REDISCOVERING THE TAPESTRY OF SCRIPTURE: Understanding Its Plain and Canonical Sense

 Introductory Note

In 2008, I served on the drafting committee for the Global Anglican Future Conference, which produced the “Jerusalem Declaration” as a confessing statement for the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. When it came to the article on Holy Scripture, I suggested that the Declaration affirm the inspiration and authority of the Bible and the literal and canonical sense of its interpretation (see Essay 1 of my book). Members felt that the term “literal sense” would encounter too much unnecessary misunderstanding conflict and we settled for the following:

2.  We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.

The essay below, written in 1995, represents my thoughts on the meaning of “plain and canonical sense.”

The Literal Sense of Scripture: Unraveling the Threads

Imagine yourself standing in front of one of those huge old tapestries that one sees hanging in a cathedral.[1] You immediately notice the intricate weaving into rich patterns of themes taken from the heavenly throne scene of God and the Lamb in the Book of Revelation, chapters 4 and 5. Being something of a sleuth, you come up very close to the tapestry, and with your magnifying glass to examine the threads. Each thread contains three strands, red and green and gold, but they are twisted together so variously that they give off vastly different colors. You wonder how the artist could have sorted and twisted the various strands and threads in order to create the total effect on the viewer.

Believing the Bible to be the Word of God and actually interpreting it are two important but distinct activities. Confessing the primary authority of the Bible puts us, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, on the right road, but we still have a long and dangerous journey ahead and we need an interpreter to help us along. The way of interpretation which historically and theologically corresponds to the doctrine of verbal inspiration of the Bible is the literal sense. “Literalism” is a badge of pride or abuse nowadays, like the word “fundamentalism.” Just as those who would take their stand on the fundamentals are not necessarily fundamentalists, so reading the Bible literally does not necessarily make one a literalist. Since no hermeneutical label is without its difficulties, I prefer to stick to the classic use of literal sense.[2]

“Literal sense” is the linking together of God’s written Word, our hearts and minds made and restored in his image, and the Truth to which the Bible points (Ps 19:1, 7,14; John 15:26). The literal sense depends on a complex but real intentionality: God as the final author inspired the receiving, inscribing, editing, and collecting of his revelation so that it would convey true meaning. Although the greatest thinkers can mine Scripture and never exhaust its ore, the plain truth of God’s salvation is publicly declared (2 Cor 4:1-4; John 18:10) and available to those (and only those) who approach it as little children (Matt 11:25-26). Finally, literal interpretation does not imply worship of the Bible because language, while it is a complex symbol system, refers not to itself but to something or Someone else. Having said that, literal interpretation guards against spiritual bypasses around the text as a vehicle of meaning, for the Spirit inspires and illumines with and under the written Word.

Unfortunately, many conservatives and liberals have an atrophied understanding of the literal sense. They approach the text like Sergeant Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am!” Or “Did it really happen that way?” (Conservatives answer Yes, liberals No). If Scripture is more textured than a flat reading would allow, it is because its component strands are tightly spun into a three-fold cord of literal meaning. To distinguish the strands of each thread, I would ask three kinds of questions of any biblical text:

What kind of writing is this? Literal interpretation must be sensitive to the grammar and artistry of Scripture. The grammar of a text is determined by the basic semantic rules of its language. Its artistry is conveyed by means of particular genres – whether discourse, narrative, lyric, saga, history, or realistic history, prophecy, wisdom, or apocalyptic. In other words, literal interpretation honors the textual integrity of God’s Word, what we might call the wing-prints of the Holy Spirit. We must be careful not to assume we know the answer to this question in advance; interpretation of genre is an inductive or dialectical process which involves technical competence, literary attentiveness, and willingness to hold one’s presuppositions loosely.

How does this text fit into God’s saving purpose and covenant design? Or, what’s the Good News in this? Or, Sir, how do we see Jesus in this text? In some books, like Exodus and John’s Gospel, the answer to this question seems obvious; in others, like Ecclesiastes and Jude, the salvation-historical thrust is more problematic. Furthermore, the Old Testament and New Testament function differently in God’s saving revelation, as captured by such terms as promise and fulfillment, law and Gospel, Christ who is to come, Christ who has come. Even these categories must be treated delicately since Christ and the Gospel (1 Cor 10:4; Gal 3:8) can be found in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament framework of creation and Law continue to make a claim on the Christian disciple (Matt 5:17-20; Rom 13:8-10).

What claims or assumptions about truth does this text make? Behind every text of Scripture stands the Author saying “This is my Word: hear it and heed it!” As Father and Creator, God guarantees that his Word, unlike our words, will not come back empty but will accomplish its goal.[3] However, God’s wisdom in the way of Scripture is complex. He works miracles, he gives commands, he offers wisdom for living in the created world, he creates a narrative world, he declares mysteries of heaven and the future. The reader must bring ears to hear and a heart to obey God’s Word. Preachers find that people are often touched differently by different texts on different occasions.

If there is a genuine trinitarian analogy here, then we may expect a kind of interpenetration of these strands of interpretation.[4] The original genre of a psalm (e.g. Psalm 2) may be transformed when it is incorporated within the announcement of Jesus as Messiah (Mark 1:11). The truth claim that God is a Rock (Ps 18:2) is understood to be metaphorical due to its lyric genre. The promise of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1) can only be understood by those who accept the fact of an original creation.

Biblical Theology: God’s Saving Diptych

Now let us put away our magnifying glass and step back from the tapestry of Scripture to survey the whole. One thing that immediately catches our eye is the busyness of the scene. Events and characters dominate the foreground, but there are other features in the background. We also note a fact that is obvious but somehow missed from close-up: the tapestry is a diptych, a two-paneled scene focusing successively on the Eternal One and the Lamb.

To ask how to think biblically is to enter the field of biblical theology. The proper task of biblical theology is to stand back and look at the whole, asking the question: what does the Bible say? There are, of course, those who think that question does not require careful study. They open their Bibles, say a prayer, and point to a verse (actually, I think there may be a placed for inspired proof-texting, but it is dangerous and lazy as a general approach). At the other end of the spectrum, many Scripture scholars doubt that there is such a thing as one biblical theology; consequently the academy has tended to bequeath biblical theology to the preachers.[5]

The happy exception to the dearth of theologies of the whole Bible is the work of Brevard Childs, who pioneered a “canonical approach” to interpreting Scripture over the past quarter-century.[6] He accepts as a starting point the authority of the biblical canon and the final form of the text, thus abandoning the quest of historical critics to reconstruct its original setting and transmission. However, he also warns against a “biblicism” that ignores the diachronic (i.e. developmental) character of the biblical material, and distorts the true theological subject matter of Scripture, centered in Jesus Christ.

Childs’s work is consonant with the textured literal sense taken here, although it also has some points in common with the postmodern exaltation of text over author.[7] Three specific emphases in Childs’s approach may aid us in thinking biblically:

Canon and tradition. Childs understands the emergence of the canon of Scripture as both dynamic and historical on the one hand and normative and theological on the other.[8] The Word did not plummet from heaven, leather covers and all; nor did the Church get the notion late in the day to canonize certain books and not others. Rather, “canon consciousness lay deep within the formation of the literature.”[9] While Childs ultimately judges the final form of the biblical text to be authoritative, he pays serious attention to the pre-canonical tradition (the focus of modern biblical criticism) and to the post-canonical history of interpretation of the canonical text by Jews and Christians. This emphasis reminds us of a basic tension inherent in the truth claims of the text: while God’s word is trustworthy, the text is not a static lesson plan but a living oracle that calls each reader and the Church of every age to wrestle anew with the in-breaking Word of God – and to enjoy the privilege of reading the Bible with the saints of every age.

Two testaments, one Bible. Childs draws out the significance of the fact that in the canon we have a two-fold Bible, which points to a two-act drama of God’s saving work. This means that biblical theology must honor the integrity of each Testament. “The Old Testament is promise, not fulfillment. Yet its voice continues to sound and it has not been stilled by the fulfillment of the promise.”[10] Therefore Christians must at times put on Old Testament prayer-shawls and enter into the not-yet-fulfilled world of creation and promise. But the fact remains that God’s revelation was not continuous and that the second act of the drama was rejected by and large by the players in the first act who went on to develop their own distinctive exegesis. This means that Christians will read the Old Testament in their own way, namely by “typology,” seeing Old Testament images, persons, and institutions as “preparation” for Christ and the Gospel.[11]

Christ and the rule of faith. Jesus Christ, according to Childs, is the center and true referent of the canonical Scripture, with the Old Testament witnessing to the Christ who is to come, and the New Testament to the Christ who has come.[12] In order to do justice to the whole canon, Childs insists that Christ the center is not a cipher, a fill-in-the-blank for every passing theology. Rather, the Old Testament has set out messianic categories, with Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching as the main topics and themes of the Church’s preaching and teaching. In this respect, biblical, dogmatic, and pastoral theology rightly overlap.

The Altar Book: the Bible as the Church’s Witness to the World

Suppose we were so caught up by the glory of the scenes displayed in our tapestry that we said to ourselves: “How I would love to live in that world!” This is in fact a peculiar evangelical temptation called biblicism. In its Puritan form, it makes an imperial claim that the whole of reality can and must be ruled by the words of Scripture. Although this form of biblicism is rooted in a wholesome desire that every thought be taken captive to God’s word, it tends to flatten the Bible into a doctrinal textbook or body of divinity. In fact, few people are consistent biblicists but tend to leave areas of piety and practice either to the move of the Spirit or to common sense. There is today even a liberal version of biblicism in which the “plausible” and “imaginative” readings of the Bible are taken as authoritative truth for that group, even though those readings are incompatible with the history of Christian interpretation. In my view, it is possible to hold to the primacy of Scripture without ignoring the context of the historic church and world in which we live.

If we unrivet our eyes from the wonderful tapestry of Scripture, we will notice that it is hanging behind a holy table, and on both sides of the tapestry are windows looking out into the world.[13] The tapestry focuses the vision of the worshiper on the story of Christ, but it does not demand worship itself (bibliolatry). Rather, it draws us into worship and service of his invisible presence, and that worship and service necessarily is lived out with other Christians in the Church. Whatever our tradition, we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s word in a corporate setting, in Sunday worship or in small group sharing. Without the Church, we are like the Ethiopian eunuch asking “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30) The sacraments, as God’s visible words, bind us tangibly to other Christians. (It has always struck me as significant that the sacraments are the only elements of church life that cannot be communicated via a camcorder.) Thus it is natural that Philip, having unveiled the Gospel, immediately baptizes the eunuch.

The windows to the world signify two ways in which the Word of God relates to reality. First of all, they remind us of our missionary call: that the Gospel is given to the Church for the “healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). It is not enough for us to enjoy the biblical tapestry in the Church. From Pentecost on, we are summoned as witnesses, bringing others to see the wonderful works of God. In order to give a reason for the faith that is in us, we need to know the context of our world. Secondly, the Word of God, like our Lord himself standing before Pilate, will be tested critically and skeptically by reality. Thus we cannot only teach the Word, but we must listen to the doubts and charges which the world harbors against it. But unlike “jesting Pilate,” who would not stay for an answer, we must step into the world of the text and see in the Word made flesh the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.[14]



[1] After developing the metaphor of the Scripture as tapestry, I came across Ben Witherington’s The Narrative World of Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1992). I am unwilling, however, to give up a good metaphor simply to claim originality. Note: the framing photo of this essay is of the “Angers Apocalypse Tapestry”  (1377-1382). Source: Wikipedia.

[2]The credit for recovery of “literal sense” as a respectable category of hermeneutics goes to the Yale school of theology. See Hans Frei, “Literal Sense” in  Essays; and Brevard S. Childs, “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture: An Ancient and Modern Problem,” in H. Donner et al, eds, Beiträge zur Alttestamentliche Theologie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977) 80-93. I have set out a defense of the literal sense in “Reading the Bible as God’s Word,” in The Bible’s Authority in Today’s Church, ed. Frederick H. Borsch (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1993) 133-167.

[3] Note the distinction between truth value and truth claim in V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation 5; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994) 176-193.

[4] For examples of trinitarian reading, see Barth, Church Dogmatics i.1.4; Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning? 161; Stephen L. Stell, “Hermeneutics in Theology and the Theology of Hermeneutics: Beyond Lindbeck and Tracy,” JAAR 56 (1993) 670-703; Frances Watson, Text, Church and World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 11-14; Long, Art of Biblical History, 63-76.

[5]See John Reumann, “Introduction: Whither Biblical Theology” in his collection, The Promise and Practice of Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991). Reumann points out (page 5) that “theologies of the Bible are rare and can be counted on two hands.” Cf. David L. Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible (rev. ed.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991) 269-270.

[6] Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

[7]. In Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979) 79, Childs speaks of “canonical intentionality” rather than divine inspiration of Scripture. In my view, his defense of “canonical intentionality” as the guiding force of Scripture would be better expressed as “authorial/Divine” intentionality. In his New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) 541-546, he discusses the common ground with George Lindbeck’s “cultural-linguistic” approach to theology.

[8] Biblical Theology, 71.

[9] Biblical Theology, 70-71.

[10] Biblical Theology, 77.

[11] Biblical Theology, 87.

[12] Biblical Theology, 88.

[13] In a delightful “shaped” poem entitled “The Altar,” George Herbert suggests that we can enter into the mysteries of Christ’s word only with the spirit of sacrifice.

[14] Cf. Francis Bacon, Of Truth (1625). Pilate could not see beyond the mere fact of the man before him (Ecce Homo) the climax and chief Actor of the divine drama, as have the heirs of Bacon, the empirical scientists.