I’m taking a quick break from Sarum to jot down some thoughts that I’ve been having after Dean Knisely’s post on study plans. He notes that he’d like to do some thinking about hermeneutics, particularly any native Anglican form of hermeneutics, and brings up the issue of pre-modern forms of reading that tend to loosely travel under the label of “allegorical.”
This is kinda my *thing*; it’s what my dissertation was on. (Actually, if he’s not careful, I’ll send him a copy of it…)
In pondering what resources I should refer him to, I think back to my fundamental findings and to discussions about basically all pre-modern forms of reading that I had with my dissertation director. One of the points that he made (fairly constantly) and that I found to be concretely true in my research is that too many who are interested in this topic completely miss the forest for the trees.
The problem is context. The great grand-daddy of the modern study of figural interpretation is Henri De Lubac who, living in a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic world, writes with some unconscious assumptions about contexts that it seems never occur to him to make explicit. Most medievalists (Beryl Smalley, I’m looking at you…) are interested in “interpretation of the Bible” and, in pursuit of what they think their focus is, so narrow that focus to the point where the context fundamentally disappears or is regarded as a layer that gets in the way.
The danger that everybody likes to get hyper about is the fear that if you go down the allegorical road, you can make any text say anything. Suddenly, the unbinding of Lazarus is actually about the sacrament of confession; the injunction about not eating weasels in Deuteronomy is actually about 0ral s3x (no, seriously, and that’s one from the late first/early second century Epistle of Barnabas…). Thus, the chief question becomes: what are the controls? What prevents you from plowing into totally crazy, over-the-top readings? Or, alternatively, how do we know when an OTT reading must be reined in? In a word, context.
Figural interpretation happens within a structure of communal liturgical practices. In the patristic and early medieval periods in particular, interpretation was done by people who were enmeshed in their community’s liturgical cycles and it’s these fundamental communal practices that gave them a grounding. Constant repetition of the Offices, and constant contact with the Mass, presented a daily repetition of the Christian core practices and beliefs: the Creeds—the Canticles—the Gloria—the Canon. This grounding, in turn, gave them a flexibility for play in both their interpretive and theological musings. The playing field was marked off by the creeds, the goal was the edification of the Church centered in charity, defined by Augustine as the cultivation of virtue and the restraint of vice.
(As a side-note, this is always one of the problems with many modern readings of medieval mystics. You can be way more “out there” and have it not be a major threat to fundamental Christianity if it’s set within the grounding practices.)
The major change with Reformation biblical interpretation, I’d argue, is the jettisoning of the context. I think it could be argued that with the rise of the Schoolmen, the mendicant orders, and the turn into Nominalism the liturgical context had already lost its important restraining function making it appear to the Reformers that they were pruning away the bad rather than losing a key component. Nevertheless, that’s what happened. Suddenly biblical interpretation was not and could not be an act of play. It was serious business. Without the grounding practices of Mass and Office, how each text was read suddenly mattered a lot more because the interpretive act was transformed into the grounding practice of the faith.
So—the liturgy was the context. But that’s not all. Particularly in the early medieval church and most especially in my world of the early medieval monastics, the liturgy was not simply the guiding context but was the fundamental tool through which Christians were inculturated into the hermeneutics of the Church. They learned to read through the liturgy.
On one hand, this is a literal truth: new monks or child oblates learned how to read through the memorization of the Latin psalter, then learning to match the words on the page with the texts they already had in their heads. They literally learned how to read from reading the liturgy. On the other hand, they also learned how to interpret the Bible from the liturgy and this happened in two ways, the first explicit, the second not so explicit. The explicit is that readings from the Fathers in the third nocturn of the Night Office gave them examples. They learned to interpret through what they heard and what was modeled for them by the patristic teachers every Sunday and feast day in the early morning. And again at Chapter. And again at Mass. The not-so-explicit is the way that the liturgy introduces under-determined interpretive possibilities through the use of scriptural antiphons and responsories in the Mass and Office. When an antiphon taken from the Gospel of the Day is appended to the Magnificat it makes you hear it in a new way, as you are using new lens. When a Pauline snippet is paired with a psalm, the mind begins working at it to find what the implied logical connection must be between the two. The hymns held together Scripture and Season for mutual reflection. (As it happens, the first paper I gave at the big medievalist meeting in Kalamazoo was on this topic. I’ll try and put it up on Scribd for those who are following me there.)
So—where does all of this bring us? Back to the notion of a distinctively Anglican way of reading and interpreting the Scriptures. Is there one? Maybe… Is there the potential for one? Most certainly, because we of all of the Western Non-Roman ecclesial bodies have retained in theory that which was most important in the heyday of figural reading: the Mass and the Office.
What we have to realize, though, is that our Mass and Office is not theirs. While we have inherited the structures of the early medieval pattern, we have deliberately shorn ours of the richness through which catholic biblical interpretation was learned. We have no appointed patristic readings into which we are formed. We have no cycle of antiphons and responsories that shape our readings. We have divested our Mass of the minor propers that complemented and guided the public proclamation of the Word.
Sure, I’d like to recover these things. That’s one of the key reasons why the St Bede’s Breviary puts back into place traditional or traditionally-shaped patterns of antiphons and the old Office hymns. But can we recover them? I honestly don’t know and I honestly fear not. We have a hard enough time getting people to come to Mass on Sundays let alone Holy Days that don’t fall then. (Epiphany, anyone?) Our clergy lac a familiarity with the Office, let alone those upon whom they—and we—are relying for our biblical interpretation.
I don’t know.
I’d like to hold up the old model as the possibility for a vibrant new model—I just fear that we lack both the will and the discipline to make into what it could be.