of care or redemption.” [37] We have focused on specific Scriptural texts in the past, and I am sure we will do so in the future. The two issues I abstracted from Ochs the identity and identification of God and the occasion-comprehensive performance of Scripture should (at least in the SSR) be handled in relation to specific Scriptural texts rather than in the general form I have raised them. Would the different ways Abraham is reparatively woven into our (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) canons be of use? There is probably already abundant material on this issue, although I doubt the issue has been considered from our point of view. Such a focus might also connect our discussions to those of non-theological historians who have their versions of the formation of Israel.

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