Is There Anything We Can Learn From Premodern Biblical Interpretation?

In a very insightful essay Luke Timothy Johnson says that in order for “Catholic biblical scholarship to recover something of its distinctive identity, it is necessary to move forward by engaging a more distant past . . .” (“Rejoining a Long Conversation” in The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarshipp. 35; Eerdmans, 2002). Johnson says this is a necessary move “because our own way of doing business is in bad shape.” (p. 36) He lays out five premises of premodern interpretation which should be recovered in order to further fruitful biblical scholarship. Although Johnson is writing as a Catholic for Catholics I think Protestants can learn from some of this as well.

Premise 1: The Old and New Testaments form a unity that is grounded in the singleness of divine authorship.

In premodernity The Bible was seen as both about God and as revealing God’s voice. “Now, if there is a single divine author at work through the literary compositions of Moses and Solomon and David and Paul and Matthew, then despite the diversity among these voices, there is a single revealer seeking to be heard.” (p. 49) This is contrasted to modernity’s “commitment to the literal sense alone [which] has been narrowed to mean the sense intended by the historical human author.” (p. 50) “[T] unity of the Bible as based in a unity of divine authorship is so absent from today’s scholarship that one would be laughed from the room if one were to suggest it as a serious option in a gathering of scholars.” (p. 52)

Premise 2: Scripture speaks harmoniously. While ancient authors were not blind to the problems (inconsistencies, differences, contradictions etc.), “[t]hier instinct . . . was to find a way in which contradictions might be resolved in a higher harmony. Note that harmonization requires the maintenance of both passages, rather than discarding the one in favor of another.” (p. 53) Modern biblical interpretation has the “exact opposite premise.” (54) For example, the differences between the Gospels “serve not to draw the reader to the essential point they hold in common, but serve to discredit their value as historical witnesses to Jesus.”

Premise 3: The Bible, as the word of God, is authoritative. “Scripture is the measure for humans, rather than humans being its measure.” (p. 55) The premodern reader would approach Scripture with an attitude of learning and gaining wisdom with the goal of a transformed life. Since the Enlightenment “the opposite premise has governed the critical study of the Bible.” (p. 56) “Now Scripture must answer at the court of human reason that is constituted, not on the basis of the mind of Christ, but on the basis of a rationalistic worldview.” (p. 56)

Premise 4: Scripture speaks in many ways and at many levels. “The meaning of the Bible cannot, therefore, be restricted to what the human authors intended to say in the past, although that meaning is always important and to be taken into the most serious consideration.” (p. 57) “In the world of modernity, there are no deeper meanings, there are no mysteries to be revealed. There is only the literal sense, which is more or less equated with the intention of the ancient author. . . .Small wonder that contemporary scholarship should at once accumulate such mountain of learning about antiquity and have so little to say to the life of the church.” (p. 58-59)

Premise 5: Premodern biblical interpretation can be called a hermeneutics of generosity or charity. This is more of a summary of the other premises rather than a separate premise. The ancient interpreters “assumed that the text was right, rather than their own opinions; therefore they needed to pray and seek and knock in order to discover what God had to teach them. Modern interpreters are more “characterized from beginning to end by suspicion rather than generosity, by a concern for how Scripture has torn down readers rather than built them up.” (p. 59) The latter is seen in ideological criticism which “approaches the text with moral outrage, seeking to find all the ways in which Scripture has wounded the contemporary psyche, rather than the ways in which Scripture can heal the contemporary soul.” (p. 60)

Future of Catholic

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One thought on “Is There Anything We Can Learn From Premodern Biblical Interpretation?

  1. At last a rational, non Post Modern Theologian. Let the Bible speak for itself. But then, of course, you must read it first. That would be better than studying the works of theologians and sink in a welter of confusions.

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