Thursday, 10 April 2008

How can a knowledge of the Bible's referent help you understand the Bible?

Well, if the whole Bible has it's source in a single divine reality then it makes sense that the proper context for understanding individual biblical texts is the larger biblical tradition to which they belong. Given this assumption, Isaiah, Song of Songs, Matthew and Revelation would be just as important contexts for interpreting Genesis as the Enuma Elish.

If, on the other hand, the various texts are not understood to have has single divine source, and were instead written to subtly reference political, economic and sociological realities under the veil of theology, it makes sense that each perspective be isolated from the other and placed in those various contexts.

Does that follow? Are there other options?

I personally think that the truth is a mixture of both. The single divine source of scripture is of such a nature that "it" ("he") interacts with history, politics, economics and sociology. That's just my particularly incarnational way of construing the divine referent. The hermeneutical result is that both sides of the coin need to be taken into account. Each text was written in a particular context and this context is important to catching an important element of the text's meaning. However, the divine source that evoked the historical witness ensures that the proclamation of once upon a time is caught up within an unfolding drama, such that later generations would respond to the original witness from the perspective of a broader understanding of the divine source, incorporating this understanding into the literary shape of the text itself. Whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or JEPD, the various voices have been combined into a literary whole, the shape of which guarantees a proper glimpsing of what the various stages only glimpsed at before (a what these stages were ultimately truly interested in).

In short, making the hermeneutical decision to read the final form of the text only makes sense if one subscribes to this particular understanding of the divine referent. Knowledge of referent determines hermeneutic.

NB: This post continues what I started yesterday, on whether non-believers can really understand the Bible.


Sean B said...


I've went back and forth about how to respond to your email/post on "Can a non-believer...", especially you quite clearly spent more time and thought responding to my email than I spend composing it.

My inclination is to say that the statement "a non-believer cannot understand the Bible" could equally well be phrased "any given reader may not agree with a certain variety of theological interpretation of the Bible." Put another way, I wonder to what extent does Childs' vision of a theological canonical consciousness stands on historical grounds (i.e. on the awareness of canon of the real historical actors who produced "The Bible" over the first few centuries of its existence). If it does, I see no reason why a historical critic cannot understand that process and its results. So I don't think understanding itself is an issue here -- but, to make an even stronger claim, I don't think understanding is an issue even if theological interpretation is not historically-based. That is, with the help of skilled teachers, I've read, for example, Pseudo-Dionysius, Origen on Leviticus, and Sifre Deuteronomy and (I think) I understand them (or understood them before I forgot my coursework) and learned much from them. I just don't really agree with them in terms of their presentation of the biblical texts.

To say that the Church (and I must admit that I am very uneasy with this capital 'C' here) "cannot be identified without remainder with either synagogue or
academy" is obviously true, so much as to be a truism, but that's not to say the exactly same thing about the practitioners of professional biblical study in each group. Among that crowd, surely the remainder is at least smaller -- and can't that remainder be bridged by common conversation and dispute?

Now, you might -- fairly enough -- say that my need to rephrase your statement in (ostensibly) "secular" terms is proof that I don't understand. But, to get mildly personal, if I have a theological degree from a div school and am a baptized Christian, how many more ecclesiastical or ontological hurdles do I have to clear? (Please, by the way, don't think that I am actually offended here - I just use myself as an illustration). I'm afraid that I see traces of a turf war in the discussion of 'theological interpretation', insofar as it seems to mean that systematicians (and it's worth asking how often "The Church" essentially means "the Church as imagined by her systematic theologians") get to define for the biblicists what biblical interpretation is. Even worse, I fear that it's only certain kinds of systematicians (pro-Barth, anti-Schleiermacher, philo-Catholic, probably not individualistic USA Baptists, or whatever, etc, etc). Which brings me back to 'tribalism' (a word I wish I hadn't used, but have to take responsibility for now). I'm concerned not about some division between reading strategies of believers vs. non-believers, but between certain kinds of believers vs. everybody else. The empirical fact is that there is as much or more variation in interpretive practice within 'the Church' as there is between believers and non-believers. (and what is a non-believer, anyway?)

Maybe our real difference here is that you are thinking things through in a rigorous theoretical manner and I am fretting more about practical, professional issues. Two sides of the same coin, though, no?

Sorry for being so long winded. I've been enjoying this. cheers, Sean

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Sean,

thanks for responding. I don't think you're being long winded at all, and I appreciate your points—though I may need some clarification too. I'm not sure I've understood all your points. For example, you say that you have rephrased my statement in secular terms, but I'm not sure where you did this. “Rephrasing” implies to me that you agree, but think the terminology is misleading. As far as I can see, you are still arguing that there is an objectivity to the Bible which enables it to be understood by anyone who comes to the text with the right tools (i.e. basic knowledge of literary conventions, historical context etc.). I agree with this to a certain degree, as the Church always has done (I'm using a capital 'C,' aware of the difficulty of this, as I feel that there is, indeed has to be, some kind of continuity throughout the Church's history, and this is one of them). The tradition term for this is the “literal sense” of the text. In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars turned to Jews to help them grasp this dimension of the text. Rashi was an influential favourite. But Christians (and no doubt Jews in reponse) claimed that the Jews could only understand this level, the “carnal” level, and could not push through the text to its true substance, which is the object of its witness, which is theological, which is God in Christ. Saying that the OT talks of Christ is a claim concerning the meaning of the text, and not an extra appendage to be tacked on after the more objective work has been done.

This secular critic may sneer here and ask why we need to bother talking in terms of “literal” and “spiritual” senses. Surely the spiritual sense is just a conceit to enable the church to co-opt the text for its own dogmatic agendas? In response I would say that we all read a text in light of its “spiritual sense,” whether we are Marxist, materialist, post-modern or whatever. I certain dogmatic structure undergirds what we consider truth and reality to be, and we cannot avoid that shaping our reading of the text. So I would say that we should strive for agreement as concerns the literal sense and we should strive for agreement concerning the “spiritual sense,” but ascertaining the spiritual sense in community with non-believers will entail taking into account broader philosophical concerns outside the realm of biblical studies (hence the hermeneutical, philosophical introductions to many an attempt to exegete the Bible. Interpreting involves more than just “reading.”)

I understand the full complexity of what is involved in trying to convince someone of the text's spiritual sense and I don't believe it is something that can be done by pointing to objective facts and using deductive reason. A certain paradigm shift has to take place, i.e. conversion, but although this is complex, it doesn't reduce the importance of broaching the issue.

This brings me to the issue of how to interpret: you would say that all can interpret and understand the Bible, but you would no doubt require certain basic interpretive skills, such as the knowledge of what is required to understand something, the historical context for example. But the apparently obvious fact of the historicality of the biblical texts and thus the need for historical exegesis is paralleled by the fact (I and others claim, v. von Rad) that these texts are also theological, and claim to have their source in God. What categories are necessary here? Historical critical ones or dogmatic ones? A secular interpreter (whether historical critical, psychoanalytical or whatever) simply won't be able to work in terms of dogmatic categories of the Christian variety, so he or she will hit a wall. I'll give an example in my next post. This is why they won't, from a Christian perspective, “get it.”

Of course, as you say, the Church itself is relatively divided (though not in terms of the actual substance of the Bible, if the Church is an Apostle's Creed believing church). Which is why biblical exegesis is something the church needs to do. Exegesis should be an ecclesial activity, as hearing God in Scripture is an ongoing obligation. That will involve debate and hard work. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. So if you disagree with Origen, the solution, as far as I can see at least, is not conclude that we all disagree anyway but to ask why we disagree, what he's doing wrong, and how we can fine-tune our procedure. The same way I would respond to a non-believer. It's just that what I have in common with Origen will be different to what I have in common with, say, Rashi, and so the nature of the critique will be different. I may find myself to be more sympathetic to Origen, as we share certain assumptions about the nature of the text and its role in the “divine economy” then Rashi. Or maybe not – I don't know Origen well enough.

The rephrasing you did offer was the following: any given reader may not agree with a certain variety of theological interpretation of the Bible

But that changes the substance of what I'm saying and not just the phraseology. It isn't enough to point out that we all have different assumptions and so therefore have different interpretations. If we left things at that I don't think academia, Christian or not, would get anywhere. In fact, it is because I believe that we all share a single reality and that the text is the same for all of us that I feel driven not to settle with accounts I feel are wrong. So I put the claim that Christian faith provides the most adequate framework for biblical interpretation out there to be debated by others. Or, as has been the case on the two lists (Biblical Studies/Biblicalist), to point out that the issue even exists in the first place and shouldn't be ignored.

Final point: I wouldn't contrast “historical critic” with “theological exegete.” Von Rad was a master of both, and would have baulked at the contrast.

Oh, and don't worry about coming across as “harsh.” I'm sure I could write a lot more smoothly, but it's not a strong point of mine and I appreciate a good debate. So just write what you think; if I think you're being unfair I'll either ignore it and focus on the argument or tell you :)

I hope that covers everything ...


JR said...

On Crucifying Jesus in Three Languages

Phil - here’s a quote from George Fox (Quakers) that sketches sentiments cutting across several threads on your blog.

The quote seems slightly better fitted on this thread addressing questions whether knowledge of the referent enriches the curricula of understanding the scripture.

The same quote could equally introduce reasons for arguing against your holding (on the other thread) that unbelievers have a less full understanding of the scripture than do believers.

I’d say this same quote equally addresses your explorations of both canon, and, Frei on narrative; but, I grant you that you might have good reasons to see the quote as only peripherally relevant to these two latter matters.

Note that Fox is unequivocal that Jesus (now through the Spirit) is the Referent of the scripture. The quote simply asserts this. Fox elsewhere develops reasons why. Fox doesn’t expressly anticipate current fundamentalist notions of inerrancy and infallibility in the “original” text when he inverts the order of scripture and Referent so that Jesus ends up as the Original. Nor does Fox expressly address canonical forms except in an elliptical reference to “orthodox ministers.” I’d extend his reasoning to canon. Fox furthermore does not anticipate the protean fracture of literary-formal studies of the scriptures evolving such categories as "narrative"; but, his assessment of human language as one mechanism of crucifying Jesus encompasses enough to include “narrative”.

I’ll add a few other thoughts below on the relevance of this quote to the question of how fully unbelievers can "understand" scripture.

Here’s the quote from Fox: from his, "The Pearl Found in England."

"And the teachers of the world, and ministers, and pastors, and doctors, and shepherds have told us that the Hebrew and Greek was the original, and they were the orthodox ministers to open the scriptures to us, and they had the original, when as Moses said that all the earth was of one language before Babel ... and Moses said, like unto me will God raise up a prophet, him shall you hear, and when this prophet was come, Christ Jesus, they crucified him, and when they crucified him, they wrote a superscription over him in letters of Hebrew, Greek and Latin; now here stands the world's original over Christ, over the life when they crucified him; the beginning of these many languages was Babel; and Pilate he could not open the scriptures with Hebrew, Greek and Latin, but crucified Christ who is the substance of the scriptures, and when he had done, he set his languages over him; and said John in the Revelations, they must be redeemed out of every tongue or language, which they have told us was the original, that which was set over Christ when he was crucified, over the life; but now the life is risen, Christ is risen, who had the languages set a-top of him, Christ is risen that fathoms Babel and Babylon, before Babel or Babylon was ... [who] is the world's Original, so the life is risen a-top of it, which they set a-top of him, and over them that say it is original, and that they must open the scriptures with it, with which they run all into confusion, ... break into heaps, heads and parties, for if they could open them, they would satisfy one another, and came all into one, for that which gave them forth is one, which must open them again ... but over all the life is risen, that gives to see to the beginning before the world was made, which brings to peace with God, which opens the words of Christ, the prophets, and apostles, and gives to every one his particular satisfaction concerning the words of the prophets, of Christ, of the apostles, in which life and peace with God is known, which judgeth all them that have the words, and be out of the life."

Quick notes.

“Orthodox ministers” by this time vaulted canonical forms. The problem for Fox involves vaulting “orthodox” form as a sort of axis mundi “to open the scriptures to us.” Fox inverts the formula: but, not out of rhetorical cutesy and linguistic double-turns: rather from depth of inward experience. My quick allusion to canon. Enough said for now.

Fox takes what modern criticism would call an historical referent to the three languages vaulted over Christ and Fox makes use of this reference literally to indict the entirety of “every tongue or language.” Language is revelatory – of our mastery of language to crucify Jesus. In a terrifying irony, the entire crucifixion would be less legible, even illegible, without the punctuation mark of our language over Jesus’ head, dying under our (three literally) languages of expertise, our comprehensive and expert languages (three as symbolic) marking Him out as the King, dying under the load of the sum of our languages.

The resurrection is Jesus “risen a-top” of our crucifying actions in word and deed. Resurrection is also “over all life” so that the resurrected “Original” returns and “gives to every one his particular satisfaction” of the truths of the text, but arguably, without the text. More below.

The ultimate and ongoing judgment of the Resurrected Original is that He “judgeth all them that have the words, and be out of life.”

Okay - there’s too much here to unpack.

A quick hit-and-run for now on unbelievers.

Fox held "unbelievers" to be a false category if the text of scripture or canonical conformity allocates that partition.

The Original is accessible inwardly to many who’ve never heard of the text, no less canon and "narrative." It is this accessibility to the Original to which scripture testifies!

The test of understanding the Original is practical obedience to the inward and intimate judging of “all them that have the words, and be out of life.”

Fox here and elsewhere says that “the words” are not merely the words of the text of scripture, but more, “the words” are our words about the words of the text!

Applying this to “un-believers”: Fox provoked imbroglios for “un-believers” wherever he went: as for example on his visit to the colonies, when he pulled a native American Indian inside a teepee, before the judgment of an audience of esteemed scriptural “teachers” (Baptist, Anglican, few others - always at odds with Fox) who found the Indian an "unbeleiver," to which Fox countered, saying that the Indian’s love for his wife proved the Indian’s better understanding of the “Original” than the loveless scriptural experts who would brand the Indian an “un-believer.”

Understanding the Original is living in inward communion and in obedient conformity; even if exegesis is all out of whack.

Even if one disagrees with Fox regarding the immediate, inward, and intimate accessibility of the “Original” as the key Referent of the scripture, it’s still a factual matter known only by God, and not a theoretical question known by exegetes – whether a particular “unbeliever” better “understands” the Original as proven by behavior, spirit, motivation, and personal relations in love, than those who search the scripture for "fuller" meanings, yet never come to the Original.

For Fox, reading the scripture invites another layer of judgment from the Original “which judgeth all them that have the words, and be out of the life."