Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Paradigms for OT Interpretation

These are some thoughts towards a project tentatively entitled: "The Icon of the Old Testament: Liturgical and Ecclesial Hermeneutics".

One of the great difficulties attendant upon interpretation of the Old Testament is its ostensible status as history.  Quickly, though, we find many problems in this, not least that 'history' and 'historiography' mean something different post-Enlightenment.  We read, fundamentally and almost by necessity, the OT differently than it was intended.  Argument abound, then, as to how much of the OT passes our modern canons of history, with predictable "liberal" and "conservative" results -- neither actually giving much knowledge, again, predictable.  Each side goes back and forth about the historical utility of, say, archaeology in determining whether or not some biblical event or another really happened, as if our interpretation of long-past events, whether found in strata of tells or lines of text, will give us an objective peek into this reality.

Part of the problem, possibly, is that we have confused literal meaning with historical accuracy (whatever that, in itself, might mean).  To read the Bible literally means to read it as a telling of history, of "what really happened" at certain points in time.  No doubt, the Scriptures do present history, a "what happened," but to claim that they are objective, post-Enlightenment historiography is to miss the point.  At the same time, to claim that since they come out of a certain nation's collective experience and confirm their deeply held beliefs that the Scriptures must therefore be either relativistic or propagandistic, separated from any historical mooring, is also to miss the point.  Both rely on a sense of history that the Bible, or her authors, seem to not be interested in.

Literal meaning, in the original sense of the term, has to do with the literary meaning: that is, how the story or narrative works.  But, to fully get to that meaning, another context needs to be taken into account.  In some ways, this upsets the whole understanding of how Patristic and Medieval interpretation takes place.  St John Cassian, in the Conferences, details what Dante will later call the "Allegory of the Theologians" or the fourfold method of Scriptural interpretation: literal, symbolic/allegory, moral, and anagogical.  The impression built, not necessarily by Cassian or others, is that this interpretive scheme function as a ladder, each rung leading (hopefully) to the next until theosis or the beatific vision is achieved.  However, this would be to ignore the more circular, or helical, nature of this schema.  All of the senses rely on the Spirit of God, on union with Christ, therefore all of this senses are liturgical and ecclesial: the Scriptures cannot be understood without participation in the life of the Church and her sacraments.  Evidence for this can be found all over the Patristic writings, from Cassian to Athanasius to Augustine and so on.  The context for the literal sense is the anagogical sense, in other words; the same for the moral and symbolic senses as well.  They depend on each other, and more importantly, they depend on the "pillar and ground of the Truth" that is the Church, who has received the "Deposit" of Faith from the Apostles.

This turns our attention, interpretively speaking, to the telos of the Scriptures, specifically of the Old Testament.  Why do we have these books?  What is the point?  It is only when we grasp the ecclesially anagogical underpinnings of the texts, that is their intended to be used in the life of the Church to bring people to theosis or the beatific vision, that the literal meaning can become clear.  When our Lord Jesus says in Luke 24 that "everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms," He is grounding all Christian interpretation of the OT in the reality of Himself, which includes the Church and the Theotokos.  All the Scriptures, in some way, shape, and form, point beyond themselves -- at the literary level and most importantly at the historical level -- to the Christ, the Logos of God the Father, for the salvation of the hearer and the reader alike.  In seeing the literal and the historical meaning as iconic, instead of as straight forward post-Enlightenment narrative or history, these senses become clearer.  First, they were not intended to bear the weight, historically speaking, that we have placed on them: the texts themselves are theological interpretation of the events "as they really happened."  We cannot, due to how history works, access the past in any sort of certain way -- historiography always involves a certain amount of educated guesswork and reconstruction.  Any history is a more or less tendentious and partial interpretation of events that are themselves enmeshed in an infinite number of contexts, all of which are necessary to grasp and ascertain for their full sense to objectively emerge.  If we clear away our expectation of objective history being conveyed by the texts, many (but by no means all) of the discrepancies between "liberal/critical" and "conservative/fundamentalist" interpretations disappear.

Second on the list of of iconic corrections, the texts can be freed from the suffocating restraints that some versions of "inspiration" put on the Scriptures.  We would do well to remind ourselves of what St Paul actually says about inspiration in II Timothy: "All Scripture is inspired and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness."  Notably absent is utility towards scientific endeavors and ancient historiography.  Could it be possible that, without losing the utility of the Scriptures to do exactly what Paul said they could do, the stories of Creation might be written in forms conducive to not only the time in which they were composed, but also in a form that remains conducive to our salvation today, without necessarily being a point-by-point breakdown of "what really happened"?  One objection that is often raised about this is that if Genesis 1-3 were written in a mytho-poetic style, then why didn't God just write (or have written) propositions which we are supposed to believe, i.e. what we should learn about God from this narrative, the moral of the story as it were.  To do so, though, is to mistake a certain understanding of what truth is for truth itself.  As Alasdair MacIntyre, among many others, asserts, we are storied creatures.  We generally do not learn by propositions, unless those propositions are themselves couched in a larger, sometimes hidden or subconscious narrative.  To reduce the Creation stories, whether in explication or in preaching, to a series of talking points and "lessons," is to rob them of their power.  Salvation is not composed of aphorisms, although as Proverbs shows, aphorisms do have their place.  Rather, it is the indwelling of the story, in the life and sacraments of the Church, that fully mature the believer towards salvation.

Enough for now, as it is late.

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