Do You Understand What You Are Reading?

I’ve been working bit-by-bit on putting together a fairly extensive Jürgen Moltmann resources section to this website (books, audio/video, articles, etc)…. more or less to help myself keep track of what’s out there, but it’s possible that some of you might find it useful also. I’m aware of a couple similar pages that already exist, but I generally find that they are a bit outdated and have bad links. Also when it comes to online media (articles, lectures, etc) I’m pretty much only interested in the material that is out there for free that I can share with my friends, so I’m not including material that only exists on the other side of a pay wall. From time to time (like in a post like this) I’ll share about a specific Moltmann book our lecture, but any primary sources I reference can also be easily accessed from these pages:

Of these, I wanted to highlight a great lecture by Moltmann that focuses in on a question I’ve heard him put forth a number of times, based on the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

(I alluded to his use of this before in my post on Evolution a few months back)

(If the video embedded above does not display, you can download an MP3 file of this lecture here).

This was the 2011 Moule Memorial lecture given by Jürgen Moltmann at Cambridge. It is the first Moltmann lecture I can remember listening to; I listened to it again today while going for a long walk and was reminded of its impact on my thinking when I first heard it: There is a difference between what was has been said and what must be said. Most of us (regardless of our theological tradition) have ways of not really listening to the Bible.  We enlist Paul to support our positions in our contemporary world but don’t really take the time to quiet ourselves and hear what he had to say in his own world. Hearing and understanding the Bible requires a long and difficult wrestling with the text: “until the walls between the first century and today become seemingly transparent” (as Moltmann says in this lecture). We can then hear the New Testament on its own terms. Moltmann quotes the first paragraph of Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans to this effect:

Paul, as a child of his age, addressed his contemporaries. It is, however, far more important that, as a Prophet and Apostle of the Kingdom of God, he veritably speaks to all men of every age. The differences between then and now, there and here, no doubt require careful investigation and consideration. But the purpose of such investigation can only be to demonstrate that these differences are, in fact, purely trivial. The historical-critical method of Biblical investigation has its rightful place: it is concerned with the preparation of the intelligence– and this can never be superfluous. But, were I driven to choose between it and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper, more important justification. The doctrine of Inspiration is concerned with the labour of apprehending, without which no technical equipment, however complete, is of any use whatever. Fortunately, I am not compelled to choose between the two. Nevertheless, my whole energy of interpreting has been expended in an endeavour to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit. What was once of grave importance, is so still. What is to-day of grave importance — and not merely crotchety and incidental– stands in direct connection with that ancient gravity. If we rightly understand ourselves, our problems are the problems of Paul; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of his answers, those answers must be ours.

Speaking of the Bible (and along with it, the history of biblical interpretation and theology) as what “has been said” is not dismissive. Rather it lays aside the presumption that what we are saying today is the same thing the Biblical authors were saying. We just aren’t that good at reading, interpreting and applying the Bible. The authors of Scripture said what had to be said (as did the Church Fathers, Reformers, and others who have passed the faith down to us). We must listen to it and internalize the Gospel embedded in it; the Biblical text gives testimony to the Gospel… but the Gospel is not bound to the expression we find in the text.  This Gospel must find new expression today! “What must be said” is the ongoing theological task of the church, for the furthering of the same Gospel that Paul proclaimed but with new expression to address today’s world.

I realize that much of what Moltmann says in this lecture was directed to an audience of Biblical scholars (so there is some “shop talk” about the war between theological studies and New Testament scholarship), but for this evangelical at least, this distinction between “what has been said” and “what must be said” has provided some level of freedom from the bad biblicist habits I have inherited; freedom from rigid readings of the Bible (including new openness to the findings of critical NT scholarship), and freedom to explore more broadly how to apply the Bible today. I encourage you to give it a listen!

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