Friday, October 11, 2013

The Light of Scripture: As Light As All That?

        Recently, I’ve been reading Douglas John Hall’s The Cross in Our Context. It is a book about the Theology of the Cross, in contrast to the more common (and Calvinist) theologia gloriae. Along the way, Hall notes that theology of the cross handles God’s self-disclosure differently than the Theology of Glory. He writes, “God’s otherness, for Luther, is not to be found in God’s absolute distance from us but in God’s willed and costly proximity to us” (20f). This proximity is seen in Jesus’ incarnation, but especially in Jesus’ willing submission to death by way of the cross.

         Thinking about that, it seems to me that this divine proximity can also be seen in God’s embrace of frail human words, in scripture, as a key medium by which God makes him/herself known to us.

         God did not have to come to us via words, passed down from generation to generation, first by word of mouth and later on fragile animal skin or paper. God could have come in a more ostentatious manner that would have left less room for doubt. For example, God might have rearranged the stars to spell out “I am who I am,” in various languages. Or, God could have made sure that humans evolved some sort of universally shared sixth sense for communicating with the divine, so that our prayers might all and always be audibly answered with a reply.

         In fact, God sometimes turned to incredible and unmistakable displays of glory to make his point. Consider the pillars of fire by night or the glory of the Lord resting on Mount Sinai, for example. But what is interesting about those approaches is that they did little to turn Israel into a more righteous, more faithful people. In fact, it was especially when God drew close to Israel in all his glory that they chose idol calves to worship instead of God. Ironically, after the glory departed, what Israel had left (according to the story) were two stone tablets inscribed with words and a chastened angry prophet to explain them.

         Thus, instead of glorious theophanies, we now have the Bible. Not to the exclusion of other hints about God, perhaps, whether in nature, via intuition, or the testimony of the Spirit, which seem to work for some people, some of the time, at least. But mostly, the light we have from God, or about God, is to be found in scripture.
         Interestingly, scripture itself uses the analogy of light to describe itself (or the law, or the words of the prophets, as the case might be). I became aware of these texts in my seminary prolegomena course, where we wrestled with how to make the case for doctrines concerning scriptural inspiration or infallibility. So, for example, in Psalm 119:105 we read, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And perhaps with this very text in the back of his (or, less likely, her) mind, the author of 2 Peter 1:19-20 wrote, “so we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

         The standard Evangelical reading of such texts suggest that as light, scripture is pretty glorious. As light, scripture banishes the dark. As light, it leaves humans without excuse when it comes to getting God right. There is, however, another way to read such texts, one more in keeping with a theology of the cross that sees God’s self-disclosure as one that embraces human finiteness, limitation, and weakness.

         Consider the Psalmist’s lamp, for example. This is a lamp from the days when ancient Hebrew lights barely matched our candles when it came to giving light or surviving a draft. The lamp the Psalmist speaks of was dim, smokey, and fueled by olive oil. It was a stopgap measure until daytime, and not a very good one at that. Enough light, perhaps, to put one foot before another on a path without breaking your neck, but not a light to see the scenery or wild animals or survive a strong wind. The Peter passage further suggests that the words of the prophets are a stopgap sufficient—barely—but only until the “morning star,” rises.

         Ironically, in the same breath that the author of 2 Peter asserts that they have the prophetic word made more sure, the author is making a case for an immanent parousia, thus subtly undermining the “more sure” word, given that Christians are still waiting for that parousia 2,000 years later.

         In sum, the juxtaposition of these two “light,” texts, the first with its reference to an imperfect emergency light, and the second with reference to its weakness compared to the light of the Christ who will soon return—this juxtaposition certainly suggest that it is easy to claim too much for the light of scripture. Rather than use scripture as the basis for making triumphal claims about how most things really are, the better path is to see in scripture yet more evidence of God’s proximity to us as humans—a God who refuses to reveal to Moses or us his full glory, but writes us – or has others write to us – instead.

         Why? I’m not sure, although Hall’s claims for a theology of the cross are very suggestive. At a minimum, however, we might take a clue from Exodus 20:18f, where we find the people of Israel gathered in the light of God’s glory at the foot of Sinai. When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

         It seems that as far as humans are concerned, when it comes to life, lamplight is much safer than the glory of God.


  1. I think you're on to something with light being somewhat smokey -- after all, most readers of scripture did not have the advantage of incandescent lighting. Our thinking about light and darkness seems to be quite different experientially than that of others.

    Reading through your comments, I also turned to think about how Scripture works in people's lives. We're people who live be narratives in the midst of competing narratives. I suppose I find it more as a kind of practical epistemology, or even a counter narrative to the words of Empire and Exile. As such, it would be linked to practice. Word becomes precious not so much for its intellectual prowess (your theology of glory), but for its connection or interaction with my life. A dim light, perhaps, but one that shines of hope.

  2. I like this post. Very helpful. I'm tracking with Bill Harris on this. pvk


What do you think?