With all the recent discussions whether or not laypeople should read the Scriptures, I’ve decided that it’s worth some reflection on the topic. I am, of course, a trained biblical scholar. I have been studying the Scriptures from an academic point of view from my freshman year in college up through receiving my PhD this past year. That comes out to be over 20 years of focused study on the scientific interpretation of the Bible. Throughout that time, I’ve also been an active Christian and have been reading the scriptures for my own edification. In addition, the bulk of my work for my dissertation has been on the pre-scientific readings and understandings of the holy Scriptures, particularly that of the church fathers and the early medieval monastics. With that kind of history behind me, I think I speak from an informed position both about the academic interpretation of the Scriptures, and the devotional interpretation of the Scriptures.
Indeed, the whole point of my dissertation was to argue that the academic interpretation of Scripture is a very particular way of reading for a very particular purpose that is located within a very particular context. I then set this way of reading in relationship with the early medieval monastic reading practices which were likewise a particular way of reading for a particular purpose located within a particular context. I tried really hard to express that neither one of them was better or worse than the other, but that they were doing different things for different reasons.
What I came to over the course of that 270 some pages, was a certain clarity about the purposes of the Academy over and against the purposes of the seminary and therefore the purposes of the church. As a New Testament scholar coming intentionally and deliberately from an ecclesial perspective I often felt a tension throughout my coursework between my academic studies and my own devotional and preaching work. When I taught preaching students the craft of biblical exegesis for the purpose of Christian proclamation, I felt the tensions between the academic work and the kind of reading and proclaiming necessary in a church environment.
The thing about George Clifford’s piece and the discussions that have ensued at the Café and also here, is that the question truly is not an either/or; it is most definitely a both/and. Yes, the Episcopal Church needs to embrace the academic study of the Scriptures. However, the academic study of the Scriptures does not give to us the bread that feeds, nor the wells of living water that spring up within our hearts. ‘Cause—it’s not supposed to. And that, my friends, is the crux of the matter from my perspective. We can be careless about questions of fitness and purpose.
One of my favorite expressions is, “To the man who has a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” That is, to a person who has a good and effective tool, the temptation is to use it anywhere and everywhere possible. Typically when I use it, this phrase means I’m going to try and turn something into a database. However those who learn about the academic study of the Bible often fall into this trap as well. The academic study of scholarship is a tremendous tool for understanding the Scriptures. However, it is one means for gaining knowledge that is applicable in certain circumstances. I don’t care how good the hammer is, I don’t care how shiny the hammer it is, a hammer is no substitute for a toolbox. No one can be a master craftsman without properly understanding the application and limitation of their tools. And that’s the problem: the limitation of the tools. The difference between a journeyman and a master craftsman is that the master craftsman understands why and when to apply each tool. The journeyman simply fixes his attention on the tool he thinks is the best.
Here’s the thing. Most clergy take between 3 to 5 classes on Scripture over the course of their seminary career. You typically have an introductory course on the Old Testament, sometimes to introductory courses to read through the whole thing. Then you have an introductory New Testament course that is often paired with a methods course. A decent preaching course will reinforce what you learned in these introductory classes and in your methods class, but there’s simply too much stuff to cover in preaching for this to qualify as another exegetical class. What ends up happening is that we are not turning out master craftsman of the Scriptures. In most cases, we are not even turning out journeymen. This may seem harsh, but I would say that your average master of divinity educated clergy person is an advanced apprentice in using and applying the techniques of the academic study of Scripture. And honestly, that’s to be expected. Four semesters within the scope of three years is not enough time for anyone to master anything worth knowing. What it does mean, is that all too often clergy come out with a taste of modern biblical scholarship, but are unclear on its limitations and most appropriate applications. They know that it is important, they know that it can be helpful, and it would be one thing if it stopped there—but it doesn’t. Because there’s this thing called a commentary.
People are often surprised when I say this but I’ve come to really dislike commentaries. This dislike has grown over the years and it is rooted in how people use commentaries. Commentaries themselves are not good or bad; they are tools. But, commentaries exist for one purpose: they tell you what someone else thinks the text means. It doesn’t matter if it’s a modern biblical scholar or one of the patristic fathers– the point of a commentary is to tell you what they think the text means. The problem is that far too many people surrender their own reading authority over to a commentary. Rather than read the text for themselves, they go and find out what some authority says instead. And all too often, this is where a blind faith in the academic study of the Scriptures leads: to the assumption that these methods are essential and therefore the commentary is right and any other reading is wrong.
So, to recap briefly, learning the scientific study of Scripture takes time. Most of our clergy have not spent that time (and that’s not necessarily their fault). In lieu of mastering the tools, they go to commentaries where such tools are used.
Now it’s time to pick up where we started. It’s all about the question of purpose. Why do we read the Bible? We read it for a whole host of reasons: we read it for reflection, for inspiration, for information, for nourishment, for solace, for answers, for questions, for security, for strength. This is why Christians read the Bible. The academic study of the Bible is most directly applicable when we read for information. The academic of Scripture study focuses on a circumscribed set of questions: what were the circumstances around the writing of these books and their collection into one document? What do these texts teach us about what the people who wrote them thought? What do these texts reveal about the history and organization of the communities that created them? The bottom line is that the academic study of Scripture is securely located within the History of Ideas. It wants to know what things were thought by which people at which time and what would have been intended by what they wrote. The way that we typically wrap this up is to talk about the “literal” or “literary” meaning of the text and to make statements about “authorial intent.” Don’t get me wrong—authorial intent is important. But authorial intent is only part of a text’s possible or total meaning. The end of the academic study of a particular text is an interpretive guess about what it meant. Commentaries are therefore collections of such guesses that relate around a broader and bigger guess about the intent of the work as a whole.
My research is part of an evolving direction of Biblical Studies that has come about in the last thirty years or so that looks less at what the author meant and more at what the interpretive life of the text has been since it left the author/authors. That is, the question that I like to ask is not, “what did the author intend” but “what have communities found in this text?” As a result, I look at how preachers, monks, ascetics, and liturgies have interpreted, re-used, or re-purposed biblical texts to further their own reading strategies and goals. What I found in my intensive study of early medieval monastic reading practices is that they had a very clear purpose in mind: how do we enact the text in order to become saints? This is a very different purpose for reading and studying the Scriptures than what the academic community does. And, I would argue that it is far closer to the modern church is trying to accomplish. We frame it differently, but the end goal of our reading process is neither a guess nor, more broadly, an idea.
I’m in the same camp with the early medieval monks; the interpretive process has not been completed until someone’s habits have changed.
It’s not enough for us to read the Scriptures. Our work has not been completed until we have been transformed by them. And when I say “we” I mean “we,” not “you and me”—the whole community, the whole body of Christ, needs to be about the work of growing into the mind of Christ.
This is what the church needs to be about. This is the kind of reading that we have to be doing the good results of well done academic scholarship are useful to us—but they cannot do our work for us. They are fundamentally not asking the same questions that we’re interested in; they are not finding the answers that will ultimately transform us.
What I see emerging within the church is the recognition of the need for a “neo-patristic” method.
What exactly do I mean by neo-patristic?
- By the “patristic” part that it shares fundamental and necessary qualities with patristic reading:
- The Scriptures are the Church’s book to be read paradigmatically within the Church’s liturgy that bring us into a deeper relationship with the God embodied, celebrated, and proclaimed within the Church.
- The purpose is located biblically within 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Ephesians 4—Scripture is intended for the entire body of Christ to do the works of righteousness. In a word: edification.
- The controlling hermeneutic is the twofold love of God and neighbor. As Augustine, as Gregory the Great laid out time and time again this is the fundamental hermeneutic revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- Meaning is found in the sensus plenior. That is, there is no one meaning for anyone text; there are many—sometimes competing, sometimes complementary—meanings that can be found within a single text. No one meaning (like authorial intent) can be the “right” or “most meaningful” meaning. The best meaning of the text is the meaning or the constellation of meanings that is most edifying to the church in its whole and in its particularities.
- The literal meaning or the authorial intent is not necessarily the dominant reading. While it usually is one of the dominant meanings, there are times and places where it must give way in the face of more primary meanings. (I’ll say more about this later.)
- By the “neo-“ part I recognize that it diverges from classical patristic reading:
- For the patristic authors, the primary author was always the Holy Spirit. When they would speak of authorial intent they referred to what they believed the Spirit intended to say. While we recognize the Holy Spirit to be integral to both the writing and the reading of the text, we recognize the humanity of the authors and their inevitable propensity for both sin and limitation in a way that the patristic readers did not.
- It does not seek to simply parrot patristic commentary. Rather, it recognizes the patristic tradition to be a living one where the Fathers interpreted in similar ways yet argued with one another and disagreed. Rather than simply being a replication of patristic teaching it is an on-going living use of the methods that they demonstrated in their own writing.
There’s a lot more about this that I’d like to say, particularly in terms of what this looks like both in relation to modern scientific Scripture study and in terms of direct application. However, since I’ve gone on at some length, I’ll post this part now as I work on the next part.