Faith Seeking Understanding…But Not Objectivity

For the past few weeks I have been exploring in a preliminary fashion a few of the issues related to the nature of biblical authority and the role of authorial intent in scriptural interpretation. While interested readers may consult each of those articles for more detailed treatments of the topics thereof, it suffices for the moment to note that I have thus far argued for a community-oriented hermeneutic that, in contradistinction to the quasi-positivistic approach that continues to prevail in many interpretive environments, does not automatically privilege an author’s intentions when reading a biblical text.

Although it is hardly unique to attempt a critical definition of the manner in which Christians engage the canonical Scriptures, the emerging skepticism within both the academy and the church with respect to modernity’s unhelpful bifurcation of biblical studies and confessional interpretation,[1] coupled with the increasing scholarly attention to the pervasive influence of a reader’s often unstated ideological positions,[2] suggest the relevance of articulating in a concise fashion a selection of criteria for formulating and evaluating sound theological interpretations. To this end, there is a need to balance the Bible’s broad denotative capacity as a polysemous text with the corporate interests of readers’ interpretive communities, particularly given that it is principally the latter that establish meaningful constraints on which of the conflicting interpretations engendered by the biblical texts are treated as legitimate. The model sketched in this article, which is adapted from a recent essay written for a course I am taking at Ambrose University, attempts such a balance, drawing together some of the comments made in earlier posts to argue that to the extent that the Bible is to be appropriated in a deliberately theological fashion it is incumbent upon interpreters to situate themselves synchronically within an explicitly defined Christian community.

Providing a loose cohesion to the ideological commitments of theological interpreters is the underlying affirmation that the biblical texts function within the church as Christian Scripture and, consequently, are uniquely authoritative for members of the body catholic who, by virtue of their participation in this particular faith community, are themselves understood to be epistemologically privileged in their access to the contents therein.[3] Rather than having a basis in any ontological properties of the texts themselves,[4] however, in each respect the capacity of the biblical canon to serve this Scriptural function derives from the church’s more general decision to ground its corporate memory in the Bible’s particular attestation of the nature of the divine person and his involvement in the life of his people.[5] In contrast to other accounts of theological interpretation, therefore, such as John Webster’s pneumatologically informed treatment of the Bible as having de jure authority on account of its use as an instrument of the divine purposes, the approach adopted here is characterized by its attention to the role of the Christian community itself in conferring some measure of legitimacy on the biblical texts.[6] In that respect, though sharing important points of methodological similarity, this model of theological reading likewise distinguishes itself from secular permutations of ideological criticism through its explicit intention to appropriate the Bible as an entity of the church and, by extension, to adopt that body’s doctrinal formulations as an epistemological framework for discerning which of the meanings communicated in the biblical language are corporately valuable. With this preliminary definition in mind, interpreters endeavoring to produce distinctively theological readings ought therefore to begin their task with an overt attempt to situate themselves in relation to the ideological confines of the particular community within which and for which they intend to analyze the biblical texts.

Adding to the complexity of this hermeneutical task is the textual phenomenon identified by Paul Ricoeur as the problem of double meaning; namely, the potential for instances of lexical polysemy to be coupled with co-textual ambiguity such that a text as a whole evokes a range of possibly incongruous readings.[7] While the Bible’s lengthy reception history ensures that this problem is present to varying degrees in each of the registers identifiable therein, the multiplicity of interpretations available for the texts of the biblical canon is thrown into particularly stark relief by the wildly dissonant readings that have been offered for such metaphorically dense works as the Song of Songs or Revelation. In this respect, it is telling that in recent decades alone the language of the former has remained sufficiently ambiguous to enable commentators to identify both pornographic and allegorical readings thereof,[8] while the various eschatological models that have been developed on the basis of Rev 20:4, 6, as but one example, suggest the broad theological potential of the latter. Although the plurality of denotations highlighted here problematizes models of theological interpretation that attempt to discern a stable, singular meaning within the biblical texts,[9] it is not necessitated by this cacophony that Christian readers accept each of the possible meanings of Scripture as equally legitimate in order to remain faithful to their task. Instead, though acknowledging that the Bible lends itself to an immense number of discordant readings, interpreters subscribing to the present model may reject certain readings inasmuch as they are judged to be incongruent with the theological constructs that have been accepted by the church catholic.[10]

Informative in regards to this last contention are the doctrinal formulations that emerged during the Nicene controversy in response to the Arian appropriation of the language of John’s Gospel. In this instance the orthodox post-Nicene church, in order to both remain faithful to the Christological testimony of that text as a constituent of the broader New Testament corpus as well as adequately express its own theological perceptions, was correctly able to reject Arian readings by adopting vocabulary for speaking of Christ’s dual nature that transcended, and thereby rendered inadequate, mere repetition of the biblical wording.[11] Abstracting the implications of this event for the project of theological interpretation more generally, it continues to be the case that competing readings may be adjudicated on the basis of their consonance with the church’s doctrinal imagination. For such an exercise to be effective, however, theological readers must first situate themselves within the parameters of their community’s particular ideological framework prior to engaging in exegetical or literary analyses of a text’s potential array of denotations; the ability to do the former in a deliberate fashion whilst remaining faithful to the paradigms associated therewith constituting the principal measure of a good theological interpretation.

Given that the act of reading even the most ancient documents is invariably, if often only implicitly, an exercise in intertextuality, sound theological interpretation is further conditioned by the ideological interests of the Christian community insofar as the latter effect constraints on the degree to which both the Bible and its commentators are able to legitimately dialogue with particular sets of intertexts.[12] In describing this aspect of interpretation it is preferable to maintain the deliberately expansive understanding of text that was adopted, albeit tacitly, in the preceding discussion, employing the term to reference any realization of social exchange irrespective of the medium involved. Though admittedly open to further refinement, this definition has the advantage of enabling the various corpora of intertexts most likely to be deemed significant by theological interpreters to be classified according to their position relative to the reader rather than their mode of expression: (1) those texts within the wider canonical context of a particular biblical passage, as defined by each Christian community; (2) those texts located within the social or historical period in which a particular biblical book was originally composed (e.g. Let. Aris.; T. Mos.); (3) those interpretations that have accreted to a biblical passage during its reception history and thus constitute intertexts in their own right;[13] (4) those texts not included in the preceding category but which are nevertheless known to the reader, including those within contemporary popular culture.

While it is undoubtedly correct to assert that the language of the biblical text invites readers to treat certain of these intertextual relationships as more viable than others,[14] having introduced this taxonomy it must be noted that, like the Bible itself, there are no qualities intrinsic to any set of intertexts that necessitates it be treated by theological interpreters as automatically privileged for interpretation. Rather, both the value of the materials in each category and the contours of the categories themselves are ultimately determined by the needs of the reading community, a point given especially vivid illustration in the contrasting views offered by Protestant and Ethiopian Orthodox interpreters with respect to the canonical importance of 1 Enoch vis-à-vis the patriarchal narratives in Genesis.

The myth dies hard that to read the Bible faithfully one is required to first remove any cultural and theological accretions that the texts therein have acquired during their history of use within the church. That interpreters applying the same historical-critical methods have reached so many different conclusions about the various sections of the Bible suggests that it is hermeneutically inadequate to assert that the scriptural texts have only “one key specific meaning”, albeit with different applications dependent on the particular circumstances one encounters;[15] instead, the argument developed here cautions interpreters against hiding their own subjectivities in an ultimately misguided attempt to preserve biblical authority from a raging sea of subjectivity. As I will continue to argue in various ways on this blog, it is incumbent on theological readers to acknowledge at the outset that their subjectivity is an inescapable aspect of reading itself; likewise, the task for Christian leaders must be to ensure that believers are formed such that their reading practices are faithful to the theological imagination of the catholic Christian community.


[1] See, for instance Ellen F. Davis, “Teaching the Bible Confessionally in the Church,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), esp. 10–11; Richard B. Hays, “Reading the Bible with Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, no. 1 (2007): 5–21.

[2] Of particular interest in this regard is the work of David J. A. Clines, Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible, JSOTSupp 205 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 9ff.; cf. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, “Whose Text Is It?,” PSB (2008): 67–81.

[3] This point is stated particularly bluntly by Robert W. Jenson, “Scripture’s Authority in the Church,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 27–29; cf. Wayne A. Meeks, “A Hermeneutics of Social Embodiment,” HTR 79, no. 1/3 (1986): 82.

[4] Compare my argument in this section with that of Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 2–10.

[5] This statement includes, of course, the story of Israel as attested in the Old Testament; cf. theses one and two in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds., “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” in The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 1–2.

[6] Cf. John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 52–57.

[7] Paul Ricoeur, “The Problem of Double Meaning as Hermeneutic Problem and as Semantic Problem,” in The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. Don Ihde, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 67–73.

[8] Cf. Martha Lutz, Intimacy with God (Hanover: The Christopher Publishing House, 1997); Roland Boer, “Night Sprinkle(s): Pornography and the Song of Songs,” in Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: The Bible and Popular Culture, Biblical Limits (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 53–70.

[9] See also the critiques of such a position in Fowl, Engaging Scripture, 33–40.

[10] Compare with the discussion of the role of the regula fide in Brian F. Daley, “Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable?,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 75–76, 85–88.

[11] For a particularly effective summary of the implications of this event for Christian doctrine vis-à-vis the Bible, consult Alister E. McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundations of Doctrinal Criticism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 6–7.

[12] Cf. Timothy K. Beal, “Ideology and Intertextuality: Surplus of Meaning and Controlling the Means of Production,” in Reading Between Texts: Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible, ed. Danna Nolan Fewell, Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 28; George Aichele, “Canon as Intertext: Restraint or Liberation?,” in Reading the Bible Intertextually, ed. Richard B. Hays, Stefan Alkier, and Leroy A. Huizenga (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009), 139–56.

[13] E.g. Lesley Smith, ed., “The Ordinary Gloss,” in Medieval Exegesis in Translation: Commentaries on the Book of Ruth (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1996), 9–29.

[14] So Umberto Eco, On Literature, trans. Martin McLaughlin (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2004), 219–229.

[15] This quote is from a sermon preached by James Paton at First Alliance Church in Calgary, AB, on Feb 6-7, 2016 on the topic of “Understanding the Meaning of a Text”.


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