Unlike any other book | Hans boersma
The disciplines of theology and Bible studies should serve each other and should serve both the church and the academy. But the relationship between them is often marked by misunderstandings. This essay is taken from the author’s next book Five things theologians want Bible scholars to know. In an accompanying volume, Five things Bible scholars would like theologians to know, Bible scholar Scot McKnight reflects on what theologians should know about Bible studies.
WWhen I speak with fellow Bible study colleagues, I often find myself arguing for the idea that we should seek Christ in all scripture (which is my polite way of saying we should read the Bible allegorically). In these discussions, I repeatedly encounter the objection: “But you would not treat any other text in this way!” Whether consciously or not, the commentary echoes Benjamin Jowett’s claim, made in 1860, that “the object of the interpreter is to read the scriptures like any other book.” Jowett, of course, was not the first to promote a strictly non-theological reading of Scripture. Historicist exegesis had its first supporters in the 17th century, with Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. But Jowett’s essay “On the Interpretation of the Scriptures” made waves at least in part because of the direct and unequivocal manner in which he expressed his beliefs.
Those who argue for reading the Bible “like any other book” generally assume that general hermeneutics should prevail over special or theological hermeneutics: in other words, they assume that we should start with the rules of reading in general before asking how we interpret Scripture in particular. But why this hypothesis? The starting point of biblical exegesis is not general but particular hermeneutics. The self-revelation of God in Christ is his final and definitive discourse: “In these last days he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb. 1: 2). Divine providence was incarnated in Christ, and it is this unique event in the providential economy of God that constitutes the starting point of biblical exegesis. This is not to say that general hermeneutics has no bearing on biblical interpretation. In some ways, we read the Bible like any other book. But this observation comes after recognition of God’s providential economy in Christ. The supernatural end of providence precedes the shared natural and historical demands of daily life. For this reason, historical exegesis plays a legitimate role, but one that is subordinate and secondary to the sacramental role that Scripture plays in the divine economy.
Reading the Bible like any other book – as long as it is a legitimate exercise – does not mean that the literal or historical meaning is strictly objective data, to be discovered by scientific means. The emphasis on “method” in Bible scholarship is often overstated. Certainly, a knowledge of ancient Near Eastern history, an eye for grammatical constructs, biblical theological study of key themes from particular Bible books, and consulting concordances and word studies are all helpful as we relate to each other. familiarize with a particular Bible passage. It is also true, I think, that historical investigation gives real insights (although they are always partial and approximate). But that of Hans-Georg Gadamer Truth and method (1960) clarified that general hermeneutics involves a dialogical process, for which the methodology of the natural sciences does not offer an adequate paradigm. In the humanities, and particularly when it comes to interpreting religious texts, the reader’s own presuppositions invariably come into play, so that meaning occurs when the horizons of the text and those of the interpreter come together (Horizontverschmelzung).
Andrew Louth, relying on Gadamer for a fiery defense of allegorical exegesis, writes in Discern the mystery:
The historical-critical method is, by analogy with the scientific method, a means of reaching objective truth, that is to say the truth inherent in the object, independently of the one who knows this truth. We must therefore locate the objectivity that the method aims to achieve. This is done by attributing to the object of study, which in the human sciences focuses on the writings of men, a “meaning” which is there independently of any understanding of it, an objective meaning that the historical method. critic is trying to find out.
Louth’s comments apply not only to historical criticism (which is in decline anyway) but also to many other biblical scholars who see it as their main task to establish the original meaning of the text. Such erudition too often takes the mantle of a naturalistic scientific methodology and, as such, insufficiently appreciates that the results of historical exegesis are not only partial and approximate but also perspective: the questions asked and the mode of investigation depend on the historian’s point of view, and they shape exegetical results.
Two sermons on the same text are rarely identical, even with regard to the historical exegesis that underlies them. This is not a gap but an appropriate reflection of the infinitely varied personal backgrounds of preachers. It is therefore not only the passage to the spiritual level which leads to polyvalent meanings; versatility characterizes literal also readings from Scripture. Of course, in a postmodern context, versatility will often be linked to identity politics and relativism; but the appropriate response is not a fall into modern historicism and objectivism. Instead, we can be confident that from the unique and special place in which God places each of us, we discern something of the divinely intended meaning of the text.
Such an approach does not make the human experience or the context normative; we remain indebted to the divine Word who speaks to us. But in recognizing our limited human horizons of interpretation, we recognize that historical inquiry appeals to the imagination as much as to analytical skill. Therefore, even when we approach the scriptures with questions of history and author’s intent in mind (and to that extent, read them like any other book), we still shouldn’t expect divine sight. Attempts to arrive at such a perspective are a practical denial of human finitude and subjectivity.
Hans Boersma is Saint Benedict’s Servants of Christ ascetic theology professor at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. Copyright © 2021 by Hans Boersma. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.
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