We all grow up in one way or another, even if it’s only physically. Yet with any luck we as rational beings grow in our utilization of that rationality in some proportion to our increase in stature, and perhaps with a lot of effort may far surpass it.
I’m not sure if this is a universal experience, but when I was in college I found that my new-found access to a lot of knowledge led to a somewhat untempered opinion of my own ability to appropriate it. In other words, while teenagers often think they know everything, college students have the class schedule to prove it. Again, I am only speaking for myself, as I presumed that a mere increase in knowing had a direct correlation with an increase in understanding.
Perhaps I am being too hard on my younger self, but in my recollection I was fairly sure of myself and my opinions and positions on things, which no doubt ebbed and flowed according to what I was reading at the time. The papers I wrote I knew- simply knew!- were treatises of such profound insight that the world had not yet been fortuned to see; ah, now everything will be set aright. What a wonderful alignment of the celestial spheres that I should come at this moment in time to bestow upon the cosmos the beneficence of my intelligence!
If my rhetorical flight of fancy may be pardoned, I perhaps was not so arrogant, but there is nevertheless a twinge of truth to this portrait of myself. Time is harsh master, and experience applies the whip to us hapless slaves of this mortal coil, and thus a mere encounter with enough reality is sometimes enough to temper our lofty self-conceptions, at least if we have the humility to acknowledge it. I must confess to still requiring the lash- from time to time- to instruct me in this all important lesson.
This rather roundabout reflection has its point, never fear, and in some ways it brings me back to my college experience. As a religion major, interpretive methodology was an extremely important aspect of our training. And given that this was a 21st century religion department, the interpretive methodology we studied the most was the historical-critical method.
And to be sure, it is an invaluable tool, at least as far as teasing out historical details, appraising context, and trying to peer into the story behind the words on the page. As a young college student I was enamored with the method, mostly for lack of any other alternative. After all, a method which reflects modern sensibilities and concerns has far greater appeal than those of antiquity which just seem silly in comparison. I remember smugly smirking at the bumbling Alexandrians with their (in my estimation) unruly allegorical method, and even wondering how the good, wise Antiochians (who most resembled moderns in their approach, of course) could let equally unruly spiritual readings creep into their otherwise respectable method. It is amazing, isn’t it, how Christian interpretive practices all of sudden found their way once their methods conformed to our particular concerns and predilections!
The irony is that at the time I was absolutely immersing myself in Christian history and ancient Christian writings, especially those of the church fathers who had so uniquely molded Christian theology over the centuries. I must admit that at times it was a struggle, trying to reconcile the theological conclusions arrived at from what I considered to be wildly inappropriate interpretive methods, with no doubt a bit of thinking I probably could have done better. Pride is a heavy load to bear, and instead of the freedom it promises it merely weighs us down and sucks the wonder out of everything. In this manner I could ultimately only hold the things I loved to read and study at arm’s length.
In time I became more tempered in my own estimation of myself and my abilities, though perhaps not yet as much as I should be. It may seem odd to tie such open confession to something as specific as interpretive methodology, but it makes perfect sense to me. After all, an aspect of Christian faith as it has been practiced through its history is that it is not something in which an individual stands alone and is the sole criterion of its legitimacy. Well, in some cases I suppose it is this way, but those who perceive it in this manner often get a heresy named after them. Becoming a heresiarch is avoided when one recognizes that there must be a certain level of submission in the journey of faith, and that one is walking a well-worn road travelled before. The contours and turns in the path are not meant to stifle the imagination or smother the intellect, but rather to give it a direction to walk and parameters in which to discover something deeper.
Otherwise, we would all be tiny life-capsules in the universe, each trying to find our way home without a star to guide us.
But I digress too much, a pleasure I hope does not lodge the reader in excessive tedium.
The more acquainted I became with the interpretive and theological traditions of Christian history, the more I was able to open my mind a little more and both appreciate and appropriate the diversity in methodology, as well as discover how such approaches which were foreign to my modern sensibilities actually afforded an opportunity for insights I never would have had before.
As it related to the historical-critical method, I came to understand that it was an extremely valuable tool, but still only a tool and limited at that; hardly a method which could exhaust the meaning of the Scriptures or necessarily even lead to an insight beyond its own strictures. Pope Benedict XVI in his masterful Jesus of Nazareth sums up with characteristic aplomb what had taken me more than a decade to begin to discover:
For someone who considers himself directly addressed by the Bible today, the method’s first limit is that by its very nature it has to leave the biblical word in the past. It is a historical method, and that means that it investigates the then-current context of events in which the texts originated. It attempts to identify and to understand the past- as it was in itself- with the greatest possible precision, in order then to find out what the author could have said and intended to say in the context of the mentality and events of the time… It can glimpse points of contact with the present and it can try and apply the biblical word to the present; the one thing it cannot do is make it into something present today- that would be overstepping its bounds. Its very precision in interpreting the reality of the past is both its strength and its limit. (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, xvi)
Benedict XVI goes on to relate how this method, because it is investigating human words, cannot actually move beyond that word since
[I]ts specific object is the human word as human. Ultimately, it considers the individual books of Scripture in the context of their historical period, then analyzes them according to their sources. The unity of these writings as one “Bible,” however, is not something it can recognize as a historical datum. (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, xvii)
The unity of Scripture, of course, is something that has been an extremely important point throughout all of Christian interpretive history. In fact, one of the things that I was so struck by in my reading of the church fathers was how effortlessly they moved back and forth between The Old Testament and the New Testament, often teasing out insights that I generally felt were wildly inappropriate, at least as far as interpretive methodology was concerned. It is entirely possible that I simply misunderstood how the historical-critical method operates, or at least was unaware of its limits, but my experience broadly followed Benedict XVI’s critique here. The way in which many of the Church fathers would find theological insights in OT texts apart from the historical-critical context I always found rather maddening. It seemed arbitrary and sloppy, certainly not as sophisticated as the modern tools at our disposal.
And we moderns love our sophistication.
Yet as the critique here indicates, when armed with only one tool the interpreter is left somewhat flatfooted, in that any deeper understanding is necessarily closed off from the auspices of this methodology. This does not invalidate it, but it does implicitly point to the need for another way of reading the Scriptures, a theological means of apprehending the meaning. This deeper insight allows human words to be more than the literal level on which they are asserted and to move beyond the temporal historical accidents of their utterance:
…[It] is necessary to keep in mind that any human utterance of a certain weight contains more than the author may have immediately been aware of at the time. When a word transcends the moment in which it is spoken, it carries within itself a “deeper value.” This “deeper value” pertains most of all to words that have matured in the course of faith-history. (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, xix-xx)
We understand, of course, that in our own utterances we often come to discover that we meant more than we initially intended, or that in retrospect we can tease out nuances that were not immediately at hand or in mind when they were spoken. This occurs even in the mundane world; how much more so for that which is inspired:
At this point we get a glimmer, even on the historical level, of what inspiration means: The author does not speak in a private, self-contained subject. He speaks in a living community, that is to say, in a living historical movement not created by him, nor even by the collective, but which is led forward by a greater power that is at work. There are dimensions of the word that the old doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture pinpointed with remarkable accuracy. The four senses of Scripture are not individual meanings arrayed side by side, but dimensions of the one word that reaches beyond the moment. (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, xx)
To understand the Scriptures theologically is thus something that can only occur when one has a grasp of the unity, not as something imposed from without or posited ad hoc to support a particular reading, but rather as approached from within the central locus of their meaning and intent, which the ancient church understood as Jesus himself:
This process is certainly not linear, and it is often dramatic, but when you watch it unfold in light of Jesus Christ, you can see it moving in a single overall direction; you can see that the Old and New testaments belong together. This Christological hermeneutic, which sees Jesus Christ as the key to the whole and learns from him how to understand the Bible as a unity, presupposes a prior act of faith. It cannot be the conclusion of a purely historical method. But this act of faith is based upon reason- historical reason- and so makes it possible to see the internal unity of Scripture…
“Canonical exegesis”- reading the individual texts of the Bible in the context of the whole- is an essential dimension of exegesis. It does not contradict historical-critical interpretation, but carries forward in an organic way toward becoming theology in the proper sense. (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, xix)
Theology in the proper sense, at least as a product of biblical interpretation, is thus grounded in an apprehension of the unity of Scripture as a whole, which is wholly mediated through understanding Jesus as the hinge upon which both Testaments pivot. This seems somewhat platitudinous, but becomes more profound as one realizes the implications for a theological interpretative methodology. After all, if Christ makes the unity of the Old and the New Testaments an interpretive reality, then not only is a theological reading of the Old Testament texts in light of the New not anachronistic; rather, it becomes wholly appropriate, for the theological understanding as mediated by the unity entails that the meaning of each is found in the same mutual object.
It was within this understanding that I personally began to come to more fully understand and even appreciate the approach of most patristic writers in their interpretive methodology. The effortless movement between Old and New was not an arbitrary flight of fancy, but was rather structured along an hermeneutic of a dynamic internal unity.
St. Augustine’s offers glimpses of how this manifests itself in his understanding of humanity’s fall and redemption. Considering the meaning of the spring in the garden which watered the whole earth in the creation account, St. Augustine takes this in its figurative sense as the life which man enjoyed before his collapse into sin and death. He first of all understands this account’s mention of the “greenery of the field and the fodder” as having figurative significance pertaining to the soul. However, he does not simply arrive at this arbitrarily but piggybacks off of the Scripture’s other uses of “field” to open up and illuminate this text beyond its bare historical significance:
It is usual in the scriptures, you see, for the world to be a called a field; I mean, the Lord himself said, ‘The field is this world, when he was explaining that parable in which darnel was mixed in with the good seed. So then he calls the spiritual and invisible creation the greenery of the field because of its vigor and vitality, and we naturally give the same interpretation to the word “fodder” as sustaining life. (St. Augustine, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, Book 2, 3,4)
Armed with this understanding, he continues to interpret this account theologically, in that since man had not yet sinned he had no need of rain, since the Genesis account also links the coming of the rains to the working of the ground, which St. Augustine understands as referring to the life of man after sin. This spring in the garden, which in his Literal Commentary on Genesis he considers to actually have been a spring, signifies the life of man in union with God, pure in innocence and obedience, unmarred by sin. In such a union, man’s life is not something that he comes to as external to himself, but is rather something he knows internally and naturally. The rain from the clouds will come only when this natural connection to life in God is severed by sin, when man chooses to walk his own road and stray from God’s commands. Man’s toil under the weight of sin is appropriately characterized by work, and the natural way in which the ground is in need of rain illustrates man’s need for grace and life. St. Augustine finds ample justification for such an understanding in Jesus’ own words:
But if only it [the soul] were willing and happy to catch the rain of truth, at least from these very clouds! It was on this account, after all, that our Lord agreed to assume our cloudy flesh and shed upon us that most abundant of all showers, the gospel itself, and then went on to promise that anyone who drank of tis water would come back to that innermost spring and no longer nee dot look for rain from outside. He says, you see: It will become in hims spring of water welling up into eternal life. It was this spring, in my opinion, that before sin was coming up from the earth and watering all the face of the earth, because it was an interior source, and not desiring help from the clouds. (St. Augustine, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, Book 2, 5,6)
Interestingly, even though the particulars of portions of this interpretation (specifically the sense of ‘fodder’ as rendered in the manuscripts) would be retracted later by St. Augustine, one can see how the theological understanding as mediated through Jesus as the center of both Old and New Testaments permeates his understanding and discovers unity between the two. Even particulars are not absolutely vital and can be seen in different ways since the “canonical exegesis” of which Benedict XVI spoke regulates the project as a whole.
But that does not entail that particulars are thus unimportant; rather, they can afford the interpreter deeper ways of expounding a truth contained within the text. If the spring welling up from within signifies an interior source of life, as Jesus indicates, then to have that spring dry up would entail death. Since St. Augustine locates this spring as the life of the soul, its having to receive life from outside of itself (i.e., from the rains) indicates the death of the soul and the necessity of grace. That is, of course, not to say that man naturally has life in himself apart from grace, but rather that he is in a sense cut off from how he is meant to be. Even though he does not expound this here, one can sense the parallel in the story from the woman at the well that he has already referenced in Jesus’ words. She is said to have needed to come back day after day to draw water, and no doubt St. Augustine understands this as an appropriate figure for the toil of sin that can only be quenched by the occasional rainfall which waters the earth.
This sin, however, is like an anti-spring, in that it has its own source in pride:
When the soul was being watered by such a spring as that [the life of the soul], it had not yet “cast out its innards” through pride. The beginning, you see, of man’s pride is to apostasies from God (Sirach 10:12); and since his swelling out through pride to exterior things has put a stop to his being watered from that interior spring, he is very properly jeered at by these words from the prophet, and told: What has earth and ashes to be proud of, since in its lifetime it has cast out its innards? (Sirach 10:9) What else is pride, but leaving the inner sanctum of conscience and wishing to be seen outwardly as what one in fact isn’t? (St. Augustine, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, Book 2, 5,6)
Again, while it is interesting to note that the young Augustine here offers a partial retraction in that he is not entirely sure if he should be quoting Sirach as a prophet or not, it is more interesting that such a retraction does not entail (as far as he is concerned, at least) an invalidation of the principle he is expounding. This is only possible because of the form of canonical exegesis he is performing; his exegesis does not fall apart on the basis of the misunderstanding of one text or one word but is rather built upon the edifice of the unity of the two Testaments and the rule of faith as believed in the church.
This pride is the source of not only man’s fall, but also an impediment to his redemption, if it is not cast aside in humility. In his On The Trinity St. Augustine considers how, much like the false spring of pride in the Genesis narrative, the devil sets himself up as a false mediator:
[Th]e false mediator does not draw one to higher things, but rather blocks the way to them by inspiring men with proud and hence malignant desires to be his associates. Such desires cannot strengthen wings of virtue to fly with; all they can do is load down the soul with weights of vice to sink with, and insure that the higher the soul considers itself to be borne up, the heavier its collapse will be. (St. Augustine, On The Trinity Book 4, Chapter 3)
He noticed this same tendency in his earlier years when commenting on the tendency to blame others for our own sins:
Next, as is the way with pride, he doesn’t plead guilty to being the woman’s accomplice, but instead puts all the blame for his own fault on the woman; and in this way, with a subtlety seeming to spring from the cunning the poor wretch had conceived, he wanted to lay his sinning at the door of God himself… Indeed, nothing is so characteristic of sinners as wishing to put whatever they are accused of down to God. This comes from that vein of pride by which the man sinned in wishing to be equal to God, free that is from his control just as God, being the Lord and master of all things, is free from any outside control. (St. Augustine, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, Book 2, 17,25)
This is, of course, the ‘heavier collapse’ of which he spoke in On the Trinity, the road that leads out of the garden and into the parched land where one must toil in futility and death, cut off from the fountains of life. The same tactic used against humanity in the creation account is used against him still, and all men feel that tug towards pride, that desire to walk their own path apart from God. He states that
For us the road to death was through sin in Adam; by one man sin entered the world and by sin death, and so it passed into all men insofar as all sinned (Rom 5:12).52 The devil was the mediator of this road, persuading to sin and hurling down into death; he too brought his own single death to bear in order to operate our double death… Persuaded thus by a crooked argument we set our hearts on one thing, and the other followed on our heels, condemned as we were by a just sentence. (St. Augustine, On The Trinity Book 4, Chapter 3)
The tendency to pride is naturally also the broad road of which Jesus speaks, the wanting to have one’s own way and thumb one’s nose at God, if for no other reason than to pretend to be his equal. But as St. Augustine relates, weaving back again into the Old Testament Scriptures- “God did not make death (Wisdom 1:13); he himself was not the cause of death, yet he imposed a wholly just death on the sinner as retribution.” (ibid.) St. Augustine understands death not as a vindictive act on God’s part, a petty recompense to somehow balance the scales, but is rather the natural result of those springs of Eden- the life of the soul- drying up, leaving nothing but a parched and barren wasteland. This spring is meant to well up from within, but until the true mediator comes to put humanity back on the right road we must be content with the rains, being grateful for the clouds of grace that come to water the world from time to time.
Moving effortlessly back into the Gospels, St. Augustine draws the entire scope of salvation history into a somewhat throwaway statement in Matthew’s Gospel. When the Magi finished their adoration, they were warned in a dream to go back by another road. St. Augustine sees in this a significance that speaks to the whole of Christ’s salvific action in the Incarnation; Jesus becomes the lens through which the deeper significance of this passage can be brought forth:
Accordingly, we should do as the Magi did when they received a warning from God after the star had led them to the Lord to worship him in his lowliness; like them we ought to return to our own country by another way (Mt 2:12), and not by the way we came. This other way has been taught us by the humble king, and the proud king, adversary to the humble king, cannot block it. (ibid.)
The devil has had his way with man by appealing to their pride; this is the road that has led into death and stopped up the springs of life which humanity should possess by birthright. How fitting that the child who would be born himself bears that same birthright, but even more so is the life itself, having within his very being the springs of life that watered Eden from time immemorial. The first man left the right road to follow after his pride; the perfect man will follow the road of humility which leads men into life.
The Magi thus serve as theological figure for the end of pride and the balm of humility, the way in which salvation comes about in the human heart by submitting to the humble King, the true King. Whereas the devil was able to stop up and block the springs of Eden, he is powerless in the face of Jesus who is the life itself and can overcome the death of the soul which befell all humankind through sin. Jesus recapitulates the drama of the fall by taking the very categories and elements of its perpetration and turning them into the road that leads to life:
So then, into the place where the mediator of death transported us without accompanying us there himself, that is into the death of the flesh, there the Lord our God by the hidden and wholly mysterious decree of his high divine justice introduced the healing means of our amendment, which he did not himself deserve. (ibid.)
The unity of the two Testaments is thus discovered in Jesus himself, and the drama of salvation is seen not only in its linear fulfillment but perhaps more importantly in the timeless application afforded by the theological significance such a unity provides.
It is often a road less traveled, but one that can take you to where you’ve never been.