A Conversation with St Paul: What Does Scripture Mean?

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 [2005], 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.

(Go to “Trinity, Eucharist, Tradition and the Challenge of Sola Scriptura”)

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13 Responses to A Conversation with St Paul: What Does Scripture Mean?

  1. jrj1701 says:

    It can be said that by departing from Peter’s teaching that the Church defines Scripture, we have got things messed up. I have always heard that faith is the cornerstone that the Church rests on and that Scripture is the tool of the Church not its foundation.

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  2. PJ says:

    Scripture is inspired … but its inspiration is worthless unless the reader is similarly inspired. Only the spiritual man can know spiritual things. And this inspiration is traditioned through the liturgy and ascesis.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I finally had the opportunity to watch the entire video. Thanks, PJ, for posting it. It’s well worth watching. Hart presents an understanding of the necessity of the allegorical reading of Scripture that is akin to Robert Wilken’s view, which is not surprising, as Wilken was Hart’s doctoral supervisor at the University of Virginia (I think I’m right about that).

      I just wish that David would stop offering an apology at the beginning of his talks.

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  3. tgbelt says:

    Hauerwas: 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.

    Tom: Wow…and Ouch!

    I want to agree that we can’t treat any particular letter of Paul entirely as a stand-alone document. At the same time something tells me we’re missing the target to say that cononicity displaces author so absolutely. If we’re going to imagine such scenarios, let’s imagine all the disciples and apostles showing up and saying, “Oh, look, by ‘resurrection’ we meant spiritual, not physical resurrection. You guys have all misunderstood us.” Would this really have no consequence for the truth of Christianity?

    I think we ought to read communally and cononically, but that this reading is a reading “of Paul.” Paul IS the letter to the Galatians. You can separate Muhammad from the Quranic text because of the way Muslims view inspiration and Scripture. But I don’t see how to separate Paul from his letters. So I think Paul’s returning to correct a modern misunderstanding of his intent ought to be prescriptive, but why can’t this accommodate community and canonicity?

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    • I suppose the crux is who is doing the receiving. On the one hand, it is easy to say that the canon as created and preserved by the Church is to be understood only in the light of Tradition with lesser respect to authorial intent. Certainly, I could say that Thomas Aquinas, Origen, or Pseudo-Dionysius had insights about Scripture that Moses himself did not have. Jesus Himself did this in this week’s reading in the Catholic churches by arguing for the General Resurrection on the basis of combining the Scriptural lines that God is both the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and God of the living, the living God – however odd that reasoning seems to us critical moderns. However, when Luther is brought up, for example, how should that be taken? Is he part of that Tradition? As not part of the Protestant tradition, I would not say so – at least in the same way that Gregory is. Yet, undoubtedly, Luther inherited and worked with the Tradition as he understood it.

      Furthermore, Luther himself would disagree with this. After all, the project of his time was “recovering” the true Tradition – i.e., for him, St. Augustine of Hippo – apart from subsequent encrustations, the “true” meaning of St. Paul. Erasmus, Thomas More, and others like Luther engaged in understanding the Greek of the New Testament and Hebrew of the Old precisely to regain that Christian meaning they believed to be have been lost. For them, the original intent mattered. One could say this was the beginning of the end for medieval Christendom – the overthrow of the Vulgate in favor of an “ad fontes” approach. But…when Pope Paul VI called for just such a ressourcement of Tradition one cannot help but feel great sympathy for a recovery of Tradition.

      I guess the question comes down to who defines what Tradition is, which seems for me to be the Creeds of the Oecumenical Councils. Yet we call this Tradition because we believe it to be in some way the same material – abeit using different images and language, Jewish conceptions versus language of natures, persons, and substances – fundamentally as the Apostles themselves believed. On some level, it seems we must believe that Tradition teaches as St. Paul or St. Peter would have taught in a fundamental sense as if cross-cultural language could be effectively bridged.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Dante, I think the Church is always struggling, and will always struggle, with the interpretation of Scripture—and I think that this struggle is necessary to the good of the Church and her mission. Otherwise we get frozen in the tradition of the past. As Jaroslav Pelikan famously phrased it: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

        I suspect you are probably correct that the Reformers appealed to the historical-grammatical meaning of Scripture in order to summon the Church to reform. In this sense it was, and always will be, a challenge to the Church—and in the hands of some, an attack on the Church. In these situations the Church must turn back to Scripture and the well-springs of her faith and attend to her Lord. Sometimes she may find that she is indeed being summoned by Christ to change; other times she may have to say to the reformer, “Your exegesis is mistaken. It may be correct historically, but it fails to comprehend the Scripture’s deeper meaning.”

        I do not believe that any science can solve these kinds of problems before they present themselves. Ultimately, I believe that biblical exegesis is more art than science.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, I wrestle with the questions you raise, too. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the Church can make Scripture say anything it wants it to say. There are limits, though it may be impossible for us to articulate these limits in a general fashion.

      Hauerwas (as you might expect) pushes this point as hard as he can:

      When sola scriptura is used to underwrite the distinction between text and interpretation, then it seems clear to me that sola scriptura is a heresy rather than a help in the Church. When this distinction persists, sola scriptura becomes the seedbed of fundamentalism, as well as biblical criticism. It assumes that the text of the Scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense. (p. 27)

      Nor does Swinburne give an inch. Swinburne cites a couple of “difficult” Pauline verses and discusses how they might be interpreted today. He concludes:

      And I re-emphasize that reading the passages in such a way is not saying that that is what St Paul meant by what he wrote. People sometimes write what they do not mean; what they mean is determined by the context, and if the context is the whole Bible as a Christian document inspired by God, the meaning of those passages may be quite other than St Paul meant them to have. (p. 200)

      Later he cites the Song of Songs. If we interpret it literally, it is an erotic love song; but the Fathers interpreted it as a poem about Christ and his Church. He concludes: “The genetic fallacy that origins determine present operation leads us to suppose that we understand the meaning of a text when we understand its literary history. But we do not; what we need to know is its literary context, not its literary history” (p. 208).

      But Swinburne would agree that we begin with the literal meaning of the text.

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  4. Mary Holste says:

    Excellent! This is such a great post. It brings together so many things and expresses the point with total clarity. Thank you, Fr. Kimel!

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  5. infanttheology says:

    Father Kimel,

    Thanks for doing these posts. Helpful for me in thinking this all through from a Lutheran perspective. Here is what I wrote this morning. Proud of myself, as I think I may have finally arrived as a legitimate theologian (in that I can make really long sentences like many of those great German theologians of old : ) ) :

    “In the midst of the regular human act of listening (or reading), proper interpretation of the Christian Scriptures in man’s imagination in these last days is a gift of God given by the Holy Spirit, has Christ as its focus, and no longer interprets particular books of the Scriptures in, to some degree, the light of the contemporary circumstances of the church within the world, but now primarily interprets contemporary circumstances in the church within the world in light of the whole of the Scriptures, as the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to interpret Scripture, in line with the legitimate oral tradition bound by the rule of faith, and attested to by legitimate miracles, i.e. those performed among men by the Triune God.”

    Still thinking all of this through, but you may recall the summary of Chmnitz’s view of the different kinds of traditions, which I have been building off of:

    “The concept of a contemporaneous existence of the Word of God in a corrupted verbal form, and a pure written form, spawned Chemnitz’s explanation of traditiones in the second locus, De traditionibus. Here he lists the first of eight different types of traditiones as Scripture itself, i.e. the things that Christ and the Apostles preached orally and were later written down. Then follows: 2) the faithful transmission of the Scriptures; 3) the oral tradition of the Apostles (which by its very nature must agree with the contents of the New Testament canon); 4) the proper interpretation of the Scriptures received from the Apostles and “Apostolic men”; 5) dogmas that are not set forth in so many words in Scripture but are clearly apparent from a sampling of texts; 6) the consensus of true and pure antiquity; 7) rites and customs that are edifying and believed to be Apostolic, but cannot be proved from Scripture. Chemnitz rejects only the eighth kind of tradition: [8] traditions pertaining to faith and morals that cannot be proved with any testimony of Scripture; but which the Council of Trent commanded to be accepted and venerated with the same reverence and devotion as the Scripture. The important element of this last of the traitiones appears not to be the fact that such traditions of faith and morals not provable from Scripture actually existed, but that their status of equality with Scripture was foisted upon the church by the Council of Trent.” P. Strawn, Cyril of Alexandria as a Source for Martin Chemnitz, in Die Patristik in der Bibelexegese des 16. Jahrhunderts, Wolfenbu”ttleler Forschungen, Bd. 85, Hrsg. v. David C. Steinmetz, Wiesbaden 1999, p. 213-14.

    Just in case you and your readers are interested. The 17th c. Lutheran dogmaticians had really important things to say, but the way they sometimes argued with the Jesuits is unfortunate, I think.

    +Nathan

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Proud of myself, as I think I may have finally arrived as a legitimate theologian (in that I can make really long sentences like many of those great German theologians of old.”

      Sadly, I have the same disease, and I can’t even blame German theologians for it. 🙂

      Welcome back, Nathan, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  6. Pingback: Unleashing the Scriptures?: is Stanley Hauerwas right when he says the American people have become so corrupt the only thing we can do is take the Bible away from them? | theology like a child

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