True literalism

The quotation from Calvin I cited here set me in mind of the equivalent situation in studying the Bible, as opposed to nature, and of a common accusation that “simple folks” make about scholarly investigation of, for example, the Genesis creation texts.

Was it not a principle of the Reformation, they say, that the Bible is equally available and perspicacious to all men, without the mediation of √©lite priestcraft? I actually dealt with the “plain folks and plain meaning” misapprehension back in 2015 here, and Calvin’s words might well be applied to Scripture as a summary of that: as in the case of nature, even the uneducated may read Scripture and see the glory of God (and, of course, find salvation too), but for those who study the original languages and so on “the providence of God being more clearly revealed by these discoveries, the mind ought to rise to a sublimer elevation for the contemplation of his glory.”

It shouldn’t need to be added that God’s intention for such studies is to the higher end of teaching that “sublimer elevation” to the whole Church, so that the uneducated believer becomes increasingly educated (see here for the remarkable way the early Church insisted on its people, even slaves, raising their educational, and hence their social, status), and more caught up in God. Still, it may be worth discussing how the scholar finding the deep truths of Scripture and seeking to expound them for the people – of whom Calvin was a prime example – differs from the mediaeval priests the Reformers condemned for using knowledge falsely-so-called to control the people.

In the Hump piece linked above, I deal a little with the “allegorical” interpretation of Scripture that prevailed until the revolution that was the Protestant Reformation. Strictly speaking, the former method, developing from the late Patristic age, involved a fourfold hermeneutic of the literal/historical, the tropological, the allegorical, and the anagogical. To quote Wikipedia on this:

A Latin rhyme designed to help scholars remember the four interpretations survives from the Middle Ages:

Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia.

The rhyme is roughly translated:

The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did,
The allegory is where our faith and belief is hid,
The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life,
The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.

As I wrote in my article, The Reformers rejected all but the first as hopelessly subjective and hence potentially abusive. Thus William Tyndale:

You shall understand, therefore, that the Scripture has but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, the anchor that never fails, which if you cling to it, you can never err or go out of the way. And if you leave the literal sense, you cannot but go out of the way.

But that did not by any means exclude things beyond prosaic literalism, as he continues:

Nevertheless, the Scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but what the proverb, similitude, riddle, or allegory signifies, is always the literal sense, which you must seek out diligently.

So, the critic may ask, what is the difference between a mediaeval scholar weaving an esoteric symbolism, or discerning a type of eschatological events, from a biblical text, and a modern Evangelical scholar finding obscure symbolism or eschatological typology in the same text and calling it “the literal meaning”?

The basic difference, I suggest, is “authorial intention,” which because it is amenable to argumentation brings such interpretations out of the merely subjective into the realm of “public knowledge.” So for Greg Beale, John Walton or Richard Middleton to treat the Genesis 1 creation as being about a cosmic temple is not simply to have an inscrutable spiritual insight, but to look at the text in its canonical context, to compare similar ideas in the surrounding cultures, to examine how later biblical authors use the text… and of course to reply to reasoned objections from other scholars. If the interpretation passes those tests (and in that particular case it is fast becoming the dominant view in OT studies), then it becomes seen as part of the “literal meaning” that reveals something more of God’s glory, to be passed on to the teachers God has appointed to explain the Bible to “ordinary folks” week by week in the churches.

Here’s another illustration. For a theologian to take the giving of the Mosaic covenant on Mount Sinai as a “type” of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, through anagogic interpretation, is to make a dubious and entirely subjective link.

However, consider the Acts account of Pentecost in comparison to Sinai, as one teacher I know did. In the Old Testament, he pointed out, 50 days after the Passover deliverance, God gave the Law, and 3,000 people perished (Ex 32:27-28). But in Acts, 50 days after the Passover deliverance of Jesus, God gave the Spirit, and 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2:40-41). This becomes a remarkable parallel. The difference between the two instances of interpretation is that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Luke was almost certainly seeing a divinely ordained contrast between these two events, which fits his undoubted theological interest in the contrast between the covenant of the Law in Moses and the covenant of the Spirit in Christ, and he has shaped his account with that in mind.

In other words, the observant reader was always invited to make such a connection, thus knitting the events of Pentecost into the whole canonical “metanarrative”. Neither was Luke acting arbitrarily in making such a link, for the weakness of the Mosaic Covenant, or rather the failure of Israel to embrace it and fully reach their calling, is the theme not only of the Sinai account itself, but of the whole Torah (as John Sailhamer’s work in The Meaning of the Pentateuch richly documents). Luke is giving the answer to the very questions raised by the author of Exodus.

Now, most “ordinary readers”, and a multitude even of academic teachers, might not make such connections without the diligent work of the scholars. But they can surely reap the rich benefits of such work, just as those without scientific training can attain to the greater insights into God’s glory available to the painstaking work of the reserach scientist – at least, if the latter remains aware that his work is as much a ministry to the whole of mankind as that of the biblical scholar should be.

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply