Biblical interpretation – again

Yesterday’s class was a whistlestop tour of the main phases of Biblical Interpretation since the first century. Interesting enough but nothing earth-shattering. It was followed, though, by an interesting discussion on more recent approaches to scripture. Much as the traditional historical-critical methods are useful and interesting, I struggle with some of the inherent flaws present in the method.

Historical criticism, as a general school of thought, seeks to reconstruct ‘the original meaning’, through history, archaeology, textual analysis (grammar, form, etc), author intent, redaction criticism and so on. In a sense this is no different from any other historically oriented discipline. Any historian, archaeologist, sociologist, anthropologist and so on, wants to get back to the original, unsullied, state. I don’t deny that there is value to be found in these approaches but they have, in my opinion, a major flaw – they assume, in many cases, a single ‘truth’ can be discovered. The sheer number of opinions on any given topic gives the lie to that optimistic outlook.

More recent literary approaches are very appealing (and I tend in that direction I must admit) with their focus on ‘the text’ as we have it and reader-response to it. In many respects they are a great leveller. They allow anyone to approach scripture without the need for any scholarly mediator. But they do open the door to an interpretational free-for-all. After all, I would suggest that there has never been a time when scripture has not been interpreted through the light of scholarly learning. Does that mean it should always be the case? I’m not sure. To maintain that position denies the work of the Spirit in interpretation and inspiration when we read the Bible.

Anyway, the discussion brought up the issue that texts, very often, use other texts for their own purposes. The lecturer (Larry Hurtado) gave an example of re-use which, I think, considerably undermines classic historical criticism. It wasn’t a textual example, but the principle still stands, I would suggest. Larry has, in his office, a paperweight. It’s a polished up railway spike and he originally took it because he liked it. Now, imagine some time in the future and a historian or archaeologist is rummaging through Larry’s office and they discover the railway spike. Historical critical methods want to get back to the original meaning so the railway spike is treated as a railway spike. But what’s the connection with a Biblical studies lecturer? Was he a collector of railway memorabilia? Was it a reminder of an earlier ambition to be a train driver? Nonetheless, its ‘meaning’ is still associated with beig a railway spike. You can imagine all sorts of contortions to create a link between the original function and the discovered setting. Ah, but then there is the setting. It was discovered lying in fragments of manuscripts, on the remains of a desk, in an office, so it’s ‘obvious’ that it had assumed a new function. It has been polished at some time (assuming you can determine that) and so it’s reasonable to assume it was decorative. A new use as a paperweight seems an obvious conclusion. So we have a whole new set of possibilities about the ‘meaning’ of the object. It’s merely a ‘tool’; it was just a handy lump of metal to weigh down papers; it represents a period in history where railway memorabilia was fashioned into office equipment. But what was the purpose in all of this? What was the author’s (sorry, Larry’s) intent in all of this? And what is the meaning for us today?

None of this gets close to the original ‘intent’ – he just liked it. It could just has easily have ended up as a decorative piece on a mantelpiece as a paperweight in an office. In a sense, putting it to re-use has confused the issue. The historical-critical method scholar would suggest that the answer lies in its original function. The more contemporary approach would look at the paperweight. Neither would get close to the ‘original meaning’ – it was aesthetically appealing to the person who owned it.

I would still suggest that the contemporary approach is perhaps closer to the ‘truth’ but there are, I’m sure, many examples where this is not the case. And, undoubtedly, the historical data can give us ‘colour’ when we come to consider the meaning.

But these thoughts also highlight a major issue with Biblical scholarship – it becomes/has become an academic exercise to meet its own ends rather than meeting the needs of the faith community it serves (or perhaps doesn’t serve any more). Biblical interpretation has to be more than the merely academic and this is why I lean towards the ‘reader-response’ approach. It has to be relevant to ‘me’ or the faith community I am in. It has to have contemporary use otherwise it does not represent the teachings of a living faith. The danger is that when we cannot find meaning then we discard it. When we do that, we discard and deny a critical aspect of our faith – the presence of the Spirit as guide and interpreter.

3 responses to “Biblical interpretation – again”

  1. Ah truth….
    ‘It has to be relevant to me’ – practical theology rears its head I think. Any given text will have shades of meaning depending on what a given reader brings to it at a given time and a given place. (Reader-response?) Is there such a thing as an absolute truth when speaking of Biblical studies ? This opens the door to systematics (drat)….
    You speak of previous work as somehow denying the present work of the Spirit. The Spirit was at work in the past to bring that scholarship to us, so that may be doing a disservice to the H.S. Or have I done you a disservice ?

  2. ‘Truth’… I think that you’ve highlighted one of the key issues. Scholars do want a single or absolute truth if, for no other reason, than to justify their own research. The rest of us, to a degree, suffer from that. Our culture and climate expects ‘the right answer’, from science, from ethics, from education. We’ve lost much of the richness of metaphor and allegory. I think you only have to look at much of the debate within Christian circles to see how damaging ‘absolutes’ are. But, once again, we’re back to striking a balance between absolutes and ‘woolly liberalism’. What we need is absolute liberalism 😉
    ‘Spirit’… I hadn’t given a thought to the notion of ‘inspired’ scholarship. It’s a fair point. Maybe I’ve just been too exposed to academia where, whilst it’s not denied outright, the idea of inspired scholarship is not considered a serious option. You’re more generous than I am I think.

  3. absolute liberalism….something of an oxymoron perhaps !?!
    Spirit…what else can scholarship be if not inspired ? Isn’t that the core of the excitement of ‘new’ discoveries/thoughts ?
    truth…our culture does indeed look for singular truths. Black and white theologies are the ones that people feel safe accepting. Pity we live in a world of colour, though.

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