A Conversation with St Paul: What Does Scripture Mean?

Eclectic Orthodoxy

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…

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

  1. Mike H says:

    Yikes. This post brings out what a tense relationship I have with the biblical writings at times.

    Oh historical critical method, I can’t live….with or without you.


  2. Mike H says:

    I’ve been struggling with how to (somewhat) succinctly communicate my thoughts on this. I could quite literally play several roles and have a debate with myself in the comments section, likely excommunicating myself several times over. “Let Mike be anathema”.

    Quote: ”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. …”

    And what if this is the case – that there is falsity in the “original meaning”, actual scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity? Why not take a moment to let that be what it is, before we start the gymnastics of explaining it away? I’d actually be fairly happy if this could be openly acknowledged (which it won’t be), and THEN we could deal with the implications for hermeneutics and how we think about terms like “inspiration” or “authority”.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Okay, Mike. I have let it sink in. If I accept Swinburne’s claim that the divine meaning of a biblical text is not necessarily identical to the “original” meaning of the text, then that means that I cannot treat it as inerrant, as that is typically understood and practiced in conservative (especially evangelical) circles. Scripture thus becomes a wax nose which every preacher and teacher can shape in any way that he or she wants. Is that your concern?


      • Mike H says:

        Well, that wasn’t my concern – although that’s worth discussing. My concern isn’t so much that people can do whatever they want with the texts (that strikes me as a straw man, as it probably does for you) as much as it is that it manages to neatly avoid any confrontation or wrestling with the hard stuff that perhaps needs to be confronted and rejected, those “original meanings which are often false“.

        It’s easy to look past dead Canaanite children when they’re really just “conquered vices”. This ends up being a nuanced form of inerrancy that has a few additional hermeneutical tools at it’s disposal- not just the historical critical method.

        I’m pretty familiar with the Evangelical Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, and briefly, I think the slopes there are as slippery as anywhere else. My concern isn’t defending that document.

        I mostly in wanted to let that Swinburne quote breathe a bit and to not dodge the “original meaning” even when we recognize it to be false based on the person of Christ. Maybe the falsity itself has something to teach us, and we can let it be what it is.


        • Mike H says:

          And I don’t think this is “Marcionite”. I just think that the OT (in particular) can have value as it is. I think it fairly clear that the OT narrative reflects change, wrestling, and dare I say, multi-vocality. It reflects and models a journey that we still take today, individually and corporately – a journey which we now see as towards Christ, the Omega. But there is difficult terrain to navigate, now just as then, and I don’t want to whitewash that.

          Of course that doesn’t rule out methods beyond historical critical and the “original meaning”. I think it fairly clear by looking at the NT texts themselves that the authors felt free to adapt the text to speak to the present. Yes, they’d get an “F” in Bible class.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Mike, thanks for the elaboration. As a preacher I like your point that we should not too quickly allegorize away the difficult texts.


  3. Cal says:

    This reminds me of Augustine in City of God weighing in between the Alexandrians and the Antiochenes. Why does the allegorical necessitates against the historical? Why can’t one complement the other? St. Paul uses Sarah and Hagar in this way. Just because they have allegorical weight, doesn’t mean they are not real characters, or their historical reality is irrelevant.

    If we are willing to say that the Holy Spirit has brought together these texts, as a Canon for the Church, then why can we not also say that these writers were inspired and enlightened in writing these texts. I’m not saying in some mechanical, dictation style ala. Muhammad listening to Gabriel. But that when Jesus said “Abraham saw my day, and was glad”, that Abraham actually saw what Christ was to do. How would Abraham know? If one looked at ANE, there’s no possibility Abraham would have seen a dead Messiah rising on the Third Day for the forgiveness of sin. But he is also the one who, by faith, received a promised son, born by a miraculous opening of the womb.

    So lobbing the label ‘fundie’ or ‘biblicist’ doesn’t really save us from secular criticisms that we are out of our mind. We still ascribe to a virgin birth, an incarnation of the Creator, and the resurrection of Christ from the dead. These, being miraculous interventions, are not repeatable historical occurrences. Similarly are the inner stirrings of these people who composed our sacred Scriptures.

    We use the expression, “he spoke better than he knew”, and I think that’s worth pondering for this reflection. It’s not God overriding our person when we act in ways surprising and fresh, beyond our normal capabilities, beyond our normal frame of reference. Historical Criticism can never get at this truly. History is never an accurate transferal of the past. The only way over Lessing’s ditch is if the Spirit intervenes. Is it so daft to claim that how the Apostles read the Scripture (as seen in the New Testament) is how the authors intended their works to be read? Is it daft to appreciate that perhaps the orthodox faithfully transmitted it? Can we trust in providence that God has not abandoned His people, despite all our divisions and quarrels? Maybe out of that quagmire, God is conducting His truth ever forward.

    I usually don’t sound so optimistic, but thus it is.



    • Karen says:

      “He spoke better than he knew.”

      It seems to me there is a very explicit example of that in John 11:

      “49 And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, 50 nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad.”

      What Caiaphas meant by what he said in its immediate context is surely different than the statement interpreted as prophecy by the Apostle John, who could look back at the occurrence in the full light of Christ (Caiaphas had a political, not a spiritual, sacrifice and salvation in mind). Similarly, I don’t see anything compelling me to believe that the OT writers intended their writings to be read as anything but what they would have meant to the communities that first received those writings, but I still believe the Holy Spirit inspired them to record what they did for the benefit of those illumined by Christ (Luke 24:25-27, 44-45) who would find in their writings the Spirit’s intended meanings.


      • Cal says:

        That is one example of “speaking better than one knows”, but is there no difference between an enemy of God and a friend of God in knowing God’s will and directive? God gets His purposes done, whether we work with Him or whether we resist Him.

        Sure, historical context is good for setting the groundwork for a text (i.e. form, syntax etc.), but let’s not go overboard. We have plenty of historical figures who historians anachronistically define as “prefiguring” this or that, or are “ahead of their time”. This is all in a purely secular context. Why do we so narrowly limit God’s ministrations.


  4. Cal, I am looking for, and not as yet finding, something in this OP that a sophisticated Chicago defender (eg Vanhoozer, Mohler) would clearly reject. Insofar as they already distinguish the *sense* of a text from the *meaning* of it, saying that the meaning of the sense can reside in the canon as a whole does not seem all that startling. Indeed, the Vanhoozer-Enns exchanges over the Perfect Bible in the past few years seem somewhat more radical. Do your Reformed eyes see anything frightening here?


    • Cal says:

      I’m not familiar with Vanhoozer and Enns duking it at out, so I’ll leave that aside.

      I don’t have a problem with what Fr. Aidan says, especially that catchy “Scripture in Tradition”, at the end. That’s good and true. I am more still smoldering at Hauerwas. I know he’s a rhetorical pugilist, and most of what he says is substantially hot-air. But he reminds me of Paul in Last Temptation of Christ(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaUuSJx-VDA) with his comment that it matters the same what Paul believed about what he wrote as much as it does what Luther or Cyril.

      Except that such a comment borders on insanity. It’s why Hauerwas can do whatever he wants. He can criticize Protestantism, he can laud Rome, he can bellow for a return to a Church with authority. People cheer him. Except he himself belongs nowhere. Because of his fame, he is functionally unaccountable. He is divorced, remarried, and his wife is a priestess. How does that fit with Church history, authority, or tradition? I use to be entranced by his denunciation of the liberal-democratic state complex. I still think he is right to criticize, except he has no real alternative besides a romanticized past.

      I think the purpose of ‘tradition’ literally understood (i.e. passed down) need to gird us. As I mentioned elsewhere, I think the Church, and her Master’s Gospel, is inculturated in many places, but that does not mean a Newman-esque ‘development’.

      So my potential beef/wariness could be summarized:

      1) There is a difference between Old and New, First and Second, as between type and fulfillment. We can’t collapse this hermeneutic difference when looking at the Scripture. The Church has taught us to read thusly. Therefore, Hauerwas can sound like a strong traditionalist while being quite comfortably a good German liberal. I think the intention and voice of the Apostle Paul means more then we seem to be saying.

      2) At some level, the work of the Holy Spirit is a work that is seen by faith. If the historical critical method, prima facia, rules out this kind of particular enlightenment, then the arguments it makes will always be missing the reality. I don’t expect it to do such, but we don’t need to try and escape our claims. It is impossible to prove the assertion that Abraham saw Christ’s great triumph, this would be an endless historical speculation that goes nowhere. This is beyond the tools of historical inquiry, but something we confess if we take Christ at His word. Thus, what are we saving by claiming the composers of Scripture really had no idea what they were writing? We can’t prove that they did or didn’t, but we are chipping away at the personal presence of God in the lives of these saints.


      PS. I am Reformed In Name Only, being a member of a Presbyterian congregation. I would not call my eyes “reformed” 🙂


      • Cal says:


        The reference to the Last Temptation of Christ was in regards to how Paul treated Jesus. Of course, one could debate the significance of this scene in the larger context of the movie. But on its face, Paul doesn’t need the “real Jesus”, only the Jesus he has constructed. Thus Paul’s Jesus is in a whole market place of Jesuses, with only rhetorical strength to back one up. This borders on how Hauerwas uses Paul. The early apologists used an ‘apostolic succession’ argument to defend their own orthodoxy, Hauerwas’ quote throws this out the window.


  5. Mike H says:

    Eric Jobe wrote a post a few months ago on his blog Departing Horeb” entitled “Christians Have a Bible Problem”. It stuck with me and thought I’d post a short excerpt here.

    The Bible, written over the course of over a millennium, displays the natural progression of the religion, culture, and society of ancient Israel and Judah as it emerged in Late Bronze Age Canaan to its near demise in the Roman Empire. Over the course of 3,000 years, a lot of things changed.

    But for some reason, Christians are afraid of the concept of change and maintain that really, nothing has changed, because God doesn’t change. While the latter part of that statement is true, the Bible does record massive and at times even cataclysmic social, cultural, ethical, and yes, even theological change. Contrary to many people’s fears, relativism is not the inevitable outcome of admitting this. It is not a zero-sum game, and we do not need to have the Bible exist according to our own misplaced expectations of it in order for us to be ethical and form a coherent belief system.

    Flattening out the Bible ignores these things and consequentially results in ignoring the Bible itself.


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