by Alvin Kimel
How do we interpret the Bible with the Church? How do we read it as Scripture? As noted by Richard Swinburne, “The Bible does not belong to an obvious genre which provides rules for how overall meaning is a function of meaning of individual books.” This is a critical philosophical observation–at least I found it to be such when I first read Swinburne’s book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy ten years ago. Swinburne gave me permission to unprivilege the critical-historical reading of Scripture and to begin to appreciate and affirm the rich and variegated interpretations of the Bible found in the patristic and medieval periods. If the Bible is one book, whose ultimate author is God and whose audience is the Church, then we simply cannot assume that the canonical meaning of a given text is identical to its authorial meaning. “We may hanker,” writes Swinburne, “after the ‘original meaning in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork and context changes meanings.” Swinburne elaborates why this is so:
But what the Church proclaimed as Holy Scripture were not individual books, let alone the units out of which they were made, but the whole collection. Putting the books together into a whole Bible involved giving them a change of context and, in consequence, by processes similar to those involved in the formation of an individual book, a change of meaning. The process produced a change of literary context: what were before books on their own became parts of a big book. And it also produced a change of social and cultural context, but just what the change was depends on who we suppose to be the author of the whole Bible and who was its intended audience. For, as we have seen, it is the social context and the cultural presuppositions of the author and his audience which dictate how the book is to be interpreted. The Church put the Bible together, but it did so by selecting books deriving from prophets or apostles in which were recorded what in its view was God’s revelation through them to man. God, in the Church’s view, was the ultimate author of the Bible–working, no doubt, through human writers with their own idiosyncrasies of style, but all the same inspiring the individual books.
So how do we then discern the canonical meaning of Scripture? By learning to interpret the Bible as the early Church did. Or to put it somewhat differently, by adopting the rules of interpretation that were employed by the same folks who canonized the Old and New Testament books. And if we do this, we suddenly find ourselves reading the Bible in ways that would have horrified the Reformers and their heirs. Yes, I’m talking about typology, allergory, tropology, anagogy, and all that good stuff. Swinburne writes:
So there was a wide tradition in the early Church of reading the Bible metaphorically and not always literally; it was the Church of the centuries which established the canon of Scripture which taught that this was the way in which it ought to be read. It was the Bible understood in that way which they declared to be true….
Of course if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the ‘original meaning’ of the text, that original meaning is often false: there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted…. Yet the rules are there, sanctified by centuries of use by those who claimed in accord with Christian tradition that the Bible was “true.”
The acid test is the “Song of Songs.” A number of years ago I led a Bible Study at a clergy retreat, using Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary as my guide. Afterwards, several of the priests came up to me and told me how interesting and helpful it had been for them. We all agreed that new vistas of interpretation for preaching and devotion had been opened up for us.
Simple fact: the Song of Songs was admitted into the canon because it was seen as a love story between God and his people.
It is ludicrous to suppose that any Church Father, even the most ‘literal-minded’ one, would have supposed that [the Song of Song’s] meaning was its meaning as a book on its own. On its own it is an erotic love poem. They would all have said that its meaning was to be understood in terms of its place in a Christian Bible. Just as the rabbis had interpreted it as concerned with God’s agapeistic love for the old Israel, so now the Church Fathers normally interpreted it as concerned with God’s (or perhaps Christ’s) love for Israel, new (the Church) as well as old. Even those Church Fathers who protested against the allegorical interpretations of other passages interpreted allegorically here and no doubt in some other places as well. There is no justification whatever for them or us to regard the Song as a special case; whatever rules apply to it apply generally. The genetic fallacy that origins determine present operation leads us to suppose that we understand the meaning of a text when we understand its literary history. But we do not; what we need to know is its literary context, not its literary history.
The Reformers would no doubt have complained that this Early Church hermeneutic turned the Bible into a “wax nose”; but this complaint only demonstrates the dramatic distance between the Reformers and the Church that formed and recognized the canon.
3 April 2004
What are the authorities for faith? This question must always be raised and answered when the Church finds itself involved in theological controversy. Anglicanism, which is the ecclesiastical tradition to which the Episcopal Church belongs, insists that the Holy Bible is our primary authority. When a deacon, priest, or bishop is ordained, the ordinand is required to promise the following: “I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” This language invokes the Articles of Religion (BCP, 867-876). Article VI states: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” Article XX states: “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of salvation.”
Holy Scripture, therefore, is our normative authority in matters of faith and morals. As the great 16th century Anglican divine Richard Hooker wrote: “What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due.” Scripture exercises this crucial role because it is both a divinely inspired witness to God’s revelation in history and is itself a form of divine revelation. Thus the Articles of Religion can speak of Scripture as “God’s Word written.” Hooker names the Scriptures “the oracles of God.” The Bible exercises primary authority in our theological reflection because the divine Creator is its final and ultimate author. Properly and rightly interpreted, the voice of Scripture is the voice of God; the truth of Scripture is the truth of God; the command of Scripture is the command of God.
But as we are very well aware, the Bible can be interpreted in different ways. How are disagreements to be mediated? Several principles have been historically invoked by Anglicanism.
First, we must recognize that although Scripture is itself a collection of ancient documents, written, redacted, and edited by many individuals over a period of a thousand years, Scripture is itself one book. Its divine author intends it to be read as a narrative whole. Hence the insistence of the Articles, as cited above, that one part of Scripture may not be expounded to contradict another part of Scripture. “The New Testament is hidden in the Old,” explains St Augustine, “and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” To the eyes of faith, the Bible enjoys a wondrous unity, and that unity is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Every verse, every passage must be read within the one story and revelation that is Holy Scripture.
Second, the Bible is the Church’s book and is thus to be read in the Church and with the Church, in the community of the Holy Spirit. The Bible did not fall from heaven, but was collected and formally canonized by the community of believers. Historians read the Bible as ancient literature; Christians read the Scripture as contemporary revelation addressed to the Church for eternal salvation. Our interpretation may begin with historical exegesis, but it cannot stop with a merely historical reading. The Bible as God’s Word given to us today. Thus its proper location is the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist.
Third, because the Bible as the Word of God does not belong to an obvious genre of literature and because it does not itself provide us with rules on how to read it as one book, we must look to the community of the Bible to show us how to interpret it properly. Very early on the Church insisted that the Scripture must be interpreted in accordance with the creeds of the Church. Later the Church insisted that it must be interpreted in accordance with the dogmas of faith established by the Church in ecumenical council. In other words, the Bible can only be rightly interpreted within the Holy Tradition of the Church. We do not come to the Scriptures as solitary individuals nor is our reading of Scripture limited to contemporary concerns. We read the Bible in community with the saints and martyrs. “Tradition,” G. K. Chesteron remarked, “refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” In the 17th century Lancelot Andrewes summarized the Anglican rule:
One canon reduced to writing by God Himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of fathers in that period, the three centuries that is before Constantine, and two after determine the boundary of our faith.
We may legitimately question the arbitrariness of limiting the authoritative Tradition to the first four ecumenical councils, but what is crucial for us to see is the insistence that Holy Writ must be interpreted through the hermeneutical lens of the Fathers.
It is clear from the above hermeneutical principles that historic Anglicanism eschews idiosyncratic and sectarian interpretations of Holy Scripture, whether they be of the revisionist or fundamentalist variety. Anglicanism situates itself in the deep tradition and common life of the Church. It trusts the Holy Spirit to have guided the Church for the past two thousand years. Yes, the Scriptures must be interpreted in light of new developments in historical, economic, and scientific knowledge. We understand more clearly today, for example, the inherent wickedness of slavery than we did fifteen hundred years ago. The Spirit leads us into deeper understandings of God’s Word, even as we sometimes forget the truths learned by earlier generations.
Disputes about the interpretation of Holy Scripture are not new to our time. In the fifth century St Vincent of Lerins discussed the proper reading of the Bible when confronted by conflicting interpretations: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” This Vincentian canon has often been cited by Anglican theologians. Universality, antiquity, and consent–these are the marks of a faithful and godly reading of Scripture.
Finally, true understanding of God’s holy Word is only achieved in our prayerful surrender to God’s will given to us in Scripture. As St Isaac of Syria counseled, “Do not approach the mystery-filled words of the Scriptures without prayer and a request for assistance from God.” If we come to the Bible with the intent of liberating ourselves from its commands and witness, we will only find our own preconceived opinions in its pages. As in all aspects of discipleship, we must deny ourselves and allow God’s truth to be formed in our minds and hearts.
8 May 2004
In response to my article Reading Scripture in the Church, Paul Baxter asked what I mean when I state that the “Scriptures must be interpreted in light of new developments in historical, economic, and scientific knowledge.” Good question. Building on my earlier article How to Read Scripture and Sculpt a Wax Nose at the Same Time, and relying heavily on philosopher Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation, I’ll try to elaborate a bit.
God is the ultimate author of Holy Scripture. By this claim I do not assert a divine dictation of the Scripture. I am happy to acknowledge that God, through the mystery of synergy, worked through numerous human authors, redactors, editors and all the literary and historical processes that Bible scholars like to talk about. But I do wish to strongly affirm with the Church down the ages that God is ultimately responsible for the message of each sentence of the Scriptures. Thus the Scriptures are rightly described as the “oracles of God” and “God’s Word written.” The Second Vatican Council offered the following fine statement of the divine authorship of Holy Scripture:
Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (Dei Verbum III.11)
Of course, we read such a statement today and wonder if the dogmatic claim of divine authorship of the Bible commits us to replaying the Scopes monkey trial. While I understand that I will often called upon to be a fool for Christ, I would still prefer not being a dolt for Christ. What do we do then when we find that our scientific or historical knowledge seems to contradict the literal sense of Scripture? The easy route, chosen overwhelmingly by mainstream Protestantism, has been to abandon any claim of the divine authorship of Scripture, settling instead for a very weak notion of its divine inspiration. But when we walk down that road, we quickly discover that the Scripture ceases to exercise any real authority in the life of the Church. It becomes merely a source of the church’s theological and imaginative reflection, one fallible source among many fallible sources but with no decisive authority. Swinburne offers an alternative, however: Confess God as the ultimate and principal author of the Bible and then interpret the Bible “like any other book.”
Like any other book? Yep. That’s what Swinburne says. Find out as much as you can about the author, determine the book’s intended audience, identify its genre and the conventions of interpretation, interpret it in terms of its preface or other guide, and “take as metaphorical what the author cannot have intended as literal.” The interesting thing is that when one does all of this, one discovers that the Bible is unlike any other book that we know.
It’s important to recall that the meaning of a sentence changes when it is incorporated into a wider work. Context changes meaning. This means that the meaning that God intends in his Bible is not necessarily identical to the meaning intended by a given biblical writer.
St Augustine states the following rule for biblical interpretation:
We must show the way to find out whether a phrase is literal or figurative. And the way is certainly as follows: Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbor; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbor.
We note that Augustine allows for extra-textual factors to compel a metaphorical interpretation of a given text. If a literal interpretation contradicts the doctrines of the catholic faith or violates the love of God and neighbor, then a figurative interpretation is called for, regardless of the intent of the biblical writer. Elsewhere Augustine acknowledges that knowledge gained through scientific and historical inquiry may also compel metaphorical interpretation. For example, Augustine argued that the days of creation in Genesis 1 should not be taken literally because a literal day requires the existence of the sun. Now Augustine may be wrong in judging that the biblical writer literally intended twenty-four hour days; but what is important is the interpretive principle. Swinburne writes:
The beliefs shared by God and the Church of many centuries which force metaphorical interpretation on the text will be not only those of Christian doctrine, but those of science and history, provided by normal secular enquiry. God knows all truths in these fields; so if the Bible is addressed to the Church of many centuries, then truths of which that Church also becomes aware may force metaphorical interpretation on biblical passages which, taken literally, contradict them…. This point was not a modern discovery but well recognized in the centuries which preceded the final canonization of Scripture, and is therefore among the understandings with which it was canonized.
In determining the meaning of a given text, it is often critical to identify the audience to whom the text was addressed and to find out as much as possible about that audience. So to properly understand Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, I need to understand the Corinthian church in its historical and cultural context (as much as that can be determined). But First Corinthians is not just an isolated text. It belongs also to a book that we confess to be Holy Scripture, whose author is God Almighty and whose audience is the one holy catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. One implication of this confession is that the canonical meaning of any given sentence may not truly become clear until many generations after the text was originally composed. The author of Genesis 1 may well have believed that the world was created in seven twenty-four days; but the Church Fathers “knew” that the ultimate author of Genesis, God, intended the seven creation days to be interpreted metaphorically.
We have seen how Augustine allowed that scientific discovery forced metaphorical interpretation on a text; for it was scientific “discovery” which suggested that in a literal sense there were not separate “days” of creation. And Augustine belonged to the century which promulgated a canonized Scripture. But if the intended audience of Scripture is the Church, not only of the first century (many of whom, presumably, Augustine would have regarded as scientifically backward) or the first four centuries, but of later centuries and millenniums, then … truth evident to the latter (especially as the Church of later centuries is by numbers of members much larger than the earlier Church) must also be allowed to force a reinterpretation on the text in the way that truth evident to Augustine forced that. New scientific and historical discoveries may force that kind of reinterpretation.
Treat the Bible like any other book and we end up with results totally unlike any other book.
10 May 2004
Unless you have just tuned in, it will come of no surprise to you when I state that I believe that classical Reformation Protestantism is doomed. Reformation Protestantism is doomed because it is structurally incapable of saying No to secularism, heresy, and unbelief, except by recourse to schism and the formation of new denominations. I would expect the mainline denominations to continue in some form or another–probably as small communities of neo-gnosticism and political activism. I also expect Protestant fundamentalism to continue to thrive. Whatever else it offers, fundamentalism does offer clarity. Evangelicalism, on the other hand, is an open question. It really does not know which way it wants to jump–whether off the fundamentalist cliff or the experiential-pietist cliff. In some ways American evangelicals sound a bit like the biblical theology movement of fifty years ago, only with praise bands in their sanctuaries.
The future of catholic Christianity thus lies … where else but with the two traditions that are truly catholic–Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Both traditions deny the formal sufficiency of the Bible. Both reject the sola scriptura of Protestantism. Both insist that the Scriptures are to be interpreted through the living Tradition of the Church. And for this reason, both communions have the structural capacity to say No to modernity and to maintain, by the grace of God, the core doctrines of Christianity.
In his book Scripture in Tradition, Orthodox theologian John Breck argues that the Bible must be situated within the Tradition of the Church if it is to be rightly heard as God’s revelation to his people and experienced as source of the new life of the Kingdom.
The Scriptures are themselves the product of Holy Tradition. “Tradition is the matrix,” Fr John writes, “in which the Scriptures are conceived and from which they are brought forth.” This is most clearly seen in the relationship between the New Testament and the apostolic Church. Before a single epistle or gospel was composed there was the Church and the apostolic gospel that had brought her into being. It was in this living community, indwelt and inspired by the Holy Spirit, tutored by the apostolic memory, sustained, formed, and recreated by Holy Baptism and the Eucharistic sacrifice, that Apostles and Evangelists put quill to parchment and brought forth the texts that came to be received as the New Testament. It is this primary and fundamental life of the Church that is Holy Tradition. “Scripture as written text is born of Tradition,” writes Fr John.
The relationship between Bible and Tradition is therefore a closed hermeneutical circle. Holy Scripture is God’s Word to his Church for salvation and is thus the canon by which all traditions are judged and authentic Tradition is determined. The Holy Scripture, on the other hand, is birthed within the Church and by the Church as the normative expression of her Holy Tradition. Holy Scripture is Tradition, the normative part of Tradition, yet not independently of the whole of Tradition. Holy Tradition thus determines the canonical limits of Scripture and provides the interpretive community in which Scripture may be rightly read and interpreted.
At the heart of this circularity of Scripture and Tradition is the person of the Holy Spirit. Fr John writes:
To the patristic mind, what makes this seemingly circular approach not only possible but necessary is the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who guides the Church and her inspired authors both to preserve and transmit the essential elements of Tradition, and to produce the canonical or normative writings which Tradition spawns and shapes in terms of their content. Without this inspirational work of the Spirit, both Scripture and Tradition would be purely human products, devoid of any claim to ultimate truth or authority. It is the work of the Spirit that enables the Church both to generate and to interpret her own canon or rule of truth, and thereby to preserve intact, as she must, the true hermeneutic circle constituted by Scripture in Tradition.
How very different this approach is from all Protestant formulations of the authority of the Bible! The Protestant sola scriptura seeks to exalt God’s Word and authority over the Church, and yet, ironically and contrary to intention, ends up exalting the private opinion of the interpreter over all. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, envisions Scripture as an integral part (though my use of the word “part” is probably inappropriate and inapplicable) of the life of the Spirit-inspired Church whose present reality is the Holy Tradition. As a result, Orthodoxy is equipped to effectively exercise communal discipline over the individual interpreter who finds himself reading the Scripture in ways contrary to the catholic mind of the Church. (I welcome correction from our Orthodox readers.) I believe that a Roman Catholic would heartily affirm Fr John’s presentation, with, of course, the usual provisos about the papal magisterium, etc. (But again I welcome correction.)
A question for my unrepentant sola scriptura brethren: Both Orthodoxy and Catholicism reject sola scriptura and construe a circular relationship between the Holy Bible and Holy Tradition. Which is more likely to be a late innovation? the catholic approach or the Protestant approach?
“Sacred Tradition is the very Church; without the Sacred Tradition the Church does not exist. Those who deny the Sacred Tradition deny the Church and the preaching of the Apostles” (St Nectarios of Aegina).
11 May 2004
Did you know that right-wing Episcopalians are committed to the Enlightenment project of disenchanting reality? I didn’t know it, until I read the Anglican Scotist’s article Radiating Disaster Triumphant. In this article the Scotist continues his argument that the appeal to the plain meaning of Scripture is philosophically incoherent:
On the one hand, many winger-ECUSAns seem intent on reading the Bible so as to preserve the sovereignty of God and God’s place in claiming our obedience. They take the resurrection of Christ, his divinity, the dogma of the Trinity and other elements of dogma out of Chalcedon to be genuine truths. Good and laudable: I applaud. But on the other hand, they read the Bible as if it yields up plain facts of meaning: such and such a text plainly read means X, and any attempt to read it as meaning something else, say Y, is twisting the text and perverse. Not good–there are no plain facts of meaning in the Bible. It is not a collection of propositions from which dogma may be constructed. The winger hermeneutic kills the Bible as canon.
Let’s briefly take up the claims of this paragraph one by one.
First, Scotist says that the Bible does not yield up plain facts of meaning. What does this mean? Is Scotist saying, for example, that the grammatical-historical reading of the Bible is a hopeless task, that it is not possible for us to read the Letter to the Romans and figure out Paul meant when he wrote it? A lot of exegetes and commentators are going to be real disappointed to hear this. Given the Scotist’s harsh criticisms of those who appeal to the plain meaning of Scripture, he owes us an explanation on why such an appeal is impossible (but see below).
Second, Scotist says that the Bible is not a library of propositions from which the Church may construct her dogmas. But why? The Bible is full of propositions. In its pages are found truth-claims of many different sorts. Historical claims are asserted, ethical claims are asserted, theological claims are asserted. And what is a truth-claim but a proposition. Clearly the Bible is more than a collection of propositions, but it is not less than such a collection; and if this is so, why should these biblical propositions be excluded from the Church’s acts of dogmatization?
Scripture is first and foremost, Scotus tells us, “a text of Christian myth and ritual.” Its proper use is within the eucharistic liturgy of the Church. To read it, therefore, as a library of divine propositional revelations is to distort and abuse it:
Insisting on plain facts of meaning, winger-ECUSAns carry the Enlightenment project of Disenchantment to the Bible. What was a text for Christian liturgy, a text of Christian myth and ritual, gets wrenched out of that context to serve a different function. In our heated contests, impatience and partisan zeal lead too many to read the Bible as containing strings of propositional dogma rather than myth. The text is read so as to be demythologized; its symbolic, liturgical function in the Christian community begins to fade.
But who taught Scotist that Scripture is only a text of myth and ritual? Who taught him that Scripture is not a “a repository of propositional dogma”? Not the Church Fathers! Not the scholastics! Could it be, just maybe, that he learned this understanding from the contemporary Episcopal Church? See Scotist’s summary and discussion of Christian Believing (chap. 5) by Terry Holmes and John Westerhoff. From Holmes and Westerhoff we learn that “God reveals himself, not propositions and statements about himself.” This is a model of revelation that has become commonplace in the liberal Protestant tradition, but it is by no means self-evident. Indeed, as Richard Swinburne has observed, the claim that God has not revealed himself propositionally is of fairly recent vintage:
Some modern theologians have denied that Christianity involves any propositional revelation, but there can be little doubt that from the second century (and in my view from the first century) until the eighteenth century Christians and non-Christians were virtually unanimous in supposing that it claimed to have such a revelation…. It is in any case very hard to see how God could reveal himself in history (e.g. in the Exodus or the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus) without at the same time revealing some propositional truth about himself. For events are not self-interpreting. Either God provides with the historical event its interpretation, in which case there is a propositional revelation; or he does not, in which case how can anyone know that a revelatory event has occurred? Events can only be recognized as revelatory by a community who do not witness them with their eyes if they can inherit a true description of what has occurred. If God really did reveal himself to us in Christ, then he must have revealed some propositional truth, minimally, the truth that Christ’s acts were his acts. (Revelation , pp. 3-4)
Hence there is no compelling reason to divorce the liturgical and dogmatic functions of Holy Scripture. The Church has always held these two functions together, at least until the Enlightenment. The reduction of the Bible to a “text of Christian myth and ritual” is simply one of the ways by which modernity has “liberated” the world from the written Word of God.
Third, Scotist says that the appeal to the plain sense of Scripture kills the Bible as canon. This is the most intriguing point of the three. Unfortunately, Scotist does not provide an explanation, but he does elaborate a bit in one of his subsequent comments. Referring to Rom 1:26-27, he writes:
My point was whatever Paul had in mind shouldn’t settle what the passage means—the text doesn’t belong to Paul regardless of his authorship, but it does belong to the worshipping Church (and, I should say, to God who inspired Paul). Paul’s intended meaning, supposing we can discern it, can only be one ingredient among others in our interpretation. Worse–we should remain open to the Spirit moving us as we read it, even if the Spirit moves us away from whatever Paul himself meant.
A very interesting argument. I first ran across it in Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation and Stanley Hauerwas’s Unleashing the Scripture. Once an individual’s writing is incorporated into a collection of writings (in this case, the canon of Holy Scripture) it must be interpreted in light of the changed literary context; it must be interpreted within the entire collection of writings. This means that we must entertain a distinction between grammatical-historical meaning (what the text means according to the author’s original intent) and canonical meaning (what the text means within the context of the whole of Scripture, according to God’s intent). It is this traditional distinction that seems to elude so many of us today. Swinburne explains:
So there was a wide tradition in the early Church of reading the Bible metaphorically and not always literally; it was the Church of the centuries which established the canon of Scripture which taught that this was the way in which it ought to be read. It was the Bible understood in that way which they declared to be true…. By and large this general spirit of interpretation continued, despite much more emphasis on the literal meaning, during the later Middle Ages and even the period of classical Reformers. But in the nineteenth century the Bible came to be interpreted by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants in perhaps the most literal and insensitive way in which it has ever been interpreted in Christian history. This literalism was encouraged by the basic philosophical mistake of equating the “original meaning” of the text, gradually being probed by historical enquiry, with the meaning of the text in the context of a Christian document. We may hanker after the “original meaning” in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork and context changes meaning…. The genetic fallacy that origins determine present operation leads us to suppose that we understand the meaning of a text when we understand its literary history. But we do not; what we need to know is its literary context, not its literary history.” (Revelation, pp. 206-208)
Perhaps it is this distinction between the grammatical-historical meaning of a text and its canonical meaning that Scotist has in mind when he says that the Bible does not yield plain facts of meaning. Or perhaps not.
The canonical interpretation of the Bible ultimately requires a catholic understanding of Church, canon, and dogma; otherwise, Scripture becomes a wax nose that can be construed to mean anything we want it to mean—always, of course, under the alleged inspiration of the Spirit. In particular we need to ask, How do we determine when the grammatical-historical meaning of a biblical text is not identical to its canonical meaning? Perhaps St Augustine can help us here:
We must show the way to find out whether a phrase is literal or figurative. And the way is certainly as follows: whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. (De doctrina Christiana 3.10.14; quoted in Swinburne, p. 204)
In other words, we may adopt a figurative reading of a given text only when we are constrained to do so by ethical and theological considerations. We should also add that new knowledge in the scientific and historical realms may also compel us to interpret a biblical text metaphorically, as evidenced by Augustine’s own interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. But as the Bishop of Hippo makes clear, our interpretation of the Holy Scripture always begins with the literal meaning of the text. We may depart from this literal meaning only when legitimate considerations force us to do so, when it is clear that God could not have intended the literal meaning as his Word to his Church.
There is a critical difference between Richard Swinburne and the Anglican Scotist. For Swinburne, Holy Scripture is one book containing divine propositional revelation, a book whose ultimate author is God. For Scotist, the Bible is a text of symbol and myth. Consequently, it is difficult to see how, for Scotist, the Scripture can ever function as a divine Word that binds our minds and consciences. If we are free to interpret the whole of Scripture as a poem without determinate meaning, then God can never speak to us today a Word that he once spoke in the past. We can always figure out a way to make a given text mean what we want it to mean, assuming that the text actually means anything. By our hermeneutical strategy, we effectively muzzle the transcendent God who promises and commands.
31 July 2005
David Bennett has just come out of the hermeneutical closet: “I am an unrepentant eisegete!” Oh my. This is quite the Lenten confession. And this guy was trained in theological studies at Emory, too. But before condemning him to the stake, let’s first listen to his reasons.
Eisegesis, David tells us, “is reading your personal interpretations into the Biblical text.” According to all scholars trained in the grammatical-historical interpretation of the Scripture, eisegesis is the gravest of sins. We are called instead to practice exegesis. Exegesis seeks to discern the meaning intended by the original author(s). Such discernment requires the exegete to assume a stance of neutrality and to carefully attend to any tendencies on his part to read into the text his own beliefs and opinions. David is unsure if anyone can be truly objective when reading Scripture, but that is not his real point. He believes that Christians have always been eisegetes. Why? Because from the beginning of their movement, Christians have read Jesus into the Old Testament.
I hate to break it to everybody, but Jesus isn’t in the Old Testament if you strictly exegete the text, otherwise every Jew would have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, because his name and location would have been clearly spelled out. You have to read Jesus into Old Testament. The Church has consistently read Jesus (and Mary and all sorts of New Testament concepts) into the text where Jewish exegetes did not find him. My response to all of this: good! We Christians believe that Jesus is the interpretive lens through which we are to read Scripture. So yes, we are interpreting Scripture though a very biased lens, but if it is the right lens, then we are safe. We are truly eisegetes, but what is wrong with that? If Jesus himself truly is the Word (logos), then it makes perfect sense that the Old Testament be read typologically to find Jesus there.
But if the Church authorizes Christians to read Jesus into the Old Testament—or perhaps more accurately, to find Jesus in the Old Testament—is he not also licensing wild speculation and fantasy? If typology is possible, then what about … [drum beats] … allegory? We need not worry, says David: “There are limits to eisegesis, and the community that produced the texts, the Church, sets various limits on how its own documents may be read. So while we are obvious eisegetes, we are not permitted to ‘read into’ Scripture anything that contradicts Apostolic Truth.”
I can hear the objections of the Reformers. “To allegorize is to juggle the Scripture,” cried Luther. “Allegories are empty speculations and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture.” Similarly, Calvin accused allegorists of “torturing scripture, in every possible sense, from the true sense.” Yet both Luther and Calvin engaged in the christological interpretation of the Old Testament, so perhaps they would not be unsympathetic to David’s proposal.
But not so the grammatical-historical critics of the past hundred and fifty years. It is an axiom within the academy that faith has no place in the interpretation of Scripture. In a recent article published on the Society of Biblical Literature website, Michael V. Fox argues that “faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer.” He acknowledges that faith-interpretation of the Bible has a place in “synagogues, churches, and religious schools,” but it is not scholarship. I agree with him. There is such a thing as the grammatical-historical exegesis of the writings contained in the Bible. This form of critical reading treats these writings as man-made documents that can be objectively interpreted by any individual trained in the use of approved scholarly apparatus. The historical exegete does not read the Bible as Scripture. He reads the Bible, or more accurately, the individual texts contained within it, as historical artifacts.
The question then becomes, Of what interest to the Church is the grammatical-historical interpretation of the Bible? I remember attending a lecture given by Stanley Hauerwas on how to read the Bible. In the audience were a number of esteemed scholars, including Jack Dean Kingsbury. Hauerwas was asked what he would do to reform theological education. “Fire the Bible scholars!” he declared. In his book Unleashing the Scripture, Hauerwas states that he no longer trusts “the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis.” He acknowledges that the historical-critical method may provide readings of Scripture that are helpful to the proclamation of the gospel, but he rejects the privileging of such readings.
Hauerwas maintains that historical criticism and fundamentalism are flip-sides of the same sola scriptura coin. Both believe that the original and true meaning of Scripture can be discerned apart from the Church; both believe that the original and true meaning of Scripture can be discerned apart from moral and spiritual transformation. Scripture, says Hauerwas, can only properly be read by the Church: for God has given the Scripture to the Church to be read in the Church for the good of the Church. The provocative theologian concludes: “When sola scriptura is used to underwrite the distinction between text and interpretation, then it seems clear to me that sola scriptura is a heresy rather than a help in the Church.”
Hauerwas’s argument raises the question: What is the literal meaning of Scripture? Catholic exegetes typically assume that the literal meaning of the text is that meaning intended by the sacred writers:
The literal sense of Scripture is that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors. Since it is the fruit of inspiration, this sense is also intended by God, as principal author. One arrives at this sense by means of a careful analysis of the text, within its literary and historical context. The principal task of exegesis is to carry out this analysis, making use of all the resources of literary and historical research, with a view to defining the literal sense of the biblical texts with the greatest possible accuracy To this end, the study of ancient literary genres is particularly necessary…. [O]ne must reject as unauthentic every interpretation alien to the meaning expressed by the human authors in their written text. To admit the possibility of such alien meanings would be equivalent to cutting off the biblical message from its root, which is the word of God in its historical communication; it would also mean opening the door to interpretations of a wildly subjective nature. (Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” )
Yet the Pontifical Commission also cautiously acknowledges that “even when a human utterance appears to have only one meaning, divine inspiration can guide the expression in such way as to create more than one meaning.” How else, I would ask, can we understand the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the canon? Moreover, if with Dei Verbum we insist that the proper interpretation of Scripture requires that serious attention “be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture and that “the living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith,” then we will be a bit more critical of the critical method than the authors of the Pontifical Biblical Commission document. Clearly they had not yet read Hauerwas.
Perhaps we should distinguish between the historical and canonical meanings of the text: they will often coincide but not always.
Underlying Hauerwas’s approach to Scripture is the catholic conviction that the living reality of the Church is prior to the written word. “You do not have or need ‘a meaning’ of the text,” states Hauerwas, “when you understand that Church is more determinative than text.” I am reminded of a letter of Newman’s:
Of course a Catholic holds the inspiration of Scriptures—but the Church has defined very little upon the subject—much more freedom of opinion is allowed than with you—and we should have a sufficient ground of faith and teacher of doctrine, though by some dispensation of God, the whole Bible were miraculously to vanish out of the world. I know that it would be the withdrawal of an immense privilege, but the Catholic believes in the word of God thro’ His Church; et ‘verbum tuum permanet in aeternum’, tho’ Scripture were not.
Before the Bible, there is the Word of God dwelling in the heart of the Church. It is this faith in Holy Tradition that enables the Christian to find Christ in every sentence of Holy Scripture—holy eisegesis indeed.
30 March 2006
David Bennett has raised the question of the plain meaning of Scripture. Does it exist? He thinks not. “If there were a “plain sense” of Scripture,” he writes, “an obviously clear reading that can’t be missed, a reading that is available if one just tries hard enough in humility, the hundreds of denominations that appeal to the ‘plain meaning’ of Scripture would be in agreement. Even in matters of the so-called essentials or salvation issues, denominations appealing to the ‘plain sense’ of Scripture can’t agree (the Calvinist-Arminian debate proves this).” David rightly argues that the meaning of Scripture can only be “fully known in the context in which the Bible was produced: the Church.”
I agree, but why is this so?
The writers of the biblical books are all dead. We cannot now ask them what they meant when they wrote what they did. We cannot put our questions to them. They are not available to clarify and correct what they meant to say nor amplify on what they wrote. Nor can we ask the subsequent redactors and editors who pulled the material into their final written forms what they intended. All we have are the texts. With the death of the original authors and editors, the reader necessarily assumes an independence over against the text. Robert Jenson explains:
There is a decisive difference between agreeing or disagreeing with someone who speaks and agreeing or disagreeing with a text someone has written. If you assert something, and I say, “I disagree with your assertion that …,” you may respond, “But that is not what I assert.” Then I can listen further, get a clearer understanding of your intention, and try again to agree or disagree with it and not with the writer. Over against a text, I have to agree or disagree with it and not with the writer. Over against a text, the question cannot be, What do you want to say? It can only be, What did someone in fact say, even if unintentionally?
In one way, a reader is therefore more free—it may seem, indeed, omnipotent—over against a text than is a listener over against a speaker. A speaker is there to defend his or her intention against my interpretation. Once discourse has become text, it lacks this defense. A text is a bundle of signs left behind by their user, and merely as such cannot defend itself against readers; if the text itself is in any degree to adjudicate between proposed interpretations, some living, personal reality must maintain the text’s independence. Nor can the interpreters individually or in association make this defense, since they are themselves the problem. (Systematic Theology , I:39)
Thus the historical problem. How can we figure out, with any degree of accuracy and authority, what the dead biblical writers—or individuals, like Jesus, who are quoted within the texts—meant when they said what they said?
This is where the historical-critical method ostensibly comes to our rescue. Let the historians immerse themselves in the literature and artifacts that have survived and let them tell us what the texts mean. But it hasn’t worked out quite like that. Perhaps it can’t work out quite like that.
C. S. Lewis’s essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (Christian Reflections , pp. 152-166) offers a helpful perspective. Lewis observes that the historical-critical project, executed with erudition and ingenuity, at first sight seems utterly convincing. But then he got reviewed. The reviewer criticized one of his essays and suggested that the theme was clearly one about which Lewis obviously had no interest. And here, Lewis says, the reviewer was absolutely wrong. The theme was of burning interest to him; he just wrote a bad essay on it. After that, Lewis began paying attention to the attempts by reviewers to reconstruct the histories of authors—specifically, “what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his over-all intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why—and when—he did everything” (p. 159).
Lewis then announces his impression about all of these reconstructions: they were almost invariably wrong: “You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can’t remember a single hit” (p. 160). If reviewers have such a poor track record for living authors, consider how much more difficult the task for dead ones.
Now this surely ought to give us pause. The reconstruction of the history of a text, when the text is ancient, sounds very convincing. But one is after all sailing by dead reckoning; the results cannot be checked by fact. In order to decide how reliable the method is, what more could you ask for than to be shown an instance where the same method is at work and we have facts to check it by? Well, that is what I have done. And we find, that when this check is available, the results are always either, or else nearly always, wrong. The ‘assured results of modern scholarship’, as to the way in which an old book was written, are ‘assured’, we may conclude, only because the men who knew the facts are dead and can’t blow the gaff. (pp. 160-161)
Historians can usually reliably tell us what cannot be true. They can tell us, for example, that The DaVinci Code is a bunch of hogwash and enjoys no historical credibility; but they aren’t as good at telling us what Jesus really said and did nor what Paul really meant when he wrote about justification by faith. I personally have a great deal more confidence in N. T. Wright as reliable historian of Jesus than I do in John Dominic Crossan and his Jesus Seminar; but I am also mindful of Luke Timothy Johnson’s warning that critical historiography is a “limited mode of knowledge, dependent on the frailties of the records of memory and the proclivities of self-interest” (The Real Jesus, p. 85). Our historical evidence is fragmentary, and the interpretation of this evidence is necessarily selective, requiring “creative guesswork to supply the most plausible or probable version that the evidence allows.”
But let us suppose that we can trust the biblical scholarship guild to provide us with reliable, probable interpretations of what the biblical authors meant when they wrote what they did, does this provide us with the plain meaning of the Bible? Not necessarily. Why? Because no book of the Bible stands on its own. Each belongs to a canon of writings that is understood by the Church to be one book authored by God Almighty. The Bible is not just an anthology of ancient writings. It is a collection of writings that is confessed by the Church Catholic to be the Word of God:
Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text). (Dei Verbum 11)
The hermeneutical significance of the canon is too often overlooked. It is one thing to read a biblical text as historical artifact; it is quite another thing to read it as Holy Scripture. Even many Catholic scholars appear to have forgotten this.
In his book Revelation (1992), British philosopher Richard Swinburne notes that the meaning of a text may change when it is incorporated into a wider literary context. An example is John Henry Newman’s republication of his Anglican writings and sermons. For instance, in 1874 Newman added a new preface, notes, and appendix to his 1838 Lectures on Justification, thus enabling a Catholic construal of his original lectures. But the development of the biblical of the biblical canon is more radical than this. Specific writings are brought into literary relationship with other writings. Genesis does not stand on its own; it must be interpreted in relationship to Exodus and Isaiah. Paul’s Letter to the Romans does not stand on its own; it must be interpreted in relationship to James, Hebrews, and Matthew. The Old Testament does not stand on its own; it must be interpreted in relationship to the New Testament. And the Bible itself does not stand on its own; it must be interpreted in relationship to the Incarnate Christ, to whom the entirety of Scripture gives witness. Each book of the Bible was in fact divinely intended to be a chapter in the one book of the Bible, even though none of the original authors knew this at the time. The poet who composed the Song of Songs certainly did not know he was actually composing a poem about the mystical marriage between Jesus Christ and his Church. Moreover, while each individual text was written for a specific audience, the Bible as a whole is understood as having been written for all mankind in every age. The Bible is Scripture, Holy Writ, God’s Word written.
Hence the Bible is a unique book. It stands apart from all other collections of writings. It enjoys no human analogies. Its genre is sui generis. We therefore cannot figure out through any form of historical research how to properly read it. Neutral scholarship is incapable of discerning the rules for its correct interpretation. I thus find myself in total agreement with Swinburne when he dismisses the Protestant claim of the Bible’s perspicuity. The slogan “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” is impossible, for “the Bible does not belong to an obvious genre which provides rules for how overall meaning is a function of meaning of individual books” (p. 177).
If critical scholarship cannot provide us the rules for the proper interpretation of Scripture as Scripture, who can? The answer is clear—only the community that acknowledged, and acknowledges, this collection of writings as Scripture can do so. More specifically and practically, we must learn how to read Scripture from the Church Fathers and medieval doctors: they must teach us the fundamental hermeneutical principles of the proper interpretation and application of the Bible. The Bible cannot tell us how to interpret the Bible; only the Church can.
12 June 2006
The problem posed by the historical-critical method may be posed as the difference between what the text meant and what it means. Once this dichotomy is clearly and sharply posed, we find ourselves in a crisis of authority. How does Scripture exercise authority in the Church if its meaning is restricted to what the original authors meant? And indeed why should anyone care about Scripture if its meaning is so restricted?
In his book The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (1993), Jewish scholar Jon Levenson argues that the historical-critical method destroys the sacred nature of Scripture because it asserts the ultimate authority of historical context at the cost of sacrificing the wider “literary contexts that undergird the traditions that claim to be based upon them” (p. 4). What does Levenson mean by “literary context”? He explains:
Much of the polemics between religious traditionalists and historians over the past three centuries can be reduced to the issue of which context shall be normative. When historical critics assert, as they are wont to do, that the Hebrew Bible must not be taken “out of context,” what they really mean is that the only context worthy of respect is the ancient Near Eastern world as it was at the time of composition of whatever text is unders discussion. Religious traditionalist, however, are committed to another set of contexts, minimally the rest of scripture, however delimited, and mascimally, the entire tradition, including their own religious experience. Their goal is not to push the Book back into a vanished past, but to insure its vitality in the present and the future: “The word of our God endures forever” (Isa 40:8)…. Underlying the literary context affirmed by religious traditionalists is the conviction that the text is somehow the expression of a reliable God. Harmonization is the exegetical counterpart to belief in the coherence of the divine will. The uniformity of scripture reflects the uniformity of truth. The alternative to this traditional religious position has never been stated more boldly than it was by a great pioneer of the historical criticism of the Bible, Baruch (Benedict) de Spinoza (1632-1677), when he wrote that “great caution is necessary not to confuse the mind of a prophet or historian with the mind of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the matter.” For Spinoza, the excommunicated Jew who never became a Christian, the idea of inspiration was simply another shackle constricting the exegete. No longer need exegesis take place within the believing community. Scripture must be followed wherever it leads, come what may. The author of a biblical text will be the person who wrote it; its meaning will be what that person meant, not what God means, and no intellectually responsible exposition of it can take place without locating the text unshakably within the historical circumstances of its composition. Jews and Christians can participate equally in the Spinozan agenda only because its naturalistic presuppositions negate the theological foundations of both Judaism and Christianity. (pp. 4-5)
“Its meaning will be what that person meant, not what God means”—here is the problem and challenge of the historical-critical method.
In 1973 Walter Wink protested the divorce between the Bible and the believing community. He described historical biblical critics as the “Wehrmacht of the liberal church.” By their methodology the world was unshackled from the constraints of Scripture and tradition. The guild of biblical scholars became the custodians of the Bible’s true meaning and the Church was liberated for accomodation to modernity. Three years earlier, the renowned Old Testament scholar, Brevard Childs, while acknowledging the necessary role of historical inquiry, asserted that the method is inadequate to the life of the Church:
Surely some will object to this line of argument by asserting that the exegete’s only task is to understand what the Biblical text meant, and that the critical methodology is alone capable of doing this correctly. The historical reading is exegesis; everything else is “eisegesis.” Our response to this type of objection is by now familiar. First, what the text “meant” is determined in large measure by its relation to the one to whom it is directed. While it remains an essential part of Biblical exegesis to establish a text’s function in its original context(s), the usual corollary that the original function is alone normative does not follow. Secondly, the question of what the text now means cannot be dismissed as a purely subjective enterprise suitable only to private devotion and homiletics. When seen from the context of the canon both the question of what the text meant and what it means are inseparably linked and both belong to the task of the interpretation of the Bible as Scripture. To the extent that the use of the critical method sets up an iron curtain between the past and the present, it is an inadequate method for studying the Bible as the church’s Scripture.
Childs would then go on to subsequently develop his theory of canonical criticism, which unfortunately has had few followers. Yet the issue of canon is a critical concern for the interpretation of Holy Scripture. The writings of the Bible come to us precisely as canon. Canon is never generic or universal. It is always Jewish or Samaritan or Catholic or Protestant. The only reason these writings have been saved for posterity is because of the commitment of the religious communities to them as Holy Scripture. The existence of the canon challenges the primary presuppostion of historical criticism that a given text is to be interpreted only within the historical context in which it was written. “The very existence of a canon,” Levenson notes, “testifies to the reality of recontexualization: an artifact may survive the circumstances that brought it into being, including the social and political circumstances to which so much attention is currently devoted. Indeed, it can outlive the culture in which it was produced. Even when this happens, as in the case of the texts that came together in the Bible,… that original culture continues to inform the text, nonetheless. Because the Bible can never be altogether disengaged from the culture of its authors, historical criticism is necessary (though not necessarily in accordance with Troeltsch’s principles). But unless one holds that the Bible does not deserve to have survived its matrix—that the history of interpretation is only a history of misinterpretation—historical criticism alone cannot suffice. For were the meaning of the text only a function of the particular historical circumstances of its compostion, recontextualization would never have occurred, and no Bible would have come into existence” (pp. 122-123). Levenson is not suggesting that the critical study of the biblical texts be abandoned. What must be abandoned, though, are the totalistic, hegemonic claims of critical historiography: “Critical scholars must no longer pronounce other interpretations altogether erroneous simply because they take the texts out of their first historical context—simply because, that is, they permit the texts to survive the ancient civilizations in which they originated” (p. 123).
How ironic that critical historiography has developed a way of reading the Bible from which no divine Word can be heard. And because it seeks to detach the biblical writings from the communities that these texts have served, it inevitably must saw off the limb upon which it sits. Ultimately, the questions are raised: Why should these texts be privileged? Will the canon be Tanakh or Old Testament-New Testament? If either, how can rabbinical or patristic methods of interpretation be excluded? If neither, if the interests and hermeneutical principles of the religious communities which preserved and revered these texts are discounted, why should the texts be studied at all?
Critical scholars brilliantly and ruthlessly break apart the Scriptures, yet their very method prevents them from restoring the texts as Scripture.
Early in seminary I was persuaded that the historical-critical reading of Scripture was absolutely crucial. I have subsequently come to realize that instruction into this way of reading the Bible is a form of indoctrination. The novices are introduced to the new gnosis, a gnosis unavailable to the uninitiated, and are reborn as enlightened Christians detached from the authority of their ecclesial communites. Or as Wilfred Cantwell Smith commented in 1971, “The courses actually available, and the training of men actually available to teach them, are on the whole calculated to turn a fundamentalist into a liberal.” By its uncritical embrace of criticism, the Church has unintentionally created a cadre of scholars and pastors dedicated to the destruction of Christianity.
We cannot undo what has happened nor can we deny the knowledge we have gained about the biblical texts; yet we cannot stay in this place where Scripture is only text to be criticized and never Word to be heard, reverenced, and obeyed. How do we move forward? Once Humpty Dumpty is broken, how do we put him back together again?
13 June 2006
What is the plain meaning of the Bible? Surely, we answer, the plain meaning is the sense intended by the sacred authors themselves. As St Thomas Aquinas states, “the literal sense is that which the author intends” (ST I.1.10), or as Pius XII phrases it, the literal sense is that meaning of the scriptural words “intended and expressed by the sacred writer.” This all seems quite straight forward and in accord with good historical commonsense. Words do not themselves mean; people mean through their words. If someone wants to know the meaning of one of my articles, he must figure out the meaning that I intended. Every author knows the frustration of reader misinterpretation. No matter how well I express my thoughts—and I am always crystal clear—readers simply insist on reading their own thoughts into mine! In other words, eisegesis. Every writer wants to be exegeted, not eisegeted. That’s the point of writing—to communicate. The biblical writers are no exception. If we want to know the literal meaning of a biblical text, we must seek out the original meaning intended by the author. There’s only one problem: for St Thomas and Pius XII, and indeed all the Church Fathers, the ultimate author of Scripture is God himself. And if God is the author of Scripture, then suddenly the hermeneutical game changes drastically, as St Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine well demonstrates. Thus St Augustine gives us, for example, the following rule for distinguishing between the literal and figurative sense of a biblical text: “Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative.” Needless to say, no modern historical critic would affirm such a rule; indeed, the critical exegetical enterprise depends on the the rejection of such an hermeneutical principle. The historical critic is unconcerned with the alleged divine meaning of any given text: all that is important is what the the biblical writer meant. As Benjamin Jowett famously stated:
It may be laid down that Scripture has one meaning,—the meaning which it had to the mind of the prophet or evangelist who first uttered or wrote to the hearers or readers who first received it.
Scripture, like other books, has one meaning, which is to be gathered from itself, without reference to the adaptations of fathers or divines, and without regard to a priori notions about its nature and origin.
The office of the interpreter is not to add another [interpretation], but to recover the original one: the meaning, that is, of the words as they struck on the ears or flashed before the eyes of those who first heard and read them.
The historical-critical method thus introduces a cleavage that had never existed before—a cleavage between the meaning intended by the biblical writers (the concern of scholars and all other intelligent persons) and the meaning intended by God (the concern of preachers, mystics, and the religiously gullible). For the past hundred years, Christian hermeneuts have sought to bridge this chasm.
In 1993 the Pontifical Biblical Commission published its attempt to solve the hermeneutical problem: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. The document certainly has its strengths, but its critical weakness is revealed in its treatment of the literal meaning of Scripture:
It is not only legitimate, it is also absolutely necessary to seek to define the precise meaning of texts as produced by their authors–what is called the “literal” meaning. St. Thomas Aquinas had already affirmed the fundamental importance of this sense (S. Th. I, q. 1,a. 10, ad 1).
The literal sense is not to be confused with the “literalist” sense to which fundamentalists are attached. It is not sufficient to translate a text word for word in order to obtain its literal sense. One must understand the text according to the literary conventions of the time. When a text is metaphorical, its literal sense is not that which flows immediately from a word-to-word translation (e.g. “Let your loins be girt”: Lk. 12:35), but that which corresponds to the metaphorical use of these terms (“Be ready for action”). When it is a question of a story, the literal sense does not necessarily imply belief that the facts recounted actually took place, for a story need not belong to the genre of history but be instead a work of imaginative fiction.
The literal sense of Scripture is that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors. Since it is the fruit of inspiration, this sense is also intended by God, as principal author. One arrives at this sense by means of a careful analysis of the text, within its literary and historical context. The principal task of exegesis is to carry out this analysis, making use of all the resources of literary and historical research, with a view to defining the literal sense of the biblical texts with the greatest possible accuracy (cf. Divino Afflante Spiritu: Ench. Bibl., 550). To this end, the study of ancient literary genres is particularly necessary (ibid. 560).
Does a text have only one literal sense? In general, yes; but there is no question here of a hard and fast rule, and this for two reasons. First, a human author can intend to refer at one and the same time to more than one level of reality. This is in fact normally the case with regard to poetry. Biblical inspiration does not reject this capacity of human psychology and language; the fourth Gospel offers numerous examples of it. Second, even when a human utterance appears to have only one meaning, divine inspiration can guide the expression in such way as to create more than one meaning. This is the case with the saying of Caiaphas in John 11:50: At one and the same time it expresses both an immoral political ploy and a divine revelation. The two aspects belong, both of them, to the literal sense, for they are both made clear by the context. Although this example may be extreme, it remains significant, providing a warning against adopting too narrow a conception of the inspired text’s literal sense.
One should be especially attentive to the dynamic aspect of many texts. The meaning of the royal psalms, for example, should not be limited strictly to the historical circumstances of their production. In speaking of the king, the psalmist evokes at one and the same time both the institution as it actually was and an idealized vision of kingship as God intended it to be; in this way the text carries the reader beyond the institution of kingship in its actual historical manifestation. Historical-critical exegesis has too often tended to limit the meaning of texts by tying it too rigidly to precise historical circumstances. It should seek rather to determine the direction of thought expressed by the text; this direction, far from working toward a limitation of meaning, will on the contrary dispose the exegete to perceive extensions of it that are more or less foreseeable in advance.
One branch of modern hermeneutics has stressed that human speech gains an altogether fresh status when put in writing. A written text has the capacity to be placed in new circumstances, which will illuminate it in different ways, adding new meanings to the original sense. This capacity of written texts is especially operative in the case of the biblical writings, recognized as the word of God. Indeed, what encouraged the believing community to preserve these texts was the conviction that they would continue to be bearers of light and life for generations of believers to come. The literal sense is, from the start, open to further developments, which are produced through the “rereading” (relectures) of texts in new contexts.
It does not follow from this that we can attribute to a biblical text whatever meaning we like, interpreting it in a wholly subjective way. On the contrary, one must reject as unauthentic every interpretation alien to the meaning expressed by the human authors in their written text. To admit the possibility of such alien meanings would be equivalent to cutting off the biblical message from its root, which is the word of God in its historical communication; it would also mean opening the door to interpretations of a wildly subjective nature. (Emphasis added; also see the response of Robert Wilken to the PBC document.)
I find the above confusing and unsatisfactory. If the literal sense of a biblical text is that meaning “which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors,” then it seems wrong to criticize historical-critical exegesis for tending to “limit the the meaning of texts by tying it too rigidly to precise historical circumstances.” On the other hand, if we are allowed to entertain extensions or expansions of the literal meaning of a text, then it seems wrong to insist that “every interpretation alien to the meaning expressed by the human authors in their written text” must be rejected as inauthentic. I seriously doubt that the poet of the Song of Songs intended to describe the mystical marriage of God and Israel or Jesus and the Church, yet it was on the basis of this reading that Israel and the Church received the Song into the Scriptures. The followers of Jesus pray with Jesus the inspired psalmnody of Israel, yet how do we faithfully pray the grammatical-historical meaning of Psalm 137:8-9?
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us—
he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
The confusion we experience when reading this text is generated by the conflation of the modern understanding of the grammatical-historical meaning of Scripture with the Church’s historic understanding of the literal meaning of Scripture .
I do not know the answer to the problem caused by the historical-critical method, but I do suggest that we should simply acknowledge that the grammatical-historical meaning of a text is not necessarily identical to the meaning intended by the divine author of Scripture. This no doubt leaves the Church open to the charge of eisegesis, but perhaps Stanley Hauerwas was on to something when he stated that he no longer trusts “the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis” (Unleashing the Scripture , p. 151, n. 6). Hence it seems reasonable to distinguish between grammatical-historical meaning (the meaning of the text as intended by the original author) and canonical meaning (the meaning of the text as interpreted within the one canon of Holy Scripture). Precisely how these two senses are to be correlated is unclear to me, but I suspect that no comprehensive theory will suffice. Each passage of Scripture must be addressed on its own within the community of faith that reads the Bible as Scripture. But what is crucial to remember is that the meaning of a text may change when it is incorporated into a body of writings and becomes part of a larger work. “We may hanker,” Richard Swinburne writes, “after the ‘original meaning’ in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork and context changes meaning” (Revelation , p. 207; also see my article “When God is the author of Scripture”). If we insist on identifying the historical-grammatical sense with the canonical sense, we will find ourselves trapped in the Scopes monkey trial.
16 June 2006