A friend of mine recommended that I read David Steinmetz’s well-known essay, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” in his book Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective.
Here’s at least one of the problems: Bible reading intimidates many ordinary Bible readers, and one reason why is specialists — names not given — are so good at what they do, so insightful in what they teach, and so industrious in their efforts (footnotes galore, historical sources cited galore, knowledge galore) that the ordinary Bible reader has done two things: (1) read the work of specialists and (2) stopped reading the Bible for the sheer delight it brings.
The specialists are saturated with history so so much so that many of my friends see themselves as historians, not Bible readers. They see through the text to what happened (or didn’t happen) and spend their time reconstructing the history behind the text. Hans Frei tore into this approach years ago in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.
That is, many scholars today care about one thing: the intention of the author in the author’s (reconstructed) historical context. Ah, but I care about this and we should care about this. The point is not to abandon historical undertakings but to realize it’s not the whole picture.
David Steinmetz blows this theory apart and advocates that medieval Bible reading was superior.
Here is what most are taught in Bible colleges and seminaries today: the author’s intention is the meaning of the text, and the author’s meaning is God’s meaning, and therefore, to talk of Paul or Peter or Isaiah is to talk of God. This is the historic approach:
In 1859 Benjamin Jowett, then Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford, published a justly famous essay on the interpretation of scripture. Jowett argued that “Scripture has one meaning—the meaning which it had in the mind of the Prophet or Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it.” Scripture should be interpreted like any other book, and the later accretions and venerated traditions surrounding its interpretation should, for the most part, either be brushed aside or severely discounted. “The true use of interpretation is to get rid of interpretation, and leave us alone in company with the author.” (3)
It’s still with us, in spades.
Biblical scholarship still hopes to recover the original intention of the author of a biblical text and still regards the pre-critical exegetical tradition as an obstacle to the proper understanding of the true meaning of that text. The most primitive meaning of the text is its only valid meaning, and the historical-critical method is the only key that can unlock it.
But is that theory true?
I think it is demonstrably false.
He contends the medieval approach was more biblical.
Medieval theologians defended the proposition, so alien to modern biblical studies, that the meaning of scripture in the mind of the prophet who first uttered it is only one of its possible meanings and may not, in certain circumstances, even be its primary or most important meaning. I want to show that this theory (in at least that respect) was superior to the theories that replaced it.
There is the biblical text that tells the letter kills and the Spirit gives life, and it gave life to medieval interpretation for three reasons: (1) there is a difference between the Bible’s narrative level and its deeper theological level; (2) the relationship of Israel to church at least transforms some of how the church relates to Israel’s scriptures — it’s called the “Old” testament; (3) everything in scripture is for faith, hope and love (Augustine).
Augustine argued, for example, that the more obscure parts of scripture should be interpreted in the light of its less difficult sections and that no allegorical interpretation could be accepted that was not approved by the “manifest testimonies” of other less ambiguous portions of the Bible. The literal sense of scripture is basic to the spiritual and limits the range of possible allegorical meanings in those instances in which the literal meaning of a particular passage is absurd, undercuts the living relationship of the church to the Old Testament, or is spiritually barren.
From Nicholas of Lyra:
The letter teaches stories,
Allegory teaches what to believe,
The moral sense what to do,
Anagogy where to aim for.
And, therefore, …
If you grant the fourfold sense of scripture, David sings like a Christian.
Steinmetz summarizes medieval readings:
In this brief survey of medieval hermeneutical theory, there are certain dominant themes that recur with dogged persistence. Medieval exegetes admit that the words of scripture had a meaning in the historical situation in which they were first uttered or written, but they deny that the meaning of the words is restricted to what the human author thought he said or what his first audience thought they heard. The stories and sayings of scripture bear an implicit meaning understood only by a later audience. In some cases that implicit meaning is far more important than the restricted meaning intended by the author in his particular cultural setting.
Thus, for them… (and for the biblical authors):
The notion that scripture has only one meaning is a fantastic idea and is certainly not advocated by the biblical writers themselves.
Steinmetz examines four authors on the parable of the good employer (workers in the vineyard) and shows that each arrives at the goodness of God but the authors approach the parable differently.
I am inclined to agree with C. S. Lewis, who commented on his own book Till We Have Faces: “An author doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of his own story better than anyone else.”
And, really, texts are fertile:
The meaning of historical texts cannot be separated from the complex problem of their reception, and the notion that a text means only what its author intends it to mean is historically naive. Even to talk of the original setting in which words were spoken and heard is to talk of meanings rather than meaning. To attempt to understand those original meanings is the first step in the exegetical process, not the last and final step.
Here is his final summary:
The defenders of the single-meaning theory usually concede that the medieval approach to the Bible met the religious needs of the Christian community, but that it did so at the unacceptable price of doing violence to the biblical text. The fact that the historical-critical method after two hundred years is still struggling for more than a precarious foothold in that same religious community is generally blamed on the ignorance and conservatism of the Christian laity and the sloth or moral cowardice of its pastors.
I should like to suggest an alternative hypothesis. The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, struggles because it is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text that it is interpreting, it will remain restricted, as it deserves to be, to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.