Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

What Is Scripture? Pursuing Smith's Question

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

What Is Scripture? Pursuing Smith's Question

Article excerpt

In What Is Scripture? Wilfred Cantwell Smith called for a new conception of scripture that is fully historical and comparative and that anchors religious meaning in personal acts of relating to the divine rather than in texts as such. He also proposed thinking of scripture as a primary mode of human language alongside prose and poetry. This essay fills in Smith's indeterminate conception by defining scripture as a sovereignly authoritative sacred book-like text or text collection. The essay also points out powers of directive language that reach a maximum in scripture so understood: addressing articulately the most basic question of how persons shall be guided, offering the most usefully comprehensive array of types of guidance, and sponsoring the richest interpretive discussion and most rewarding implementation of ultimate practical norms. In all these respects scripture plays a crucial role in the historic maturation of direction-setting that Habermas has called "the linguistification of the sacred."

One of Wilfred Cantwell Smith's most important legacies is a question he asked insistently: What is scripture? "Probably no one on earth today quite knows what scripture 'is'," he asserted in What Is Scripture? (p. 212).1 Smith's question cracks the assumption that a particular "Scripture" defines and adequately represents the whole category and leads to asking how the practice of enshrining supremely authoritative texts fits into the larger history of communicative action.

In addition to asking a great question. Smith offered a noteworthy idea to guide reflection on the nature of scripture. He suggested that scripture is a mode of language logically on a level with prose and poetry. In this paper I will develop that idea in a way that Smith would probably have resisted. Nevertheless, I think this development is needed to recognize the distinctive kind of communication and authority that scripture brings to religious life. I will emphasize the power of preeminent sacred books to charter universal community and their appealing offer of the best guidance to free individuals.

Smith's Question

As a historian and comparativist. Smith made a point of consciously bearing burdens of uncertainty that are usually ignored in dogmatic theology and rational analysis of religious meaning. Historical uncertainty is unavoidable in tracing the emergence of varying conceptions of scripture in and around the appearances of sacred texts. We can see that Paul, for example, conceived "the scriptures" differently than the Deuteronomic historians conceived "the book of the law" some centuries earlier, and that Calvin in rum thought differently of "Scripture'' centuries later. But this very movement of the concept makes us uncertain how exactly to define it at each point, since each context contains a mixture of inherited and newly forming meanings.2 There is also a comparative uncertainty associated with religious pluralism. We cannot deny that we face a global phenomenon of scripture, seeing that sacred books with a designated preeminence are found in virtually all of the literate religious communities of the world. But significant differences between representative Muslim understandings of the Quran and related sacred texts, Jewish understandings of the written aspects of Torah, Confucian and NeoConfucian understandings of the Confucian canon, and so on make us uncertain how to center mid bound the category of scripture (and even whether "scripture'' is a fair comparative term).3

Mindful of these difficulties, Smith asked "What is scripture?" in a deliberately indeterminate way. He* wanted to nurture a new, globally ecumenical concept of scripture on the basis of a fully open historical and cross-cultural investigation, consciously positioning himself, his subjects, mid his audience as historical, spiritual actors in a dynamic, pluralist religious situation (pp. 1-3, 64). He wanted scriptures to be seen as fruits of a historical and spiritual action of script uralizing conceived as an ongoing human action of relating to transcendent divinity by means of designated texts (p. …

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