Truth & Meaning in Scripture

Between the 1960s and 1970s a significant shift occurred in the field of biblical studies and particularly in the area of hermeneutics, the science of biblical interpretation. Beginning with the 18th century Enlightenment and continuing through the mid-20th century, scholarly interpretation of Holy Scripture relied especially on historical-critical methodology. The primary aim of biblical study was to discover what is traditionally called the “literal” or “historical” sense of a given text: the objective meaning the author(s) intended to convey, together with the circumstances that called forth the writing, the identities of both author and recipients, and the significance of that writing within the communities that received it1.

The shift that occurred during the latter part of the last century resulted from a renewed appreciation of the fact that a text conveys more than a purely literal or historical sense. Benefiting from insights provided by the study of secular literature, biblical scholars turned increasingly to “narrative criticism,” “structuralism” and other methodologies, in an effort to understand more fully the way stories function, that is, how biblical narratives were composed and the way they convey various levels of meaning.2

One of the most useful aspects of this approach led scholars to import into the field of biblical studies what is called “reader-response criticism.” Briefly, this method recognizes that a literary text is dynamic rather than static, that its meaning is not fixed but rather changes according to the way the text is read and the context in which that reading occurs. In this light, a text is considered to be a “bi-polar virtual reality.” This unwieldy jargon signifies that a text is composed of two poles, artistic (the author) and esthetic (the reader), and that both are necessary for the text to have meaning. In other words, a text (a book, article, letter, poem) is never complete – it remains “virtual” – until it is read, and its message conveys to the reader a certain degree of understanding.3

This insight has provided us with a new and useful way of reading the Holy Scriptures. In an Orthodox context, where the inspirational work of the Holy Spirit is taken seriously, it unveils the significance of an ancient hermeneutic principle: that the inspirational work of the Spirit is not limited to the composition of a biblical text but encompasses as well the reading and exposition of that text in the life of the believing community, the Church.

This same insight has also led to a new approach in addressing questions that are often posed by lay members of our parishes who are not specialists in biblical studies but who nevertheless have been nurtured since childhood by reading the Holy Scriptures. Many of them have been troubled by popular accounts of the results of historical criticism, results that seem to call into question the historical accuracy of the Bible and put into question its most basic message. A historical-critical approach can provide very positive insights into the background and circumstances of biblical writings. But Scripture preserves and presents a mystery (mystêrion, sacramentum), since its most basic purpose is to transmit divine revelation. The “quest for the historical Jesus” that preoccupied scholars throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries proved a failure, precisely because they believed that the person and identity of Jesus could be uncovered by applying to the biblical texts methods that had proved successful in other areas of historical research. As useful and even necessary as historical criticism is for deepening our understanding of the biblical writings, its analytical approach is not suited to delving into “mystery.” It cannot deal with the fact that through the Scriptures historical reality constantly encounters transcendent reality: in the biblical narratives, time and eternity merge in a unique way. To fathom the depths of the mystery, that is, to interpret the Scriptures adequately, other approaches are needed to complement the quest for the literal or historical sense of the Spirit-inspired canonical writings.

This leads us to take up the issue of multiple meanings conveyed by the biblical text. In doing so, we want to speak to some of the most urgent questions posed today by Christian lay people. Those questions can be formulated as follows. “What ‘meaning’ or ‘meanings’ does the Bible express?” “Are the stories of the Bible ‘true’?” And “How does Scripture reveal and give us access to ‘transcendent’ realities?”

I. What ‘Meaning’ or ‘Meanings’ Does the Bible Express?

We can perhaps approach this question most appropriately by posing another: Can a reader read the same text twice?

This is an odd question, one that has been asked many times since the beginning of this “postmodern” age. Yet the thought behind it is as ancient as the pre-Socratic philosopher who asked if a person can step twice into the same stream. Now, as then, the answer is both Yes and No.

This is an important question for those who read the Old and New Testament Scriptures, since it provides us with a key to answering other related questions. Just how do those biblical writings convey meaning? And what exactly is the meaning they convey?

Ever since the 18th century Enlightenment, people have tended to become polarized over the issue of reading the Bible. On one side we find “biblical literalists,” those who read the sacred writings as though they were primarily history books that present us with a series of facts and events on everything from the creation of the world (in six calendar days) to the Second Coming (with trumpets from Heaven, a place “up there”). On the other side there are scholars who adopt a historical-critical approach that has little confidence in the historical accuracy of biblical texts, but focuses rather on the content and argument of a given writing, the circumstances that gave rise to it, and its function within the community of faith.

Although these approaches seem to be poles apart, they are identical in one major respect. They both assume that the only real meaning to be found in Scripture is the “literal” one. This is usually defined as the meaning “intended” by the biblical author: the sense he understood and attempted to convey. Biblical interpretation (exegesis), therefore, should concentrate on what the text “actually says.” From this perspective, the literal sense of the text is typically reduced to its “historical” sense: either “what really happened” (in the eyes of the biblical literalist) or “what the text claims happened” (as discerned by historical criticism).

The earliest Christian theologians, however, knew better than to limit the work of biblical interpretation to either of these extremes. Against a literalist or purely historical approach, for example, Origen in the third century asked rhetorically regarding the creation stories in the book of Genesis: “What intelligent person would believe that the first, second and third day, and the evening and morning, existed without the sun, moon and stars…and heaven? And who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, ‘planted a paradise eastward in Eden’?”

This is not skepticism. It affirms rather that biblical accounts often have more than one meaning, and that the primary meaning is rarely what is referred to as the “literal” or “historical” sense.

Therefore Origen continues: “When God is said to ‘walk in paradise in the cool of the day’ and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual event.”4

Nevertheless, Origen, with the whole of the patristic tradition, will see in Scripture historical facts and events as well as figures or symbolic images: facts including the birth of Jesus from a virgin, together with His miracles and His resurrection from the dead. Biblical interpreters of the early Church understood in a “literal” and “historical” way virtually every affirmation that makes up the Nicene Creed. Yet even those affirmations point beyond the literal meaning to a “higher” or more spiritual, more “mystical” sense. They can be understood not only as statements about what happened in history, but as images of what can transpire in our own life and in the life to come.

Accordingly, the Church Fathers often distinguished between several different senses of Scripture. A good example is the way some of them read the Exodus tradition. In this account of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt they found at least four different levels of meaning: 1) the “literal/historical,” which speaks of Israel leaving Egypt for the Promised Land; 2) the “allegorical” or “typological,” which sees Old Testament images (e.g., Moses and Joshua, the manna and rock in the wilderness) as figures or “types” that are fulfilled in Christ and the Church’s sacraments; 3) the “tropological” or moral, which sees in Israel’s journey an image of the soul’s conversion from sin and death to grace and “newness of life” (Romans 6:4); and 4) the “anagogical” or mystical sense, which speaks of the believer’s journey toward eternal glory (“anagogical” means “leading upward”).5

  1. 1 A classic introduction to historical-critical methodology is provided by O. Kaiser and W.G. Kümmel, Einführung in die exegetischen Methoden (München: Kaiser Verlag, 1975), English tr., Exegetical Method (revised ed., New York: Seabury Press, 1981). See also E. Krentz, The Historical Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975); and S. Tofana, Introducere în Studiul Noului Testament vol. 1 (Cluj: Presa Universitara Clujeana, 2000). []
  2. 2 A vast literature now exists in this area. See especially the following earlier works: W.A. Beardslee, Literary Criticism of the New Testament (New York: Fortress Press, 1969); N. Perrin, What is Redaction Criticism? (New York: Fortress Press, 1970); D. Patte, What is Structural Exegesis? (New York: Fortress Press, 1976); P.-M. Beaude, Tendances nouvelles de l’exégèse (Paris: Le Centurion, 1979); R. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible (New York: Paulist Press, 1981); T.J. Keegan, Interpreting the Bible (New York: Paulist Press, 1985); and especially R. Alter and F. Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987). []
  3. 3 Persons and even entire cultures can be treated in this regard as “texts,” but that is a consideration we leave aside for now. []
  4. 4 On First Principles (ed. by G.W. Butterworth, NY: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 288. []
  5. 5 A useful discussion of these various senses in medieval exegesis can be found in A.J. Minnis, “Quadruplex Sensus, Multiplex Modus: Scriptural Sense and Mode in Medieval Scholastic Exegesis,” in Interpretation and Allegory. Antiquity to the Modern Period, J. Whitman, ed. (Leiden, Boston, Köln: Brill, 2000), pp. 231-256. []