Biblical Interpretation and the Eunuch’s Shadow

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I can’t believe the reaction I’ve gotten to yesterday’s post about the old cliché about “making the Bible come alive.” I’ve gotten some significant response and you readers have got me thinking. So I want to think with you a bit more about how biblical interpretation in the church ought to work.

When I was in graduate school almost 30 years ago, I read an essay by George Steiner that burned down my world as an aspiring scholar. In the quotation below, substitute “interpreter” or “scholar” or “preacher” or “teacher” for the author’s word “critic”

When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostoevsky if he could wield an inch of the Karamazovs, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could shape the free gust of life in The Rainbow? …The critic lives at second hand. He writes about. The poem, the novel, or the play must be given to him; criticism exists by the grace of others’ genius.… It is not criticism that makes the language live.  These are simple truths (and the honest critic says them to himself in the gray of morning).*

At first, I thought, “That’s harsh… a eunuch’s shadow?” I mean, we teachers and interpreters, we “critics” (in the liberal arts sense of the term) are committed to the great texts, like the Bible. We keep people reading these texts, we breathe new life into them for each successive generation… don’t we?

And then I started noticing something. So many aspiring scholars, including preachers who wanted to be serious interpreters, like myself back in the middle 1980’s, seemed less interested in the actual text of the Bible, and more interested in “scholarship.” The preparation for a paper, or sermon, began not with the close, mutual scrutiny of reader and text, but with the generation of the bibliography, the framing of a suitable research question, the need for a sermon idea.

I still notice this. One of the most difficult things I ever do as a teacher or scholar is to get people  to look at the text. To set aside, for the moment, the scholarly theories, the chattering voices of the academy or church, and allow the text unguarded entry into their own inmost recesses of awareness. In a seminar, a student hazards a fresh thought about the text, and immediately someone pipes in, “Well, N. T. Wright wouldn’t go that way…” or “You need to look at that from more of a post-colonial perspective…” I know of one professor who actually discouraged students from devoting most of their attention to simply immersing themselves in the text. Not dissing either N.T. or post-colonialism, or scholarship, I’m just noticing that when someone works with the text, a perceptible tremor of disquiet ripples through the room. Stripped of our footnotes, our presumptions, or favorite preachers or celebrity teachers… divested of our powerful friends, just what are we?

Now, the student of the Bible is in a very peculiar spot. Steiner set out a contrast between the interpreter and the creative author, the originator of the “great” texts. Naturally, we’d rather write a good poem than a commentary on a poem. But with scripture, something else, something more primal, is going on. With scripture a life, a dynamism, inhabits the text that we can never duplicate. We are not prophets. We are not inspired by God. We are not apostles. In fact, our role as students and teachers is to allow the text bruising, intimate entry into our very being, then to allow the grace it conveys to render us transparent so that we can re-present its essence, its life and power, to others. In the end, we don’t want our audience to be attached to us, but to the Bible and ultimately, of course, to the God who gave it and who gives himself through it. At our best, we are honest brokers, match-makers, at most, perhaps even impresarios, but at all times, we are servants of the Word, not ambassadors of the academy.

In his book Real Presences Steiner spins a parable about a “city of the primary,” a place where no speaking or writing or presentation occurs except first-order creation. No essays on poetry, just poetry. Lexicons, indices and concordances, certainly… but no essays on “tautness” or “the triumph of irony” or “subversions of gender sub-texts” or the like. No “academic journalism.” No allowing the eunuch’s shadow to darken or obscure the text. Most scholarship and indeed, a lot of preaching and teaching of the Bible, ends up being just that: journalism. We report what others have seen. We ourselves, though, remain unwounded by the sword of the Spirit.

Which helps me think about my role. I happily confess that, compared to the life surging in scripture, I am indeed, a eunuch. Scripture is the sun,  and, at best, I am a moon. Or maybe an asteroid, or a comet—a dead clump of ice and space dirt that glows only as I am in proximity to the sun. I am a second-order mind, scripture is a first-order reality. However hard I have to work to understand scripture, however wide the net of research has to be cast, and however many exegetical arts I bring to the task, the primary fact in the end must not be the eunuch’s shadow, but the burning light of sacred Scripture, which itself is the source of the shadow’s existence.

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*Quotation from: George Steiner, “Humane Literacy,” in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1967) p. 3.

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I'm 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I've recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

9 COMMENTS

  1. “…our role as students and teachers is to allow the text bruising, intimate entry into our very being, then to allow the grace it conveys to render us transparent so that we can re-present its essence, its life and power, to others. In the end, we don’t want our audience to be attached to us, but to the Bible and ultimately, of course, to the God who gave it and who gives himself through it.”

    Nicely put, Lawson. Ultimately, the goal is not to read the Bible, but to allow God to read us through it.

    I can remember more than one history of biblical interpretation seemingly suggest that in the bad old, pre-critical days, the Bible was mined for doctrine and it is only in the modern, critical mode, that we have rediscovered the original intention of the authors. There is certainly value to the work that we’ve done, but that narrative misrepresents a good deal of what ancient and medieval interpreters hoped to accomplish. But it also offers something well short of the goal you do such a great job of outlining here.

    Thanks.

    • I would, as you would also I’m sure, not want to reduce this to a vapid kind of spiritual formation that functions only in the affective domain or with respect to certain fashionable virtues at the expense of historical, doctrinal, and other dimensions of the text. My point is that if we study scripture, and it leads us to think about highly abstract things, or to ponder questions that seem far-removed from our own spiritual needs, perhaps we should take that as a critique of our failure to follow such matters out. Maybe it is we, not scripture, who are irrelevant.

    • Fred, I also wanted to say that I’m familiar with the kinds of histories of interpretation you mention, but I am also quite pleased at a whole raft of studies and surveys of interpretation through history that are quite sensitive and alert to each age’s peculiar genius as well as each’s centripetal tendency toward the demonic. It’s a good time to study history of interpretation, so many excellent resources are available.

  2. Lawson, you are touching on a very important question within the Church’s self-understanding of its relationship to the Canon. No doubt, you are aware of the long and rigorous conversation throughout her history and the various ways that Scripture’s role in the life of the Church has been construed. You describe Scripture in heliocentric terms which subjectively, seems quite appropriate. Scripture guides in the sense that we apprehend its meaning and that meaning “acts” upon us by shaping our identity accordingly. But the determinate object of our faith is the Gospel which strictly speaking cannot be made into a one-to-one correspondence with Scripture. To what does Scripture appeal or in what way is its own “aliveness” eccentric and second-order? I would plead the Gospel, which historically, found its actuality (as “good news”) in the testimony of the Apostles and the confession of the Creeds (i.e. not in Scripture, to the consternation of many Protestants). I mean simply by this that Scripture is not a codification of the Gospel, but a witness like the rest. The biblical text is a creation of historical accidence, which, if it holds authority for faith, is a derivative authority. To say that Scripture is a first-order reality doesn’t make sense metaphysically, unless you mean “Scripture” as a shorthand way of referring to the antecedent reality to which it is an authoritative witness and our only means of retrieving the Gospel. Scripture does not have a mind, and so it seems to me, that one is required for it to have its effect–whether ours or God’s. I can’t get around the Lutheran emphasis on proclamation as a key idea here for how the Gospel interacts with the Church. We may not be able to make the Bible “come alive” but we certainly can make the Gospel come alive (that is, instantiate its essence as “good news”) precisely by speaking it. While I’ve said these things ‘knowingly’, I mean this very much in an exploratory fashion. I’m interested in your response.
    Kind Regards.

    • I am conversant with the church’s long running discussion about scripture, having taught a PhD seminar on biblical interpretation from the Fathers to the Reformation for many years, as well as publishing a bit on the topic. Still, I am not as confident as you that we have any access to the gospel or to Jesus apart from scripture. The creeds demonstrably arise later in history than the biblical materials, and gain their cogency precisely by their claim to capture the scriptural witness. The defenders of the creeds in their earliest forms argued primarily from scripture. The church of Rome did indeed err grievously in losing touch with the role of scripture, though the excesses of the reformation also suggest caution. Still, there simply is no access to Jesus and the gospel apart from scripture. I also will stay with the claim that scripture is first-order. The statements of early christian writers never claim a level of inspiration that rivals scripture and in fact, stand as humble witnesses to the message of scripture, and on that point, we should believe them.

      • To correct a possible misunderstanding, I do agree that the Gospel is only retrievable from the witness of Scripture. I am meaning to bring out the point that our confessing and worshipping and believing is not in the final sense, a faith in Scripture but a faith in the One about whom Scripture speaks. Scripture does not create reality. Scripture predicates the God who does and thus it too is second-order and descriptive. If it has a creative impulse in the life of the Church, that impulse is supplied to it by the Holy Spirit, perhaps liturgically or perhaps sacramentally. In any case, Scripture is a means to belief and not “personally” the end. God is the end. In the time when their was no Christian Canon (the existence of biblical material prior to the Creeds is beside my meaning), the Apostolic witnesses enjoyed the privilege of judging the norms of the Gospel, not the Canon. How did the Canon become the Canon? Who was to determine whether the candidates for the Canon should receive entry? The Gospel itself was to judge and that preserved and discerned within the tradition of the Apostles. The early Christian writers never claimed the level of inspiration (as you have said, but) because they always believed that they were assenting to the Gospel, confessing the Gospel, affirming the Gospel. They were not adding to the inspiration with a second level of authority, merely agreeing with what they had received (both oral and written) in the audacious claim that it faithfully descended from the original testimony of the Apostles. To this point and as you know, the early Christian theologians were as much concerned with authorship as they were with fidelity to the traditional Gospel message. And so, they were not humble witnesses to the message of Scripture but humble witnesses WITH Scripture and in so far as Scripture facilitated their identity and iterated their faith, also through it. Scripture hands down the Gospel to us, but then the article of our faith is that Gospel of coming salvation–a future event. The text in itself cannot ratify that only describe it. Cannot promise it, only repeat it. Ultimately, what I think I’m trying to say about the Bible is that what makes it “come alive” is the choice of God to relate to us through it (yes, in a scandalously particular sort of way) and in such a way that Scripture without Him (if that is possible) could not perform on its own. Then through Him, I also “come alive” and my own proclamation and assent to the Gospel actually matters and has a critical place in the history of the Gospel’s coming fulfillment.

        • I actually think you have mistaken the role of the early christian authors. I have always been amazed at how they subordinate themselves to scripture. Whether its Augustine and Jerome, or Irenaeus and Origin… they declare scripture to be the oracles of God, given by the Holy Spirit through elect prophets and apostles. They claim none of this for themselves.
          Your statement about “God” being the ultimate is, of course true; but it is also a truism. Theological reflection by grown-ups accepts as very basic that sure, God is different from any statements about God, even statements made by God… unless you mean the Statement that is the Uttered God, the Word of the Father, the Son… to which the scripture is always seen as analogous in classical theological analysis. So I hope we can avoid the old canard, the old bogey-man of “bibliolatry” because it’s a straw man. The Bible, in the human realm of theological method and discourse, is a first order reality. No other source is its peer, and other sources only point to God reliably as they point to scripture. You and I can’t “study God” or examine God. God has given us the prophets and the apostles and told us to listen to these elect, anointed and inspired servants. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets why will they listen to one who returns from the dead?” Also, liturgy and sacrament depend on the word as well. What is most liturgy but the ordering of the scriptural witness toward a regular celebration of the Kingdom? And the church’s first and foremost reason for celebrating the sacraments is the commandment of Jesus, which is found in scripture. Remember also the canon wasn’t created by the church. The canon took shape primarily over centuries (I include, of course the OT) and was the inheritance of the church, which church leaders discerned, but did not finally decide. Thanks for your thoughts!

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