Tag Archives: biblical interpretation

Interpretation and Implicit Images

After experiencing a deluge of delightful visitors and not so delightful term papers, I am finally finding a bit of space to read and write.  Over the last month or two, I have splashed about in Margaret M. Mitchell’s The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation (Louisville: WJK, 2002).Mitchell, heavenly  I haven’t had sufficient time (or strength!) to swim through the whole of it, but as I have dipped in a toe here, and a finger there, I have certainly found it thoughtful and insightful.

John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) was an eloquent and fiery preacher (nicknamed “golden mouth”), famous for his willingness to fearlessly confront all his listeners with the word of God, including various members of the imperial family and court in Constantinople.  His homilies were usually intensely exegetical, as John expertly drew forth the rhetorical potential latent in the biblical text–so much so that his sermons are still prized by biblical scholars today as valuable commentaries on the biblical text by a native Greek speaker.Chrysostom icon

Above all other saints, Chrysostom admired the Apostle Paul.  In fact, he wrote seven homilies in praise of Saint Paul (all of which Mitchell translates into English in an appendix).  In considering the portraits of Paul that Chrysostom paints in these homilies, I was struck by Mitchell’s insightful comments about the manner in which the mental images we hold of a biblical author impact our own textual interpretations when we are seeking to understand that author.  With regard to Paul, Mitchell states, “I would argue on principle that all exegetical projects depend upon some explicit or (more often) implicit mental image of Paul, the author” (p. xix).  All of this, of course, is not to say that we are caught in a vicious cycle in which the only Paul we can find is one that our own fancy creates.  But nonetheless, it was a good reminder to me that we need to be self-critical as we ponder the mental images that we have developed over time with respect to the various biblical authors–perhaps especially those, such as Paul, who have become most familiar.

Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, Part I

While continuing my slow waltz with The Philocalia of Origen (see my previous post)–and it has truly been a slow waltz because our family has recently been blessed with a new baby girl–I suddenly found that I was spinning around the room with a passage from Origen with which I had enjoyed a brief, sparkling romance several years ago.  But apparently the flame of passion had spluttered, because I had nearly forgotten it, until it was surprisingly whisked into my arms again.  In speaking about how to interpret the Psalter, Origen says:

“Let us preface our remarks with a very pleasing tradition respecting all Divine Scripture in general, which has been handed down to us by the Jew.  That great scholar used to say that inspired Scripture taken as a whole was on account of its obscurity like many locked-up rooms in one house.  Before each room he supposed a key to be placed, but not the one belonging to it; and that the keys were so dispersed all around the rooms, not fitting the locks of the several rooms before which they were placed.  It would be a troubling piece of work to discover the keys to suit the rooms they were meant for:  It was, he said, just so with the understanding of of the Scriptures, because they are so obscure; the only way to begin to understand them was, he said, by means of other passages containing the explanation dispersed throughout them.  The Apostle [Paul], I think suggests such a way of coming to a knowledge of the Divine words when He said, ‘Which things also we speak, not in words which human wisdom teaches, but which the Spirit teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual’ [1 Corinthians 2:13]” (Origen Philocalia 2.3; trans. George Lewis, 1911 with slight modification).

Origen here endorses a traditional rule of biblical interpretation (a rule that became especially prominent much later as part of the principle of sola scriptura in the Protestant Reformation):  one should use Scripture to interpret Scripture.  That is, less obscure passages can be brought in to assist as we seek to unlock those that are more difficult, and thus, it is hoped, that Scripture will be found to have a certain self-interpreting and self-authenticating perspecuity.  I will have a few thoughts to offer about both the perils and possible advantages of this way of reading the Bible in my next post.