Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Vivification and Reading Well

Once more on purification and the theological task:

In Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster, with the assistance of Kierkegaard and Calvin, helpfully integrates the proper reading of Scripture with sanctification, that is, with mortification and vivification. In the passage below, he explicates the latter. Vivification is a process of overcoming not only inept reading, but (and more importantly) sinful and wicked reading.

To this negative, there corresponds positive attentiveness to the text. The vivification of the reader’s reason involves the Spirit’s gift of a measure of singularity or purity in which Scripture is not one of number [sic] of possible objects of attention, even the most important in a panoply, but the one word which is to absorb us into itself. Reading Scripture well involves submitting to the process of purification which is the readerly counterpart to the sufficiency of Scripture. We can, says Kierkegaard, be ‘deceived by too much knowledge’. One of the diseases of which the reader must be healed is that of instability, lack of exclusive concentration; and part of the reader’s sanctification is ordered simplification of desire so that reading can really take place. ‘Let us always hang on our Lord’s lips’, counsels Calvin, and neither add to His wisdom nor mix up with it anything of our own, lest like leaven it corrupt the whole mass and make even the very salt which is within us to be without savour. Let us show ourselves to be such disciples as our Lord wishes to have–poor, empty, devoid of self-wisdom; eager to learn but knowing nothing, and even wishing to know nothing but what He has taught; shunning everything of foreign growth as the deadliest poison.’ Thus, however important the mortification of the reader, it must not be abstracted from the reader’s vivification. ‘Faithful reading’ is characterised not only by brokenness, but also by the restoration and reconstitution of exegetical reason; to stop short of this point would be to risk denying that sin had indeed been set aside. One of the functions of a genuinely operative pneumatology in this context is to articulate grounds for the reader’s confidence that it is possible to read Holy Scripture well–having in mind the true ends of Scripture, with false desire and distraction held in check, and with reason and spirit quickened into alertness to the speeches of God. This confidence is not the antithesis of fear and trembling: like all truthful human action, it emerges out of the fear of God. And, because it is wholly dependent upon the illumination of the Spirit, it is hesitant to trust other lights (especially its own, from which it has been set free). Yet: the Spirit has been and continues to be given to illuminate the reader, and so exegetical reason may trust the promise of Christ to lead into truth by the Spirit’s presence and power. In the matter of reading Holy Scripture, too, disorder and wickedness have been overcome and reason’s reconciliation to God has begun. (pp. 90-1, emph. his)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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