What is SR?
Some Features of Scriptural Reasoning as an Academic Practice and as a Religious Practice
SR as an Academic Practice
Drawn from Peter Ochs, "It Has Been Taught": Scripture in Theological and Religious Studies," in eds. D. Ford, R. Muers, and J. Soskice, Fields of Faith, Cambridge, 2005)
The purpose of SR has been to foster a "third model" of academic scriptural theology that avoids the intellectual reductionism of strictly plain-sense studies of Scripture as well as the religious reductionism of orthodox theologies that eschew the plain sense sciences altogether. Members of SR have found that this purpose is best served by promoting circles of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim text scholars and theologians who bring both their sciences and their faiths to the table while they engage together in extended periods of scriptural study. After examining text-historical studies of some set of Qu'anic and Biblical verses, each circle devotes two to three conferences a year (along with intervening email exchanges) to intense discussion of the theological force of these verses when placed in dialogue one with the other. The society labels the interpretive activity that emerges through this dialogue Abrahamic "scriptural reasoning" (SR). SR refers to the patterns of reasoning that are prompted by faithful-and-scientific studies of all three scriptural traditions, that are disciplined by contemporary practices of hermeneutics, and that - as of this date - appear to be generating effective guidelines for the study of scripture, theology, and comparative traditions after modernity. I will close this essay by illustrating a few of these guidelines. This sampling is drawn from the work in progress of the Scriptural Reasoning Theory Group, an SR circle sponsored by the Cambridge University Faculty of Theology:
- Study is a group as well as individual activity. Good scholars display social as well as strictly intellectual virtues. These include extending hospitality to fellow learners, listening, and speaking to the heart as well as mind.
- The primary intellectual virtue is reading well. Group study should focus, first, on a religion's primary scriptural sources, as they appear to have been received by their early reception communities and as they are scrutinized by text-historical scholars. Group study should focus, secondly, on the ways these sources are received by contemporary communities of practitioners.
- Group study should address at least two different scriptural sources and scriptural traditions. After introductory instruction by specialists and representatives of each tradition, all scholars/students should contribute equally to the work of discussing and interpreting all of the sources. This work should move gradually through all appropriate levels of study: from philological, semantic and rhetorical studies to intra-scriptural readings to comparative interpretations of the source texts' societal, ethical, and theological implications.
- Comparative interpretations should be stimulated by a range of interests: from formal studies of hermeneutical and narrative patterns, to ethical and theological dialogue among the traditions studied, to the implications of such studies for addressing contemporary intellectual and societal debates.
SR as an Religious or Theological Practice
Drawn from Peter Ochs, "Faith in the Third Millenium: Reading Scriptures Together," address at the Inauguration of Dr Iain Torrance as President of Princeton Theological Seminary and Professor of Patristics, Thursday 10th March 2005.
...Here are ten features of my own scriptural reasoning as observed from a theological perspective and as shared with those who belong to scripturally-based communities of religious practice:
- I turn to Scripture for guidance on how to understand and act in the world.
- In terms drawn from Scripture, "turning for guidance" means lidrosh et hashem, "inquiring after God," where the verb lidrosh connotes derashah: searching through the words of Scripture for meanings that are already there but not yet disclosed to me. For me, scriptural reasoning thus presumes both that God's instruction is revealed in Scripture and that what is revealed cannot be readily seen in the plain sense of the words of Scripture. (Now, the sages of the Talmud warn, lo yotse... mide peshuto, the meaning of Scripture must not depart from the plain sense, but this not a call for literalism. As I understand it, it means, "on your travels deep into Scripture, be sure to follow the path prepared for you by the grammar, the text historical context, and the semantic fields of the plain sense. Otherwise, you will be searching after something other than the Creator's will.")
- The plain sense speaks for all eternity, but the deeper meaning is disclosed only for the time and place of the seeker.
- Derashah, seeking into the depths of Scripture, is a form of prayer: it is asking God, "how shall I understand this day? And what shall I therefore do?"
- The seeker believes that God answers back, as it were, and then the seeker asks a more refined question, then God answers back, and that the back and forth dialogue between prayerful seeker and the God of Scripture is what we mean by studying into the depths of Scripture as Scripture, provided we remember that this kind of study speaks only to the time and place of study.
- SR marks out special times for bringing a part of the eschatological future into the present.
- Individual words of scripture do not generate single meanings but broad fields of meaning. If we want to retrieve a single meaning from out of those fields, we cannot sit idly by the text and wait for disclosure but must bring ourselves openly to the text, declaring who and where we are and then searching actively for the meaning that seeks us out in this time and space. We therefore read each word of scripture as generative of broad fields of meaning, from which we are led to encounter certain deeper meanings appropriate to this given day.
- To search for scripture's deeper meaning for this day is to pray for illumination and to search for signs of that illumination in our text traditions and in our study fellowship.
- Each member of a study fellowship is a member, first, of a distinct tradition of study and practice shaped and reshaped over time by practices of remembering a group's encounters with God (or "revelation") and of being educated and renewed through this memory.
- The English term "scripture" may be used to refer to the record of such encounters that is sanctified and preserved by a given tradition of study and practice. (The English term is useful because its Latin root -scribere, "to write" - captures the focus on writing and thus reading that characterizes each specific tradition of scripture. It is useful, as well, because it leaves otherwise undetermined how a specific tradition will name and thus understand its scripture.
- SR refrains from otherwise generalizing about the way a scripture will be named and maintained within a tradition. The way a tradition names its scripture belongs to the way it is received into intimate relation with God, and no name offered outside the tradition can be adequate to this intimate naming. A tradition therefore houses a way of reading and enacting scripture.
- But SR challenges the presumption that there is only one scripture we can call "scripture" in these terms or one "tradition" that can be called "scriptural tradition." But also SR challenges the presumption that it is easy to locate ways of speaking of "scripture" across traditions. For SR, such ways can be located only in the practice of reading scriptures together, so that each scripture and each tradition is in play, no one tradition dominates, each offers hospitality to the other to read and interpret, and no one can predict what will arise out of a session of such study, nor out of the next session and the next.