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Daniel Treier

Heaven on Earth?

Evangelicals and biblical interpretation.

In mid-September 2011, a conference entitled "Heaven on Earth? The Future of Spiritual Interpretation" convened at Regent College in Vancouver, cosponsored by The Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue. Just a few weeks before, Christian Smith, the renowned sociologist now at Notre Dame, published The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos)—along with, almost simultaneously, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps (Cascade).

Smith's work generated fairly predictable reactions, albeit sometimes from surprising quarters. Meanwhile, the conference papers, though mostly case studies, generated surprisingly high quality conversation. The convergence of the two events challenges us to assess the state of Scripture interpretation in North American churches.

History vs. Mystery?

The conference's Catholic keynote speaker, Fr. Brian Daley of Notre Dame, rooted his presentation in contemporary appropriation of patristic exegesis. By contrast, the Protestant keynote speaker, Kevin Vanhoozer, addressed the church fathers occasionally but rooted his approach in contemporary appropriation of the Protestant Reformation. The rest of the invited presenters—including, in the interests of full disclosure, yours truly—covered a range of biblical texts and traditional figures. Beyond these particulars, though, the conference kept returning to some key issues.

From an initial gathering with Regent students during our airport pickup to question and answer sessions and hallway conversations, there was a consistent theme: how to navigate apparent conflict between modern biblical scholarship and classic spiritual exegesis. Although any school has its unique features, the challenge faced by these Regent students has become fairly typical at a number of evangelical institutions. Courses in biblical studies and (usually) hermeneutics teach how to exegete the Bible using modern tools of critical scholarship, perhaps with a measure of discernment about the presuppositions involved in the history of those tools. Meanwhile courses in theology and (perhaps) pastoral ministry or spiritual life teach what classic churchly interpreters did with the Bible and suggest (to varying degrees) that we should go and do likewise. The challenge of discernment becomes much more difficult as a result: can the students embrace a modern approach centered on historical reconstruction of the human author's intentions, simply making minor presuppositional adjustments that uphold the Bible's historical value and theological authority? Or must students fundamentally embrace a more classic understanding of spiritual exegesis centered on pursuit of the divine Author's intentions, simply making ad hoc use of modern historical tools when these seem helpful to churchly aims?

Of course, these may not be the only possibilities. But feeling confused and caught in the middle—unable to decide between or integrate the two perspectives—tends to be the student outcome when relative newcomers hear the most strongly argued, polarizing presentations of each position. Some Regent students have therefore dubbed the debate "History vs. Mystery"—of which the conference staged a pointed yet charitable version.

Literally Spiritual or Spiritually Literal?

The "mystery" advocates—most (traditional or conservative) Catholics and a rising number of Protestants—rather unequivocally embrace the spiritual exegesis of the classic church(es). They may or may not allow for historically oriented university exegesis to play a significantly informative role in overall judgments about the meaning of Scripture. But they are open in principle to the full range of classic exegetical practices—not least, "allegorical" interpretations—being pursued within the boundaries of the Rule of faith. Within such parameters, correctness of interpretation is not as important as edification, and aberrant interpretations can be winnowed out over time via churchly discernment.

Conversely, the "history" advocates—most evangelical Protestant biblical scholars and some Catholics—believe that true spiritual edification requires correct understanding of Scripture's literal sense. They may or may not allow for meaning to go beyond the intentions of the human author to reflect divine meaning at the canonical level, for instance through "typological" interpretations (a common New Testament practice, e.g., seeing Christ as a Passover lamb). But "allegorical" interpretations are off limits because they obscure or even contradict the message that the texts try to convey at the literal level.

Seemingly caught in the middle are some evangelical Protestant theologians who try to affirm the concerns of both "history" and "mystery" advocates. At the conference, such thinkers tended to face criticism from the Catholic "mystery" advocates over being too historically preoccupied and restrained in their hermeneutics. Yet they nevertheless generated concern among the "history"-oriented Protestant biblical scholars, who feared that elements of "mystery" would override the application of appropriate exegetical procedures.

Such debate over spiritual interpretation provides a slightly different angle with which to view the recent discussion of "theological interpretation of Scripture." This approach, chronicled excellently by J. Todd Billings (another conference presenter) in his recent book and Christianity Today article, initially offered hope for improved interaction between biblical scholars and theologians. Instead, it turns out that the internal variety of "TIS" (along with its critiques of business-as-usual in biblical scholarship) may only increase tension between the two disciplines. The Regent conference certainly highlighted the distinctive unease among contemporary biblical scholars over classic "spiritual" exegesis. In other words, advocating "spiritual" interpretation frontloads the most controversial element of "theological" interpretation.

Many biblical scholars understandably resent what they take to be the implication of "spiritual" or "theological" interpretation: that their present practices are unspiritual or non-theological. In fact, almost no one at the Regent conference defined exactly what they meant by "spiritual," and whether they would primarily attach the term to "exegesis" or "interpretation" (as a practice) as opposed to a "sense" (as a meaning or set of meanings defined in distinction from the literal). Conferees operated with vastly different understandings of the "literal sense"—not just theologically, but even historically.

"Literal sense" could involve affirming the text's historicity in a basic way so as to combat forms of Gnosticism. It could also involve addressing the text's relation to history in a more complicated way vis-à-vis the challenges of modern historical criticism. Or it could deal more grammatically or literarily with "the way the words go," whether or not we go on to address the nature and truth of their historical claims. Biblical scholars can incorporate any of these "literal" sense(s) while keeping the "spiritual" aspects of interpretation focused on the beginning (prayer, presuppositions, etc.) and ends (spiritual formation, ministry, etc.) of exegesis. Theologians more open to "mystery," though, worry that such "literal" interpretation gets wrongly bogged down by modern conceptions of "history." The way the words go raises questions of context—notably, for whom? Simply for the human author, or ultimately for the divine Author?

Moreover, the unit of text for which one pursues the literal sense frequently goes unspecified in these conversations. At least many of the patristic examples manifest a tendency to pursue the literal meaning in terms of what a particular word signifies. If a word does not signify a spiritual thing, or if a unit of text's plain meaning does not seem spiritually edifying, then the fathers tend to find a symbolic spiritual equivalent for each significant word, thereby constructing a spiritual sense for a passage via allegory. But more modern exegesis, in the wake of Renaissance humanism and a host of subsequent developments, tends to find many of the fathers' supposed exegetical problems to be easily solved simply by avoiding wooden literalism. If a word does not signify a spiritual thing, no problem—we have gotten past such vestiges of Platonism. If a unit of the plain meaning does not seem spiritually edifying, no problem—branch out to a larger unit of discourse, placing the smaller unit in context so that it can contribute to a spiritual message at that level. If a word suggests an association with another passage that seems contradictory, no problem—find that a different human author wrote the other passage to make a different point, or acknowledge that words mean more than one thing.

In other words, and perhaps quite ironically, modern scholars tend to insist on some form of single, determinate meaning at the level of discourse along with considerable plurality at the level of words, whereas classic interpreters tended to start with more rigid literalism at the word level while embracing multiple meanings at the discourse level. Meanwhile, contemporary advocates of spiritual interpretation vary on whether to treat the spiritual sense(s) as coterminous with or overlapping the literal (history, or history and mystery); extending the literal to a sacramental, divine level (mystery); and/or even contrasting with the literal (still more mystery).

In short, one of the challenges in understanding whether or how to pursue spiritual interpretation is clarifying what we mean by literal interpretation and what is the unit or object of such interpretation. Both sides ultimately want to honor the literal sense and to have interpretation be spiritual. The question is one of emphasis, or which is the adjective and which the noun. But, that quandary aside, there remains another challenge: who is interpreting.

Democratization and Discernment?

In some ways the argument of Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible is not new. Indeed, the book follows a host of recent attempts to reform evangelical approaches to biblical authority and interpretation. Smith's core claim is that "pervasive interpretive pluralism" renders evangelical conundrums over biblical authority largely moot, for biblicist practices appealing to such authority are dangerously misguided.

Detailed reviews of the book are widely available elsewhere, along with rejoinders from Smith. He complains that reviewers target supposed weaknesses of his constructive proposal in the second half of the book while ignoring the core issue raised in the first half. Whether or not one agrees with the complaint, if we try to honor Smith's request and stick to the issue of pervasive interpretive pluralism, then the question of spiritual exegesis adds a twist. Could it be that interpretive pluralism is inevitable if we democratize spiritual exegesis?

Now the Regent conference gave almost no attention to the identity of spiritual interpreters or their scope of interpretation. "Mystery" advocates do not fear interpretive plurality within the scope of the rule of faith, but make little mention of those branches of Christianity (notably some "Eastern" ones) whose identity lies outside its creedal formulations. "Mystery" advocates also speak as if "the church" over time can distinguish true from harmless and/or dangerously aberrant interpretations. But "the church" is an abstraction, even if a necessary one. Catholic thinkers certainly approach such matters differently in light of the magisterium than do low-church Protestants, for example. Moreover, historically spiritual exegesis (at least that to which we have written access) was largely the practice of bishops and some schoolmen, then later of other clergy and monks, often primarily using a shared Latin translation. The redefinition and expansion of literacy, the production and now proliferation of vernacular translations, the splendid resources for contemporary catechesis yet their lack of use, and so forth—all these factors render problematic the simple replication of classic spiritual exegesis in our own contexts.

Indeed, "history" advocates wind up sharing many of Smith's concerns, despite his rather selective acknowledgment of which evangelical scholars have grappled with the pervasive problems to which he points, and how they have done so. Yet Smith's personal solution—becoming Catholic—goes in rather a different direction from such concern for "history," as does his book's hermeneutical alternative. It is understandable for "history" advocates to think that Smith's appeal for Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture is no solution; both the scholars Smith criticizes and the ones he lionizes have done so. And most evangelical "history" advocates certainly don't go for the Barthianism Smith promotes; in fact, they may legitimately wonder how it coheres with his move to Catholicism. They may even wonder how Smith can criticize certain tenets he attributes to "biblicism" that seem to count as classic Catholic teaching. In any case, the point is that Smith's account of "pervasive interpretive pluralism" seems to criticize elements from the very tradition of exegetical "mystery" that he has just joined ecclesiastically.

A sociological—or, in this case, non-technical and therefore quasi-sociological—gaze turned on any of our church traditions could fix upon fundamental and harmful aberrations that apparently jeopardize any Christian theological authority. Given the sinfulness and just mere obtuseness of "the church"—combined with evangelical defensiveness—Smith's attempt to help can easily be received as selective finger-pointing. But Jesus' words about the log in our own eye and the specks in others' eyes cut both ways. Whether or not Smith's well-intended book has its flaws, we evangelicals need to obey the Jesus of Scripture by asking whether we have something to learn. And we do.

"Biblicist" or not, we have inherited Protestant principles of sola scriptura and the "priesthood of all believers." Never before has a movement tried so ardently to democratize biblical interpretation—to involve all the people of God in such a priestly ministry with and to one another. Unfortunately, in the eyes of most contemporary academics—biblical scholars evangelical and non-, theologians evangelical and non-, and, yes, sociologists—we are largely failing.

The forms of interpretive pluralism to which "mystery" advocates are open were once largely reserved for a spiritual or clerical élite. It is easiest to advocate the recovery of such spiritual exegesis within a church (such as the Roman Catholic one) that sets considerable boundaries for how widespread lay aberrations are likely to be or how far they are to go. Meanwhile, "history" advocates are tempted in return to set up a "Protestant papacy"—to swap a churchly magisterium for a scholarly one. On all sides, though, there are perceptions that interpretive pluralism is pervasive and problematic. It doesn't take sociology to notice that!

I came away from the Regent conference and Smith's book more willing to admit just how bad the apparent problems are. In the course of drafting this review, I have received more electronic and snail mail seeking to convince Wheaton professors of astonishingly loopy (and sometimes dangerous) views about Scripture's teaching on this or that—usually eschatology.

But I also came away more inclined to affirm the goods of the evangelical tradition and to address biblical interpretation with theological realism. If there are distinctive problems with evangelical forms of biblicism—and there probably are, even if it may be impossible to define them with appropriate technical precision—then perhaps that is because evangelicals have distinctively tried to encourage lay reading of the Bible.

The priesthood of all believers is no more right or wrong based on functional aberrations than is priestly celibacy. In theological perspective, the depth or visibility of such aberrations among some evangelicals is distinct from their inevitability in general. We cannot ignore good sociology; that is why I read nearly everything Christian Smith writes. Yet neither can we reach theological judgments by toting up sociological aberrations and simply vetoing some positions, but not others, on that basis.

If members of other Christian traditions, along with scholars as a general rule, object to Protestant democratization of spiritual interpretation in principle or cringe at its aberrant practices, then it is important to address those problems. And Smith's book can help a bit here: no matter how vague some of its nostrums, The Bible Made Impossible rightly highlights warped expectations as the root problem. Lay people and politicized clergy tend to read Scripture poorly when they seek something more or different than what God gives us.

But those of us who cringe along with Smith at pervasive interpretive pluralism—or seemingly pervasive aberrations, anyway—may have warped theological expectations regarding the church's interpretation of the Bible. The church is sinful and humans are finite: we should expect these realities to manifest themselves in scriptural interpretation as everywhere else. It is not as if first we fix biblical interpretation and ideal spiritual growth then follows. There will never be heaven on earth when it comes to spiritual exegesis any more than other churchly realities.

Speaking for Protestant theology, then, moments when heaven and earth touch as we interpret Scripture will only be episodic for now. They will be surprising anticipations of eschatologically knowing as we are known—generous occasions of God's grace. Thus we dare not confuse functional problems (such as evangelical biblicism) with the rightness or wrongness of the scriptural insights animating a churchly tradition. The church is simultaneously justified and still sinful. So, if the priesthood of all believers is a biblical doctrine, then it is incumbent upon its adherents to pursue its recovery in theory and its flourishing in practice. Yet it is also incumbent upon us to take a long view, cheerfully resting in Christ's lordship over the history of his church—even its embarrassing moments when earth seems utterly disconnected from heaven.

Daniel Treier is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of the volume on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.

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