Friday, 22 February 2008

The Literal and Spiritual Sense of Scripture

This post inaugurates the second section of my overarching thread dealing with the theological exegesis of Brevard S. Childs. An overview of the total structure can be seen in my programmatic statement here.

I have already established here that a theological approach to Scripture must first classify the text as a “witness” to divine truth. This introduces a distinction between the mere verbal sense of the individual texts and the reality to which they give partial access. When the verbal sense of the text is provisionally relabelled the literal sense and the ultimate referent the spiritual sense, we can see the continuity of Childs' approach with traditional Christian exegesis. Theological reflection must ultimately be on the text's subject matter, so that the basic thrust of theological interpretation is from the literal to the spiritual. This move also gives the concept of allegory a new currency, as long as allegory is understood to be a means of moving to the text's ultimate subject matter while respecting the literal sense of text itself (i.e. its “integrity” or its “own voice,” what Seitz calls its “per se witness”). For how these two dimensions of the text relate to each other, stay tuned!

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

> “This introduces a distinction between the mere verbal sense of the individual texts and the reality to which they give partial access.”

yes, makes sense.

> “When the verbal sense of the text is provisionally relabelled the literal sense and the ultimate referent the spiritual sense, we can see the continuity of Childs' approach with traditional Christian exegesis.”

But a referent is not a “sense”—it is a referent! This is a pretty fundamental linguistic distinction. And I don’t see how dragging in the dualistic terminology of Alexandrian hermeneutics, with all of its disasterous effects for both exegesis and for spiritual practice, is going to render Childs more “traditional.” And we should be careful with “traditional” too—there were other traditions than those popularized by Origen (e.g. the hermeneutical traditions of the Antiochenes; those of the Victorines, those of Lyra; those of the Reformers).

> “Theological reflection must ultimately be on the text's subject matter, so that the basic thrust of theological interpretation is from the literal to the spiritual.”

Again, the dualist “literal/spiritual” terminology really doesn’t enhance, clarify, or contribute anything to your program, as far as I can tell; it just ties it to all kinds of problems. Can you practice theological reflection, even “traditional” theological reflection, without using this kind of terminology? What is your motive for reappropriating this terminology?

Labels should be meaningful, and “literal sense::spiritual sense” is simply not a meaningful opposition—despite what Augustine and others did with 2 Cor 3:6. We certainly don’t use this terminology for describing communication today, and for good reason. I can talk about the verbal meaning (“sense”) of a text vs. the extra-textual referent it refers to; let’s imagine a biography of Phil Sumpter, for example. But if I am reflecting on the nature of Phil Sumpter, as mediated to me textually, why should this cause me to read in a way that is non-literal? To be sure, there is both a distinction AND a connection between the verbal meaning and the referent “Phil Sumpter,” but why should this cause me to invoke some kind of special hermeneutic to account for it? I don’t talk about using a “spiritual sense” when I reflect on who Phil Sumpter is.

Unless there is something you are not telling us, Phil :)

Michael

Phil Sumpter said...

Michael, this is an important issue for me, so I appreciate you pushing me for clarity on it.

I should first clarify my terminology. My literal/spiritual distinction (I certainly don't see it as dualistic, though more on that to come) is not intended to privilege one particular hermeneutic, whether Alexandrian, Antiochene, or Reformed. All the different traditions which you mention wrestled with this distinction in their own ways, thus proving that it really is a constitutive feature of Christian exegesis (I'll post on the Alexandrian/Antiochene tension later). The point is that the Church has always recognised that Scripture has multiple senses, even the NT (e.g. Jn 3.14; Matt. 16.4; 1 Cor. 9.9 etc.). The challenge is to understand the nature of the relationship between these different senses. Without this effort, we will struggle to understand the nature of the relationship between the New and the Old Testament. As Childs, citing R. Greer says, Christians read a “transformed Old Testament.” The category of “witness,” a category grounded in the theological claim that God is really doing something profound in history and that the Bible testifies to this in different ways, helps us grasp this. It helps me at least, as an evangelical who thought that there was only one literal, propositional sense and that this conviction was the cornerstone of orthodoxy.

But a referent is not a “sense”—it is a referent! This is a pretty fundamental linguistic distinction.

Hmm. Good point. But can't a referent have a sense? When historical critics read the Book of Kings, they essentially use it as a source for reconstructing ancient Near Eastern history. This reconstructed history has an inner-coherence and meaning, one related to the Biblical texts yet also independent of them (the nature of the relationship being open to discussion). Some historical critics would claim that this “objective chronology” is the text's true referent, it's “spiritual meaning,” such that all reading of the Bible should be motivated by this goal. Psychoanalysts will locate the referent (the one interesting to them) in the psychology of the authors, literary critics in the narrative world of the text, Bultmannaniens in some sort of existential disposition. These various referents all have “meaning” and therefore sense. Childs et al would counter that these referents are not the true referents of the text. They are OK as far as they go, but they don't get to the heart of what the texts themselves are about. This is because the texts are kerygmatic, i.e. they proclaim the work and reality of God in the world. The reality that each author touches on is partial and is filled out in the process of time through editorial expansion and the addition of new books (and at some point a New Covenant!). This reality is theological and has sense, as seen in the various attempts at dogmatic or systematic theology, as well as the narrative shape of the creeds. The creed, if it really is a true summary of the content of the Bible, is not found anywhere in the Bible. It is, or at least claims to be part of, the “spiritual sense” of the Bible it's true referent.

What is your motive for reappropriating this terminology?

In light of the above, it is in showing the fundamental continuity of Christian interpretation throughout history as well as locating ourselves within that history. Of course, each age has a different interpretation of what the literal and spiritual sense is and how they relate to each other, but the continuity lies in that they have consistently tried. And in the continuity of the foundational documents of faith themselves, such as the creeds.

”I don’t talk about using a “spiritual sense” when I reflect on who Phil Sumpter is.”

No, in secular or general hermeneutics you would use other terminology. Treating the historical Phil and the true referent of his biography is parallel to treating the historical Israel as the true referent of the Old Testament, or the psychology of Paul as the true referent of his letters (if that's what you're into). The referent in this case would be called the “substance” of the text, its “res”, or in German its “Sache,” “Sachverhalt.” It is the content of the text. I think Childs is arguing that the Spiritual sense is similar to this. Though we also have to bare in mind the particularity of the texts. They are of a special sort dealing with a special subject (as Barth and Diem pointed out). Therefore, a special hermeneutic is required for the Bible. But I think the procedure makes sense when explicated in more general hermeneutical categories.

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

I suspect we will continue to differ on the value of the term “spiritual sense” :)

The “continuity” argument bothers me as well. First, you would need to convince me that everyone has always meant the same thing across the ages when they have used the term “spiritual sense.” Second, you would need to convince me that the benefits of using this term outweigh the disadvantages. Is “continuity” always to be desired? Should it be critiqued? Does this term clarify rather than obscure?

But I do see the value of distinguishing between the argument/message vs. the subject matter, “res,” “substance,” “Sache,” etc. So maybe I am just getting hung up on your terminology.

But aside from that:

> “The point is that the Church has always recognised that Scripture has multiple senses, even the NT (e.g. Jn 3.14; Matt. 16.4; 1 Cor. 9.9 etc.)”

But no one in the NT is “recognizing a multiple sense” to the OT in Jn 3:14; Matt 16:4. Jesus is not even interpreting the OT for the reader here; he is constructing a new argument, an analogy, using the OT. And in 1 Cor 9:9 Paul is saying there is NOT more than one sense (b/c according to Paul, God doesn’t care about oxen)!

> “But can't a referent have a sense?”

No :)

> “This reconstructed history has an inner-coherence and meaning . . . . These various referents all have “meaning” and therefore sense. . . . This reality is theological and has sense”

I think you are pulling a Humpty-Dumpty on the meaning of the word “referent” here. Just asserting that “referent = sense” does not make it so for all other users of the word; just because a complex referent has text-external coherence in history doesn’t mean that it is a “sense.” Also: isn’t this what Frei accuses the Heilsgeschichtlers of doing—creating a unified schema of reconstructed events from the text and behind it, then doing theology on this rather than on the text?

> “The creed, if it really is a true summary of the content of the Bible, is not found anywhere in the Bible. It is, or at least claims to be part of, the “spiritual sense” of the Bible it's true referent.”

Hmmm. I’ve never heard anyone use “spiritual sense” for this! Maybe “metanarrative”—but “spiritual sense”?


> “They are of a special sort dealing with a special subject (as Barth and Diem pointed out). Therefore, a special hermeneutic is required for the Bible.”

This needs some pondering. What is the “special” nature of the subject? Does this in and of itself require that a hermeneutic of the biblical text be different from the hermeneutic used for any other text? Is this different from saying that because all texts are different, the hermeneutic used for each should be special? If it is (or is not) different, how is it different?

many thanks for the good thoughts,
Michael

Phil Sumpter said...

First of, sorry about the late response. I've been on the road and only got back a few days ago.

Thanks for pushing me on this. I'm still not too sure about my understanding of the “spiritual sense,” so I appreciate your criticism. I'm still not sure I should abandon it, however, despite the negative connotations. If you feel that I'm being inconsistent or simply misguided, then please continue to pick me up on this in my forthcoming posts.

you would need to convince me that everyone has always meant the same thing across the ages when they have used the term “spiritual sense.”

I don't think they have all meant the same thing. But, at least after reading Childs' Struggle, I was under the impression that there is a strong line of continuity, i.e. that the OT is read on the horizon of broader theological concerns, concerns which constrain the meaning of the individual texts so that they are read in a particular way. This introduces different readings at different levels. One level is the “spiritual” level. It's the one where christological interpretation of the OT takes place. But you're right, it's an important issue and I need to do my homework. I intend to start reading through the church fathers at some point and getting my head round the hermeneutical issues involved. It's just a matter of time!

Is “continuity” always to be desired? Should it be critiqued? Does this term clarify rather than obscure?

I think continuity with the past, at least of some sort, is fundamental to the validity of the gospel. The gospel is about God redeeming a people through certain key events and standing by them. The church's validity is in its (complex) relation to the people of Israel. Simply breaking with the past and starting new would undermine this key tenet of our faith. As far as I understand the Reformers, they understood themselves to be purifying the faith by going back to our roots, not writing church history off and starting a new church.

in Jn 3:14; Matt 16:4. Jesus is not even interpreting the OT for the reader here; he is constructing a new argument, an analogy, using the OT.

Thanks for pointing out that this is “analogy.” I have a question: does the “analogous” nature of the relationship mean that interpretation can only go in one direction, i.e. that we read the plain sense of the OT and then use that to interpret the NT (in this case Jesus' message)? That would seem to be appropriate at one level of reading, i.e. one interested in exegeting the immediate text. But could it be that within a canonical interpretation Jesus' analogy making can help us to understand the OT better? If we accept that both testaments are partial witnesses to a “divine reality” then this kind of dialectic would be integral to understanding it. And that would mean that there is more to the meaning of Jonah or Moses then first meets the eye. I'm not sure if Jesus was “transforming” the OT here in his quote, but I think he's interpreting it within a theological horizon that involves more than the plain sense of the isolated text ... These are my tentative thoughts. Please do tear them apart. I've posted on the again here.

in 1 Cor 9:9 Paul is saying there is NOT more than one sense (b/c according to Paul, God doesn’t care about oxen

If God didn't care about oxen then why did he give the commandment? I would have thought that Paul is saying that if God cares about oxen, how much more for his servants. I.e. he doesn't reject the liteal sense, but interprets it within a broader theological horizon. (As my next post will satrt to discuss, the question is the nature of the relationship between the two meanings). But I'm not an NT person, so do correct me here.


But isn't the “analogous” nature of the relationship one of several means for relating the claims of Jesus and the OT? In other words, Jesus and the Church interpreted his identity and mission in terms of the OT in various ways

> “But can't a referent have a sense?”

No :)


Why?

Just asserting that “referent = sense” does not make it so for all other users of the word; just because a complex referent has text-external coherence in history doesn’t mean that it is a “sense.”

I'm not asserting that referent = sense, I think they are logical distinguishable. But they also belong together. A referent can have sense, but it isn't sense itself.

isn’t this what Frei accuses the Heilsgeschichtlers of doing—creating a unified schema of reconstructed events from the text and behind it, then doing theology on this rather than on the text?

I'm actually working my way through Frei right now. I've finished his Eclipse and have skimmed through his Identity of Jesus Christ (plus one another article). I agree that I'm going here in a direction that Frei warned against, but Frei himself was reacting to a reaction. He wanted to protect the text against over keen “rushes” to its “substance” without paying attention to the way the text itself constructs its meaning (at least narrative texts). The problem with basing theology on Heilsgeschichte is that it negates the specific way the text “means.” However, this does not mean that the text does not have a “spiritual” referent in the sense in which I'm using it. It simply begs the question of the nature of the relation between the two, the subject of my latest post. Some Frei quotes from his “Conflicts in Interpretation”:

“The textual world, as witness, is not identical to the Word of God and, yet, by the Spirit's grace, it is "sufficient" for the witnessing. Perhaps I hammer this theme too vigorously. If I do so, the reason is that in much modern theology the primacy of the subject-matter, the referent or the truth, over the text has usually meant that the text is adequate to the task by virtue of pointing to the subject-matter, that is to say, what is hidden within or implied by the text, and not by virtue of the literal sense.” (354, italics mine).

“I plead, then, for the primacy of the literal sense and its puzzling but firm relationship to a truth towards which we cannot thrust. The modus significandi will never allow us to say what the res significata is. Nonetheless, we can affirm that, in the Christian confession of divine grace, the truth is such that the text is sufficient. There is a fit due to the mystery of grace between truth and text. But that, of course, is a very delicate and very constant operation to find that fit between textuality and truth.” (356).

I’ve never heard anyone use “spiritual sense” for this! Maybe “metanarrative”—but “spiritual sense”?

I think that metanarrative is one way of construing the spiritual sense. I think ontology may also be a way, such as descriptions of the trinity. Though I'm pushing the limits of my knowledge of such things.

What is the “special” nature of the subject?

The “history of Jesus Christ,” who is both the object of the biblical proclamation as well as the subject of its ongoing proclamation. This seems to me to be the dogmatic presupposition of Childs' fondness for Wirkungsgeschichte, traditio-historical anaylsis, and form-criticism. It undergirds, I think, his approach to the Bible as “canon.”

Keep up the chat! Forgive me if I'm a bit thick headed. With perseverance we'll get there!

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

a few comments:

> “But, at least after reading Childs' Struggle, I was under the impression that there is a strong line of continuity, i.e. that the OT is read on the horizon of broader theological concerns, concerns which constrain the meaning of the individual texts so that they are read in a particular way.”

Part of my concern about your wording is what it doesn’t say, or at least the implications it creates. To speak of “the horizon of broader theological concerns . . . which constrain the meaning of the individual texts” seems to give a priority to text-external constructs without stating what they are or from whence they are derived. My concern here is not about whether reading with or without presuppositions is possible or not, or whether reading within or outside of a reading tradition is possible (or desirable). My concern is simply that a model which emphasizes readerly faithfulness to the text should use language that emphasizes fidelity to text-internal constraints. Why not just talk about constraints created by textual phenomena rather than “broader theological concerns”?

I should point out that I have the same quibble with Childs. On the one hand, he speaks of readings shaped by a canonical context. But on the other, he speaks of “com[ing] to exegesis already with certain theological assumptions” (1997; quoted in your post). I would like to think that these are textually derived—but unless Childs (or you) tells me the source of these “theological assumptions,” how can I know for sure? Perhaps this is simply an issue of methodological clarity and consistency.

> “This introduces different readings at different levels. One level is the “spiritual” level. It's the one where christological interpretation of the OT takes place.”

This is PRECISELY one of the problems involved in using the label “spiritual sense.” Above you had argued that the opposition “literal::spiritual” refers to “verbal sense::ultimate referent.” I recognize the distinction between sense and referent, so in theory this makes sense (even though I argued that using the word “spiritual sense” for “ultimate referent” was unhelpful). But now you would have us believe that “literal::spiritual” refers to reading at two different LEVELS. This is something quite different. Three questions could be posed at this point: (a) Are you saying, then, that reading the text “according to its verbal sense” rules out any reference in the OT to a messiah, or (more specifically, for Christian readers) a messiah like Jesus, or who is Jesus? (b) But if you admit that reading according to the verbal sense does not rule this out, what is the use of a “spiritual sense” anyway? (c) And how would you respond to the argument of Aquinas (Summa 1.1.10, reply to Obj. 1) that there is nothing in the spiritual sense that cannot already be found in the literal sense?

> “I think continuity with the past, at least of some sort, is fundamental to the validity of the gospel. The gospel is about God redeeming a people through certain key events and standing by them.”

Granted, of course. But we are talking about hermeneutical models—not about the content of the Gospel message.

> “I have a question: does the “analogous” nature of the relationship mean that interpretation can only go in one direction, i.e. that we read the plain sense of the OT and then use that to interpret the NT (in this case Jesus' message)? That would seem to be appropriate at one level of reading, i.e. one interested in exegeting the immediate text. But could it be that within a canonical interpretation Jesus' analogy making can help us to understand the OT better? If we accept that both testaments are partial witnesses to a “divine reality” then this kind of dialectic would be integral to understanding it."

If an author is simply making an analogy by alluding to an earlier text, then yes, to use your words, “interpretation can only go in one direction.” Text B does not help you “understand Text A better,” at least in the way you go on to discuss it. BUT if you can demonstrate that Text B is not just alluding to Text A but also alluding to a trajectory or context or network in which Text A has been placed by earlier authors/editors . . . then I am with you 100%. But if this is in fact the case, I’m not convinced we need to talk about “levels of reading,” “dialectic,” or “theological horizon.” Why not just use the terms “compositional strategy,” “intention of the redactor,” or even “canonical context,” properly defined?

> “I'm not asserting that referent = sense, I think they are logical distinguishable. But they also belong together. A referent can have sense, but it isn't sense itself.”

Again, I can only protest that I can’t find any modern works on linguistics that talk about sense and referent this way, so you may lose your audience here.

As always, many thanks for the conversation!
Michael

Phil Sumpter said...

To speak of “the horizon of broader theological concerns . . . which constrain the meaning of the individual texts” seems to give a priority to text-external constructs without stating what they are or from whence they are derived. ... My concern is simply that a model which emphasizes readerly faithfulness to the text should use language that emphasizes fidelity to text-internal constraints. Why not just talk about constraints created by textual phenomena rather than “broader theological concerns”?

Thanks for pointing this out. It's difficult, for me at least, to use language which depicts both sides of the coin. In other contexts I would also emphasize the text itself (see, for example, my most recent post on exegetical integrity). I appreciate that this is more than an epistemological issue. It has something to do with the very nature of the text itself, which, if Childs et al are right, is kerygmatic. The text of the Bible wishes to proclaim something. What that something is, however, is not so easy to grasp. The text does it “brokenly,” partially, moving towards a more comprehensive vision. Perhaps this is something similar to doctrines of progressive and plenary inspiration. As the people of God move on their relation with God, they can see with the benefit of hindsight what was always going on, that the words of Scripture were right and true for their generation, yet contained within themselves implications and truths that, when fully grasped, explode, or at least extend, the language that was used to express it. Babylon meant something quite concrete at one point in time, but there's a “Babylon” that is far more real and insidious than this one particular historical manifestation. When the Church refers to Babylon in more spiritualised, Satanic terms, it's reading the Psalms, for example, on a broader theological horizon. But this horizon is taken from the text itself. There is a dialectic involved, one of movement between OT to NT and back again, between theological assumptions gained from reading the Bible to the Bible itself and back again.

The category of “witness” is important here. What is the reality that the text “witnesses to”? There are many proposals, but the Church believes that it is God's Word in Jesus Christ. Perhaps we could see this like a working hypothesis. We believe it, and so interpret the Bible in terms of it, with the hope of both better understanding the Bible and the theological reality that it ultimately points to. The particularity of the text and the summary truth of the Gospel are read in dialectic. This type of reading does not necessarily abuse the text. If it really does witness to a theological reality, and if the church really has managed to summarize that reality in its teaching, it makes sense that this tradition be used hermeneutically, doesn't it? The key issue is that the text be allowed to retain its own voice in the process (it's literal sense), otherwise it ceases to be a witness and become instead a mouthpiece for some else's agenda. I hope to post further on this. Here's a Childs quote, which I think is relevant:

“The problem of developing theological norms with which to evaluate the diversity within the Old Testament finally forces the interpreter outside the context of the Old Testament and raises the broader question of scripture and canon”, (1967: 127).

Theological normativity cannot be acquired within the text itself. It is connected with a community. This is commensurate with the text's nature as “witness.” That, at least, is my understanding of the issue. My may well me misrepresenting Childs here.

But now you would have us believe that “literal::spiritual” refers to reading at two different LEVELS. This is something quite different.

This is making me think. Thanks! I guess I can introduce a difference in level because I make a distinction between “immediate” and “ultimate” referent. The immediate referent of Babylon in Isaiah is the historical empire. However, within the message of Isaiah himself Babylon functions within a broader theological discourse concerning covenant and mission. An eschatological dimension is introduced which raises the question of the “true” meaning of Babylon. The immediate referent implicates a deeper theological referent, which is still connected to the immediate referent (the spiritual Babylon is not a concept but as real as the city, with equally concrete consequences for the world). A Christian reading Isaiah will have to make an effort to block out the echoes of Revelation. That's fine, but only for one stage of reading. If it's the true that in the NT we have a profounder insight into the theological reality of the OT, then this echo will be helpful in shaping our reading of the OT. That's because both testaments are ultimately not about themselves but about the divine reality that called them both into being (I think I may be parting company with Goldingay here).

Does that make sense?

(a) Are you saying, then, that reading the text “according to its verbal sense” rules out any reference in the OT to a messiah, or (more specifically, for Christian readers) a messiah like Jesus, or who is Jesus?

I don't think it rules it out but I doubt that there is any literal prophecy of Jesus as the historical personage that walked the fields of Palestine. My understanding is that Jesus didn't just fulfil a few explicitly “messianic” prophecies, but rather the whole of Scripture, uniting disparate strands into his own work in ways that shocked 1st Century Jews. I find N.T. Wright helpful on this. It is precisely here that the distinction between literal and spiritual sense becomes necessary. If we just have the literal sense, we struggle to relate OT to NT (I should add here that Seitz is big on the literal sense. I summarized an essay of his on this here. I need to figure out how to relate what he says to this talk on the spiriutal sense. I think he wouldn't agree with what I'm saying, however). This answers your question (b).

(c) And how would you respond to the argument of Aquinas (Summa 1.1.10, reply to Obj. 1) that there is nothing in the spiritual sense that cannot already be found in the literal sense?

Very interesting, thanks! I think I've dealt with this in my Babylon example. Already within the book of Isaiah itself (in its canonical form, of course), we see a “stretching” of the literal sense. Bablyone and Zion, event the suffering servant, are what they are for the original hearers, yet they are also embedded in a literal context that shapes our reading a creates an expectation of something more. I think it is vital that the spiritual sense is an intrinsic part of the literal sense. To disconnect the two would vitiate the spiritual sense, as it is the kerygmatic (witnessing) nature of the text which legitimates its existence in the first place.

we are talking about hermeneutical models—not about the content of the Gospel message.

Can they be separated? I mean, more than just logically. The Reformers' rejection of the spiritual sense created a rift between them and earlier exegesis. I think that regaining the continuity in their hermeneutics (which is being done) is helpful for the church in its understanding of the Gospel.

Why not just use the terms “compositional strategy,” “intention of the redactor,” or even “canonical context,” properly defined?

Because none of these terms (except that last ... properly defined, on which see here) come to terms with the text as kerygmatic witness to a single reality beyond itself. They all remain at the level of what the text means in its immediate context, regardless of whether Jesus is alluding to one text or its broader con-text. But what role does the referent play in interpretation? Contra Frei, but following Sternberg, knowledge of the referent is significant for interpretation.

I can only protest that I can’t find any modern works on linguistics that talk about sense and referent this way, so you may lose your audience here.

This is evidently something I need to work on (though I still remain to be convinced). Could you recommend something that distinguishes between sense and referent? I recently read this is an essay by H. Frei:

For some, the “literal sense refers to the descriptive fit between verbum and res, sense and reference, signifier and signified, “Sinn” and “Bedeutung,” between grammatical/syntactical and conceptual sense, between the narrative sequence and what it renders descriptively.” (1993: 103).

Does this help? He gives us a set of parallels. Sense and reference are separated, just like signifier and signified. Yet they are both parallel to grammatical and conceptual sense. There seems to be sense in which the referent can also have a “sense” (which I call the “spiritual sense.”). This seems to be supported by what Frei goes on to say:

“Centrally, in the Christian interpretative tradition of its sacred text, the signifier of the NT narrative was taken to be the sequence of the story itself, and what was signified by it was the identity of the agent [e.g. Jesus in the Gospels] cumulatively depicted by it. By extension this narrative was joined with others to make one temporal sequence that cumulatively rendered the identity of God or his self-identification as an agent in this storied context.”

God/Jesus is the referent, and the totality of the narrative renders who is he. But God, as an independent reality, has “meaning.” I can understand something of who God is, I can talk about him and explain him, and all of this without having to cite the Bible verbatum. My knowledge of him is connected with the Bible (though not in a foundationalist sense), but it exceeds the categories the Bible uses to talk of him. I would say that the God referenced by the text is the spiritual sense of the text. Trinitarian language, for example, when applied to the Bible, is talk of its “spiritual” sense, even thought the Bible doesn't literally use the term “trinity.” A literal reading of Genesis 1 will not get you to John 1, but when read together we can claim that there is a spiritual sense to both texts which is not realized by a purely literary, text-immanent, reading of either.

Thanks for the chat! I hope we can keep it up.

Phil Sumpter said...

Michael,

a few extra thoughts on "referent" and "sense." I'm currently attempting to understand a complex (for me at least!) essay by Frei called "The "Literal Reading" of Biblical Narrative," and he constantly seems to think that the referent can (though not necessarily) have "meaning." He quotes Tracy: "'referent' basically manifests the meaning 'in front of' the text." He goes on to say, "The "referent" "in front of the text" is precisely that restorative "sense"of the reading of second naiveté, for which text and reader come to share a common referential world ... which they cannot share in critical reading of the "meaning behind the text." Meaning "in front of the text" is a centered world of meaning made accessible and viable to an equally centered self" (1993: 134). I doubt Frei agrees with this, but it shows that the idea of a referent having meaning is accepted. In his Eclipse he also talks of the constant tendency to locate meaning not in the text but in its referent, ideal or historical. I don't know how you can say that the two have nothing to do with each other.

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

back for round . . . what is it now? :)

> “As the people of God move on their relation with God, they can see with the benefit of hindsight what was always going on, that the words of Scripture were right and true for their generation, yet contained within themselves implications and truths that, when fully grasped, explode, or at least extend, the language that was used to express it.”

I’m afraid you lost me on the “implications and truths that explode and extend the language that expresses them.” This doesn’t sound like any description of the function of language, text, and communication that I am familiar with. Or are you just being poetic? Or are you just saying that the effect of the literary whole is more than the effect of the parts in isolation? Or are you referring to the fact that the referent to which Scripture witnesses is more spiritually significant than the mere verbal sense which points to that referent?

> “Babylon meant something quite concrete at one point in time, but there's a “Babylon” that is far more real and insidious than this one particular historical manifestation. When the Church refers to Babylon in more spiritualised, Satanic terms, it's reading the Psalms, for example, on a broader theological horizon. But this horizon is taken from the text itself.”

I’m happy with this. I would pick John’s conflation of Isa + Jer + Ezek in Revelation as the “star witness” for your “Babylon” example. I wouldn’t even be opposed to the term “reading on a broader theological horizon”—as long as you could convince me that it wasn’t being used as a smokescreen for people who read abitrarily and without reference to compositional strategies in the text (and I wouldn’t accuse either you or Childs of this!)

> “The particularity of the text and the summary truth of the Gospel are read in dialectic. This type of reading does not necessarily abuse the text. If it really does witness to a theological reality, and if the church really has managed to summarize that reality in its teaching, it makes sense that this tradition be used hermeneutically, doesn't it?”

Sorry, this just sounds odd and convoluted to me. . . . Isn’t this like reading Kittel’s TDNT and Bromiley’s abridgement of TDNT in dialectic? I mean, what’s the point? As you describe it, there is a movement from: (a) both Testaments as witness to (b) a “theological reality” (presumably, the referent, Christ) to (c) “the Church’s teaching as summary of that reality” to (d) a dialectic reading of (a) with (c). But is the Church “summarizing a reality” or “summarizing the texts that witness to the reality”? And why the dialectic? Why not just read both Testaments as a witness, while looking over the shoulders of others in your historic reading community as a helpful guide?

> “I guess I can introduce a difference in level because I make a distinction between “immediate” and “ultimate” referent. The immediate referent of Babylon in Isaiah is the historical empire. However, within the message of Isaiah himself Babylon functions within a broader theological discourse concerning covenant and mission. . . .”

Couple issues:
(a) when you actually get to your example, the “levels” sound more like contexts or text-segments.
(b) It seems suspicious to me that you keep using the word “theological” at some places and not others. It sounds like you are implying that any discrete mention of “Babylon” is NOT “theological,” but that the metaphorical or symbolic use of the word (for something “bigger” than just a city in Mesopotamia) as generated by the book as a whole IS “theological.” I’m dubious.
(c) re: “if it's the true that in the NT we have a profounder insight into the theological reality of the OT…”—well, do we? What do you mean by “profounder insight”? Is the “theological reality of the OT” something textual or extratextual? If it IS textual, are you saying that we can’t find this in the text until we read the NT saying that it is there? But if it is there in the OT, why is whatever the NT provides (=?) “profounder”?
(d) re: “That’s because both testaments . . .”—true, but I don’t think this has anything to do with the fact that echos of the OT in the NT might be helpful for the way we read.

> “I doubt that there is any literal prophecy of Jesus as the historical personage that walked the fields of Palestine. My understanding is that Jesus didn't just fulfil a few explicitly “messianic” prophecies, but rather the whole of Scripture, uniting disparate strands into his own work in ways that shocked 1st Century Jews.”

I’m not sure what you are referring to here. I was taking issue with your statement that “christological interpretation” of the OT takes places on a “spiritual level.” I was simply making the observation that there is ample evidence that Second Temple Jewish authors read Scripture as referring to (an) eschatological agent(s) sent by God, and that the Jesus depicted in the Gospels seems to be intent on carrying out a messianic script based on the descriptions of these agents in the Scriptures. The only “shocking” thing, as far as I can tell, is that Jesus combined the roles associated with these eschatological agents to yield some unexpected results. But the fact that OT texts are being read as referring to coming eschatological agents, and even the fact that their roles can be combined, is not shocking in the context of Second Temple Jewish interpretation. I don’t see what is “spiritual” about any of this.

Also: I don’t know what “Jesus fulfilled the whole of Scripture” means—though I have seen many people make this claim.

> “It is precisely here that the distinction between literal and spiritual sense becomes necessary. If we just have the literal sense, we struggle to relate OT to NT.

Well, precisely! It is the arbitrary nature of appeals to a “spiritual sense” in historic Christian interpretation that makes finding anything you want easy! I’m quite happy to “struggle,” and I don’t think this is a bad thing. Explaining the textual data requires a knowledge of textual transmission, innerbiblical text-referencing, and the history of Second Temple interpretation, none of which are simple.

> “Already within the book of Isaiah itself (in its canonical form, of course), we see a “stretching” of the literal sense. Bablyone and Zion, event the suffering servant, are what they are for the original hearers, yet they are also embedded in a literal context that shapes our reading a creates an expectation of something more.

Again, this is not a “spiritual sense”—it is simply another literal sense created by redactional or compositional strategy at a larger text-segment level.

> “The Reformers' rejection of the spiritual sense created a rift between them and earlier exegesis. I think that regaining the continuity in their hermeneutics (which is being done) is helpful for the church in its understanding of the Gospel.”

You have not yet demonstrated that this “rift” was a bad thing :) And as far as I’m aware, Luther and Calvin seem to have had a pretty rigorous understanding of the Gospel—I can’t really see that it was deficient compared to earlier Fathers.

> “But what role does the referent play in interpretation? Contra Frei, but following Sternberg, knowledge of the referent is significant for interpretation.”

Ah, here we have it. I’m sure it IS “significant”; what I’d like to know is whether it is NECESSARY for interpretation! And if our only knowledge of the referent you speak of is textually mediated, then we are back to talking about texts—in which case your objection to my terms “compositional strategy,” “intention of the redactor,” and “canonical context” loses some force, no?

> “Could you recommend something that distinguishes between sense and referent?

See David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 4d ed (Blackwell, 1997), s.v. “sense”; John Saeed, Semantics (Blackwell, 1997), chap. 2. And sorry, I'm going to have to go with a linguist on "reference" as opposed to D. Tracy. One further clarification: I don't claim that sense and reference "have nothing to do with each other" (they do); simply that they are two different things.

Egads, I'll have to stop posting on this thread so I can read what else you are writing!

as always, thanks!

Michael

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Michael,

I'm afraid I've not been able to respond to everything today. I'll get back to you with the rest tomorrow. Do give my other posts a read, however, as they deal with some of these issues, especially the text as "witness."

I’m afraid you lost me on the “implications and truths that explode and extend the language that expresses them.” This doesn’t sound like any description of the function of language, text, and communication that I am familiar with.

The Babylon example illustrated this. It's not just that John's use of Bablyon is based on a canonical exegesis of his own, but having read John, our canonical exegesis is shaped by what he wrote. When we read Isaiah, our knowledge of Revelation is and ought to be (at one level, after exegesis of the literal sense) brought into dialogue with the book. The combined voice leads us to the Gospel, and not just John's interpretation of Isaiah. This is clearly reading Isaiah “beyond” it's literal sense (though including it), and as such not contemporary theory of communication or language will suffice. General hermeneutical theory will help you grasp the literal sense (when “literal sense” itself is properly defined, see forthcoming), but it will not help you get to God. The canonical approach emphasises the particular nature of these texts over against others and operates with the assumption that their subject matter is unitary, regardless of surface diversity. I will post today on the Reformer's use of the “spiritual sense” (though they did not use the term, choosing to reject it because of its abuse). Without the “spiritual sense,” it is difficult to make the whole of scripture speak to the needs of the contemporary church.

In sum, the “spiritual sense” cannot be grasped with normal hermeneutical tools, because it does not attempt to explain language as used in normal,daily communication. I doubt Moses would have thought that the rock he struck would become a type of the Christ. That doesn't mean it wasn't or that we shouldn't read it that way (after taking its literal sense into account). The “spiritual sense” is the meaning the text has for today, but congruent with its literal sense.

Isn’t this like reading Kittel’s TDNT and Bromiley’s abridgement of TDNT in dialectic?

I can see how one would think that. But I disagree with the parallel because dictionaries are different to the Bible. Dictionaries don't have stories and metaphors. You can't build typological chains with dictionaries. And the Gospel is not the same as a “break down” of the main points of an argument or basic core issues. It's a living reality of God and his people is multitudinous ways which are not exhausted by any theological formula. The regula fidei doesn't function to give us a break down, but to provide with boundaries for orthodox interpretation, or the contours of a faith that is always dynamic. I don't think the “spiritual sense” of a text always remains the same, though there will be continuity in its ongoing formulations. See the Childs quote in my recent post on exegetical integrity.

But is the Church “summarizing a reality” or “summarizing the texts that witness to the reality”?

I think that the Church is doing both, but it's important to emphasise that the reality exceeds the words used to portray it (e.g. Isaiah's understanding of the referent “Babylon.”). Hence the reality itself is being summarized.

And why the dialectic? Why not just read both Testaments as a witness, while looking over the shoulders of others in your historic reading community as a helpful guide?

Because going for the second option implies that one is able to step outside of faith, that one should step outside of faith, in order to have a pure reading that will lead to secure theology. I don't believe that this is possible, no matter how hard you try. However, I also don't believe it is desirable, because the nature of the theological reality that reveals itself through Scripture is living and piercing and “sharper than any double edged sword,” and not a static literary deposit waiting to be uncovered by an interpreter with the right hermeneutical tools. The theological exegete does not read the Bible just to understand it, or just to “understand God.” (S)he reads the Bible in order to be moved to obedience and service, which is more important than an adequate grasping of the authorial intent of one particular pericope, or even of the sum of the whole Bible. The complexity of the issue is that God works through the literal sense, so that the two need always be held together. Subscribing to dogma and flattening the text is as “deadening” as a three-dimensional text without the lens of faith. For example, I don't think any Christian would be satisfied to live with a literal reading of Isaiah 53 and say that the NT is a later reconstrual of its meaning (which it is). There has to be some connection of “substance” between them, so that reading Isaiah 53 in its literary context is made to echo with what we know of the incarnate Son. That is when the theological potential of the text is “ignited.” I know, however, that in practice almost all Christians do read Isaiah 53 exclusively through the lens of the NT (including NT scholars). It's OK, because the NT has grasped something of the theological substance of the OT, but it's poor because the Gospel is not what the NT says about the OT, it's what the NT and the OT say together.

This is all very abstract. Perhaps I'll be better able to illustrate this at some point. I'm working on an essay in which I will critique Hans Frei for separating “meaning” and “truth.” Hopefully that will help me clarify the issue better (and help me understand it too!).

This, by the way, was the purpose of my post What do we do with Tradition?.

(a) when you actually get to your example, the “levels” sound more like contexts or text-segments.

Well, when you get to Babylon as “Satanic empire” you've gone beyond the scope of the book. So text-segments alone aren't enough to get us to the sensus spiritualis.

It seems suspicious to me that you keep using the word “theological” at some places and not others. It sounds like you are implying that any discrete mention of “Babylon” is NOT “theological,” but that the metaphorical or symbolic use of the word (for something “bigger” than just a city in Mesopotamia) as generated by the book as a whole IS “theological.”

I think all uses of Babylon are “theological,” including the historical referential ones. That's because in biblical faith history and theology are intertwined. However, the relationship is complex, so that one theological construal (e.g. the historical Babylon is God's tool of punishment for covenant unfaithfulness) becomes related to, swallowed up in (I'm not sure of the nature of the relationship) another “broader” theological construal (Babylon represents any enemy of the people of God). I just used the adjective “theological” in the second sense to distinguish between immediate and ultimate referents. I'm sure even this broader theological referent can point something even more profound, and we could still meaningfully call it “Babylon.”

(c) re: “if it's the true that in the NT we have a profounder insight into the theological reality of the OT…”—well, do we? What do you mean by “profounder insight”? Is the “theological reality of the OT” something textual or extratextual? If it IS textual, are you saying that we can’t find this in the text until we read the NT saying that it is there? But if it is there in the OT, why is whatever the NT provides (=?) “profounder”?

Sorry, bad choice of word. For “profounder” read “clearer,” given what has happened in Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old (the OT becomes profounder in the light of it). I think that the “theological reality” of the OT is extra-textual, though is intimately tied to the text. We wouldn't be able to grasp the theological substance without the NT because the OT is inherently forward looking and partial. I'm fascinated, for example, by the note on which the canonical history ends in Nehemiah. God needed to do something. Things couldn't remain as they were. Once he did it, a “paradigm shift” occurred.

I was simply making the observation that there is ample evidence that Second Temple Jewish authors read Scripture as referring to (an) eschatological agent(s) sent by God, and that the Jesus depicted in the Gospels seems to be intent on carrying out a messianic script based on the descriptions of these agents in the Scriptures.

Do these discreet prophecies exhaust what the OT has to say about Jesus? Or did he fulfil more?

I don’t know what “Jesus fulfilled the whole of Scripture” means—though I have seen many people make this claim.

I need to look into this more, but I'm guessing something like Jesus as the rock struck by Moses, the manna in the wilderness, the lover in Song of Songs, the visitor to Abraham, the suffering psalmist, etc. None of these are eschatological or messianic, are they (OK, the last has been fitted into the eschatological framework of the Psalter)?

Phil Sumpter said...

OK, I finally complete my response:

It is the arbitrary nature of appeals to a “spiritual sense” in historic Christian interpretation that makes finding anything you want easy! I’m quite happy to “struggle,”

I agree that it is important to “struggle,” but this is because the “spiritual sense” is intimately connected to the literal sense. Spiritual sense interpretation has been abused, but that doesn't mean that it should now be rejected. My comments in my last response concerning Jesus as the rock of the wilderness etc. show that there is more to messianic claims than grasping the plain sense of the text. There is a reconfiguration of the OT that takes place once one meets Jesus. The texts speak differently, and we wouldn't grasp that if we were to read the texts alone. Though I do believe in the importance of the literal sense in interpretation (see my latest posts on Frei here and here). The question is the relationship between the two. I'll get onto the literal sense soon.

[In ref to my comments on Babylon in Isaiah, you said:]Again, this is not a “spiritual sense”—it is simply another literal sense created by redactional or compositional strategy at a larger text-segment level.

I know. I think I said this to show that the spiritual sense is connected to the literal. The literal is structured in such a way as to point beyond itself. But the point is that that to which it points is not to be found on the surface level, and when it is found it shapes our reading of the surface level. I posted on this in relation to the story of the sacrifice of Isaac here. Here's an important Childs quote from that post:

“It is my contention that this multifaceted text has been shaped through its lengthy development in such a way as to provide important hermeneutical guidelines for its theological use by a community which treasured it as scripture. By carefully observing how the editors dealt with elements which they deemed unrepeatable (einmalig) but which they reckoned to be representative or universal in application, a basic hermeneutical direction is provided by which to broaden theological reflection beyond the Old Testament" (1992: 326; italics mine).

You have not yet demonstrated that this “rift” was a bad thing :) And as far as I’m aware, Luther and Calvin seem to have had a pretty rigorous understanding of the Gospel—I can’t really see that it was deficient compared to earlier Fathers.

Sorry, I didn't express that clearly. The “riff” is in terms of relationship. Protetstant exegetes are antagonistic to earlier patristic exegesis and struggle to comprehend it. Recent work is highlighting the continuity of the Reformers with their patristic forefathers, despite their polemic. I hope to post on this soon.

Ah, here we have it. I’m sure it IS “significant”; what I’d like to know is whether it is NECESSARY for interpretation! And if our only knowledge of the referent you speak of is textually mediated, then we are back to talking about texts—in which case your objection to my terms “compositional strategy,” “intention of the redactor,” and “canonical context” loses some force, no?

If we follow Vanhoozer and say that theological exegesis is exegesis orientated towards knowledge of God, then I don't see how the referent, God, can not be necessary for interpretation. Staying with Isaiah on his own will not grant you the theological harvest you would want as a theological exegete. All that you say about “compositional strategies” etc. is very important. But it is only one part of a longer process. The key is the question of our knowledge of the referent “being textually mediated.” My recent posts on Frei would affirm this. But I don't think this does full justice to the issue. I'm not convinced the referent can be subordinated to the text quite as absolutely as he thought ... I would go with a dialectical movement between tradition and text.

That may be the crux ... unfortunately it's late and I'm tired. I'm flying to England tomorrow so I wanted to get this done before I go. Do keep hammering away at me, I appreciate the challenge. But do read my other posts, as I think they deal with some of these issues.

I don't claim that sense and reference "have nothing to do with each other" (they do); simply that they are two different things.

Thanks for the references. I will look them up when I return from England after Easter. I agree that they are different. But you still haven't told me why a referent can't have a meaning.

All the best!

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

I'll email you on the rest, but on the very last comment:

> "But you still haven't told me why a referent can't have a meaning."

I am distinguishing between a signifier (such as a word); the sense (what is in your head); and the referent (the thing outside your head). While there is some discussion in theoretical linguistics over what precisely the thing in your head IS, this model is uncontroversial.

Now, if you want to assert that a referent can ALSO be a signifier--that is, that we can associate the referent with ANOTHER additional sense--of course you can (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 2.10). Though I suspect I will differ with you in the same way I differ with Augustine--that is, with how he links referents to other significations :)

Michael