Sunday, March 18, 2012

Biblical Reflection and Pastoral Theology

The Bible in Theological Reflection: Indications from the History of Scripture.
By Paul Ballard. Practical Theology 4.1 2011 (35-47)

Paul Ballard seeks to address two issues relevant to practical theology: the Bible in practical theology and the incarnational nature of the Christian faith.[1] These two issues converge upon one central point in the article: the establishment of well informed (Biblical) theological reflection in the church setting. Ballard does not retreat from the responsibility to diffuse knowledge of Biblical criticism down to the pastoral level. Towards this end, Ballard identifies three types of contemprorary Biblical/literary criticism that respect the Bible as a sacred book and can be utilize in pastoral situations to facilitate well informed theological reflection.

Ballard identifies the catalyst for the theological reflection as the expectation that theology may produce new results as concerns behavior, thought patterns, expectations, etc.[2] The Bible should play, Ballard argues, a dominant role in this process, given that the Bible is the primary source of theological information. Yet, Ballard sees a notable gap in the discussion among practical theologians. While practical theologians dialogue over techniques for theological reflection, there is a noticeable lack of discussion regarding what it means to use the Bible for theological reflection or how the Bible is best used in theological reflection.[3] Ballard sees this gap in discussion as being a result of the tendency to offer models of working with the Bible without reference to the theoretical claims underlying such models.[4] The primary setting for such reflection will be in the church or in a “real life” setting. This creates a paradox for practical theologians. On the one hand, theological reflection must be accessible for non specialists.[5] The person who is not a theologian by trade or has had no access or opportunity for theological study must be able to engage in theological reflection. However, local circumstance often make this difficult – there are, for example, limitations to whom much theological education can be offered in a church setting. On the other hand, academia requires practical theology be informed by other disciplines.[6] Theological reflection, then, must be intellectually rigorous. The practical theologian, as a result, has a response to engage the faithful in a mature and informed manner and in turn facilitate a reflection upon scripture in a mature and informed way.

The first means by which to achieve the above stated goal is to consider the place of the human person and God in history. Christianity, Ballard observers, is a historical religion, not in the sense that it is a religion founded at some point in history, but rather that in a historical person is found the eternal son of God, the meeting between humanity and the eternal.[7] This understanding should effect our understanding of our own history. History, even our present circumstances, is, in virtue of Jesus, necessary to God. In fact, Jesus’ history parallels our own history in so far as Jesus lived a human life.[8] Christian faith should discern history, including our presence, and find the eternal. To justify this contention, Ballard observes that the eternal son of God was hidden in first century CE Nazareth.[9] The end result is a sacramental conception of history and implicitly human life. This should affect our understanding of the Bible; we should see the Bible as concerned with the human response to the eternal. However, being that practical theology must be intellectually informed and subject to popular access, there is a tension between the target audience of Biblical reflection and Biblical criticism. Ballard believes he has found the various elements of Biblical Studies that are capable of complementing contemporary pastoral situations.

Biblical midrash uses the traditions and motifs of the Bible to reinterpret the holy text and/or religious tradition in the light of new circumstance.[10] In particular, Ballard sees much hope in canonical criticism, interpreting the Bible in light of the connections established between canonical books.[11] Canonical criticism ultimately has two benefits to a pastoral context. 1) Canonical criticism respects the integrity of the Biblical text; it does not seek to deconstruct the text or impose a meaning that appears outside of the text as the average vernacular reader would find it. 2) Canonical criticism frees the text from academic experts yet at the same time diffuses critical knowledge of the Bible; Canonical criticism, somewhat like midrash, invites the reader to see the thematic parallels in the canon of Scripture without resorting to proof texting. Finally, Ballard sees some hope in reader-response theories of textual interaction. Reader-reponse theories emphasis the role of the reader in encoding the text with meaning, as such, this allows for a plorality of meaning in the Biblical text.

Ballard notes three implications for practical theology in pastoral situations if his ideas were followed through. 1) Pastoral situations must facilitate access to theological reflection with relevant theological insights so that Scripture may be used responsibly.[12] 2) Theological reflection must be an extension of the life of faith. As such, the pastor/minister must function as a guide to the participant.[13] 3) Following the contribution of reader-response theory, there must be legitimate room for the participant to supply a unique impression to his or her experiences and related interpretation.
Ballard understands that, from here on in, there will always be a tension between Biblical reflection in the church setting and that of the university. The myriad of critical methods includes models which, at the very least, question doctrine defined in the history of Christian experience. One must wonder if it is legitimate to appeal to a less offensive model of criticism. Canonical criticism assumes the canon to be an authorative collection of books. This assumption is made despite the variance in the canon throughout Christianity and, furthermore, the evidence of books utilized by the inspired authors which did not make it into the canon (in many cases). It is tempting to ask: if genuine canonical criticism is possible, then whose canon deserves to be worked with? I know where my vote would fall, and I’m sure many readers would disagree. There is also the issue of narrative construction. Every denomination and theologian constructs a narrative from their canon and presumes its authority. In the parish setting, the narrative of the congregation is essential for confessional identity and unity. What if said narrative, while normative for the congregation, is not in fact definitive? Ballard’s article, although appealing to reader-response methodology and, hence, a degree of individual variance, does not account for a reader-response, in the light of personal experience, that challenges the normative narration. A prime example is the phenomenon of human suffering. Many Christian denominations follow a narrative in which suffering is addressed through patient endurance, yet, an honest assessment of the Hebrew Scriptures (in either Greek or Hebrew) demonstrates that suffering can be met with raising lament and in some cases a charge against God.[14] Such a praxis would, I believe, conflict with the majority of Christian narratives, yet, it has a strong basis of textual support.
Of final consideration is the dynamic Ballard has created between academic theology and, for lack of a better term, popular theology. Let me state for the record: I do believe there is a certain  amount of training one ought to engage in before one ever interpret Scripture. In particular, I believe that those who cannot read the ancient languages for themselves are at a disadvantage, one which no vernacular commentary or interlinear Bible will bring sufficient balance. This having been said, talk to any seminarian, priest, religious or minister from Africa, Asia, or Latin America, and they will make a claim, not without some justification, that when you consider the conditions under which many of the Biblical writers wrote, they, and not the West, have more credibility when interpreting the text. Academic theology talks a lot about the context of the authors and, certain people claim, it is in a place like Africa where one comes close to the context of the inspired author.

[1] Ballard, Paul. Theological Reflection. Practical Theology. 4.1. 2011 35
[2] Ballard 35
[3] Ballard 37
[4] Ballard 37
[5] Ballard 37
[6] Ballard 37
[7] Ballard 38
[8] Ballard 38
[9] Ballard 38
[10] Ballard 40
[11] Ballard 43
[12] Ballard 44
[13] Ballard 44
[14] See Levenson, “The Creation and Persistence of Evil,” and Zanger “A God of Vengence?”