It was seen in the last chapter that tradition is that by which we receive Scripture and the context within which we interpret it. What unites us with the writers of the Scriptures is the life of the Church from their day to ours. It was in the life of the Church that the Scriptures emerged, but in the Church that they were recognized as Scripture, and in the Church that they are read as Scripture – as opposed to being read as ancient Hebrew literature and the writings of one of the new religions that infested the world of late Roman Hellenism. There is a symbiosis between Scripture and tradition: Scripture feeding tradition and tradition providing the kind of receptiveness in which Scripture can be read as Scripture.
Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). 107.
Father Louth recalls his earlier discussion of Gadamer and highlights the naivety of identifying the meaning of a text with the intention of its author, and of the assumption that understanding is possible outside of our own historical situation. For, as Gadamer says, “not occasionally only, by always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author”. (103)
Louth takes this further by considering T.S. Eliot’s views on literary criticism, in which Eliot argues that in all great poetry there is something that must remain unaccountable, however much one may be able to explain about the poet, for the creation of a poem involves something new. Meaning is not located objectively in the poem itself but “meaning takes place when there is communication through the poem between the poet and his reader, when there is engagement between the poet and the reader.” (103) Moreover, one can distinguish between the conscious intention of a poet and that which others may legitimately see in a poet’s work. By introducing the notion of inspiration, Eliot suggests that a writer “is uttering something which he does not wholly understand.” (104)
This notion of inspiration is something which is not unfamiliar to Christians, specifically in relation to the Scriptures. Louth argues that
though we may be none too clear what this notion involves, we can see that it could be held to imply that the Scriptures, as ‘inspired’, have the ability to speak to changed times and changed circumstances, have therefore a voice that escapes the limitations of the particular circumstances to which they were originally addressed. We might indeed say that to speak of the Scriptures as inspired means that the Church has found them, throughout the ages, to speak to her with a continually fresh authority. (105)
Not only does Gadamer’s work problematise the idea of locating meaning in authorial intention, but it exposes the naivety of a presuppositionless reading and thus rehabilitates the notion of tradition. We are united to the past by “the continuity of custom and tradition” which is necessary for understanding.
The effect of all this is to put the act of understanding in a wider context than the historical-critical method suggests or allows, and in this wider context we are in a better position to appreciate the traditional way of understanding the Scriptures as it is found par excellence in the Fathers, a way of understanding that sees not one but many senses of Scripture, and draws these senses out by the use of allegory. (106)
In this context understanding is not about reconstructing an original intention, but rather
a matter of my listening to what was once written, listening across a historical gulf which is not empty, however, but filled with the tradition that brings this piece of writing to me, and brings me not only that piece of writing but preconceptions and prejudices that enable me to pick up the resonances of the images and arguments used in whatever it is I am seeking to understand. (107)