Tag Archives: senses of Scripture

Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, Part II

In my previous post I offered a quote from Origen’s Philocalia, in which he compares scriptural interpretation to a house with locked rooms and scattered keys.  Successful interpretation depends, then, on having access to all the keys (the entire Bible), so that less obscure verses from the Bible might serve as keys that can unlock the more obscure.  I want to offer a few additional thoughts regarding the promises and pitfalls of employing this “let Scripture interpret Scripture” reading strategy.

Most professional contemporary interpreters, especially those wedded exclusively to historical-critical methods of reading, are cautious with such a rule (and often rightly so!) inasmuch as it can cause a false harmonization of the different voices in Scripture.  It can force, for instance, the author of Genesis to agree with the Apostle Paul when in reality these two authors have their own unique things to offer, especially since the world of Genesis and of Paul are quite different historically, socially, and linguistically.  Historical-critical approaches emphasize that the Bible is a human cultural artifact and thus is appropriately understood only when the historical conditions surrounding its ancient production and reception are appreciated.  In other words, even if the Bible is God’s Word, it is nonetheless certainly a human “word” and must be understood in the first instance as such.  And even those open to other reading strategies beyond the historical-critical might fear ways in which this rule can be abused:  Scripture should not be Gumbi or Play-Do, frivolously shaped into whatever the contemporary interpreter desires.

Unlike many modern interpreters, ancient interpreters such as Origen felt the inspired nature of the Bible to be of paramount significance not just as a doctrine to be affirmed, but as a practical interpretative principle.  Accordingly, all the Bible’s various books, despite the diversity, are ultimately the product of a single divine author.  As such, if the individual human authors of the Scripture happen to strike what appear to be discordant notes, these notes nonetheless always turn out on closer inspection to be a part of the prearranged divine harmony.  Origen is convinced that we must know the entire symphony of Scripture intimately, so that we have a mental interpretative concordance that recognizes how the various notes and interior movements flow together into the whole.  Or switching the metaphor back to Origen’s own analogy of a palace with locked doors, we must acquire an enormous scripture-laden key-ring, so that we can readily select and apply the apt key to any puzzling lock that comes our way.

So, here’s the real question:  Can we hold together modern historical-critical concerns with Origen’s approach?  Some of the most interesting work in contemporary biblical scholarship is concerned with precisely these issues–I think especially of the celebrated canon criticism of the late Brevard Childs, not to mention the many, such as Joel Green and Christopher Seitz, who are making contributions to a new movement usually termed “the theological interpretation of Scripture.”  As a scholar who is deeply interested in the role of Scripture not just in the academy, but also in the church and the world, I myself have been laboring in hope that I can offer something helpful in this direction in my second book.

Literal Reading of the Bible?

Sometimes it is asserted that we should just take the Bible literally–as if it is obvious what a literal reading might entail.  For example, consider the following passage from Isaiah:

“Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (Isaiah 51:9-10)

Now, if we are reading “literally,” should we determine on the basis of this text that the LORD (Yahweh) has an arm?  If so, what sort?  Well, if literal, then wouldn’t we expect a physical arm?  And if so, then how might one reconcile this with passages such as John 4:24 (“God is Spirit”)?  And when precisely did God “cut Rahab in pieces,” especially since this Rahab is further identified as “the dragon” (or sea-serpent)?  Obviously we are bumping up against something complex.  (Regarding how this passage connects to other similar stories in the Bible and the literature of the ancient Near East, consider Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988]).


(Origen: image source unknown)

For devotional purposes, I have been working through The Philocalia of Origen. Origen was an enormously prolific third-century Christian writer, and The Philocalia (meaning “the love of the beautiful”) is an ancient compilation of some of his most profound work. The following quote, which pertains to this whole question of a literal reading, caught my eye:

“The word of God therefore arranged for certain stumbling-blocks and offences and impossibilities to be embedded in the Law and the historical portion, so that we may not be drawn hither and thither by the mere attractiveness of the style, and thus either forsake the doctrinal part because we receive no instruction worthy of God, or cleave to the letter and learn nothing more Divine.” (Origen Philocalia 1.16; trans. George Lewis, 1911).

Is Origen right?  Could it be that God has placed in the Scripture complexities, goads, and spurs that will deliberately trip up the virtuous reader–causing the reader to stop, ponder, think, and fervently pray for insight?  If so, what are the nature of these stumbling-blocks?  Undoubtedly I will have more to say about this in the future, but for now it suffices to ponder, along with Origen, the degree to which God rewards those who earnestly seek–those who when encountering puzzles in the literal sense or the basic narrative sequence of the Bible are willing to delve into God’s arrangement of all affairs (both in Scripture and in the broader world), and to “see” not just the surface, but how the surface is a sign that points beyond itself to the transcendent.  After all, Jesus does seem particularly keen to encourage us to pursue a deeper engagement with his constant refrain:  “The one who has ears to hear, let that person hear” (e.g., Mark 4:9, Luke 14:35).