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Book Review: Sanctifying Interpretation by Chris E. W. Green

January 21st, 2021 | 17 min read

By Andrew Arndt

“God does not save us from interpretation but by it and for it.”[1] So claims Chris Green in the second edition of his marvelous book Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, and Scripture. (Those familiar with the first edition of his book will be grateful for this one; the language is less dense and technical, and the ‘readings’ of Scripture Green gives to illustrate his points go a long way to driving the lessons home.)

As a lifelong evangelical it is my observation that our theologies of Scripture often suffer from being insufficiently situated within a wider account of God and his dealings with the world–on the nature, that is, of salvation. Anxious to secure the authority of Scripture on philosophical grounds as well as to bolster believers’ confidence in it, modernist accounts of what the Bible is and does often unwittingly reduce the inspired text to a book of mere information about God, flattening its wrinkles, smoothing its sharp edges, and thereby fail to account for the unique way that God uses the text of Scripture savingly in our lives.

This Green is out to correct. “How God saves us,” he writes, “must be inseparable from what God saves us for”[2]–namely, the mediation of God’s character and ways to the world. Critical to Green’s project is the insight that mediation hinges on interpretation. As God and his ways are interpreted (mediated) to us and believed by us, we in turn interpret (mediate) God and his ways to others. “We are created to interpret,” says Green. “It remains, even under the conditions of our fallen existence, God’s gift to us, fastening us to our created purpose.”[3]

Scripture, then, for Green is that human instrument which is “taken up mysteriously into God’s purposes for us…God has brought about and continues to take up these words in these texts…making them apt for our good, using them for the ‘training in righteousness’ necessary for us to live as faithful witnesses of his salvation.”[4] Whatever we mean by the ‘inspiration’ of Scripture, we must surely mean no less than that. “As in Christology,” he notes, “the decisive question for our doctrines of Scripture and our theories of interpretation is not How but Who? That is, we should not ask ‘How can I know the Scriptures are true? How can I get the truth from Scripture and know that I have gotten the truth?’ But we should ask, instead, ‘Who has given us the Scriptures? Who is he making us to be?’”[5] This Green details, to brilliant effect, through a series of essays on the nature of vocation and holiness.

To Share in Christ’s Lordship

What is the human vocation? Unpacking Psalm 8 in connection with Hebrews 2, Green contends that our vocation is “nothing less than [to have] a share in Christ’s lordship,” which in turn “is nothing less than a giving away of God’s own life.”[6] This God does by incorporating us into Christ himself, through whom we become “both a temple and a kingdom of priests for the world’s sake.”[7]

Far from sequestering us from the world, such a vocation and calling throws us with Christ into the uttermost depths of solidarity with the world. This is entailed in our baptism. As the baptism of Christ in the Jordan expressed his radical solidarity with sinful humanity, so “[t]he truly holy life is a life lived in radical solidarity with sinners just because it is a life consumed with intimacy with the holy God. The Spirit of baptism calls us into the depths – the depths of God’s joy and the depths of the world’s agonies.”[8] Precisely this is what it means to be Christ’s body and the Spirit’s temple: “We are made by the Spirit the temple for the sake of others, so they can encounter Christ in the room he has made for them in our lives.”[9]

This, then, exactly this, is what we mean when we talk about “sanctification”–that the Spirit sanctifies us so that that, in ever-increasing union with Christ, we would be at once delivered from the reign of anger, selfishness, and fear, and liberated for the call to love and serve others, as Christ did and through us does. Our lives, taken up into the life of Christ, become gifts given for the life of a world degraded by sin, “places” of encounter and reconciliation opened up in the midst of a fallen world in the hope and promise that it, together with us, will be made whole.

To Shape Imagination and Desire

Given this account of God’s dealings with us in Christ Jesus, what must we say of Scripture? Green, quoting Lewis Ayres, contends that “the Scriptures are a providentially ordered resource for the shaping and reformation of the Christian’s imagination and desire”[10]–that is, for the specific end of God making us holy as he himself is holy. Which is why the church and the individual believer’s life must be bathed in Scripture. So far, so good.

But that is where the trouble begins, for Scripture must not only be spoken and heard, but interpreted and reinterpreted by the very same ones who, at present, are not yet holy as God is holy. Which means that our interpretation–our mediation–of the reality of God unavoidably suffers the distorting consequences of sin. And this bears on our fulfillment of the vocation given to us in our baptism: “[W]here our speech about God is too distorted, not merely affected by our limitations but effectively effaced, our priestly ministry fails, largely if not entirely.”[11]

If such an enterprise seems fraught with risk, well, it is. But God is willing to take that risk, as Green says, because how God saves us is inseparable from what he saves us for. He saves us as we struggle to hear and say the name of God truthfully–a struggle that will continue until the eschaton as the Spirit “pressure[s] us further and further into” the work of interpretation.[12] And because God is with us, we know that however fraught the struggle is, it is not doomed to failure, for no word from God will ever fail (Luke 1:37).

Troubled into Holiness

It is with respect to the notion of sanctifyingly “struggling” with Scripture that Green does his best, most challenging, and I think most helpful work.

What are we to make of the troubling passages of Scripture, where God is presented as (seemingly) something less than the God that we have met in Jesus Christ? If it is indeed the case that the only “sanctification” we are given is that which unites us with Christ for the sake of the world in his ongoing priestly ministry, then surely it holds that readings of Scripture are sanctifyingly valid for us only to the extent that they serve that end. So how, for instance, do Old Testament ‘texts of terror’ lead us into holiness? What do we do with them?

There are options available to us. We could ignore such texts as having nothing to do with the gospel–an essentially Marcionite tack. We could insist that such texts must simply be accepted in faith as revealing God and his will, even if we have no idea how–a kind of interpretive apophaticism. Or we could say such texts represent a stage on the journey, where God allows his people to misunderstand and misrepresent him “in the short run so he can care for his representatives for the long haul”[13]–an appeal to progressive revelation.

Of the three approaches, Green thinks the first is an obvious non-starter, while the last two have merit. We do not speak wrongly when we say of difficult Old Testament texts that they are beyond our understanding, or that they are a step on the journey to full revelation of God in Christ. But perhaps we can, and must, say more.

With the church fathers and mothers, Green does just that, giving us what he calls a “fourth approach” where the reader and hearer of Scripture “press[es] past the literal sense, ‘the letter’, to grasp or be grasped by ‘the spirit’ of the text. Read this way, the violence in the OT actually means something besides what it seems to mean at the literal level.”[14] And surely this must be the case, Green argues, because “[t]he whole of the OT, as well as the NT, including the most troubling passages, and perhaps especially the stories of divine violence, are about Jesus, and about the grace he brings to bear on us.”[15] The question is, how does that work?

A Test Case: Samuel, Saul, and the Amalekites

As a test case, Green draws our attention to God’s command to Samuel for Saul to destroy the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:1-3). The story is, needless to say, troubling. The Lord gives an unconditional command to Saul through Samuel to utterly destroy the Amalekites–men, women, children, and cattle–in battle. This Saul does–sort of, keeping alive both the best of the cattle as well as King Agag. For this infraction of the divine command, Saul’s kingship is rejected. Samuel cuts Agag to pieces with the sword, completing the job. Saul and Samuel never see each other again, and the narrative ends darkly: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Sam. 15:35).

What are we to make of a story like this? How on earth can we meaningfully say such a troubling tale is given to us to shape our imagination and desire unto Christlikeness–the very Christ who, so unlike Samuel, tells Peter to put away his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:52)? If we’re honest, we at times feel torn between our loyalty to the God revealed in Jesus and the Bible which contains many stories that seem unworthy of that same God. Green admits that the struggle is real:

I cannot believe that God would require actions like these [the command to destroy the Amalekites] of anyone, no matter the circumstances. But I do not want to choose between God and the Bible. So, I am left to say that the stories are inspired by God, but not to tell us about something God once did and made his people do. They are not reports on an evil that we must accept as good because God required it. They are not even reports on something Israel wrongly believed God had required. Instead, they are stories, true in the ways that only God’s stories can be, true like a measurement, like a cut, dividing the bone of the soul from the marrow of the spirit, laying bare the hearts of our hearts (Heb. 4:12).[16]

In other words, stories like this sanctify us, in part, not by telling us “God is like this” but by catching us in our assumptions that “God is like this.” They do this–crucially–on their own terms. In keeping with the best intuitions of the patristic and medieval era, a proper “spiritual exegesis” will not leave behind the text; still less will it import into the text something that is not there. It will, instead, set the text in the wider context of God and his dealings with humanity as recorded in the entire sweep of the biblical story.

“This story,” Green contends, “carefully read, read as it was intended to be read, is a story that calls into question not Saul but Samuel–and in this way catches those of us who side with Samuel in our reading, exposing our complicity in what he does and fails to do.”[17] What follows is a fascinating (re)reading of this story set inside the wider context of the Old Testament in which we learn that categorical judgments to wipe out this or that group of people rarely (if ever) achieve their intended effect (sin persists, for example, after the judgment of the Flood) and that God’s prior promise to Moses that he will “utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”, taken literally, is impossibly at odds with God’s other promise (given two verses later) that he will “have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:16). Which is it, God? Utterly blotting out or continually making war? Our curiosity is raised by the text itself. We begin to wonder if there is more going on than what we see.

The salient point to grasp here is that the text on its own terms, in other words, pushes us to see that there is more at work in the story than what appears at first glance. God’s intention to deal fully and finally with evil cannot be about the elimination of people groups but must be about something more–namely, the tearing out of the root of wickedness within each one of us. In terms of the overall narrative of 1 Samuel, the dark tale of chapter 15 fixes nothing. Evil is not uprooted, and (in different ways) both Saul and Samuel fade into oblivion. Again, something more must be at work. Green offers what he thinks the “something more” in this case is:

For both Jews and Christians, ‘Amalek’ personifies evil. And the strange stories about Amalek, including this in 1 Samuel, come to serve as a warning that evil must not be resisted in ways that are themselves evil. …Samuel’s penultimate exchange with Saul…is a cautionary tale, one that warns us against the corrupting effects of religious zeal, but more importantly also reminds us that what we do to others in the name of God not only may not heal them but actually may do irreparable harm. Instead of blotting out the name of Amalek forever, we may become Amalek, our violence generating a new cycle of failure and failed judgment…[18]

…a message, we should note, that squares firmly with the life and teaching of Jesus, of whom the entire Scripture is a portrait. Allowing ourselves to be troubled by the surface meaning of the text, the Spirit pushes us to a deeper discernment of the will and ways of the God revealed in Jesus (who is also Saul and Samuel’s God), the one of whom the whole Scripture is a portrait and who defeats evil not by eliminating people groups but by offering his life for every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, who sanctifies the world not by killing his enemies but by dying in order to turn his enemies into friends.

Inspired Stumbling Blocks

Crucially for Green’s project is the recognition that part of what we mean by the “inspiration” of Scripture is that it is divinely designed exactly to elicit our sanctifyingly troubled response. That is to say, we are supposed to “trip over” Scripture–right into God. One hears an echo of Origen’s thought on the inspiration of Scripture here. Remarking on the interpretive difficulties of many Old Testament passages, Origen commented that “the Word of God has arranged that certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and obstacles and impossibilities be inserted into the midst of the Law and the narrative, in order that we may not be drawn away completely by the sheer attractiveness of the language and so we either completely reject the teachings, learning nothing worthy of God, or, not moving away from the letter, we learn nothing more divine.”[19]

For Origen, part of the providential ordering of the Scriptures is precisely the experience of “stumbling” over what seem to be insuperable obstacles and impossibilities–it makes us humble and teaches us to throw ourselves on the mercy of God, who alone can reveal “the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge, which the Spirit through Isaiah calls dark and invisible and hidden, needing, for them to be found, God, who alone is able to break in pieces the doors of bronze that hide them and to break the iron bars that are upon the gates…”[20]

Only God, in other words, can “break open” the truth of Scripture for us. As often as not, he does this breaking us upon it. To use the favored language of the Reformers on this point–we are mortified (in more ways than one!) and vivified in our encounter with the Scripture, especially the troubling parts of it.

Now, for Green, none of this is to say that the reader’s response to the text is where the authority lies. No, the authority lies with God, who exercises that authority through the text, albeit in different ways. It might be, on the one hand, that our being troubled by texts of terror leads us to a fresh investigation of the way that the theme of violence is handled and resolved in Scripture. But it may also be, on the other hand, that our discomfort about how the Scripture speaks of, for instance, our sexuality leads us to see that it is not the texts that need to be reread but that our understanding of our sexuality, conditioned as it is by Western notions of freedom and a dangerous bifurcation between the soul and the body, needs to be “reread” in light of the Scripture so that we may be sexually whole.

The goal of Sanctifying Interpretation for Green is not that we should consider it a new method for handling Scripture. Far from it. The goal is to illuminate how the Spirit already uses the text of Scripture in our lives–whether we are aware of it or not–and to therefore keep driving the people of God back to Scripture, insisting that we pay attention “to what the texts seem to want to do on their own terms, to the ways that the texts give witness to Christ in his relation to the Father, and to the ways that our hearts are stirred as we read.”[21]

And our hearts will be stirred—often in ways that surprise us. As we read Scripture we’ll find ourselves—perhaps to our surprise—sympathizing with Hagar and Ishmael (rather than to the “elect” in the story). If we and when we do, Green suggests that we ought to pay attention to that, for, as it turns out, God’s sympathies (so the text tells us) are also drawn to them, as they are drawn to all the “rejected”, the outsiders, the “non-Israel”, who will one day finally be welcomed into the elect community in Jesus. Or perhaps, to our surprise, we’ll find ourselves taking Moses’ side in a dispute with Yahweh over the threatened destruction of his people. Once again, if and when we do, Green suggests that we ought to pay attention to that, for, as it turns out, Moses is a figure of that Prophet like and yet so much greater than Moses whose entire life will be an unbroken revelation of the Father’s will that mercy would finally triumph over judgment.

But once again, the point is not to give us a method that settles conclusions. Rather it is to show how the God revealed in Jesus keeps making us holy by involving us with himself precisely through these texts, which, like the parables, keep challenging our view of God, ourselves, and the world over time. And this they will do–whatever theory we hold about them–for the Word of God is indeed “living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword…judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The sword of the Word pierces and troubles our souls, over and over again, so that we might know the Lord. Reflecting on his own trouble as a child with the story of Achan’s sin, in which not only the guilty man but his entire family (and flocks and herds!) were condemned to death (Josh. 7:24-26), Green writes: “What impresses me is that the story was able to affect me like it did. And I think the response it provoked in me is exactly the response it was designed to provoke.”[22]

Provoked, in other words, by the story of the condemned to stand with the condemned. Sounds like the gospel to me.

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  1. Chris Green, Sanctifying Interpretation (CPT Press: Cleveland, TN, 2020), 46. Emphasis mine.
  2. 43.
  3. 45-46. Emphasis mine.
  4. 47.
  5. Green, 5.
  6. 12.
  7. 21.
  8. 25.
  9. 31.
  10. 126.
  11. 46.
  12. 54.
  13. 141.
  14. 141-142.
  15. 143.
  16. 146-147. Emphasis mine.
  17. 147. Emphasis mine.
  18. 149-150.
  19. On First Principles, 261.
  20. 278.
  21. 194.
  22. 217.