In her essay entitled “Christian Character, Biblical Community, and Human Values” Lisa Sowle Cahill includes a discussion of the pluralistic nature of the biblical text and implications for interpreters.
Many interpreters point to the pluralistic, internally dynamic structure of the biblical canon itself as a model for theological reflection, and Newsom herself is sympathetic to this approach. She advocates ‘dialogic truth and the polyphonic text,’ in which the different voices in the text are brought into intersection at the level of practical engagement and conversation among interpreters. Similarly to Newsom, Werner Jeanrond calls for a new form of interdisciplinary, reading-centered biblical theology that is both critical of ideologies in the text and resistant to any final systematization, especially one that is ‘ecclesially imposed.’ “Biblical theology encourages all nondogmatic models and paradigms of describing continuities and discontinuities in the complex development and religious challenge of biblical monotheism. It calls for an ongoing ideology critique of any systematizing attempt.” (see Brown (ed), Character & Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 10-11).
That was my response as I read this paragraph. All and any perspectives are welcome, but don’t try to say that a particular biblical passage means something, or that it has a particular message. Is there really no place in biblical study for normative theological instruction and ethical admonition? Does acknowledgement of multiple voices and perspectives in Scripture mean that the drawing of conclusions is thereby somehow proscribed?
While Cahill acknowledges and appreciates the “Bible’s internal pluralism” and sees in it a model for a dialogical theology and ethics, she remains dubious about this approach to Scripture:
My own conviction is that sheer pluralism is not adequate as a Christian moral response to injustice in the world. Christian morality requires some more determinate understanding of what it means to begin to live in the reign of God, to form a community as body of Christ, or to be transformed by the Lord’s Spirit. . . . Although the celebrators of diversity eschew the . . . interest in something substantial as the working material of theology, I find it essential to Christian character ethics to define at least a few desirable characteristics (11, 13).
To that end Cahill argues that Christian morality “can and should be centered in virtues like repentance, reconciliation, love, compassion, solidarity, mercy, and forgiveness” (11).
Although overly confident specific extrapolations of biblical ethics can and have been unjust and oppressive, complete deconstruction of normative meaning is not an acceptable alternative. It is not enough to say Christian character will be formed in a number of quite disparate communities that have in common only that they have read Scripture idiosyncratically. The general virtues Christian character should exhibit are evident enough from the standpoint of even a historically oriented and critical biblical hermeneutic (14).