Archive for the ‘hermeneutics’ Category
Ask any crowd of OT scholars and before you get any answers to your question, you’ll be told most emphatically that it doesn’t mean Isaiah was prophesying the birth of Jesus. The context of the passage and the historical situation of Isaiah will be invoked, and any hint of a New Testament reference will be stamped on before the words are out of your mouth. Isaiah, of course, had not read Matthew’s gospel, nor was his concern for events that were to happen hundreds of years after his death. And so, as we read Isaiah’s prophesy, we ought not to let our knowledge of later history or later texts shape our reading.
The problem is, of course, that we do. We have to be told not to. We have to be chastised and corrected for ‘reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament.’ We have to consciously set aside our Christian understanding and try to recreate the mindset of the original author and hearers, to discover what the prophesy might have meant to them. We are taught to travel back to Corinth, as Dick Lucas likes to call it.
What is not altogether clear to me is why. Why is it more important to try to discover what a text once meant, than to understand what it means now? A text like Isaiah 7:14 does mean something different now from what it first meant, precisely because of its later association with the birth of Jesus. Its re-use in a later text adds new layers of meaning, new associations, new connotations, to the older text. That’s not to say that the later text completely over-rides the earlier meanings and the original context, but it certainly develops and influences the meaning which the text now holds.
So when I read Isaiah 7:14, I will always think of Matthew 1:23. And I will be glad that the canonical context of Isaiah includes a later text which appropriates this verse in a new – and more glorious – way. And I will be glad to be a Christian reader of the prophesy, rather than an ancient Israelite facing the threat of the Assyrian army. I will be glad to sing hymns celebrating Emmanuel, God with us, and know that to be true not only partially for the Israelites as they faced their enemies, but wholly, wonderfully, perfectly true for us all in the person of Christ. That’s what Isaiah 7:14 means when I read it as part of the canon and from the standpoint of a Christian believer, in community with the church as it has read the scriptures throughout the ages. And it seems to me that meaning is at least as valid as any other.
Is that Isaiah’s meaning or is that Matthew’s meaning? It’s both. Or, probably better, neither. It’s the bible’s meaning, which is always more than the sum of its parts.
From Stephen Chapman’s essay ‘Reclaiming Inspiration for the Bible’ in Canon and Biblical Interpretation:
The decisive objection to the idea of propositional revelation is not that the biblical books fail to communicate concepts: it is instead that the biblical literature does more than convey concepts. The Bible also influences and forms its readers in a wide variety of more subtle ways, which are just as crucial to its literary impact. The Bible gives its hearers and readers a narrative world to live in. Its phrases and rhythms linger in the mind and its stories often provoke questions more than they provide answers.
You know sometimes you read something and you can’t quite believe it says what you thought it says so you have to read it twice? This is from an article by a very youthful John Piper (originally written in 1976 for JETS, but now available on the Desiring God site) explaining why the grammatical-historical method of exegesis is the only theologically acceptable method:
Hearing the Word of God in the oral or written proclamation of the Scriptures is absolutely dependent on hearing the Scriptures in an understandable language. Hearing the Word of God is thus dependent on a faithful translation of the Greek and Hebrew. But translation is only possible and successful when the specific meanings of the ancient documents are understood. Most of those meanings can be determined only by an analysis of the grammatical and historical context that displays the author’s intention. Therefore, it is wrong to say that theology and devotion do not depend on the recovery of the historically-verified intention of the Biblical writer/redactor.
He illustrates this with an example:
Suppose a translator comes upon the word zelos in the New Testament. Should he translate it “jealousy” with a negative connotation or “zeal” with a positive connotation? There is only one way to decide, and that is by determining from the context how the author intended it to be taken. If the translator chooses wrongly, the twentieth-century reader will be inhibited from hearing the Word of God.
So, let’s get this right. The intended meaning of the first-century author writing in Greek must fit precisely into the categories of twentieth-century English. And also, one presumes, seventeenth-century English, and eleventh-century French, and mediaeval Latin and… well, you get the picture. And, of course, there is no possibility that the NT author deliberately used a word with a certain ambiguity. Or that the word might have a precise meaning in one place but still carry with it an allusion to a place where it’s used in a different way.
I wonder if John Piper has read this article recently and if he still thinks the same thing.
Shelley King appropriates this quote from Martin Luther which originally referred to the mediaeval interpreter, Nicholas of Lyra, for her essay on exegesis, allegory and The Golden Compass. This playful use of an earlier text is entirely appropriate for a discussion of Pullman’s work which depends so heavily on references and allusions to earlier texts. He says himself:
I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read. My principle in researching for a novel is ‘Read like a butterfly, write like a bee,’ and if this story contains any honey, it is entirely because of the quality of the nectar I found in the work of better writers.
I’d never really thought before about how the alethiometer works as an illustration of the power of symbolism. Each point on the alethiometer (NOT a compass) is marked with a picture, each of which has multiple possible levels of meaning. The needle on the alethiometer answers questions by pointing to a series of these pictures, the meaning of which must then be decoded. Pullman explains it like this:
In short the alethiometer supplies the semantic content of a message, and the mind of the enquirer supplies the grammatical connections between the various elements. Only when the two work together does the full meaning of the message become apparent.
What’s interesting about this is that, in Pullman’s world, there are two ways of reading the alethiometer. The most common is the way of the scholars. Tables and charts of all possible meanings and layers must be consulted and put together according to complex formulae. The other way is how Lyra does it – she just feels for the meaning naturally. It’s a nice picture of the difference between reading and criticism. Good reading is instinctive, natural and unconscious. When you understand what you read, you just ‘know’ that you’ve got it right. Criticism is laboured, difficult and wholly self-conscious. Getting the ‘right’ understanding isn’t as important as being able to persuade others to follow your reading.
There’s another dimension to the two kinds of reading in His Dark Materials – the role of the church. The tables and charts and even the alethiometer itself, are supposed to be in control of the church. Interpretation takes place within that community and thus serves the interests of that community. Lyra is perceived as so dangerous because (among other reasons) her interpretations are uncontrolled and uncontrollable. It’s no surprise that Pullman exalts Lyra’s interpretations and not those of the church.
But interpretation in community need not be the bad thing that Pullman wants us to believe. Learning from others and sharing the results of our reading can be positive things. And although community may shape reading, it’s also true that reading may shape a community. If the community has grown into the shape that it has because of the text that it has read, then there is a mutuality to that relationship.
…David Steinmetz’s article on ‘The Superiority of Pre-critical Exegesis‘ then do so now! I first read it when I was writing my Song of Songs dissertation and again today when we discussed it in History of Interpretation.
Steinmetz offers what I described as a ‘goal-evaluated’ view of interpretation and what Dr McCartney suggests might be termed an ‘outcome assessment’. That is to say, he proposes that the mediaeval principle of multiple layers of meaning in the text worked, and thus should be regarded as true. Whereas modern critical exegesis doesn’t, and should thus be dismissed as false.
You will see the similarities with Augustine’s method that I outlined here.
The Song is a particularly interesting example of Steinmetz’s model. In the pre-critical era, it was one of the most preached on and commented on books in the bible. People loved it for what it taught about Christ and the church. It was edifying and enlightening. It built up the body and strengthened Christians’ love for Christ. In the modern era, it’s almost ignored and forgotten by the church. And when it is read, it scares people or it leads them in wholly ungodly directions (see David Clines’ reading of the Song as Israelite pornography, for example). GHE doesn’t work for the Song. The interpretations it produces don’t do what the bible is supposed to do.
So, what should we do? Become modern mediaevalists? Possibly. Kind of. What we need is to develop a mode of interpretation that is effective for today’s congregations. So it will need to be plausible, in a way that many older interpretations just aren’t any more, but it also needs to be edifying.
What do we mean by symbolic language? Words signifying things, or things signifying other things? Often, it seems to me, people confuse these two. Not Nicholas of Lyra:
For God who is the author of this Scripture, not only employed words to signify certain things, but also things by words of signification. And so deeds of the Old Testament signified that which is done in the New Testament, just as the apostle says in 1 Corinthians, “All these things happened in a figure” [1 Cor 10:11]. Therefore, the sense which is signified by the words is properly called literal: but that which is signified by the things is called mystical.
I doubt Nicholas ever fell into the ‘Literally taking the bull by the horns’ trap!
He gives an example of what he means, using the fourfold categories of mediaeval exegesis:
An example of this is the name Jerusalem, which according to the literal sense signifies a certain city situated in the land of Judah; and because this city was chosen by God for divine worship, is honored in the mind of the righteous man, both in the church militant and also in the church triumphant. Therefore Jerusalem according to the moral sense in sacred Scripture signifies the faithful soul, according to the allegorical sense the church militant, and according to the anagogical sense the church triumphant.
But I was struck last week in my History of Interpretation class by Augustine’s approach to the problem of interpretation. He is almost entirely goal-centred. For him, the purpose of the scriptures is to engender love for God and love for one’s neighbour.
So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the writers demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and is certainly not a liar.
And a bit later on:
If… he is misled by an idea of the kind that builds up love, which is the end of the commandment, he is misled in the same way as a walker who leaves his path by mistake but reaches the destination to which the path leads by going through a field. But he must be put right and shown how it is more useful not to leave the path, in case the habit of deviating should force him to go astray or even adrift.
So, the most important thing for Augustine is that love is built up. It’s better to get what the authors actually intended, but only because if you get into the habit of misreading them, you might eventually end up not going in the direction of love at all.
It seems to me that what Augustine is saying is that the perlocutionary speech act of scripture is more important than its locutionary act. What is communicated is less important than what is achieved by that communication. Might this not be a useful hermeneutical principle? Especially when coupled with Augustine’s warning that to keep ignoring the author’s intended meaning is dangerous.
What does God intend to accomplish by the bible? To tell us things? Yes, certainly and Augustine is right that we should try to stick to this path as much as possible. But God knows how we are liable to misinterpret the bible, even sometimes the whole church, for centuries at a time. Might it not be the case that even during these times, his word is accomplishing the purpose for which he sent it? Which is to say, building up the church. And if so how ‘wrong’ are those ‘wrong interpretations’? The locutionary act may have failed, but the perlocutionary act is achieved.
How would this work in practice? Well, it would mean that faithful Christians who open their bibles and find encouragement in a particular passage to love God or to love their neighbour in specific ways, could claim legitimacy for their interpretations, even if the GHE would suggest otherwise. For example, take Jer 29:11, a verse which was important to me as an undergraduate. It was a great encouragement to put my trust in God who loved me: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” A strict GHE reading would point out that this verse is addressed to Israel in exile, and that its meaning must be applied to that situation. The Augustinian method might agree that Jeremiah’s prophecy wasn’t intended to be directly for me, but since that interpretation clearly builds my love for God, it is legitimate.
So it would free us from the idea that we have to find ‘the’ meaning of a passage, as if it could have only one. Any interpretation that served the goals of love would be legitimate.
And it would remind us that God, in giving us the bible, wants to do much more than tell us information, he wants to change our hearts and lives towards him.
Hmm. A little bit too crazy?