A Conversation with St Paul on Exegesis and Authorial Meaning

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’” (Rom 3:28)? Now let’s suppose that one day you get your wish. You are deep in your lectio divina and suddenly the Apostle appears to you in a vision:

Shalom, friend. Vus machs da? I see you’re wrestling with my letter to the Romans. It’s my favorite. Some of my best stuff is in it. But between you and me, 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 handed them off to the church courier service. 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 cleaning up 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’ formula 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 a couple crucial points. Too bad he didn’t spend some time with the homilies of one of my favorite saints, John Chrysostom. Anyway, 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 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)

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‽ Nobody told me that when I was in seminary. This conflicts with everything I learned back then. We were taught that identifying the historical-critical meaning of the text was the all-essential point of exegesis. First we learn what the biblical author meant when he wrote what he wrote, and then we guess, using all of our brilliance and wisdom (possessed by seminarians and clergy in supernatural abundance), how his 2,000 year-old meaning applies to our congregation. But biblical interpretation, says Hauerwas, is more complicated than that. Historical exegesis is only the first step. By their incorporation into the anthology we call Bible, the epistles of the Apostle Paul must now be interpreted in relation to the community that reads–and indeed performs–this anthology as Scripture. A decisive change of literary, social, theological and kerygmatic context has occurred. We can no longer treat Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as if it is a stand-alone historical document. Not only must it be interpreted within the Pauline corpus (as any literary critic might do); but it must also be interpreted as belonging to one book whose purpose is to form and build up the Church of Jesus Christ, not only the Church in the first century but also in the fourth, eleventh, sixteenth, and twenty-first centuries.

Historical meaning is now comprehended within canonical meaning comprehended within ecclesial and evangelical 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 authorial meaning of a given biblical passage is identical to the meaning God intends it to enjoy in the Church today, at this moment. “We may hanker,” Richard Swinburne pointedly observes, “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). For this reason the meaning that Paul historically intended in Romans 3:28 may not be decisive and final. Again Swinburne: “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 these passages may be quite other than St Paul meant them to have” (p. 200). What we need to know to properly interpret a biblical text is not its literary history but its literary context, and that context is the Church.

The acid test is the Song of Songs. Back in the 90s I led a Bible Study at a diocesan clergy retreat, using Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary as my guide. Afterwards, several of the priests came up to me and told me how interesting and helpful it had been for them. We all agreed that new vistas of interpretation for preaching and devotion had been opened up for us, yet several also expressed concern with what they viewed as Gregory’s spiritual eisegesis.

Simple fact: the Song of Songs was admitted into the canon because it was seen as a love story between God and his people.

In the end, for someone who longs to interpret the Bible in terms of the ‘original meaning’ of its books, there is always one acid test of whether this is a reasonable construal of the Bible as canonized and promulgated as a Christian book by the Church of early centuries: how do you interpret the Song of Songs? It is ludicrous to suppose that any Church Father, even the most ‘literal-minded’ one, would have supposed that its meaning was its meaning as a book on its own. On its own it is an erotic love poem. They would all have said that its meaning was to be understood in terms of its place in a Christian Bible. Just as the rabbis had interpreted it as concerned with God’s agapeistic love for the old Israel, so now the Church Fathers normally interpreted it as concerned with God’s (or perhaps Christ’s) love for Israel, new (the Church) as well as old. Even those Church Fathers who protested against the allegorical interpretations of other passages interpreted allegorically here and no doubt in some other places as well. There is no justification whatever for them or us to regard the Song as a special case; whatever rules apply to it apply generally. 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. (Swinburne, pp. 207-208)

So how do we discern and preach the ecclesial 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 creatively reading the Bible in ways that might perhaps horrify biblical scholars. 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. (p. 206)

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 and perform the writings of the Old and New Testaments as Scripture, then we must also be willing to interpret them according to the hermeneutics of that same early Church. We cannot restrict ourselves to the historical-critical reading of the Bible. 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 Orthodox 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.

I know that my Protestant friends will immediately cry out, “You have made Scripture into a wax nose! You can twist it into any shape you choose. This is nothing but the sanctioning of eisegesis.” The objection has an initial plausibility, until one admits the many conflicting interpretations produced by the historical critics over the past few centuries. But more importantly, the objection ignores the difference between reading a text as historical artifact and reading it as Holy Scripture. Hauerwas offers these harsh words against who contend that historical-critical exegesis provides an objective and secure foundation for faith:

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 … God certainly uses Scripture to call the Church to faithfulness, but such a call always comes in the form of some in the Church reminding others in the Church how to live as Christians—no text can be substituted for the people of God. (pp. 27-28)

In the community that lives by faith and Holy Spirit, the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis evaporates.

(11 November 2013; substantially revised)

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12 Responses to A Conversation with St Paul on Exegesis and Authorial Meaning

  1. noblethemes says:

    Spot on, Fr. Aiden! Thank you!


  2. danaames says:

    Indeed. Scripture has always meant a great deal to me; as a pious child I asked for a bible for my 6th birthday and received one – the old Douay Confraternity version, ’cause that’s all that was available as a Catholic bible at the time (thus my age shows). I left RC because the interpretation of Scripture by my Evangelical friends made better sense to me. That interpretive framework collapsed when I was in my 40s and had lived life a bit longer. But in searching for a direction to go, I was not willing to leave the bible behind, or hitch my wagon to a group that wanted to ignore it or bend it beyond recognition. I knew I needed a better interpretation than all of that.

    So I decided to go back and listen to the historical context, which Evangelicalism pretty much ignores – NT Wright was a great help for me – and from there I was led to the context of the Church. I’m grateful. It’s not enough simply to know the words. As Noel Paul Stookey wrote in a song, “If you get the message, you might refuse it; but if you get the meaning, hey, don’t ever lose it – if you get the meaning, oh, of it all…”


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Steven says:

    Fr. Kimel,
    Do you agree with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church to the effect that divine authorial intention always includes human authorial intention (DV 11-12), even if it also surpasses this? Do you think what Hauerwas says in this is compatible with the Roman Catholic perspective?


  4. SF says:

    Near the end you mention the “many conflicting interpretations produced by the historical critics over the past few centuries” and therefore the necessity of reading Biblical texts as Holy Scripture in the Church.

    But by and large, patristic/ecclesiastical interpretation is no more unified than modern critical interpretation. In fact, about the unifying factor we find here is the initial presumption that the Biblical texts must be *true*, no matter how high the interpretive cost in order to make it so. But even this barely yields any agreement as to specific meanings, other than just vague generalities.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Christians and non-Christians can of course argue about and often come to agreement about the grammatical-historical meaning of a specific text; but they cannot argue about its theological and ecclesial meaning, as the non-Christian operates outside the grammar and praxis of the Christian faith.


  5. villanovanus says:

    How about admitting that Paul simply was wrong, in his polemic with James?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Or maybe both were right in their particular historical contexts.


      • SF says:

        Well, everything suggests that Paul thought James, in basically his entire theological outlook — or certainly a major aspect of it — wasn’t acting consistently with the truth of gospel. I suspect James thought similarly about Paul. It’s hard to reconcile this.


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