Hermeneutics


I realise that many readers of this blog probably already read Aaron Taylor’s Logismoi, which he has thankfully recently awakened from hibernation. But for those who don’t, and particularly for those who are interested in biblical interpretation, he has three recent posts that are absolute must reads.

The first, Deep Exegesis Reviewed, is a sympathetic but not uncritical review of the Reformed scholar Peter Leithart’s book Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture. The second, The Ascesis of Reading Scripture, is sparked by another book that argues that reading Scripture is an art that has to be learned and leads into a discussion of Origen and others. The third, Credal Exegesis and Detective Stories, discusses an article by David Steinmetz on the relationship between the biblical text and the rule of faith and leads into a discussion on how the Fathers read Scripture.

This is too brief a description of some wonderful posts, so “Go and read!”

Update: He now has another post, which is probably the best of all (or at least intersects with things that I have wanted to explore): Ascesis & the Exegete.

I seem to be spending most of my free minutes working on a website that is taking longer to get up than it is supposed to! But part of that has involved discovering helpful material tucked away in various corners of the internet. Yesterday I discovered this article on Tradition by Father John Behr on an old site and thought it worth sharing:

The idea of “tradition” is deceptively simple. The word itself simply means “handing down” or “that which is handed down.” It is also something with which we are intimately familiar, for each one of us lives within a web of traditions that influences everything from the ways in which we celebrate family or national events to our general world-view, whether an “enlightened” commitment to rational inquiry or a more religious outlook. To be a Christian also means to stand within a tradition. Even those who, following the Protestant Reformation, claim that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the only legitimate ground for faith and theology, nevertheless stand within a tradition, inheriting certain assumptions and attitudes. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, embrace their tradition, laying great emphasis on tradition itself as a fundamental dimension of the Christian faith and of their life in the Church.

But what is this tradition to which Orthodox Christianity lays claim? The Orthodox speak about “tradition” so frequently that the term tends to become rather vague. Heirs to a two thousand year old tradition, we inherit a vast treasury of riches – theological, liturgical, artistic, ascetic. But this very richness creates its own difficulty, for not everything handed down is of equal importance. As St Cyprian put it, “tradition without truth is but the antiquity of error.” We need to know what is true, not simply what is old. Modern Orthodox theologians have rightly emphasized that tradition is not simply a mindless repetition, but a living, creative faithfulness. However, we need to be clear about exactly what it is that we must be faithful to, if we are going to be able to embody this living tradition, speaking the same word of truth to an ever-changing world.

It would be wrong to say that we have both Scripture and tradition, for tradition is not an independent source of authority. Rather, tradition is the continuity of the correct faith, “Scripture understood rightly” as Fr Georges Florovsky put it, which has found numerous expressions, embodying the same truth, over the last two millennia – conciliar statements on doctrine and church order, iconography, liturgical practices and so on. But it would be equally mistaken to claim that Scripture is part of tradition. It is true that the Church was already in existence, granting new birth to Christians through Baptism and celebrating the Eucharist, before the texts of the New Testament were written and collected. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that the earliest proclamation of the Gospel, upon which the Church is founded, already refers to the Scriptures: the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets, which we now call the “Old Testament.”

In one of the earliest statements of the Christian proclamation, the importance of this reference to the Scriptures is emphasized: “I delivered [literally “traditioned”] to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-5). So significant is this reference to the Scriptures that Paul mentions it twice within a short sentence. What Paul “traditions” as the basis of the Christian faith is the understanding and proclamation of the crucified and exalted Christ “according to the Scriptures,” referring, not to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but to the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. So important is this “tradition” that the reference to the Scriptures is preserved in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which is the common inheritance of most Christians to this day: we still confess that Christ died and rose “according to the [same] Scriptures.”

The principle that Paul “traditions” is made clear by the Gospels. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples abandoned Christ at the time of his Passion; Peter even denied knowing him. Whatever they learned from Christ or witnessed him doing was not enough to persuade them of who Christ truly is. Only in the light of Christ’s suffering and exaltation did they turn again to the Scriptures, under the guidance of the risen Christ, to understand finally who he is: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself … he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and said to them ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead'” (Lk 24:27, 45). As Paul says, we no longer know Christ according to the flesh (2 Cor 5:16), but according to the Spirit. The Spirit, whom Christ promised to send, leads us into the fullness of truth concerning Christ (Jn 14:25-26), so that we can confess that he is indeed the Lord (1 Cor 12:3), that is, the one spoken of in the Scriptures. The importance of Christ’s passion in understanding who he is, is also emphasized in the Gospel of John where, unlike the other Gospels, Christ is not abandoned at the Cross, for standing by him are his mother and the beloved disciple. Furthermore, this is the “tradition” which marks out the four Gospels of the New Testament from all the other writings claiming to be apostolic. Each of these Gospels proclaims the crucified and risen Christ by reference to the Scriptures, while a work such as the Gospel of Thomas, even if it contains authentic historical material, does not proclaim the passion of Christ nor does it proclaim him “according to the Scriptures.”

But the Gospel of Christ which we proclaim is still the Gospel of the “coming one” (Cf. Matt 11:3), the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, where the true citizenship of Christians lies and from which they await their Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting that he will change their lowly form to be like his glorious body (Phil 3:20). The “tradition” which the apostles have bequeathed to us, therefore, is not fixed in one text (we have four Gospels, after all, presenting the versions of the four evangelists). Rather the “tradition” in which we stand, as Orthodox Christians, is the contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” remaining true to the deposit handed over by the apostles, yet with our faces towards the future, towards the one who is still coming. The Word “grows,” as Acts puts it (Acts 6:7), in that as more and more people believe in it and reflect on it, the Word is embodied in an increasing variety of ways that express the fullness of that faith which has been delivered from the beginning, the same Gospel, the same Word of God – Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8).

It is this quest that Christ challenges us with, when he asks “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). And it is a task that cannot be avoided. Even when his friend John the Baptist was in prison, about to be executed, and sent his disciples to Christ to ask him “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Christ did not answer him directly. Rather he told them to tell John what they saw, that the blind could see, the lame could walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear (Mat 11.2-5). In other words, Christ himself directed John back to the Scriptures where he would be able to understand these messianic signs and know that Christ is indeed the Messiah. This contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” is what we do when we gather together in and as the Church, in expectancy of his return and in the confidence of his presence, for we are his body, praising God in and for Christ, in and by the Spirit, using language, images and words, drawn from the Scripture. The hymnography as well as the iconography that adorns the Church and the beauty of the liturgical rites themselves, form a matrix, a womb, in which we are born again in his image, as Christians. The tradition of contemplating Christ “according to the Scriptures” is a task which each of us is called to undertake, in the confidence that when he appears we shall be like him (1 Jn 3:2)

I have been wanting to get back to a discussion of our understanding of Scripture, Tradition and the Gospel for months now – motivated partly, I suppose, out of frustration that I keep coming across people who identify their particular theology, often Calvinism, with “what the Bible teaches”, or, alternatively, people who hold all interpretations as equally valid. I don’t know when I’ll get back to this, but in the meantime Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent post on these matters today. He writes:

Where does the Gospel begin?

That the Gospel would begin by reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) would seem the handiest answer to that question. But this leaves another question unanswered: how do we read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? St. Irenaeus (2nd century) gives an extremely insightful example in a discussion directed to Gnostics, whom he contended could not read the gospels correctly.

Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

Quoted from Christianity Today’s Church History site.

Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), it is worth noting, knew St. Polycarp, who knew St. John. Thus he was third-generation in the life of the Christian Church.

Irenaeus’ contention that those who are not in the line and community of the Christian Tradition are not able to properly interpret Scriptures (in a Christian manner) is dramatically important. It sets the Scriptures in a non-objective context. The Scriptures are not “self-interpreting,” as some modern Protestants would contend, neither is their reading and interpretation a matter of reason or historical knowledge. Their reading is ecclesiastical, traditional, liturgical or, in Irenaeus’ language, “according to the Apostolic Hypothesis.” In short, the Scriptures are understood within the life of the Church and cannot be rightly read in any other manner. St. Paul’s letters are written to Churches or individuals holding positions within the Church. None of his letters are addressed, “To whom it may concern.”

Go and read the whole post here.

I know that this has been horribly disrupted, but I want to try and finish this series of posts on the opening chapters of Father John Behr’s The Way to Nicaea (previous posts here and here). They may be dense, but the issues they raise are of crucial importance and once I’ve got these posts done I hope to write something that draws on this material to address some of the misunderstandings of Tradition that are all-too-common among contemporary Christians.

Having established the key relationship between Scripture – meaning the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – and the Gospel, Father Behr turns his attention to the relationship between this symbolic coherence of Scripture – which is effected by the word of the Cross – and the appeal to canon and tradition. This coherence of Scripture which is expressed most explicitly in Saint Irenaeus’ The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, forms the basis for Irenaeus’ appeal to canon and tradition, which he develops in Against the Heresies. This involves a challenge to those, in particular the Valentinians, who “speak the same, but think otherwise.” While they quote Scripture, they have disregarded “the order and connection of the Scriptures” and so distorted it.

They have not accepted the coherence of the Scriptures, as speaking about Christ, but have preferred their own fabrication, created by adapting passages of Scripture to a different hypothesis, attempting to endow it with persuasive plausibility. (32)

To understand Scripture, it is crucially important that one has the correct hypothesis. While for some branches of knowledge finding the right hypothesis may be a tentative and pragmatic thing, we cannot philosophically demand demonstrations of first principles.

This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with undemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth. (33)

It is these first principles that are the basis for subsequent demonstrations and function as a canon to evaluate other claims to truth. Knowledge is impossible without such a canon, for enquiry would simply degenerate into endless regression and it is for this reason that Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement appealed to a canon to counter the constantly mutating Gnostic claims. Irenaeus writes:

…anyone who keeps unswervingly in himself the canon of truth received through baptism will recognize the names and sayings and parables from the Scriptures, but this blasphemous hypothesis of theirs he will not recognize. For if he recognizes the jewels, he will not accept the fox for the image of a king. He will restore each one of the passages to its proper order and, having fit it into the body of truth, he will lay bare the fabrication and show that it is without support. (34-35)

While Irenaeus enunciates the content of the faith that was delivered to the apostles, and sees this as received through baptism, the forms of this rule of faith is not as fixed as it would later become, for

The point of the canon is not so much to give fixed, and abstract, statements of Christian doctrine. Nor does it provide a narrative description of Christian belief, the literary hyposthesis of Scripture. Rather, the canon of truth expresses the correct hypothesis of Scripture itself, that by which one can see in Scripture the picture of a king, Christ, rather than a dog or fox. It is ultimately the presupposition of the apostolic Christ himself, the one who is “according to the Scripture” and, in reverse, the subject of Scripture throughout, being spoken of by the Spirit through the prophets, so revealing the one God and Father. … For Irenaeus, the canon of truth is the embodiment or crystallization of the coherence of Scripture, read as speaking of the Christ who is revealed in the Gospel, the apostolic preaching of Christ “according to Scripture.” (35-36)

Thus the canon is a mode of interpretation, and

The key elements of the faith delivered by the apostles are crystallized in the canon of truth. This canon expresses the basic elements of the one Gospel, maintained and preached in the Church, in an ever-changing context. The continually changing context in which the same unchanging Gospel is preached makes it necessary that different aspects or facets of the same Gospel be drawn out to address contemporary challenges. However, while the context continually changes, the content of that tradition does not – it is the same Gospel.

Father John Behr continues his discussion of the relationship between Christ, the Gospel and the Scriptures in The Way to Nicaea by addressing the role of literature for both the ancient world and the Scriptures. Classical texts provided models for emulation and provided a symbolic world in terms of which one understood oneself and the events of one’s life. The writers of Israel “used images and figures of earlier events and figures to understand, explicate and describe the events and figures at hand.” (24) Thus they established typologies between, for example, Adam and Noah, and between Abraham and the post-exilic situation of Israel. In this typological parallelism, figures such as Abraham are described as foreshadowing the destiny of their descendents, something that, in Christian understanding, reaches its fulfilment in the New Testament.

This process, reemploying images to understand and explain the present in terms of the past, which is evident throughout the Scriptures, continues in the New Testament and its presentation of Christ “according to the Scriptures.” For instance, Christ’s Passion is described in terms of being the true and primary Pascha (now etymologized as “Passion”), of which the Exodus Pascha is but a type; Christ is the true Lamb of God. Or, according to another typology, in John 3:14: “Just as Moses raised the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that those who believe in Him may have eternal lfie.” … Paul also appeals to this concatenation of images, when he points out to those in his Corinthian community who were seduced by wisdom, that the folly of God (Christ lifted on the Cross, as the bronze snake lifted on the pole) overcomes the wisdom of the world, and, as such, Christ is the true power and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:22-5). In another vein, but using the same scriptural, literary or intertextual technique, Matthew describes Christ as a new Moses, going up a mountain to deliver the law, while Paul describes Christ as the new Adam, correcting the mistakes of the first Adam, whom Paul explicitly describes as being “a type of the One to come” (Rom 5:14). (25)

While the relationship between Scripture, the Gospel and Christ will be more explicitly discussed by the writers of the second century, the apostle Paul points to the dynamics of this relationship in his reference to the veil that covers the words of Scripture in 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6.

In this very dense passage, Paul begins to address the interconnected relationships between Moses and Christ, the Scriptures and the Gospel. According to Paul, the “same veil” that Moses placed over his own head remains to this day upon those who read “Moses” – now a text. But this veil is removed for those who have turned to the Lord and can now understand Scripture aright. That the veil was removed by Christ means that it is only in Christ that the glory of God is revealed and that we can discern the true meaning of Scripture, and that these two aspects are inseparable. The identity between Moses the man and Moses the text, whose face and meaning were hidden by the same veil, is paralleled by the identity between Christ, in whose face is revealed the glory of God, and the Gospel which proclaims this. So, behind the veil is nothing other than “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ,” himself the image of God, though this remains “veiled” to those who reject the Gospel. What this means, as Hays points out, is that , ultimately, “Scripture becomes – in Paul’s reading – a metaphor, a vast trope that signifies and illuminates the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (26-27)

This is not to say that the Gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ is straightforwardly derivable from Scripture, but rather that it acts as a catalyst.

Because God has acted in Christ in a definitive, and unexpected, manner, making everything new, Scripture itself must be read anew. The “word of the Cross,” the preaching of Christ crucified” may be a scandal for the Jews and folly for the Gentiles, but it alone is the “power of God” making known “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18-25). This preaching, the kerygma, provides what Hays describes as “the eschatological apokalypsis of the Cross,” a hermeneutical lens, through which Scripture can now be refracted with “a profound new symbolic coherence.” Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it, so justifying the claim that Christ died and rose “according to the Scripture.” It is important to note that it is Christ who is being explained through the medium of Scripture, not Scripture itself that is being exegeted; the object is not to understand the “original meaning” of an ancient text, as in modern historical-critical scholarship, but to understand Christ, who, by being explained “according to the Scriptures,” becomes the sole subject of Scripture throughout. (27-28)

To be continued

I said previously that I hoped to post some things from Father John Behr’s introductory chapters in The Way to Nicaea, but have been putting off doing so because they are rather dense and touch on many issues. However, I have also been aware, particularly recently when in conversation with evangelical Christians, that questions around authority, hermeneutics and the sources of revealed truth are often unaddressed but nevertheless constitute a serious stumbling block to real communication. All too often evangelical colleagues will tell me what “the Bible says” and assume that that settles things. And given that I am not very good at responding with chapter and verse proof texts, and that the context usually precludes a serious discussion of hermeneutics and their underlying presuppositions, this can be rather frustrating and I usually just end up pointing out that that is their interpretation of what the Bible says and leave it at that!

But I have also been aware – and reading Father Behr highlights this – that the popular Orthodox (and Catholic) response to such a challenge, while not entirely untrue, is both simplistic and not without its own dangers. Such a response is of course to point out that the Bible is the Church’s book, that it was the Church that decided on the canon of Scripture, and that Scripture can only be properly interpreted within the Church. But the danger with that is that it can objectify the Scriptures and can appear to view the Church as being above the Scriptures. In an extreme form one ends up with “Scripture” and “Tradition” as two separate sources of authority as the (Roman Catholic) Council of Trent taught. Such developments would appear to fit better in a scholastic mode of theologising than in a patristic one.

As Father Behr notes, the early Christian struggle for truth – and the establishment of a normative Orthodox understanding of the Gospel – was inseparable from the engagement with a particular set of texts and with the correct interpretation of these texts. The two key challenges that the early Christians encountered regarding these came from Marcion and from Valentinus.

Marcion wanted to discard the Jewish (and some of the Christian) Scriptures and to emphasise the discontinuity between the vengeful and malicious God of the Old Testament, and the gospel of Jesus. Thus he establishes an opposition between the Law and the Gospel and attempts to sever the Gospel from the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – an attempt, incidentally, that von Harnack thought Protestantism should have followed.

If Marcion wanted to fix a (reduced) body of authoritative writings, then the Gnostic Valentinus saw no need to do this, but sought rather to creatively reuse texts and images from Scripture in a way that resonates with people’s hearts but without any relationship to an objective authority. There is thus no distinction between Scripture and commentary, or between source and interpretation. As Frances Young notes, “Gnostic doctrine is revelatory, rather than traditional, textual or rational.” (21) Or, as Ireneaus notes, such a reading produces the reader’s own fabrication rather than the handiwork of God. However, the use that they make of Scripture, can give the impression that they are really being “biblical”.

Such usages of Scripture were rejected by the Church and the Orthodox position on the correct understanding of the Scriptures became established through the work of people like Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus of Lyon in the first two centuries of the Church’s life. Father Behr writes:

In their own ways, these all maintained a text-interpretive framework for revelation, the point that Christ was preached by the apostles as having been crucified and risen “according to the Scriptures.” So, what sense does it make to say that Christ is proclaimed “according to the Scriptures”? What is the relationship between Christ, the Gospel, and the Scriptures? (23)

To be continued.

It is often said that Christianity (along with Judaism and Islam, though these are not dealt with here) is a “religion of the book,” and this is usually taken in a very weak sense, that somehow, somewhere, for whatever reason, Christianity involves a book. But what is established as normative Christianity in the second century takes this in a much stronger sense: If God acts through His Word, then that Word needs to be heard, to be read, to be understood – the relationship with God is, in a broad sense, literary. As such, it requires the full engagement of all the intellective faculties to understand and accomplish, or incarnate, God’s Word. It was no accident, as Frances Young observes, that what came to be orthodox or normative Christianity was “committed to a text-based version of revealed truth.” This Christianity, one might say, is an interpretive text-based religion. She further points out, concerning the question of historicity touched on earlier, that it would be anachronistic to suppose that in antiquity God’s revelation was located in historical events behind the text, events to which, it is claimed, we can have access by reconstructing them from the text, treating the texts as mere historical documents which provide raw historical data, subject to our own analysis, rather than in the interpreted events as presented in Scripture, where the interpretation is already given through the medium of Scripture. What is recognized, by the end of the second century, as normative Christianity is committed to understanding Christ by engaging with Scripture on the basis of the canon of truth in the context of tradition (παράδοσις).

But if this is the basis for what is established as normative Christianity by the end of the second century, it is no less the very dynamic of the Gospel itself. One of the earliest formulae for proclaiming the Gospel is that Christ was crucified and raised “according to the Scriptures”:

I delivered (παρέδωκα) to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3-4)

The Gospel which Paul delivered (“traditioned”) is from the first “according to the Scriptures.” Clearly the Scriptures to which Paul is referring here are not the four Gospels, but the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. The importance of this written reference, repeated twice, is such that the phrase is preserved in later Creeds; Christians who use the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed still confess that Christ died and rose according to the (same) Scriptures. The point of concern in this basic Christian confession is not the historicity of the events behind their reports, but that the reports are continuous with, in accordance with, Scripture; it is a textual, or more accurately an “intertextual” or interpretive confession. And this scriptural texture of the Gospel is, as we will see, the basis of both canon and tradition as articulated by what emerges as normative Christianity. If “orthodoxy” is indeed later than “heresy,” as Bauer claimed and as is commonly assumed, it is nevertheless based on nothing other than Gospel as it was delivered at the beginning.

John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) 15-16.

I had just started reading Father John Behr when my life (and access to books) became rather disrupted a couple of years ago, but I have been intending to get back to him and have recently started reading The Way to Nicaea. I regret that I’m not really in a position to blog intensely on this book as it is both pretty dense and very insightful. However, I hope to post a few things if I am able to sufficiently get my head around the issues that he raises in the opening chapters.

For now I must note, rather to my embarrassment, that until reading this book, I have never really stopped to think much about the theological depth that we confess with the words “according to the Scriptures” when reciting the creed. If anything, I’ve probably pretty much thought of them as referring to the New Testament accounts of the Resurrection in much the same way that one might refer to sources to back up accounts of a particular event. But what Father Behr is arguing here, is that this is a confession of what the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets were all about. It structures our reading of them while they give depth to the confession of the Resurrection. A link is established, a narrowing down of the interpretive options available.