Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapter 5

Today we will look at chapter 5 (I'll post on chapter 6 on Thursday) of 'The Art of Reading Scripture.' The fifth essay, by Brian Daley, is titled, 'Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable? Some Reflections on Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms.' His main goal in this essay is to examine how we might learn from Patristic exegetical method. Daley begins by noting that for the past century and a half that we've largely ignored Patristic exegesis. The historical critical method has been dominant, and all other approaches to the text have been ignored until recently. We had thought that we could study history scientifically and come up with objective conclusions of what happened (or what the original meaning of the text was) and why. The problem is that an underlying principle of this method is that natural events are assumed to have natural causes and we, being outside the event/text, can objectively measure what happened, which is an athiestic and arrogant assumption. As post modern critiques have pointed out, we don't have the objectivity that we think we have. 'Understanding a text is precisely the event of the interpretation of horizons: the author's and the reader's...it can never be a simple mater of recovery of the objective, "original" meaning through a scientific historical criticism that is free of the concerns and commitments of the later reader' (p. 73). So, historical criticism is not all that many crack it up to be.

Does this mean that we can abandon it and have complete interpretive freedom? Definitely not. In the next section, Daley lays out what the interpretive framework of the early church was. They:
  1. Saw the hand of a provident God in Scripture, and they interpreted historical texts in light of that.
  2. Read the Bible as a unified narrative
  3. Interpreted the Bible using 'the Rule of Faith,' or as some put it today, interpreting within the framework of creedal orthodoxy (a la Kent Sparks). Core theological truth could not be denied, but there was much freedom regarding the interpretation of individual passages of Scripture.
  4. Recognized the diversity of Scripture, but at the same time saw the story of the Bible as being coherent, thus in their view, the Bible never contradicted itself.
  5. Primarily focused on the scriptural rather than the historical meaning of the text, meaning a focus on what the Bible meant to them in their time, not just in 'application' of the text, but its theological meaning. The more pious interpretation was favored.
In the next section, Daley looks at patristic exegesis of the Psalms and asks whether or not their way of reading the psalms might work for us today too. As Daley notes, the Psalms were adored by the early church (as they are by many today). They readily appropriated the Psalms to their individual lives, seeing the Psalms as providing the words to say to God what we are commanded to say to him elsewhere. I wonder, though, if Daley's choice of the Psalms doesn't prejudice the answer (he comes to a 'yes let's follow their pattern' conclusion) somewhat. I don't know much about Patristic exegesis, but I wonder if the way the early church used other parts of Scripture might be tougher to follow. Many of the Psalms, while being used for corporate worship, have a strong individual element. It's somewhat easy, for many Psalms, apart from the historical critical method, to appropriate the text in a valid and helpful way. I think his case may have been harder if he picked apocalyptic literature (to go on the other end of the spectrum).

In the final section, Daley asks if historical criticism has any roll to play in our understanding the Bible as Scripture. He says it still does and that its roll, 'must be to free readers from the same destructive literalism that Origen recognized as the basis of most false interpretation of the Bible - taking the apparent face value of a text so seriously, so much in isolation from the rest of the cannon, that we invest it with a meaning at odds with both its probably original sense and its traditional Christian application' (p. 87). I think this point is helpful. The historical critical method is seen here as being more defensive than anything else. It helps guard us from going in an unfruitful direction.

Daley then concludes with a plea to interpret the Bible along the lines of the ancient Christians, for the sake of the church. Biblical scholarship is not an end in itself, it has a roll, to feed preaching, to feed the feeding of the church, and that must remain our central concern.

As much as I want to agree with Daley, I must ask, though, if the 'Rule of Faith' is a good rule. But perhaps that should be the subject of another post on another day.

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