Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Reading the Bible Like Any Other Book

Among the slogans that set the agenda for much modem study of the Bible, the prescription that it should be read “like any other book” seems to me singularly unhelpful. We do not read Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves or Have it Your Way, Charlie Brown the same way we read Hamlet or King Lear. Critique of Pure Reason and The House at Pooh Corner are both, I believe, eminently worth reading (though, in the one instance, I am relying on others’ assurances), but they call for rather different approaches. Textbook of Medical Oncology requires yet another. To cut short a game becoming more fun by the minute, we may well ask: Like which other book are we supposed to read the Bible?
To be sure, these and other books can all be read the same way if we approach each with a particular question in mind: How frequently does the author split infinitives, dangle participles, or quote Russian proverbs? Or, what do Romeo and Juliet, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and Pippi Longstocking tell us about eating habits at the time of their composition? (This game, too, could be fun.) These are, I suppose, legitimate questions — doctoral dissertations have certainly been written on stranger topics — but they seem somewhat limiting. Classic literature — William Shakespeare, Søren Kierkegaard, Astrid Lindgren — has more to offer its readers; those open to experiencing the “more” soon learn that different books make different demands on their readers.
Unless, then, we are reading the Bible merely to carry out our own limiting agendas, the notion that it should be read “like any other book” will be true only in the sense that the Bible, like any other book, calls for a particular kind of reading. Sensitive readers of the Bible, like sensitive readers of any text, will be alert to what is being asked of them, given the nature of the text before them; it is then, of course, up to their discretion whether they will attempt to measure up to those demands.


Stephen Westerholm & Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans , 2016), 1-2

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Language and Interpretation according to Nevin

An excerpt from William DiPuccio, The Interior Sense of Scripture: The Sacred Hermeneutics of John W. Nevin (Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 14; Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1998), pages 102-105.

The unity of thought and language has tremendous implications for Nevin’s hermeneutics. The “in-forming word” (thought) is the basis from which the “word processional” (language) emanates. We cannot, therefore, consider the interpretation of language apart from the “animating spirit” from which it derives its “being.” Language is not merely the “algebraic sign” of this animating soul, “but the very form in which it looks out upon us with its own living presence.” There is a “spiritual element,” a “distinctive life,” which belongs even to the outward form of language. This needs to be grasped before the language can be understood. The key to the meaning of language, then lies in the soul of words which is in them “objectively before they reach our minds.”
Nevin draws a graphic example of his linguistic theory from poetry. Without “poetic taste” no amount of philology or history can reveal the sense of great poets like Homer, Horace, Shakespeare or Goethe. The language of the poet affects the minds of his readers only as they are drawn into felt sympathy with the spiritual elements of his own life. By “spiritual infection” they thus become poets in their own measure and so enter into the “true historical sense” of his or her language. Only the “spirit of poetry” – that is, the same mind in both the poet and the readers – can be trusted to articulate the sense of a poet’s composition. All language is thus “the embodiment of spirit in word.” The soul that is in literature, art, and science can only be grasped “by inward soul-intuition.”
If this is true of language in its capacity to convey natural truths, how much more is it true when such language is animated by the substance of supernatural truth? As in poetry the mind of God lodges itself in the Scriptures so that it cannot be understood or explained apart from this supernatural and spiritual element which is “part of its very being.” The divine and the human meet together in the totality of what is spoken and so must also be apprehended “each in the other” in order to render the language intelligible. Or, in the language of Ricoeurean hermeneutics, to “experience” the world of the text the reader needs to engage the text with some attitude of belief.
Nevin believed that the outward letter of Scripture can never exhaust its meaning and power because the mind of God is truly in the Bible. The situation is analogous to common human speech which involves much more than we can see or record. Our “external natural mind,” as he explains it, forms only a small part of “our full inward existence.” Within this, our rational mind opens “right into the spiritual world itself; and there it is, that the real complex forces, which enter as innumerable fibres into the constitution of our outward conscious thought and speech, are all the time at work for this end – though we know it not.” Behind the complex web of human language, therefore, “is the interior ocean of things, invisible, immaterial, and eternal – the region of the universal in distinction from the single and particular, the region of ends and causes in distinction from mere effects – which is continually pressing, as it were, to come to some utterance in his outward thought and speech.”
The propositions of Scripture, then, are pregnant with a sense going beyond logic and grammar. Neither thought nor language alone can fully fathom them. In this way, Nevin could say that the Scriptures are mystical. Not that they are shrouded in uncertainty, rather they possess an undivided simplicity. John’s gospel, for instance, has the logical sharpness of a scholastic and the depth of a mystic. he was intuitive and contemplative, seeing the object with the soul.
But how is it, asks Nevin, that the divine life (which he regards the spirit of prophecy) can “be actually resident in the words spoken, when the speech itself is at an end,” much less in a printed book? In the constitution of God’s word, whether spoken or written, nothing less in reality than a Divine life of its own, derived from the life which it is thus made to enshrine.” The words of Christ are spirit and life. As such they must enclose “universally the quality of His own being.” Standing in the power and glory of the heavenly and spiritual world, they are “interiorly pregnant also with the celestial fire of that life.”
Obviously, existential participation in this Divine reality involves more than reading and studying the word for Nevin. It necessitates both obedience and faith. Keeping Christ’s commandments is nothing less than “the simple being of the soul in the element of spirit and life thus effluent from Himself.” The ancients, according to Nevin, attributed wisdom to the one “who had the knowledge of the good in himself practically, as his own inmost being – something well understood, at the same time, to be in him only by indwelling inspiration from the Almighty.”
Nevin identifies this dimension of participation with faith. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the quintessential Romantic, Nevin defines faith as the organ by which the supernatural element in Scripture is grasped. It is “an original capacity for perceiving the divine.” There is, therefore, “an original, necessary correlation” between faith and the objective side of revelation just as there is a correlation between the eye and the light it sees. As in art and poetry, the object is not placed in the word by the interpreter nor produced by the word, rather it is already in the word, waiting to be grasped. The word of God possesses an innate potency and life by which, as 1 Peter 1:23 says, we are born again. In the words of Jesus, “He that is of God heareth God’s words; ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.”


The Sacred Hermeneutics of John W. Nevin

William DiPuccio, The Interior Sense of Scripture: The Sacred Hermeneutics of John W. Nevin (Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 14; Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1998).

From the back cover:
John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886) was, with Philip Schaff and others, a progenitor of the “Mercersburg Theology.” Nevin’s transcendental hermeneutics is one of the most penetrating and sophisticated theological systems to emerge from American soil. In The Interior Sense of Scripture, William DiPuccio unfolds for the first time Nevin’s vision of a biblical hermeneutic based on the centrality of the Incarnation. In part I DiPuccio explores Nevin’s hermeneutics of a new creation and the Eucharist. In Part II he presents Nevin’s critique of American culture in the light of his hermeneutical conclusions. More than a century has passed since he spoke, yet Nevin’s polemic against materialism, religious skepticism, individualism, and sectarianism retains its creative force and insight.
     For Nevin, the Incarnation is the transcendental (or top-down) archetype of all hermeneutics and philosophy. And it is as true today that the decay of American culture and religion lies in its widespread adoption of Common Sense Realism (a bottom-up paradigm) which values the material above the spiritual, the actual above the ideal, and the particular above the universal. Thus Nevin’s transcendental/incarnational hermeneutics is as appropriate for the current worldview situation as for his own time.

The blurb should have alerted me to the prominence given in this work to cultural critique. The title led me to expect rather more on Biblical hermeneutics – how to read the Scriptures – and so I was disappointed. It was nevertheless valuable to read about the conflict between William Nevin and Charles Hodge and to see how sacramental realism/nominalism are connected with traditional/modern approaches to Scripture. Metaphysics and hermeneutics are indeed closely tied together.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Figural practice as a five-fold movement

From Ephraim Radner, Figural exegesis and the Anglican tradition
Figural practice can be imaginatively described as a five-fold movement: sowing, tending, gathering, sorting, and enjoying. There is nothing inevitable about this imaginative framework, of course, although it does have the advantage of having some scriptural resonance. In sowing, a biblical word is cast into the soil of the Scriptures and allowed to resonate, collide, scrape, and wander. In tending, there is a deliberate effort to let this seed do its resonating work — time, prayer, reflection, study. In gathering, the reader (ultimately the Church) consciously collates the accumulated connections and associations the original word or words have taken on. These become a fund or treasury, and at this point are most clearly given over to documentation. With sorting we come to the articulated effort to make sense of this collation. This is the stage we associate with theology or homiletics, dogmatics or controversy. Finally, in scriptural delight, the reader (and Church) turns all this work to God, and returns to prayer, considering the nurture the word has offered, and praising its speaker and person.

Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition

The Living Church website recently run a series on Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition. It consisted of the following posts published between 14 March and 20 June 2017:
Introductory essay by David Ney, “The bare reading of Scripture and Anglican hermeneutics
First, I will suggest that being a community gathered around the Word of God is central to Anglican identity. Second, I will argue that, historically, to speak of Anglicanism as a community gathered around the Word is to speak of the prayer book tradition and the way it orders the communal reception of God’s Word. Finally, I will suggest that this ordered reception breeds a particular response to Scripture: the prayer book’s juxtaposition of “bare” Scriptural texts commends figural reading.
Ephraim Radner, Figural exegesis and the Anglican tradition

From the final essay:
The different articles have emphasized that the individual interpreters had their unique approaches to figural interpretation, but they all approached their craft from a particular standpoint: As members of the prayer book tradition they received the “allness” of Scripture, and their particular figural practices therefore must be seen as particular responses to this allness. In this final post, I will suggest that these figural practices are far more than merely idiosyncratic responses to Scripture’s breadth. These practices help us to see that, for Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike, the Christian interpretation of Scripture has little to do with the division between subject and object that modern critical studies take for granted. Instead, Christian readers are drawn into the Scriptures, unveiled for who they are, and, through the integrative reach of the divine Word, transformed. When pursued in common, the figural interpretation of the Bible finally refashions and transfigures the Church as a whole.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Metaphysics of Participation

“The Catholic exegete and theologian Francis Martin has shown that biblical interpretation requires an account of historical reality informed by a scriptural metaphysics rooted in the relation of “participation” that is creation.[1] This is so because exegesis (including much contemporary exegesis) that participates doctrinally and spiritually in the realities depicted by Scripture, and thus reads Scripture not merely as a record of something strictly in the past, requires the sense that all human time participates metaphysically (order of creation) and Christologically-pneumatologically (order of grace) in God’s eternal Providence and therefore that no historical text or event can be studied strictly “on its own terms.” Conversely, certain metaphysical presuppositions are inadequate to Christian biblical interpretation.”



[1] Francis Martin, “Revelation as Disclosure: Creation,” in Wisdom and Holiness, Science and Scholarship: Essays in Honor of Matthew L. Lamb, ed. Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering (Naples, Fla.: Sapientia Press, 2007), 205-47.


Matthew Levering's Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 18.

Participatory Biblical Exegesis

From the introductory chapter of Matthew Levering's Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).

“Participatory biblical exegesis locates the linear-historical details within a participatory-historical frame, a frame established by God’s creative and redemptive work in history. Such exegesis is ongoing whenever people presume that a biblical text about Jesus is about the Jesus whom they worship in the Church, or whenever people suppose that the local churches founded by St. Paul have a real analogue today. It is ongoing whenever people pray, receive the sacraments, or ask forgiveness in the context of the reading and teaching of Scripture, It involves an understanding of historical realities, of our place in the history of salvation, that comes naturally to the believer. Yet it is one whose justification has largely been lost and needs reclaiming.” (6)

“As traditionally understood, the spiritual sense of Scripture serves to go deeper into the infinitely rich dimensions of the biblical realities.” “I hold that the literal sense itself possesses the resources for bridging past and present, because of the literals sense’s conjoined linear and participatory dimension. The literal sense of the divinely ordained realities present and active in linear history (for instance, covenantal Israel, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, the Church) possesses a participatory-historical dimension, since these diachronic realities expose how human time, already metaphysically participatory in God, shares ever more deeply in the infinite wisdom and love of divine action...I am aware that all the talk of metaphysics (participatory and nominalist) and its exegetical implications may put off both biblical scholars and theologians, for whom such discourse may be an undiscovered country or an outmoded theory.” (7)

“...interpreters must seek in and through Scripture the realities to which Scripture points. Yet these realities can only be sought in and through the words of Scripture, in and through the messiness of human history, into which linear-historical research can attain such valuable insight. For its full flourishing, participatory biblical exegesis thus requires not merely theological and metaphysical insights into God’s work of creation and redemption, but also historical-critical procedure of hypothesis and verification, as well as literary analysis. These approaches give insight into the full fabric of the texts’ richly human aspects, which are both participatory- and linear-historical. The integrity of linear-historical research does not require bracketing the participatory reality of God’s presence and action in history.
     In short, historical reconstruction that recognizes that historical reality is not solely linear, but rather is both linear and participatory (in the triune God’s creative and redemptive work), will be illumined both by linear-historical data and by participatory-historical ecclesial judgments about the divine realities involved.” (13)

“When the participatory dimension of reality is lacking, either anthropocentric readings of Scripture or, conversely, theocentric readings that deny the human dimension altogether, take over. By contrast, in participatory biblical exegesis one can integrate conceptually divine and human agency. On the one hand, everything comes from the triune God, the one in whom all finite things participate (metaphysically and Christologically-pneumatologically). For biblical exegesis, this means that the Bible is not ultimately about human beings, but rather about the triune God...On the other hand, the participatory relationship means that God’s action and human action are not in competition. In Scripture, the centrality of God’s teaching does not displace the human writing, editing, transmission, and interpretation of biblical texts, that is the human aspects of the text. These human aspects, of course, are not solely linear-historical. The task of appreciating the linear-historical “Messiness” of the biblical texts requires engaging the human aspects in their participatory-historical dimension.” (14)


“Once one understands reality as participatory-historical (providential and Christological-pneumatological) as well as linear-historical, what aspects of patristic-medieval biblical exegesis might once again be found valuable within contemporary biblical exegesis? Let this question stand as an overarching concern of the present book.” (16)