Who is squeezing whom?

Revd Alex Klages is at a Lutheran Church – Canada event rejoicing in one of the most incomprehensible hashtags I’ve ever seen on Twitter: #mnolcccentconf. He just posted the following message responding to a point made by one of the speakers:

The importance of squeezing a text to get all the juice out of it; interesting way of looking at exegetical task.

Yes, it is an interesting way of looking at the exegetical task. What’s interesting is how it compares with the language used by John Bunyan in his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (phew! great title!), where he uses phrases such as the following to describe his encounters with the Scriptures:

  • This scripture did also seem to me to trample upon all my desires, ‘It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy’ (Rom. 9.16).” (para 58)
  • these words broke in upon my mind, ‘Compel them to come in, that my house may be filled’; ‘and yet there is room’ (Luke 14.22, 23).” (para 68)
  • “…that Word came in upon me: ‘I will cleanse their blood that I have not cleansed: for the Lord dwelleth in Zion’ (Joel 3.21).” (para 76)
  • “…for that scripture lay much upon me, ‘without shedding of blood is no remission’ (Heb. 9.22).” (para 86)
  • “At which, that sentence fell in upon me, he ‘wist not that it was true which was done by the angel’.” (para 91)
  • “Now about a week or fortnight after this, I was much followed by this scripture, ‘Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you’ (Luke 22.31).” (para 93)
  • “I had, also, once a sweet glance from that in II Cor. 5.21: ‘For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.'” (para 113)
  • “At another time, as I sat by the fire in my house, and musing on my wretchedness, the Lord made that also a precious word unto me…” (para 116)
  • “And withal, that scripture did seize upon my soul…” (para 141)
  • Suddenly this sentence bolted in upon me, The blood of Christ remits all guilt. At this I made a stand in my spirit; with that, this word took hold upon me, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin’ (1 John 1.7).” (para 143)

You get the idea. For Bunyan, the Bible is not a passive object waiting for us to “squeeze the juice out of it”. It is truly a living Word, which acts upon us as and how the Holy Spirit pleases (see para 47).

What I found especially challenging glancing through Grace Abounding looking up these references is the variety of ways in which Bunyan experiences the Word of God working upon him. Sometimes it acts almost violently, as it “breaks in on his mind”, “bolts in upon him”, “tramples on his desires”, and so on. Sometimes it has a steadier, more lingering influence: “that scripture lay much upon me”, “I was much followed by this scripture”.

At other times it almost teases him with the prospect of happiness and assurance (“a sweet glance”). And at yet other times the Word of God comes to him as a comfort: “the Lord made that also a precious word unto me…” There is a richness of experience here which is far beyond anything in my own spiritual life.

Now, the spiritual torment that Bunyan describes in Grace Abounding is not something to hold up as the model for “the ideal Christian life” (see also this post from 2006). But reading Bunyan makes me realise how easy it is for us to lose sight of the Word of God as living and active, as something which acts upon us rather than waiting passively for us to interpret it.

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9 Responses to Who is squeezing whom?

  1. Rev. Alex Klages says:

    Indeed, he pointed out that the whole desire of the exegete is to squeeze the text in the sense of squeezing the juice of the orange; getting all that the text has to say out in order that in preaching you are completely normed by the text instead of norming it from your own ideas.

  2. John H says:

    Oh, quite. And I’m sure Bunyan – a good Puritan who wrote 120-page treatises on single verses ๐Ÿ˜‰ – would agree.

    And we need you pastors to do the hard yards in the study so that the Word can “fall upon us”, “sweetly glance at us” and all the rest of it when we hear it preached. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Still, I do think the modern church has lost something of that old perspective of the living Word – the Word as described in Article V, wielded by the Spirit as his instrument to create and maintain faith.

  3. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    IOW for Bunyan the Bible is a Sacrament. As I would expect of Bunyan. So from me a hearty yes but no but yes but no but… Sort of with you. But sort of not.

    There is no place in this world for an exegete to lay his head. And frankly, I’m beginning to get a bit testy in my middle-age. What can a poor exegetically-minded serf do but pull rank one of these days and get into a bit of trouble.

    After all, Jesus said, ย“every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.ย”

    Let me be frank. There is a particular guild, vocation, art and profession that Christ has in mind here. Just because Lutheran members of this guild generally suck at their vocation doesn’t change this fact.

  4. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    Sorry. Too high-strung and distracted today to even read your comment before I posted. So…
    I do think the modern church has lost something of that old perspective of the living Word ย– the Word as described in Article V, wielded by the Spirit as his instrument to create and maintain faith. Absolutely. So do I. This is the kerygmatic Word, the viva vox evangelii.

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    I had a church history professor who was a Bunyan fan. No, that is too mild a term. He donated around 500 Bunyan-related items to the Gordon-Conwell library in 1999. I don’t share Dr. Kerr’s enthusiasm for Bunyan, even if he managed to enliven my interest in Puritanism.

    I do think you bring up a great point. Bunyan’s description of his experience matches our doctrine better than much that we describe. Yet I wonder if it matches the Scripture itself. I can find verses that speak of clinging to, keeping, meditating on, and pondering the Word. Bunyan’s language looks a little different from anything I can immediately think of.

    I would not fault Bunyan here. I think this is an area where Lutheranism makes allowances for experiential language to differ from Christian to Christian. In theologies that emphasize experience, there is a tendency to make experience uniform. Each conversion must look like every other conversion. Or if we make exceptions, we must find some famous exception it matches. “Oh, that’s okay. That sounds like what happened in so-and-so’s case, and she’s so-and-so’s wife, and he would have said something if that wasn’t okay.” When you focus on doctrine, experience can differ from Christian to Christian, and I think that ironically, it makes more room for experience, since there is (or at least should be) less policing.

    Bunyan’s verbal abilities suggest to me an auditory component to his creativity. He probably “heard things” more often than most people. I won’t discount a real spiritual component, but I would guess this is natural gifting, individual neurological wiring, and the Word of the Lord working through his mind in a way that doesn’t have to be considered normative.

  6. John H says:

    JRH: I wasn’t intending to diss exegesis or exegetes. ๐Ÿ™‚ Exegesis is great; I just didn’t care for the “squeezing the lemon” metaphor.

    Rick: good point re the language of Scripture placing more of an emphasis on the verbs you list (and there is plenty of the language of meditation in Grace Abounding). But I think Bunyan’s spirit can be found in the Bible, even if his precise language can’t.

    e.g. in Psalm 119: “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. … Your decrees are my delight, they are my counsellors. … revive me according to your word”, and so on. Indeed, it would seem fair to say that, for the psalmist, meditation is not a means by which we act upon an inert Word, but a means by which we allow the Word to act upon us; just as in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there has to be a human action (which it is all-too easy to see as the only thing going on), but the true activity is from God.

    And yes, totally agree that Bunyan’s experience should not be treated as normative. I don’t think he intended it to be; quite the opposite.

  7. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    I know you weren’t. I’m just hypersensitive today. I was reading some Internet that I shoudn’t have been. If anything, “lemon squeezing” is a preparatory or supportive task. After all, someone had to translate the Bible for Bunyan. But more properly, it’s the living Word that squeezes us – acts upon us as you so rightly say. And all too often hermeutical parlour tricks are employed for the purposes of averting the that squeeze.

  8. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    Ugh “hermeneutical” “averting that…” Can’t write or think anymore. Have been squeezing lemons from 9.00 am until now. Must go to bed.

    Also, got Zep’s “Lemon Song” in my head now. Suffering some cognitive dissonance.

  9. While on the topic of Bunyan, here’s a powerful word from him on Law & Gospel:

    “He that is dark as touching the scope, intent and nature of the laL, is also dark as touching the scope, nature and glory of the gospel…. I say, therefore, if thou wouldst know the authority and power of the gospel, labor first to know the power and authority of the law. For I am verily persuaded that the want of this one thing, namely, the knowledge of the law, is the one cause why so many are ignorant of the other…. Again, that man that doth not know the nature of the law, that man doth not know the nature of sin; and that man that knoweth not the nature of sin, will not regard to know the nature of a Saviour.”

    From The Doctrine of Law and Grace Unfolded.

    As it happens, I was at a pastors’ conference in Melbourne, Australia last week where the guests of honour were Dr Reg Quirk (chair of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in England, John’s church) and Dr Manfred Zeusch (president of one of the seminaries in the Lutheran Church-Canada, Alex’s church.) Small world these days, isn’t it?

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