Written by Professor Steve Taylor
Monday, 02 January 2012 00:00
Note to the reader: This is the second in a series of blogs on reading the Bible as a biblical theological unity. I will be arguing, in the series, that the most stable foundation for a biblical- theological use of the Bible is a missional hermeneutic shaped by “Christotelic”vision of God’s ways in revelatory and redemptive history. These and other terms and concepts will be defined, described, and illustrated in subsequent posts; but now some historical context is in order:
Most Christian who are able to spend extended time in the scriptures sooner or later experience a kind of bafflement. Passages like Psalm 89, discussed in the previous post, throw us for a loop. A careful and honest reading of such passages—and there are many of them—reveals tensions, twists and turns that seem incompatible with a high view of the Bible as God’s perfect word.
An Old Perplexity
You and I aren’t the first to feel such tensions! The issue has actually dogged the Christian community almost from the very beginning. While we will be devoting several later posts to the question of how New Testament writers experienced and dealt with the cognitive dissonance born of this Biblical diversity (whew, that’s a mouth full), suffice it to say now that the earliest “Christians,” who were all Jews or very much aware of being part of a Jewish movement, all assumed that the God who raised Jesus from the dead was the same God who had acted in the story of Israel and spoken through Moses and the prophets. Tensions between biblical (=Old Testament) texts or surprising developments in God’s story with his people (e.g., who would have thought that the Davidic Messiah was to die a cursed death on a Roman cross?) were held together or resolved literally in God’s climactic action in Jesus Christ. In Jesus the Messiah, the disparate plot lines of Israel’s story were seen to converge. Indeed, Jesus was understood to be Israel herself in some eschatological sense. As Paul put it to the Ephesian Christians, God had recently, “in accord with his gracious plan put forth in the Messiah, revealed the mystery of his will as a climactic strategy to gather up all things in heaven and on earth into one head, namely the Messiah!” (Eph 1:9-10). The earliest Christians, then, interpreted their Bibles within a narratival unity underwritten by the breath-taking climax of that narrative, a climax that in one way or another “gathered up” all the loose strings and mysterious pieces.
Second Century Complications
This interpretive consensus was sorely tested after the first couple of generations, however. During the last decades of the first century, the Christ-movement underwent a massive demographic shift; what had been a primarily a Jewish movement became a Gentile one, and the conviction of one story lost some of its luster. The Psidian stonemason in the house church in Iconium could hardly relate to Israel’s story and the intellectuals in his culture quested for a more stable and enduring unity than that offered by contingent events of history.
Moreover, the Jews who met in the synagogue down the street weren’t about to give up ownership of their story or of their Bible. They argued, with some persuasiveness (which we will have to feel later), that the Bible was about them and for them not about Jesus the crucified Nazarene or for his pagan acolytes. When an early second century bishop named Ignatius passed through Asia Minor (the areas reached by Paul’s mission) on his way to an appointment with Roman executioners, he met church members who were confused by Jewish claims. They challenged him with the following argument: “If is not in spelled out in the founding documents (i.e., the Old Testament) , we won’t be believe it as part of the gospel!” Ignatius’s “Well, it is in the founding documents” received the sarcastic retort, “That’s precisely the question, isn’t it?” Baffled by this attitude, Ignatius proclaimed, “For me, the ‘founding documents’ are Jesus Christ!” There is something properly compelling in his answer, but it needed fuller articulation given the pressures of the times.
A Heretical Response
The Christian use of a unified Bible was indeed under intense pressure on all sides. Some within the broader Christian movement simply gave up: they concluded that the scriptures embodied no unity at all, that they actually stemmed from two different gods! This is the route taken in the second century by a teacher in the church of Rome named Marcion. He was thrown out as a heretic!
Reading according to the Rule of Faith
Most Christians clung to the unity of scripture and of the God who inspired it by formalizing a reading strategy. To begin with, these Christians gradually developed a summary of the highest points of the narrative, a set of non-negotiables within the plot-line: the oneness of the Creator God with the God revealed in Jesus; the major events of Jesus’ life and his second coming at the end of the story; and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the “catholic Church.” Similarities of this summary to the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds are not accidental! Henceforth, all true interpretations of Scripture had to be consistent with this summary, this “Rule of Faith.”
This arrangement did provide a measure of theological stability and richness for Christian hermeneutics but at some cost: the wonderful but troublesome complexity of the narrative was tamed by the Rule and frequent preemptive appeals to the Rule constituted a tacit but programmatic admission that the reading of scripture could notbe on its own terms but had to be ruled-governed . This “ruled reading” was fine as long as the “Rule of Faith” remained a summary of the narratival highpoints of the scriptures themselves, but what if the Rule developed beyond a narrative summary into a complex system of doctrine or a body of tradition? How could scripture ever correct the tradition?
Figurative Interpretation: Typology and Allegory
And there was another weakness in this arrangement. Since the Rule of Faith was a summary of highpoints, it was always vulnerable to fresh discovery of the more numerous “low points” in the story. There were many particulars within the story that this “ruled reading” simply could not directly process. How were these to be handled, if they could not be ignored? Here second century interpreters turned to the method of figurative interpretation, a method already employed by Greek philosophers seeking to mine the stories of Homer and by Jewish scholars seeking to defend the Bible. The basic idea was that the speech of the deity was by nature irreducibly rich in meaning and therefore highly symbolic. Not an unreasonable assumption! Readers of scripture had to be sensitive to the fact that they were treading through a field of symbols. Thus, in the difficult or the odd particulars of scripture, Christians could see, in symbolic form, the great truths of the faith. But what truths? Well, those already enshrined in the Rule of Faith, of course.
For as long as the Rule of Faith remained simple and narratival, the figurative reading of scripture dealt primarily with pre-figurations or types. The great expositors of scripture during the second century, folks like Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, and Melito, the bishop of Sardis, were primarily concerned to layout how players, events, and institutions in the Old Testament pointed forward to the great archetype, Christ. But here and there, there were Christian interpreters who presaged a broader, more static, and at times, more capricious symbolic reading. For example, the unknown author of what is known as The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 120 C.E.) found in the number of Abraham’s servants, given in Genesis 14:14 as precisely 318, clear reference to Jesus and his cross. He explains that the meaning of this and other symbols “are clear to us [Christians], but obscure to them [the Jews], because they did not hear the Lord’s voice.” This writer was less interested with correspondences between earlier and later elements in the biblical story than he was in establishing a Christian meaning for every aspect of the Old Testament. Details were to be taken allegorically, as symbols for Christian spiritual truths.
The Hermeneutical Legacy of the Second Century
Thus the second century bequeathed to the later church three powerful hermeneutical tools to stave off bafflement: a Rule of Faith, the concept of a “ruled reading” constrained by the Rule of Faith, and a method of figurative reading that encompassed both typological and allegorical interpretation. Would the later church find these sufficient or problematic? How about you?