Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Synthesis, Part 2

Because the art of reading Scripture synthetically was such an enlightening experience for me, I thought I'd provide another passage from John J. O'Keefe & R.R. Reno's book Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. In this passage they really capture the differences between how we "moderns" instinctively read Scripture, and how the "premoderns" did it:
To our surprise, our views about the Bible’s meaning were not held by premodern readers. Premodern readers assumed that events depicted in the Bible actually occurred as described, but surprisingly little of their interpretation depended on this assumption. They simply did not ask: “What is the event or truth to which the Bible refers?” For them, the text was woven into the fabric of truth by virtue of being scripture. As Irenaeus affirmed, “the scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His spirit.” For Irenaeus and for the patristic tradition in general, the Bible was not a perfect historical record. Scripture was, for them, the orienting, luminous center of a highly varied and complex reality, shaped by divine providence. It was true not by virtue of successfully or accurately representing any one event or part of this divinely ordained reality. Rather, the truth rested in the scripture’s power to illuminate and disclose the order and pattern of all things.

As a consequence, in patristic exegesis literality functioned as the basis for interpretation. Scripture certainly did refer, evoke, symbolize, exhort, command, and more. In all these particular instances, the fathers took the text as doing something that reached beyond the literality of the words. The words of the synoptic gospels pointed to events such as the life and teachings of Jesus. The opening verses of the Gospel of John referred to truths about the divine Word. The ten commandments represented God’s will for human beings. The list could go on and on, but the important point is that the fathers treated all these aspects as local phenomena. Treated as a whole, the Bible absorbed their attention rather than directing it elsewhere, either to the events to which the text refers or the divine truths to which it points. Scripture was the magnetic pole of their thought. In this way, the fathers differ from modern readers, not in any particular assumption about a verse or episode, or in any specific method, but in their overall assumptions. Modern readers assume that the Bible means by accurately refering to an x, whether event, mode of consciousness, or theological truth. For the fathers, the Bible is the array of words, sentences, laws, images, episodes, and narratives that does not acquire meaning because of its connection to an x; it confers meaning because it is divine revelation. Scripture is ordained by God to edify, and that power of edification is intrinsic to scripture.

The image of direction illuminates the difference we discovered in the fathers. Ancient readers of scripture moved within, across, and through the text, exploring its orienting, unifying potency. Modern readers of scripture move in the reverse direction, adopting techniques that lead out of what seems a confusing, inaccurate, and contradictory text and into a realm of history or theological ideas. Thus, premodern readers are rightly called precritical, not because they presumed the historical accuracy of scripture or because they failed to use the various techniques of critical analysis that characterize modern study of the Bible. Rather, they are precritical because they did not ask, “What gives meaning to the story of Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai?” They assumed the authority of the dual accounts in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and they sought to order their interpretations accordingly. Instead of looking behind the text to the events, they looked into the text for clues and solutions.
For further information on the proper approach to reading Scripture, I refer you to Scott Hahn's St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, which has a whole chapter on The Interpretation of Sacred Scripture. (Hat tip to Ray for the link.) The key passage from Hahn that I think is critical to recall is: "We must always keep in mind that the Bible has two authors: God and man. For a proper understanding of any text, whether it be a psalm verse, or a Gospel narration, or a prophecy, both authors must be taken into account." It's the tendency in theology today to focus almost exclusively on man's authorship of the Bible, to the detriment of recalling God's authorship. The church fathers, on the other hand, had the understanding of Scripture as the Word of God down pat, and for this reason it's so refreshing to read it as they did.