Friday, June 03, 2005

Some thoughts on ‘Interpretative Maximalism’ 

James Jordan is often castigated for his adoption of an interpretative maximalist approach to Scripture. A number of Reformed Christians are far more favourable to the approach of cautious minimalism. I have just finished writing an e-mail to a friend on the subject and thought that I would briefly share some of my (sometimes very) unpolished thoughts on the subject here. It seems to me that the approach of Jordan and others is primarily a movement beyond the idea of hermeneutics as a science to the idea of hermeneutics as a skill developed through character disciplines, primarily those which are forged in the life of the Church. Nevertheless, the hermeneutic adopted by Jordan is not arbitrary; once one has read his works for a while one can generally predict how he will approach most given passages. The concern for hermeneutical method that so characterizes many modern writers is far less pronounced in Jordan. This is not to say that Jordan throws off any constraints to go off on flights of fancy. Rather, he does not appear to regard hermeneutics as primarily a rule-governed science. There are plenty of helpful rules of thumb, but no fixed hermeneutical method will bring you to Jordan’s conclusions. There are also a number of clear constraints — constraints that are not so prominent in many modern forms of hermeneutics — upon Jordan’s reading, among which the following could be listed:— Ecclesial Controls We must engage with Scripture as part of a witnessing community stretched throughout time. The Church has a highly trained ear and has listened to the text for generations. Jordan does not regard his hermeneutical approach as innovative. Many of his particular interpretations are not original to himself either. Such an approach to Scripture may not be the norm in Reformed history, but Reformed history must always take a second place to the larger catholic tradition of the Church. At the centre of the Church’s life is the hermeneutical task. The interpretation of Scripture is a shared activity that we participate in. When we interpret the text we are open to challenge and correction from others. The story of Scripture is a story that must be inhabited. In this respect, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Grammatical historical exegesis alone tends to give the Church an attenuated connection with the story of Scripture. The form of hermeneutic that Jordan presents enables the Church to live out of and be moulded by the text to a greater degree. As John Milbank has observed, denials of symbolic, allegorical or typological approaches to Scripture are part and parcel of the creation of the modern secular order. By denying such approaches to Scripture, the authority of Scripture is put in its place and is prevented from infecting the present world order. The authoritative story of Scripture is no longer regarded as something continually being lived out in the Church, but as something that is closed in the past. The interpretation of Scripture is regarded more as something undertaken by the detached individual exegete than by the historical tradition of the Church. The state, which uses the Scriptures to underwrite its authority, makes the only interpretations of Scripture that really count and relativizes all others. However, if the Church is regarded as called to be the fulfilment and bearer of the authoritative narrative, with the Scriptures being an open reality, with new meaning constantly arriving, as the Church engages in imaginative, typological and analogical approaches to Scripture, the picture of authority and society is radically redrawn. The denial of the modern approach to biblical hermeneutics is part and parcel of the reorientation of the Church’s place in the public square. Theological Controls There are certain material convictions that govern our hermeneutical task. We interpret Scriptures as members of confessing communities. If our interpretation of Scripture does not square with the core confession of the Church, seen in such documents as the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed, we have gone wrong somewhere. We believe that the story of Scripture has reached its climax and fulfilment in the story of Jesus Christ and His body; we interpret Scripture in the light of this conviction. The OT is read as that which bears witness to Christ. Technical Controls Some readings lack support and can be challenged on linguistic, grammatical, historical, or other grounds. Readings at variance with the text in such a manner can be challenged. Narratival Controls Closely related to the theological controls, narratival controls play an important role in such a hermeneutic. The form of typology that Jordan is arguing for is a form of typology that takes place within a larger controlling narrative. This narrative is not amorphous, but takes a particular shape and functions in a particular way. The fact that type and antitype are bound together as part of this one narrative provides a very powerful control on certain allegorical interpretations. The Apostle Paul’s appropriation of Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10, for example, need not be understood as an arbitrary and forced interpretation, twisting the Deuteronomy passage out of its original context. Rather, Deuteronomy 30 already stands in narratival relationship with Romans 10. This pre-existing narratival relationship is presupposed. We only need to articulate the precise character of this narratival relationship. Deuteronomy 30 did not original ‘mean’ what Romans 10 takes it to mean. However, such a typological, narratival approach allows the distance between the two texts to remain. Allegory tends to collapse the distance between events to a degree that typology does not. Paul is not arbitrarily allegorizing Deuteronomy 30, but is giving it a typological interpretation that allows the bud of the Deuteronomy text to open into a flower, when re-examined at a later point in the narrative. Such narrative controls also protect Jordan’s approach from evangelical allegorization of the OT. Many evangelicals seem to regard the OT and the NT as two texts that stand outside of each other and typology as something that serves to connect the two (generally by imposing NT meaning onto the OT). Jordan regards the OT and NT as two texts bound together as a continuous narrative, with typology continually flowing throughout the entirety. Evangelical forms of typology often serve to collapse the distance between the OT and NT, and deny the OT its own voice. Reading many OT passages, images and personages as ‘types of Christ’, the OT text is no longer read on its own terms. This, it seems to me, is more of an ‘allegorical’ than a ‘typological’ approach. Jordan (following the example of the apostles, I believe) pays far more attention to narrative sequence and redemptive historical context than such forms of allegory usually do. Deuteronomy 30 and Romans 10, for example, stand in vital narratival and typological relationship, but the distance and difference between the two texts is retained. It seems to me that these constraints work. Jordan has changed his position on a number of passages over the years as he has engaged in discussion with other people. I have often witnessed people with a similar hermeneutic to Jordan’s persuading each other of various positions in heated debate. Jordan’s interpretations certainly make no claim to objectivity (which is a modern myth, anyway), but they are certainly public and are open to the possibility of challenge on many different levels, even those interpretations that appear the most ‘subjective’. I frequently disagree with Jordan’s interpretations of particular passages, but I know that seeking to interact with his position is far from a futile endeavour, even if there are no clear technical reasons to discount his reading. For Jordan, the proper interpretation of Scripture is primarily a matter of honed sensibilities, more of an art than a science (although scientific concerns are not absent). A deeply analogical (rather than merely analytical) way of thinking is absolutely necessary. Interpreting Scripture is more like reading highly allusive poetry than sterile scientific prose. The text has many sides to it and numerous levels on which it may be read. The meaning of any given text is far more open and fluid than many forms of hermeneutic allow for. The meaning of the text plays out against all sorts of other ‘texts’. Far from regarding the meaning of the text as contained in the text itself, much of the meaning of the text is worked out as the text is placed in relation to other texts. Sparks jump between texts as they are held close to each other. Texts can gain new meaning over time, as they find themselves in broader inter-textual contexts (the Bible continues to speak in new and meaningful ways, which go far beyond their original meaning, in our own day, I believe). Meaning frequently goes beyond authorial intention, as anyone who has told an unintentional joke or has seen irony in a particular situation should realize. This is one of the many reasons why a good sense of humour, an appreciation of music and poetry and a grounding in a rich liturgical setting are far from incidental to the quality of one’s interpretation of Scripture. They are a sine qua non if you want to be the very best type of biblical interpreter. All of these things train us to think analogical and inter-textually. Those who lack such character training are not really fitted to deal with the text of Scripture. The humourless face that fundamentalism often portrays to the world is not unrelated to its impoverished hermeneutical approaches. Such an approach to Scripture introduces elements of ambiguity into many passages that we might have thought that we understood thoroughly. Such ambiguity should not be regarded as threatening, but should be welcomed. The presence of poetic ambiguity often serves to deepen the meaning of a particular text, rather than obscuring it. Allusions, word plays, passage structures, narrative patterns and recurring settings and themes are all things that we need to pay especial attention to. These all serve to highlight aspects of passages that tend to go ignored on surface readings and demonstrate inner-textual and inter-textual relationships that can serve to expose deeper levels of meaning in the text. Whilst many exegetes have been reticent when talking about typology, seldom going far beyond those types which are clearly articulated in Scripture, Jordan believes that typology is found throughout the Bible, not merely in the relationship between the OT and the NT. Typology is not merely ‘cute’, playing just a cosmetic role in Scripture. The deepest meaning of the text is often typological, rather than merely literal. We will fall short of proper understanding of any given text if we do not think typologically. If one does not recognize the Adamic tasks that Saul and David are given in the book of 1 Samuel one will miss much of the meaning of the text. Saul has to drive out Nahash (whose name mean ‘serpent’), for example, and David fights against the scaly Goliath who has terrorized the Israelites for forty days, crushing his head. The inter-textual relationship between Acts 12 and the resurrection accounts in the gospels is another instance of inter-texuality. We should also listen out for common repeated themes. The Exodus theme, for example, is recapitulated in various forms literally dozens of times in the Scriptural narrative. We should pay close attention to the many ways in which these recapitulations play off against each other and differ from one another, even as they are tied together by a series of family resemblances. The fact that Scripture is one continuous Narrative, and not just a collection of detached stories or verses, means that the traces of all other Scriptural stories and images are present in important ways (even though the stories themselves may seem to be absent) in any one particular story. We should allow for such traces exerting a powerful determining force when it comes to our interpretation. Whilst the traces of some stories and images may be stronger than others, we should beware of the cautious minimalism that is scared to follow that which plays below the surface of the text. Often this is by far the most important part of the text. The whispers and echoes of other texts beneath any given text may appear to be so faint that they may just be imported by our overactive imaginations. However, we must actively seek such echoes and allusions and not shrink back from exploring them, as they belong to the meaning of the text. Overcautious approaches will leave us falling short of the full weight of the text. The approach to interpreting Scripture that Jordan recommends is characterized more by various shades of certainty concerning multiple levels of reading, than by an attempt to establish complete and absolute clarity regarding the meaning of the text. It is also characterized by an appreciation that the apparent ‘surface meaning’ is often not the central meaning. The more that we limit ourselves to such a reading, the weaker our understanding of Scripture will become. It is important to appreciate that Jordan does not regard his approach as innovative, even within Reformed circles (he often quotes authors like Vern Poythress, Moises Silva, Klaas Schilder and Meredith Kline, who adopt similar approaches to many passages or to hermeneutics in general). However, many Reformed approaches to hermeneutics have been distorted by the rationalistic prejudices that have so often infected the tradition. Within the broader catholic tradition there are also many theologians who have adopted similar approaches. Jordan is not really going out on a limb here. It seems to me that many of the harshest critiques of Jordan come from those who have little appreciation for any tradition beyond their own narrow strand of the Reformed tradition. Jordan may well be wrong, but he stands in some impressive company nonetheless. It is worth observing the analogies that Jordan and others who adopt his approach to hermeneutics often employ. The act of interpreting Scripture is compared to the interpretation of jokes, music, poetry and the like. Scientifically rigorous hermeneutic methodology has only limited application in each of these areas. Disciplines of character, honing of the senses and analogical patterns of thought are far more important. It is often hard to convey to the uninitiated exactly why a particular argument presented by Jordan is persuasive, just as it may be difficult for the trained musician to explain exactly what he sees in the music of Shostakovich to the man on the street. Only people who have gone through a certain training of character can ‘get’ Shostakovich; the rest of us are left confused. Just as there are many situations that we find humorous, even though we might find it hard to articulate exactly why, good scriptural interpretation is generally more a matter of a refined intuitive grasp of the text, than of the result of a clear and determinate method. Jordan and others argue that this is exactly the form of hermeneutic that we see in the apostles. The apostles would fail the hermeneutics exams in most modern Reformed seminaries. They simply do not obey all the rules. They do not seem to have a clear methodology, although there are definitely constraints on their interpretation to be observed. I believe that the apostles provide us with an example to follow that goes well beyond many of the common Reformed approaches to hermeneutics. The first chapter of Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul is very helpful on many of these issues, as is Jordan’s ‘Apologia on Reading the Bible’ and the introduction to Leithart's A Son to Me.

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