Saturday, June 16, 2007

Literal reading and the Senses of Scripture

An interesting discussion has taken place that I would like to comment upon. Alastair commented on an article written by Matt of Fragmenta, who was responding to Peter Leithart. Basically, Rev. Leithart is saying that we cannot find the meaning of Scripture in the author’s intent because it is unrecoverable, but we also cannot disassociate meaning from the author’s intent because that leads to pure chaos. Leithart’s answer is to:

address this, medievally, by complicating what we mean by "sense." After all, linking sense to authorial intent is only a problem if there is only one sense. If there are multiple senses, then one of them might be a direct expression of the author's intention without committing us to saying that all of them are.

Matt objects to the idea of multiple meanings saying that proliferating the meanings only gets in the way.

Alastair defends Rev. Leithart by adding:

Whilst the original meaning of the text is always important and should not be lost sight of, the meaning of the text is far greater than its original meaning. I appreciate the value and importance of such readings of Scripture that Matt speaks of. However, important as such readings of the Scriptures are, it was not the approach adopted by the apostles, who habitually interpreted the OT in a manner that placed the accent on the multiple senses that went beyond the original sense and occasionally even appeared to run contrary to it.

As a follower of Grammatical-Historical Exegesis, which Leithart and Alastair find wanting, and a rejecter of the New Perspectives on Paul, which Matt seems to favor, I thought I would add my two measly cents.

First, I am not against the idea of ‘senses’ to Scripture, nor is the method of grammatical-historical exegesis. Louis Berkhof even speaks of a mystical sense of Scripture in his Principles of Biblical Interpretation. There are passages that point us to Christ in the OT. Abraham sacrificing Isaac for example. This is a legitimate meaning of the text despite the fact that Christ is no where ‘literally’ mentioned in the text. The Bible contains symbols and types that can only be called a mystical sense that goes above a literal sense.

Second, I am against the idea that every text has a mystical sense to it. Not every text is a type or contains some hidden non-literal meaning. Elisha calling down the bears on the disrespectful children is not some sort of strange type, nor is Nehemiah striking the children that speak foreign tongues.

Third, the mystical sense has to be grounded in the literal sense. Alastair is right that we find texts that seem to place a priority on the mystical (spiritual may be a better word, but I am sticking with the common term) meaning, but I disagree that it ever runs contrary to the literal or even appear to run that way. Jesus in John 6 points to the deeper meaning of the his feeding of the 5,000, but that meaning is based on the action of feeding the 5,000. Galatians 4:22-31 speaks of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. However, that passage makes no sense at all if the literal understanding of the Abrahamic story is not there.

Thus, here are my concerns with what was said. Rev. Leithart seems to argue for a Medieval understanding of the senses of Scripture. It actually seems to be a running theme. What I have argued for in my three points above is that the Scripture does have a mystical sense that is grounded in the literal sense and that grammatical-historical methodology can discover it. Basically Scripture interprets Scripture. That is not the Medieval methodology. Nor, I would add, the New Perspective methodology. The Medieval way of looking at Scripture is that every passage has multiple senses. The literal sense is barely even a touch stone for the other two or three senses. Hugo of St. Victor said, "Learn first what you should believe, and then go to the Bible to find it there." This is what worries me about the discussion. One can argue for types and symbols in the OT or in the NT without having to argue for Medieval exegesis. Let me just give you a concrete example of what we are talking about.

Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote my favorite hymn of all time and is a figure I actually like, gives us this nugget of exegesis from Song of Solomon 1:17, which reads, “the beams of our houses are cedar, and our panels are of cypress”(according to the Latin version used by Bernard). His exegesis of the verse:

By ‘houses’ we are to understand the great mass of the Christian people, who are bound together with those who posses power and dignity, rulers of the church and the state, as ‘beams’. These hold them together by wise and firm laws; otherwise, if each of them were to operate I nany way that they pleased, the walls would bend and collapse, and the whole house would fall in ruins. By the ‘panels’, which are firmly attached to the beams and which adorn the house in a royal manner, we are to understand the kindly and ordered lives of a properly instructed clergy, and the proper administration of the rites of the church. Yet how can the clergy carry out their work, or the church discharge her duties, unless the princes, like strong and solid beams, sustain them through their goodwill and munificence, and protect them through their power?

That is what the Medieval men mean by ‘another sense’ of Scripture, and that is not what I mean. I sincerely hope that is not what Rev. Leithart is arguing for, but by throwing around the term’Medieval’ and others arguing that the mystical sense can appear to contradict the literal, I fear it is.