Truth & Meaning in Scripture

Throughout the modern period allegorical method – which attempts to discern, through typological images and symbolic language, the “higher” or “spiritual” senses of a given writing – has been criticized and finally rejected by biblical scholars as subjective and fanciful, leading inevitably to a distortion or an obscuring of the “real” meaning of the text.10 Narrative criticism, however, and a post-modern approach to literature in general, has opened the way for a rediscovery of genuine allegory and its potential for providing invaluable insight into the deeper meaning, the sensus plenior, of biblical writings. While “deconstructionist” approaches pose their own problems when applied to Scripture, the less radical methodologies of the “new literary criticism” have had the positive effect of uncovering multiple layers of meaning in a biblical passage. Thereby they have enabled us to move beyond the purely literal/historical sense of a given text, to uncover its more profound and more important implications for our own life and salvation.

Where they are most useful, those methodologies bring us full circle, back to many of the insights and approaches that governed early patristic exegesis. It is important to note, however, that they are properly grounded in a hermeneutic principle that underlay all patristic interpretation whose primary aim was to discern the significance of a biblical passage within the framework of “salvation-history,” God’s redemptive activity within the “real” world. That principle holds that any spiritual sense of Scripture must be grounded in and flow out of the literal, historical sense. The Holy Trinity works out our salvation within the bounds of time and space, within the context of history. Any spiritual meaning derived from the biblical witness, therefore, must remain anchored within that history. Allegorical method can often expand our understanding of historical reality by revealing the spiritual meaning of that reality, that is, the presence and operation of the Spirit, who acts in and through it. But where allegory obscures that reality or detaches itself from it, it betrays the very purpose of “interpretation” and is rightly rejected.

The “new hermeneutic” proposes to us methods and goals of biblical interpretation that are similar to those of the great exegetes of the past: Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Theodore, John Chrysostom…. The contributions and enduring importance of those great figures, however, lie less in their exegetical techniques than in their openness to the inspirational work of the Spirit of Truth. That openness enabled them, and can enable any present-day interpreters of God’s Word, to become instruments of the Spirit, as He continues to make known the person and saving activity of the Risen Christ within the Church and for the salvation of the world.

In the final analysis, it is the Spirit who accomplishes the true work of biblical interpretation. By exercising His “hermeneutic function,” the Spirit guides us into “all the truth” by “bringing to our remembrance” all that Jesus taught and all that He embodied. Thereby the Spirit achieves on our behalf the ultimate goal of interpretation: He enables us to participate in Christ, to share in the glorified life of Him who is the very fullness of Truth (John 14:6, 26; 16:13-15)