Summary of the Four Previous Blogs in This Series
Essentially, in this series of blogs I have been arguing, in accord with T. F. Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ, that the chosenness of Israel extends to more than simply understanding Israel as a repository of salvation history or sacred texts. Rather, I have maintained that the living, thought, and narrative world of Israel, as it had been shaped by Israel’s unique history with God, is as necessary for the revelation of God to humanity as the texts that have been preserved in what is now called the Scriptural canon.
As I brought these observations into conversation with George Lindbeck’s “The Story Shaped Church” in the second part of the series, I noted that Lindbeck argued that the Church should be understood to be Israel in the time between the times. I disagreed with Lindbeck on that point and concluded instead that the Christian Church may appropriately be understood as a believing remnant within Israel.
In part three of the series, I attempted to bring Brevard Childs’s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture into the discussion. With Childs I maintained that the First Testament should be recognized as the theologically interpreted history of the Israelite people that has been worked and re-worked as a multi-generational endeavor for which God gave Israel a unique responsibility. The First Testament is the nation of Israel and the nation of Israel is the First Testament–the two grew up together, interpenetrated each other, and cannot be understood apart from one another.
Finally, in last week’s segment I began a series of interactions with the compilation The Art of Reading Scripture which has been edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays. That was the first of a series of blogs in which I intend to critique constructively a selection of theses from the introductory article “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” by The Scripture Project–namely, theses 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9.
In the last blog I interacted with thesis number 3, which read:
3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New (The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” The Art of Reading Scripture, 2).
After highlighting some points of agreement, I went on to argue that it is not simply the First Testament which must be the context in which Jesus is understood. We must situate Jesus within the First Testament as it had been interpreted by the larger Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. I maintained that this implies, at the least, that we read and interpret Jesus in the context of the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, Jewish writers even of the like of Philo, the portions of the Talmud associated with the time periods prior to C. E. 70, and so on alongside of the First and New Testaments.
Wrestling with Thesis #4
So, that’s where we’ve been. For this week’s blog I will wrestle with the language of The Scripture Project‘s thesis #4, which reads as follows:
4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama (The Scripture Project, 2).
When I read this sort of a contention regarding Christian Scripture I get a bit unsettled. Now, it’s not that I disagree with the language precisely or even the underlying conceptuality. For instance, it seems hard to argue that the idea of God becoming flesh and entering the human world through the womb of a virgin was what Isaiah had in mind when he prophesied:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (New Revised Standard Version, Isaiah 7:14).
The Hebrew of Isaiah, as many have observed, did not necessarily refer to a woman who had never had intercourse. It more naturally referred to a woman who had not yet given birth to a child. And, furthermore, the ensuing context of Isaiah indicates that this prophesy was fulfilled in the context of Isaiah and King Ahaz’s immediate future. The natural reading of Isaiah indicates that this was a near prophesy volunteered by God in response to King Ahaz’s refusal to do as he was commanded–that is, God had commanded him to ask for a sign. The fulfillment of the sign was intended to be for Ahaz. In all likelihood, Isaiah seems to have been satisfied with the fulfillment he witnessed. There simply is no reason in a plain reading of the text to believe that this prophetic word had any other meaning or any other referent.
However, once the events of Jesus’ life had unfolded, the Gospel writers seem to have returned to Isaiah–this time probably relying on the Greek translation which used a word that usually did mean virgin. It would appear that it was only in hindsight that the Apostolic writers realized that Isaiah’s prophecy had another, somewhat hidden meaning. As I have said, it would be difficult to argue that Isaiah intended this Christological implication. In these sorts of instances, The Scripture Project‘s insistence that the meaning of Scripture cannot be discovered solely in the intention of the author but that Scripture has multiple possible meanings, some of which have been incorporated by God, makes a good deal of sense.
However, again, it is the way in which this statement seems to fail to appreciate the distinctions between texts in the Christian canon that makes me somewhat uneasy. I have already revealed my affinity for Brevard Childs and his canonical approach to the reading and interpreting of Scripture. However, the recognition of canonical priority must not be permitted to homogonize what is really a diverse collection of writings, particularly as we dissect the very different histories that gave rise to the First Testament and the New Testament respectively.
I hesitate to get into a discussion of genre for a couple of reasons. First, I fear that the Western European/American dependence on genre distinctions for literary criticism may introduce quite a number of foreign assumptions to the more Hebraic writings of Scripture. And second, once the issue of genre is introduced a great number of scholars seem convinced that a text can’t even be read without first discovering which literary category each pericope should rightly be indexed under. I see value in these conversations to a degree, but I am not attempting to bring those debates into this context.
Instead, I want to sketch some slightly broader ‘genre’ strokes, here. I should probably begin by saying that there appears to be quite a large distinction between the First Testament and the New Testament in regard to the apparent openness to multiple meanings that go beyond what might be called a plain reading of a given text. And I’ll return to this substantial distinction momentarily.
However, let me begin by arguing that even the First Testament is not treated simply as a respository of possible hidden meanings generally by the Apostolic writers. In fact, with very few exceptions, the texts that the writers of the New Testament seem to have re-interpreted were nearly always either prophetic texts in which the final form of the text in question implied that the words recorded were nearly dictated to the speaker by God or they came from poetic texts (like the Psalms) which, by their very nature, are quite open-ended in their details and applications.
In the context of the Isaiah passage that we discussed earlier, Isaiah simply said what God told him to say to Ahaz. There’s no need to hypothesize an intention for Isaiah, since the words were not his and the intention was that of the God who told him what to say. Those passages are the most common ones in which we find New Testament writers uncovering concealed meanings which found their fullness in Jesus. All one needs to make room for in such instances is that God intended more than Isaiah or the other characters could comprehend.
The New Testament’s various uses of the Hebrew Psalter are somewhat more difficult to quantify. Certainly the Psalmists had intentions when they wrote, but then again, these are poems, songs of praise, theological attempts to wrestle with or to confess Torah sometimes in spite of the evidence. Furthermore, though the Hebrew scribes often tried to guide our readings by associating Psalms with various writers and circumstances, for the most part the occasion of the writings of many Psalms have been obscured. The Jewish culture of Jesus’ day seems to have embraced the idea that many of the Psalms functioned in ways similar to prophetic sections of the First Testament. It would appear that the Apostolic writers had similar interpretive presuppositions.
Genesis is perhaps another exception, but I’m still convinced that the New Testament’s use of Genesis is more tied to the events themselves that we often find in prophesies or Psalms. Paul certainly believed, for instance, that the language of Genesis which used a singular descriptor for Abraham’s offspring was a veiled prophecy of Jesus. That certainly qualifies as a veiled meaning which is quite hard to believe was in view of the author(s) and/or editor(s) of Genesis at any point of the book’s historical development. But, again, the particular language that Paul was discussing referenced words that proceeded from the mouth of God directly. Paul may have simply been arguing that God chose His words carefully so as to be faithful to what He intended to do.
In any case, the point here is that many texts and passages of the First Testament do not appear to have had these sorts of ‘hidden meanings’ for the Apostolic writers–at least, not in the way we’ve been talking about to this point. It seems that First Testament texts which were simply narrating or interpreting historical events rarely if ever were read in these ways.
What I’m suggesting is that it is the language of God in the First Testament that often proves to have been multifaceted for the Apostolic writers. And it seems to me that it would be an oversimplification to say that the First Testament or the Apostolic authors present all the material in the First Testament as the language of God, specifically–that is, dictated words. God may prove to have meant more than the original audience could comprehend, but that is not true of all of the writers and editors of the First Testament generally. At least, that’s what I’m arguing here.
When we move to the New Testament, these distinctions become much more important, for me for a number of reasons. First, let me observe that whereas the First Testament often obscures the kinds of details we might require to determine authors, occasions for writing, audiences, and so on, the New Testament often gives us precisely these details. To approach Deuteronomy (see last week’s blog) in precisely the same way that we approach 1 Corinthians, for example, seems irresponsible to me. 1 Corinthians seems to intend us to have information that Deuteronomy has not–e.g., the author, the audience, some details regarding the occassion for writing, and so on.
To approach these texts in their final form (as Childs and The Scripture Project both seem to advise), must also imply that we should appreciate the distinctiveness of their respective presentations. In other words, it seems to me that Paul’s intention in writing 1 Corinthians is both more accessible and more necessary for our reading than that of the writer(s) and/or editor(s) of Deuteronomy, precisely because Deuteronomy obscures these details where 1 Corinthians puts them on display. I hope that makes some sort of sense.
Furthermore, and this is my primary concern with the language of thesis #5, I again want to insist that we need to distinguish between the election of Israel in terms of inspiration and revelation and that of the post-Apostolic Church. I’m convinced that the cessation of the Covenant of Sinai that was precipitated by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C. E. brought the historic nation of Israel as a people endeavoring to be faithful to Torah to an end. From that point on faithfulness to Torah, from a Jewish perspective, had to be radically reinterpreted.
I have suggested in this series of blogs that the election of the inspired community of Israel which God set apart to be the vessels of His revelation–a community that included Jesus and His Apostles–has come to a historic end. The Jewish people still persist, of course, but their capacity as revealers of God who could live and write inspired texts was tied to Torah and to the presence of God in their midst in the context of Torah and Tabernacle/Temple, in my view, anyway.
What is important to me in this respect is the contention that the closing of the New Testament canon which seems to have prioritized the writings of the Apostolic era above all later writings of the Church might be seen to reveal a recognition of the Fathers of the Church that the elected era of God’s inspiration and revelation which gave rise to a community who wrote, re-wrote, edited, and generationally produced a set of texts now sacred for all believers had come to an end in the first century C. E.
The implication of this line of thought is that we are simply no longer free to speculate about God’s veiled intentions in the Church the way Israel was. What that elected people has given to us, now must be read for what it appears to have contended–for its plain sense. Certainly where the Apostolic or Prophetic writers saw veiled meanings, we should presume and embrace their authority to re-visit the words of God in authoritative ways, but I would suggest we should not presume that we have been given the authority or the inspiration to do likewise. I believe a cursory survey of post-Apostolic Christian history should more than suffice to show the value and wisdom of this sort of a contention.
Now that, of course, is not to say that Scripture does not have multiple possible meanings. Let’s face it, even attempting to exegete the plain meaning of these texts still often produces a multitude of possible meanings in many instances. I am not here arguing that Christians will be able to say with certainty in every context what a passage meant or means. But, I am convinced that our task is to wrestle with the plain sense of the text which in some circumstances necessitates that the meaning be limited to the intent of the original author–particularly in texts which intentionally reveal the author and that author’s credentials.
The Scripture Project goes on to write the following:
The authors and editors of the canonical texts repeatedly gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions, thereby initiating the process of discerning multiple senses within the text. The medieval “fourfold sense” is a helpful reminder of Scripture’s multivalence. The church’s traditions of bliblical interpretation offer models and guidance about how the fuller sense of Scripture should be understood (The Scripture Project, 3).
John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno in writing about this idea of the ‘multivalence’ of the text in the Patristic Fathers, wrote the following in their book Sanctified Vision:
Thus, for the church fathers, what Scripture does in any particular verse or episode, which may entail presuming reference to historical events or intentions or theological ideas, was very much a matter of debate. However, Origen and the rest of the patristic tradition presumed, as their tacit theory of scriptural meaning, the importance of the words themselves. To know the words is prior to and more decisive than knowing if they refer and to what. Scripture is the center of reflection. This assumption is the foundation of patristic exegetical practice (O’Keefe & Reno, The Sanctified Vision, 12).
I have included both of these quotations because I think they get to the heart of what I am trying to warn the Christian community against. I agree that the writers and editors of Scripture gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions. In fact, I have maintained that that was part of what Israel was elected and inspired to do. However, I do not believe that this observation somehow authorizes the post-Apostolic, principally gentile, Christian community to do likewise. Even in the wake of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Christian community, we should not confuse our inspiration with that of the historic people of Israel. If O’Keefe and Reno are correct and the patristic Fathers allowed this presumption to be the foundation of their exegetical practice, then I would suggest they presumed too much.
I am much more sympathetic with Martin Luther when he wrote:
In my view, no theologian should waste time on allegories until he has become expert in the proper and simple sense of Scripture. Otherwise, as in Origen’s case, he will endanger his theological reasoning (Martin Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, 343).
Staying engaged with the conversation…
J. Thomas Johnson