John Hobbins and Iyov, along with Suzanne McCarthy and a host of others to whom each links have brought up different ideas regarding the intersection of not so much faith and scholarship in opposition as faith and critical scholarship in conjunction. This is an issue of perennial interest to me, as one can see from any number of posts here, where I tend to focus more on the opposition than the conjunction, which I ironically display in various other posts. Go figure. As you can see from the few of my own posts that I’ve linked to just above, it’s difficult to describe the interaction well, particularly when one doesn’t actually really live a separation between them.
Like the firstfruits of orchard, field or flock of old, we should only offer up our best to God in our scholarship. But is this necessarily what the academy defines as “critical”? I think not, at least not entirely.
Note those most fundamental works of Christian literature, the books of the New Testament. What exegetical strategy is employed in them, by these earliest generations of Christians, including some of the apostles themselves? It is a typological-allegorical method of exegesis that is roundly and vividly scorned by modern critical scholarship. And yet, it was good enough for these foundation stones of Christianity! In the case of these earliest Christians, the Scriptures described real people and real events, and had more than an importance that was limited to their original audiences. They were part of a living tradition of interpretation, a kind of perpetual prophetic hermeneutic, in which their meaning was continually contemporized. In effect the Scriptures were kept alive. The fact that they were susceptible to this in a way that other literature was not considered to be was related to the idea that they were inspired by God. In my own Esatern Orthodox tradition, David and his harp in his creating psalms are used as an image of God inspiring through His prophets the writing of the Holy Scriptures. It is not a plenary inspiration as some would have it, but it is something more than negligible, a Divine Harpist playing upon a human harp, with each harp resounding differently than another. And that imagery itself, the helpfulness of it, the clarity of it, the charm of it, and the depth of it which invites contemplation, further meditation, and even deeper understanding, this imagery is similarly part of that world of typological-allegorical exegesis. It’s a kind of exegesis that is poetry discussed in poetry, the language of poets not plumbers.
There is something to the Scriptures, the way that even its words are arranged, that even one of the more critical of Church Fathers could perceive something unusual lay therein. People are fond of quoting Jerome in support of dynamic translation of the Scriptures, but it is something he opposed, for a very interesting reason. In discussing critique of his translation of one of Epiphanius’ works, he writes to his friend Pammachius: “For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek I render sense for sense and not word for word, except in the case of the Holy Scriptures where even the order of the words is a mystery” (Letter 57.5). Interesting. Jerome, of course, uses “mystery” in its older sense, of something numinously revealed, though perhaps not entirely understood, rather than our modern sense of an unknown or unknowable thing. And this older sense of mystery is something that we need to accept, that it has a meaning that was intended, and isn’t just a mistake that requires emendation. Is this obscurantism? No. It is faithfulness to one’s tradition. We need also to be reminded that no matter how educated we are, however spiritually advanced we may think we are (Lord have mercy!), we do not know everything. I take as my model of gracious admittal of ignorance Dionysius of Alexandria, in speaking about the Apocalypse to John:
But I suppose that it is beyond my comprehension, and that there is a certain concealed and more wonderful meaning in every part. For if I do not understand, I suspect that a deeper sense lies beneath the words. I do not measure and judge them by my own reason, but by leaving the more to faith I regard them as too high for me to grasp. And I do not reject what I cannot comprehend, but rather wonder because I do not understand it.
quoted in Eusebius, Eccl Hist, 7.25
The interesting thing about what Dionysius says is that others extended that approach to the entirety of Scripture, Old and New Testaments. While they admitted a certain clear, superficial reading, they always thought that there was a deeper import to it, even in such mundane things as genealogies, the sacrificial laws, and other passages that tend to bore modern readers. And they made remarkable strides in building up their people through these helps. While it can’t be said that much of this interpretation was intended, we can’t say that all of it wasn’t. I have dealt with the strange ambiguity inherent in the expectation of the immanence of the Son of David, briefly before, and its direct connection to a Messianic tradition leading directly up to one Son of David, Jesus Christ. (That the Messianic Son of David tradition was alive and well into the first century is also known through the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in the second century in the disastrous Bar Kochba War, in which Simon Bar Kochba, “Son of the Star,” was a Son of David thought to be the Messiah.) This Son of David as Messiah being Jesus Christ theme is so prevalent in our Eastern Orthodox hymnography that it comes to be expressed like this, in the Kontakion of the Prophet Haggai, sung on the feast of that Prophet, December 16:
Illumined in mind with streams of light from Heaven’s heights, thou brightly didst shine in prophecy throughout the world; and in manifesting types of Christ’s dispensation, which was to come, thou became illustrious, O Prophet Aggaeus, wise in things divine.
Our Tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy is full to bursting with that ancient type-antitype allegorical exegesis. This method is rich and deep, and has thrived for centuries longer than any critical methods of study, creating an environment which produced not only amazing works of art, literature, hymnody, and philosophy, but especially the people who created them, whose lives were transformed by immersion into that environment, that worldview, to such an extent that they were, by God’s grace, rendered into Saints, continuing the cycle by continuing to pass on the Tradition. It is a Tradition that does not allow for the absence of God (how absurd!) and His plan for humanity simply because we as a body have been and are living proof of Him and His work. And so, in Patristic-guided Scriptural study, we take as a matter of fact that there was a progressive revelation through the prophets of the coming of an eschatological Messiah, the Son of David, Jesus Christ, the types or foreshadows only being recognized after He, the antitype or reality appeared. Inspiration with type, and history with antitype, combine to further illuminate the murkily understood future, now only “seen in a glass darkly” as the Apostle tells us. We learn from those who handed down this method of exegesis from the apostles to apply the same methods to the Scriptures, to continue to seek new ways to praise Him, and to perhaps gain a better understanding of the future, though this is not so driving a concern as understanding the personal application of Scripture to the sanctification of our lives.
Down to the brass tacks, now. I suppose I find the most useful elements of modern critical scholarship, those which I think the ancients would agree are most illuminating and helpful to Scriptural studies, are philological studies, with a close second in archaeology. With these two we can read (if not hear!) the thoughts and words of the distant past more clearly, and even see some of the world that anciently living eyes saw in those days: the kind of jug a slave girl balanced on her head, the toy of a child, the scepters of kings, the crowns of queens, the walls of hovels, homes, temples, palaces, and cities. Recently several of us have been discussing the discovery of a little clay receipt tablet from a temple in Babylon, that cleared up a jumble of names in the text of Jeremiah 39.3. This clarification would have been impossible without the archaeology that found the tablet, and the philological studies that enabled us to read it and discover its importance for Scripture. The most widely referenced corrections of that verse through the last century were all quite spectacularly wrong, suggesting emendations and such, when the solution was as prosaic as changing word division. The discovery and reading of many other ancient Near Eastern documents, historical, mythological, philosophical, poetic, and so on, continue to contribute to our understanding of similarities and differences of these cultures with the cultures that produced the Bible over the course of more than a thousand years. These two fields are not so poisoned with theory as is the tendentiously named “higher criticism,” a subject for another time. In any case, the reality I mentioned above, that expressed in my Eastern Orthodox Tradition, is not adverse to the use of reality in attempting to better understand and explain reality. Thus philology and archaeology are realms of information that are exceedingly useful, as are various other fields, but these two are those I find myself to have gained the most from, particularly in their intersection. People don’t refer to “critical philology” or “critical archaeology,” but just rightly assume that, as in other cases, to mention a subject implies it in its well-practiced form. But these fields can be and have been misused, even in supposedly “critical” Biblical studies, either through incompetence or with deliberate intent (if those are really different categories in such a situation). In any case, it appears that the magic label “critical” has become relatively meaningless, particularly in Biblical Studies as a field. That too, is a subject to be elaborated at another opportunity.
Consider a widely read poet, whose own poems will reverberate with conscious and unconscious allusions to his readings. We also need to wear our scholarship lightly, so that it does not become an obstacle to the entirely prophetic words of Scripture, but rather it enhances and beautifies it effortlessly, naturally, and where appropriate. This is so particularly in our contemplative reading, so that we are still able to be taught, for it is too easy for the well-trained Scripture scholar to sit in judgment on the text before him, rather than allowing himself to be convicted by his reading. Both Iyov and Suzanne mentioned Lectio Divina, a practice of reading the Scriptures with a long tradition, attached primarily to the Benedictine Order. One of the elements of Lectio Divina is stillness, that hesychastic quiet of the mind in which the Word is able to speak to us without distraction of exactly those internal voices, scholarly and otherwise. It’s a good thing to cultivate, but it doesn’t come easy. The best things never do.