Surprised by Jesus Again: Reading the Bible in Communion with the Saints (Jason Byassee) -- A Review
SURPRISED BY JESUS AGAIN: Reading the Bible in Communion with the Saints. By Jason Byassee. Foreword by Michael Gulker. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2019. Xvii + 190 pages.
If you are a Protestant, you might be suspicious about any attempt to bring “tradition” into the conversation about matters of faith and practice. The Reformers and their heirs went all-in on Sola Scriptura. That is, when it comes to matters of authority, Scripture alone is the relevant voice. Truth be told, even Protestants have traditions. Reformed folks like to appeal to Calvin; Lutherans give deference to Luther; Wesleyans like to quote John Wesley. My tradition, the Disciples of Christ and our siblings have taken things even further. We have embraced the slogan “No Creed but Christ, No Book but the Bible,” but we have our own traditions. One of the challenges of my tradition is that there has been a tendency to define the Bible almost solely in terms of the New Testament. By suggesting in his book Surprised by Jesus Again that we read the Bible in communion with the Saints, Jason Byassee offers us a somewhat counter-cultural vision for Protestants (and he knows it).
Despite this Sola Scriptura heritage, there is a growing sense within Protestant circles that the Saints might have something important to say to us. Thus, Byassee can be counted among those within the Protestant community who have begun to welcome the witness of the Saints (to use his terminology) because the critical study of the Bible often leaves us wanting more. That is, while many Protestants—including Byassee and me—welcome the insights of historical and critical analysis of Scripture, there is a growing sense among some Protestants that maybe too much was given away in the embrace of Sola Scriptura and historical-critical readings of Scripture. Although by the late medieval period allegorical interpretations had gotten a bit out of hand, could it be that early Christian interpreters knew something that might benefit us today? Might we learn something important from interpreters such as Origen or Augustine or Gregory the Great? It’s not that they are infallible, but might they provide the reader with valuable insights? Byassee believes that they do have something to say to us, and he wants to show us why and how they might speak to us today.
Jason Byassee is an interesting person. I’ve read a number of his books and value his perspective on matters of faith. He has served on the editorial staff of the Christian Century, the premier magazine of mainline Protestants. He is an ordained United Methodist minister. He holds the Ph.D. in early Christian theology and he teaches preaching and hermeneutics. He has a background that is clearly mainline and even liberal but has sympathy for evangelical and Catholic views. In terms of his own theology, he has a special appreciation for, among others, St. Augustine.
In this book, Jason invites us to read the Bible in conversation with early Christian interpreters like Augustine and Origen. He is especially concerned with the way Christians read the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. He is concerned about tendencies that move toward Marcionism so that the Old Testament is deemed too violent or irrelevant to the message we discern from Jesus. At another level, he is concerned that we have handicapped ourselves by an unwillingness to read the Old Testament Christologically. In doing this he seeks to avoid supersessionist/replacement interpretations that suggest Judaism has been replaced as God’s covenant people, while at the same time advocating for a Christological reading of the Hebrew Bible. In doing so he insists that Christians aren’t importing something into the text but is simply discerning something that is already there. It is a tightrope he walks, but it is a path that the writers of the New Testament and their heirs took.
Byassee starts by affirming the premise of Paul that Christians have been grafted into the promises of God made to Israel. While Christians don't replace Israel, in Christ, we share in the promises God made to Israel. This leads him to Origen, who is well-known for his allegorical readings of the Hebrew Bible. In this case, Byassee focuses on Origen's reading of the Song of Songs, which the great formulator of the allegorical method read in terms of the church's relationship to Christ. He notes that in reading the Song of Songs Christologically, Origen doesn't avoid the at times erotic implications of the songs. From there he moves to Mary (the mother of Jesus), affirming Mary's role in pondering and treasuring what she learned of her son. From there we move to Augustine, who focuses on the role of “desire.” According to Byassee, in his book Instructing Beginners in Faith, Augustine suggested that three things are going on in interpreting the text of Scripture: “the author and what he wishes to communicate, the words on the page in all their difficulty and glory, and the desire of the reader” (p. 67). Augustine was concerned about what the reader/hearer might desire from the text. Augustine was concerned about that which people loved, their passions in life. How does Scripture address that? Interpreting Scripture will need to take this into consideration. Thus, he too will embrace an allegorical reading of Scripture when necessary.
In a chapter titled "Learning Scripture in Nazareth," Jason affirms his premise that God is Jewish, Catholic, and Pentecostal. In essence, affirming the trinitarian nature of God. He suggests that the God we find in Scripture is "untamable, free, delightful." (p. 97). This leads to a discussion of the contributions of Gregory the Great, who exemplifies a Christological interpretation. Gregory is one of those interpreters who seems to go off the rails, and yet he may have something valuable to share. The key here is embracing the contemplation of Scripture as a foundation for preaching. For Gregory, a text has a "literal" level, but it also has an allegorical or theological interpretation as well as a tropological or moral interpretation. Each is valuable. What he does, according to Jason, is let us know what the text says about Christ and church.
Chapter seven is titled "The Institution of the Old Testament." Here he takes up recent works that wrestle with the Old Testament and concerns that it is losing its place. It's a helpful chapter because Jason wants to affirm taking the text on its own merits while also reading it Christologically. Thus, not losing the text from our Christian Scriptures. With that lifted up, Jason invites us to read the scripture in its four senses, literal (unfortunately we have misused this term), the allegorical, the tropological (moral), and finally the analogical (eschatological sense). These four senses were deployed by pre-Reformation interpreters to great effect. Jason would have us reclaim them, though without their excesses. He also addresses the current idea that we can take the Bible seriously without taking it literally. Marcus Borg is perhaps the origin of this statement, but what does this really mean? Do we not read it according to its plain (literal) sense before engaging in theological, mystical, moral interpretations? In his postlude, he addresses the whole issue of the relationship between science and our reading of Scripture.
Overall, I liked the book. I agree that we need to listen to earlier interpreters, even if we don't adopt all their interpretations. I am, after all, trained as a historical theologian. What I found interesting as I read the book is Jason’s seeming uncertainty as to where he finds himself theologically and ecclesially. He suggests that he is liberal, and yet he seems attracted to evangelicalism (considering that the United Methodist Church is embroiled in a debate over LGBT inclusion, I was uncertain as to where he places himself). Perhaps all of this is related to his desire to listen to all the saints, both ancient and modern (by saints I mean all the believers). I also understand that labels don't always work well (they don't work for me in many ways).
In writing the book Jason suggests on several occasions that he is addressing first and foremost those who are called to preach. He wants preachers like me to bring into our conversations with Scripture the words/teachings of those who have gone before us (especially people like Origen, Augustine, and Gregory). At the same time, as noted above, at times it’s unclear whether he is addressing mainline Protestants or evangelicals? Perhaps the ambiguity I perceive here is meant to be an invitation to both. In that he is United Methodist, at times he seems to be trying to bridge the divides in that denomination. Whomever he might have in mind, the call for preachers like me to listen to the saints as we read Scripture in preparation for entering the pulpit is worth heeding. We might not agree with everything we read in our encounters with our forebears, but we might learn something of value. That is, simply because it’s new doesn’t make it correct.