The true meaning of scripture is the solid historical reality of the
continuum of actual meanings over the centuries to actual people. It
is as mundane, or as transcending, or both, as have been those actual
meanings in the lives and hearts of persons. … The scripture … is
dimly or vividly recognized as meaning not only such-and-such but
at the same time more even than that, more than the reader or hearer
has as yet discerned.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, What Is Scripture?
A Comparative Approach (Fortress Press, 1993, 89)
THE DURABLE ROLE OF BIBLICAL TEXT AS AVAILABLE TRADITION, WHICH the community tends always to utter and experience again, is not done, characteristically, either with a full-blown canonical awareness or with a full-blown critical awareness. Rather, the force of these texts, which continue to sound in text, is through ad hoc use, utterance out of dense memory long schooled in the text in which an imaginative re-utterance makes poignant, astonishing, compelling, and illuminating but ad hoc contact with the present moment of experience.
In this subsequent moment of re-utterance and rehearing, both the speaker (quoter) and the hearer recognize intuitively that this is “the right text” in this moment, even if it is taken out of canonical or critical context. In that moment of utterance, the text is offered by the speaker (quoter) and received by the listener as revelatory. That is, it discloses something about this moment that would, without this utterance, not be known, seen, heard, or made available. It is, in my judgment, this ad hoc quality of text reuse, given in courageous imagination and received by intuition, which has been lacking in much of the conflicted discussion about canon and criticism.
It is the work of canonical practice in ecclesial communities and the work of criticism in the scholarly community to keep the text available. It is by the ongoing enterprise of religious and scholarly communities that the text lingers over time in available ways. Out of that lingering, however, from time to time, words of the text characteristically erupt into new usage. They are seized upon by someone in the community with daring. Or perhaps better, the words of the text seize someone in the community who is a candidate for daring. In that moment of re-utterance, the present is freshly illuminated, reality is irreversibly transformed. The community comes to know or see or receive or decide afresh. What has been tradition, hovering in dormancy, becomes available experience. In the moment of speaking and