Have you ever found yourself reading the Epistle to the Romans and thought, “It sure would be nice if St Paul were here and could explain to me what he meant when he wrote, ‘For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law'”? Now let’s suppose that one day you get your wish. You are deep in meditative thought and suddenly the Apostle appears to you in a vision:
“Shalom, friend. Vus machs da? I see that you are wrestling with my letter to the Romans. I think some of my best stuff is in it; but I wish I had had a chance to go back and clarify some of the things I wrote. We didn’t have word processors back then—we just dictated our letters and that was that. Can you imagine my surprise when I got to heaven and discovered that they had become Holy Scripture. If I had known that was going to happen, I might have spent a bit more time formulating my arguments. So … how can I help?”
“Oh, Paul, it’s wonderful of you to visit. It’s an answer to prayer. I have so many questions about Romans, but let’s start with 3:28. What the heck does it mean?”
“My ‘justification by faith’ phrasing sure has created a lot of fuss, hasn’t it? Have you read N. T. Wright’s commentary? He gets a lot of me right, but he misses one or two important points. When I wrote that verse, what I really meant was ____.”
Paul has just shared with you the authorial meaning of the text. But now knowing this, can you also say that you also now know, without qualification, the divine meaning of the text, i.e., that meaning which God intends to communicate to his Church?
No! replies the always provocative Stanley Hauerwas:
We must acknowledge that texts themselves only emerge as the consequence of interpretive acts. In simple terms, … a play by Shakespeare, read as “literature” in a freshman English class, is quite different from a Shakespeare play performed for the entertainment of the groundlings. In like manner, the letters of Paul to the Corinthians are quite differently understood once they become Scripture and are located in relationship to the other letters of Paul in the New Testament as well as the Gospels.
Once Paul’s letters become so constructed canonically, Paul becomes one interpreter among others of his letters. If Paul could appear among us today to tell us what he “really meant” when he wrote, for example 1 Corinthians 13, his view would not necessarily count more than Gregory’s or Luther’s account of Corinthians. There simply is no “real meaning” of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians once we understand that they are no longer Paul’s letters but rather the Church’s Scripture. (Unleashing the Scriptures, pp. 19-20 [my emphasis])
This passage probably needs to be re-read a few times to let Hauerwas’s point sink in. Even if Paul could tell us what he originally meant when he wrote any one of his letters, his interpretation of his letters is not the final word. Why? Because his letters have been incorporated into the Scriptures of the Church. A profound change of literary, social, and theological context has occurred. We can no longer treat Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as if it is a stand-alone document. Not only must it be interpreted within the Pauline corpus; but it must be interpreted within the canon of Scripture whose audience is the Church of Jesus Christ, not only the Church in the first century but also in the fourth century, the eleventh century, the sixteenth century, the twenty-first century, the thirtieth century. Historical meaning is now comprehended within canonical meaning. If the Bible is one book, whose ultimate author is God and whose audience is the Church, then we simply cannot assume that the canonical meaning of a given biblical passage is identical to its authorial meaning. “We may hanker,” notes Richard Swinburne, “after the ‘original meaning in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork and context changes meaning” (Revelation, p. 207).
So how do we then discern the canonical meaning of Scripture? By learning to interpret the Bible as the early Church did—in other words, by adopting the hermeneutical rules and interpretive practices that were employed by the same folks who canonized the Old and New Testament books. And if we do this, we will suddenly find ourselves reading the Bible in ways that horrify modern biblical critics. Yes, I’m talking about typology, allegory, tropology, anagogy, and all that good stuff:
So there was a wide tradition in the early Church of reading the Bible metaphorically and not always literally; it was the Church of the centuries which established the canon of Scripture which taught that this was the way in which it ought to be read. It was the Bible understood in that way which they declared to be true. …
Of course if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the ‘original meaning’ of the text, that original meaning is often false: there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted. … This evident fact led many liberal-minded theologians of the twentieth century to cease to talk of the Bible being ‘true’, but to speak rather of it being ‘useful’ or ‘insightful’ if read in accord with some rule or other of interpretation; and there have evolved as many ways of interpreting as there have been theologians to do the interpreting. And saying this sort of thing about the Bible hardly gives it a special status—the same could be said of any great work of literature. A general fog settled over hermeneutics. And yet the rules are there, sanctified by centuries of use by those who claimed in accord with Christian tradition that the Bible was “true.” If we wish to take seriously claims for the truth of the Bible, we must understand it in the way that both philosophical rules for interpreting other texts, and so many of those who interpreted the Bible or laid down the rules for doing so in previous centuries, suggest; and that includes their admission that it contains deeper truths which future generations wiser than themselves might detect by using their rules. (Swinburne, pp. 208-209)
In other words, if with the early Church we are going to confess the writings of the Old and New Testaments as inspired by God, as Scripture, then we must also be willing to interpret these writings according to the hermeneutics of the early Church. We cannot restrict ourselves to the historical-critical reading of the Bible, because the original meaning of a biblical text as revealed by historical enquiry is not identical to “the meaning of the text in the context of a Christian document” (Swinburne, p. 207). Or as patristics scholar Robert Wilken puts it: “In spite of its many accomplishments, a strictly historical approach to the Bible is incapable of receiving the Bible as Bible” (“Allegory and the Interpretation of the Old Testament in the 21st Century,” Letter & Spirit , p. 20). The confession of the canonical Scriptures as the written Word of God goes hand in hand with typological and allegorical interpretive methods. This does not mean that should dismiss the historical-critical reading of the biblical writings; but it does mean that we must see it as only preparatory to a properly Christian reading of the Christian Bible. Wilken elaborates:
The early Church read the Old Testament as the Word of God, a book about the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who “was and is and is to come.” What the text of the Bible meant when it was written, as far as that can be determined, is part of interpretation, but it can never be the last word, nor even the most important word. A historical interpretation can only be preparatory. A Christian understanding of the Scriptures is oriented toward the living Christ revealed through the words of the Bible and toward what the text means today in the lives of the faithful and what it promises for the future. God spoke once, said St. Bernard, “but he speaks to us continually and without interruption.” (“How to Read the Bible,” First Things [March 2008], p. 27)
Or to put the point in an Eastern idiom: Holy Scripture must be read, prayed, interpreted, taught, and preached within the living Tradition of Holy Church. Not Scripture versus Tradition, but as my good friend Fr John Breck phrases it, Scripture in Tradition.