Does Biblical Interpretation Have a Prayer?

by Richard Topping

We do not truly appreciate either the light which the church receives from the Bible, or the darkness which enshrouds it from the same, until we recognize in both, beyond all human effort and human refusal which is also present, the over-ruling power of the Word of God itself, either to exalt or abase. Only then do we realize that we cannot read and understand Holy Scripture without prayer, that is, without invoking the grace of God. And it is only on the presupposition of prayer that all human effort in this matter, and penitence for human failure in this matter, will become serious and effective.[1]

There is no monopoly in the current marketplace of modes and methods for the interpretation of the Bible. The priority that the historical-critical method (as a family of approaches to texts and religious history) once had in mainline Protestantism and post-Vatican II Catholicism has been broken, and it is now one approach in an interpretative free market. That is not to say that historical-critical research and its tools have disappeared from the interpretative scene, nor is it to suggest that there was ever peaceful unanimity about the right use of its varied modes of analysis, or the background beliefs that animated its use. It is to say that other approaches have arisen, and they do not carry hat in hand to the historical-critic as the arbiter of meanings of Holy Scripture for the life of the church. Most of these approaches do employ critical tools; however, they deploy them under a different configuration of the aims and nature of biblical interpretation.

Historical-critical, literary, and social-scientific tools are important for biblical interpretation that acknowledges the humanity of the Bible, and so can make the distinction between the witness of Scripture and that to which it witnesses. The Bible is, of course, a human document of great complexity, produced and shaped by Israel and the church in particular times and places, and inscribed in certain literary forms.

However, reductive materialism─that is often imported into biblical interpretation by means of analysis that is “critical”─abstracts the Bible out of its relationship with the God by whose Spirit Holy Scripture is generated and illumined. In other words, there is a temptation common to a variety of contemporary interpretative approaches to conceive of the Bible as nothing more than human artefact, a book like any other book. Once you apply the appropriate hermeneutical solvent, the text dissolves into natural categories, even superlative ones like   “classic” or “paradigm,” and is thus “explained’ without theological residue.

What I want to attempt in the remainder of this paper is three-fold. 1) First, I want to survey the work of three representative and influential biblical interpreters. Their work represents something of the diversity of biblical interpretative options today. James Barr, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans Frei each proposed a normative biblical hermeneutic for the life of the Christian church and each has been enormously influential on the present North American landscape. I won’t engage in detailed critical analysis of their respective approaches,[2] but simply want to demonstrate that God’s relation to the Bible and God’s agency by means of the Bible are left out of meaningful account. 2) Second, I want briefly to articulate the positive side of this argument, exploring some resources that will help us to conceive of Scripture as “Holy” Scripture in a way that features divine agency by means of the Bible, and yet is neither uncritical and pietistic nor interpretatively overconfident. 3) Finally, I want to make a point about interpretative disposition.  How can we characterize our disposition toward Holy Scripture as an instrument in the saving economy of God in Jesus Christ so that the interpretative enterprise is not coopted by either the malaise of modernity (mastery and control) or the pathos of post-modernity (which is, according to John Milbank, “false humility” or sloth).[3]

How to Interpret a Text about God without God’s Involvement

What if we orient our discussion this way?  Of the options for biblical interpretation currently out there, interpreters typically address themselves to one of three worlds.

There is the world “behind the text,” that is, the social and historical world out of which, and by which, texts are generated. Meaning is constrained by circumstances of origin, the thought-world of text and writer.[4] One important person who espoused such an approach was one-time Oxford Professor James Barr. Barr proposed that consideration of God’s agency (revelation) with respect to the generation of the Bible ought to be bracketed out when interpreting the Bible. Such heavy theological freight would only encumber “free” and “critical” inquiry into the Bible. Working in the academy where there is freedom from “denominational prejudice,” scholars discern meaning as the facts dictate and not as the church requires.[5] Doctrines of revelation function, on his view, to insulate the Bible from examination as a human and historical product.  Insofar as Barr permits consideration of divine involvement, he considers it descriptively confluent with human action. The generation of the Bible is portrayed under human and historical description without recourse to “supernatural intervention.” Moreover, as the church listens to the Bible today in the context of proclamation, it is responsible to the academy. Barr goes so far as to claim that “the effectiveness of the Bible as a document of the believing community is related to the extent to which the study of it is shared with the academic world.”[6] If the church wishes the Bible to speak afresh, then the church must be open to listening to the academy: that is; the conversation of biblical critics.

Paul Ricoeur represents an alternative to the historical-critical approach to biblical interpretation.  While he draws on aspects of historical-critical inquiry in his own hermeneutical musings, the drive implicit within his program is toward “the world in front of the text.” The textual ensemble that is the Bible through its inscription in writing has separated itself from the intentional world of the original authors. It now proposes and projects itineraries of meaning to contemporary readers through the interplay of its various genres. Through genric friction, produced in the act of reading, the imagination is stoked with possible worlds which might be inhabited.[7] Ricoeur maintains that the textual ensemble that is the Bible names God, but also that no particular genre ought to be privileged or the others will be suppressed. God is named in the various kinds of literature that the Bible contains, and each ought to be heard. What is revealed in the Bible, however, is not so much God as possible ways of being in the world. Revelation is more the disclosure of a solicitous world and a corresponding manner in which I might dispose my own subjectivity. With this exposition of his hermeneutic program, Ricoeur unilaterally dismisses as “opaque and authoritarian” the doctrinal heritage of the church (“heavy alluvia”) and its understandings of revelation as “insufflation”─“the Spirit whispering in the prophet’s ear.”[8]  God is a subject of the biblical writings, but agency in this interpretative proposal is ascribed to textual interplay. Sparks of meaning, possible worlds, imaginative variations for the ego are proposed by the texts themselves. Options that might be inhabited are brokered by conscience in the one to whom those possible worlds are disclosed.[9] Revelation is in this case “agentless”[10]; God is neither the one revealed nor the revealing one.

Finally, in the hermeneutic work of Hans Frei, interpreters are directed to the “world within the text.” Together with colleagues at Yale, Frei led an attempt to retrieve pre-critical hermeneutics in a post-critical mode. He understood post-modernity, and a variety of literary and social-scientific tools, as conducive to a chastened retrieval of classical Christian christocentric readings of the Bible as Scripture.

Frei argued that the Bible, as-a-whole, is like a vast, loosely structured non-fiction novel. It consists of a broad-ranging “creation to eschaton” story, the centre of which is the Gospels, where the gospel renders an identity description of Jesus Christ. The means whereby the two testaments are held together in one book around Christ is typology and figuration.[11] Without losing the specificity of Old Testament persons and events in their own right (Jonah for example), Frei noted that the New Testament itself is one large literary expropriation of these same persons and events in the light of Christ (what the Reformers call the sensus plenior); and so Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days prefigures, or is a type of, Christ in the grave for three days.

What made Frei different from the naïve (just the facts please) interpreters of the past was that he didn’t regard the Gospels as reporting a chronologically accurate biography of Jesus.[12]  The Gospels, while speaking truly of Jesus and his identity, were stylized accounts, history-like narrative, or, as he liked to put it, “realistic narrative.” He distinguished literal-historical from “literary-literal” in the Gospels’ depictions of Jesus. He did not say that there is no history in the Gospels; only that what moderns call “history” is not always the crucial category for understanding the way the Gospels function to narrate Jesus’ identity. Grasping the meaning of the Bible with reference to the depiction of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the one risen from the dead, was a matter of following character and circumstance, and grasping the literary ascriptions to Jesus offered by the evangelists. Jesus, and not everyone in general or no one in particular, is the one about whom these stories and descriptions are recorded. In his later work, Frei shifts the ground from what the text requires to what the community embodies. He moves to the work of social scientist Clifford Geertz, speaking about the “plain sense” of the Bible as the one that is “common sense” for the community for which the Bible functions religiously.[13] Coming to understand and inhabit the scriptural world at times seems, rather than a matter of sanctification, one of socialization into the community that reads the Bible in a certain way.

Putting the “Holy” Back into “Holy” Scripture

On my view, one of the most interesting and promising movements regarding biblical interpretation in North America and Britain is what has been called theological hermeneutics.  This approach to Scripture argues that central Christian convictions about God and God’s agency in the world cannot be laid to one side, rendered generic, or left tacit when the interpretative field is described and the Bible interpreted for the life of the church. Biblical interpretation is theological all the way down.

Perhaps the post-modern recognition that there is no God’s-eye point of view, and that all starting points are “interested” starting points, has caused us to recognize that bracketing Christian profession out in interpreting the Bible has not meant “critical objectivity” at all.  Usually agnostic convictions about God and the world just rush in to fill the gap created by such hollow pretense. And while it is also recognized that there are a variety of modes for the interpretation of the Bible, the point has also been made that, whether interpretative effort is oriented to source or discourse, there is only one Bible. [14]

Theological interpretation represents a constructive protest against the impotence of critical “history of religions” study of the Bible. And rather than satisfy themselves with polemic, many theologians and biblical scholars have begun to do theological interpretation of Holy Scripture.

A basic conviction in this enterprise has been that the Bible is related presently to the one about whom it witnesses. A protest has been raised against a one-dimensional understanding dictating that what the Bible is can be captured by relating it solely to the activity of human agents in their acts of constituting a cultural and religious world. Without denying that Scripture is an artefact generated and used by particular communities, Christian theology urges that Scripture is Holy Scripture, that is, it is related to God’s historical and continuing communicative and reconciling activity through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. What Scripture is ought to be related to an account of how it is generated and used in the saving economy of God.  John Webster writes:

In sum: the biblical text is Scripture; its being is defined, not simply by its membership in the class “texts,” but by the fact that it is this text─sanctified, that is, Spirit-generated and preserved [and illumined] in this field of action─the communicative economy of God’s merciful friendship with God’s lost creatures.[15]

Theological interpretation of the Bible is strongly influenced by recovery of interest in early Christian “rule of faith” readings of Scripture, which functioned to support reading the Bible together in a unity. Hans Frei’s retrieval of classical Christian christocentric and typological reading of Scripture as a single creation-to-end-of-history story has been given theological density in recent scholarship.[16]

Moreover, Christian liturgical practice surrounding the reading of the Bible together with the confessional heritage of the church catholic have been put forward, not as unmitigated accretion through which the interpreter must penetrate the real meaning of the Bible, but as aspects of the interpretative “communion of the saints.” John Calvin, in a letter to Simon Grynaeus, makes the point that biblical study requires humility, but also study within the community of friends “in which one helps the others, corrects them, engages them in a dialogue that leads to better understanding.”[17] The communion of the saints is a means the Spirit uses to support, sanctify, and form us for and by the reading of the Bible. Theological hermeneutics is interested in “God’s use of the church’s use of the Bible.”[18] Early Christian creedal statements, “rule of faith” formulations─which grew up at the same time as the formation of the canon─guide readers to get the storyline right. Patristic Scholar Paul Blowers argues that the Christian contest against Gnostics was not at the level of what each believed about small doctrinal matters, but an argument about who properly discerned the plot of Scripture and performed in accordance with it.”[19] It is these texts (both Testaments) read according to a trinitarian and christological pattern, held together by typology and figuration, that constitute scriptural reading of the Bible for the life of the Church.

Critical tools are certainly engaged in theological reading of Scripture to trace the theological pressures exerted in text and canon formation. This helps exegetes better to comprehend the final form of the text, and then to follow that same trajectory as they seek to interpret the current life of the church and the world.  In this process theological convictions may be held up for critical examination (and reformation) in the light of exegetical work and broad construals of the Bible.  However, it is never the case that the whole of Christian confession is laid aside to grasp the meaning of the text. Theological pre-understanding is often, not always but often, formed by previous readings by means of which the Holy Spirit sanctifies and illumines the imagination of readers such that scriptural interpretation is enhanced.

Finally, theological hermeneutics recognizes that the conversation between Holy Scripture and reader or community is not between equals. There is a relation of super- and sub-ordination in the reading. The Spirit not only builds up and encourages in the faith by means of Bible reading, but also accosts and breaks up sinful “status quo” in the life of the community that reads Scripture. Criticism of the church by means of the Bible, a certain death-and-resurrection pattern in the lives of Christians, is ingredient to reading and hearing Scripture as the Word of God.

A Spirited Hermeneutic

Finally, what is the appropriate interpretative disposition of an interpreter who would be a listener for the Word of God in the interpretation of the Bible? Before launching into a couple of suggestions, let me say again that none of this means that historical, literary, philosophical, and sociological investigations are unimportant to the task of Scripture interpretation. However, when and where the immanent frame restricts so that reference to God is ruled out of order, we are obliged for Christ’s sake to resist. How on earth can the church, which is a creature of the Word, assume a world bereft of God when reading a text that witnesses to the words and works of God? Reformed Philosopher Alvin Plantinga made the point in his Gifford Lectures, Warranted Christian Belief,[20] that various forms of historical-critical research (all of which proceed based on reason alone, without employing theological assumptions or anything known by faith) are not neutral with respect to God. They are insufficiently realist, deflating the field of inquiry by a prior declaration regarding the realities with which the Bible is concerned and how best to account for them.

What then are some hermeneutic practices consistent with an understanding of the Bible as “Holy” Scripture of the Church? One way of doing this under a single rubric is to consider prayer. Prayer, says Karl Barth, is preliminary to exegesis. “Because it is the decisive activity, prayer must take precedence even of exegesis . . .”[21] And for Barth prayer is always what the saints do in response to and for the gift of the Spirit. The same Spirit who generated these texts and the community that reads these texts makes them luminous for us. Prayer is the disposition of dependence upon, and openness to, the God who draws us into the saving work of Christ by means of Holy Scripture. Barth says of Holy Scripture, “It is the testimony of this revelation inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it can become luminous for us only through the same Spirit.”[22]

This is not a retreat into uncritical pietism. It is chastening of uncritical trust in readerly competence and our mastery of meaning through technique, and at the same time a refusal of postmodern interpretative perspectivalism. Luther said to Erasmus: “The Holy Spirit is no skeptic.”[23] The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life, who awakens slumbering human listeners, and redeems and sanctifies reason; that is, creates genuine acknowledgement and response to divine summons, a genuine capacity to hear and see. This is what the Reformers meant by “the perspicuity of Scripture.” The Bible as it is caught up in the economy of God’s reconciling action in Jesus Christ is clear enough to be understood in the power of the Spirit in the fellowship of the saints.

Prayerful reading of the Bible implies astonished humility; that is, a willingness to relent before the witness of the text, a dying and rising with Christ if you will, in the life of the one who would hear the Word of God in the power of the Spirit. Reading the Bible as the event of God’s self-communication involves the death of mastery and of “false modesty” since both interpretative dispositions (the modern and post-modern) refuse to meet God within the economy of God’s reconciling action in Jesus Christ, and so are defiance of grace.

Commenting on the sources from which Calvin drew his understanding of the reading of the Bible, Wesley Kort in his Take, Read,[24] notes Calvin’s appropriations from the monastic practice of lectio divina. It was a way of reading designed to allow biblical texts to have their maximum effect on the reader, “even to be inscribed on the reader’s body.” Reading is an act of communication with God, first with words, concepts and images; lectio is inseparable from meditation, from prayer and contemplation. And reading is not reduced to communicating information; it is likened to eating and digestion.[25] The Bible is, as one of Calvin’s favourite authors, Bernard of Clairvaux, put it, “the wine cellar of the Holy Spirit.”[26] By reading one receives the text with “the palate of the heart.”[27] Because of God’s effective agency by means of the Bible, scriptural reading is “inexhaustibly fecund” and “intoxicating,” such that the Bible can never be “discarded” or dominated.[28] On the other hand, most academic readers, says Paul Griffiths, “are consumerist in their reading habits and are rewarded for doing so.”[29] Prayerful reading, which lingers to discern the life-giving “Word in the words” (Barth), is, on the other hand, non-consumerist in habit: it lingers and caresses, smells and savours the words on the page.

I conclude with a brief theological description of biblical interpretation:

Whatever else can and must happen, in the special responsibility laid upon members of the church for the understanding of Scripture, at least there must always happen in it that which actually does happen in prayer: confession and faith, awestruck shrinking and comforted appropriation, in which faith and appropriation are only obedience to the grace which always precedes and which will only constantly suggest that confession and shrinking.[30]

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2, ed. and trans.  G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, et. al. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1968), 698.

[2] See Richard Topping, Revelation, Holy Scripture and Church: Theological Hermeneutic Thought of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur and Hans Frei (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).

[3] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 1.

[4] Wai Chee Dimock calls this approach to text interpretation “synchronic historicism.” In this model of interpretation it becomes very difficult to say how the interpretative horizon of a text might extend beyond the temporal framework of composition. This approach makes appropriative reading of the Bible as Holy Scripture by the church problematic. Dimock makes a case for “diachronic historicism” which allows “texts to be seen as objects that do a lot of travelling: across space and especially across time.”  See her “Theory of Resonance,” PMLA 112, No. 5 (October, 1997), 1060-1061.  See also Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 120.  She writes, “Historical criticism enriches our understanding of the provenance of a work of art, but it can also inspire a stunted view of texts as governed entirely by the conditions of their origin, leaving us hard-pressed to explain their continuing timeliness, their potential ability to speak across the centuries.”

[5] James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 113. Rita Felski in her book, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), explores the costs of “ubiquitous criticality” (5) in literary studies. Among the consequences is disengagement or estrangement from what is read.  One wonders about the consequences for Christian formation when the historical-critical mood prevails in biblical study.

[6] James Barr, “The Bible as a Document of Believing Communities,” in The Bible as a Document of the University ed. Hans Betz (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1981), 36-37.

[7] See Paul Ricoeur, Critique and Conviction: Conversations with Francois Azouvi and Marc de Launay, trans. Kathleen Blamey (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 143-144, 148-149; “Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation,” in Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. Lewis Mudge (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 73-118; “Theology and/or Autonomy,” in The Future of Theology: Essays in Honor of Jurgen Moltmann, ed. Miraslov Wolf, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 284-298; “Thou Shalt not Kill: A Loving Obedience,” in Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutic Studies, with Andre LaCocque, trans. David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 124ff.

[8] Critique and Conviction, 143-44, and “Toward a Hermeneutic,” 76, 93, 98, 104.

[9] See Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 341-352, and Mark Wallace, “Introduction,” in Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, trans. David Pellauer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 8-9, 29.

[11] Hans Frei, “The ‘Literal Reading’ of Biblical Narrative,” in Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays, ed. William Placher and George Hunsinger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 120.

[12] See Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), xv.  In this book, Frei makes a point he will repeat, namely that too often interpreters of scripture make a category mistake by confusing the history-like realistic narrative of the gospels with documentary reporting.   See also Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), viii.

[13] See “The ‘Literal Reading’ of Biblical Narrative.”

[14] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1987), 14, 17.

[15] Holy Scripture, 29.

[16] See for example Robert Jenson, “Scripture’s Authority in the Church,” in the Art of Reading Scripture, ed. by Richard Hays and Ellen Davis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 35ff.

[17] Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia.  Edited by Wilhelm Baum, Edward Cunitz and Edward Reuss (Brunsvigae: A Schwetschke and Son, 1863-1900), 59 vols. Corpus Reformatorum, vol. 38, 405.

[18] David Kelsey, “The Bible and Christian Theology,” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 48, No. 3 (1980), 385-402.

[19] Paul Blowers, “Regula Fidei and the Narrative Character of Early Christian Faith,” Pro Ecclessia, 6/2 (2001): 202.

[20] “Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Interpretation,” in Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 374-421.

[21] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/2 , 695.

[22] Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, 730.

[23] “The Bondage of the Will,” The Career of the Reformer III, ed. Philip Watson, vol. 33 of Luther’s Works, gen. ed. Helmut Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 24.

[24] Wesley Kort, Take, Read: Scripture, Textuality and Cultural Practice (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 19-36.

[25] Ibid., 23.

[26] Paul Griffiths, Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 42

[27] Kort, Take, Read, 23.

[28] Paul Griffiths, Religious Reading, 42.

[29] Griffiths, Religious Reading, 42.

[30] Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/2, 698.