Cover page

Table of Contents


Directions in Modern Theology Book Series

Title page

Copyright page

Introduction: Spiritual Interpretation and Realigned Temporality

Temporality, Participation, and Spiritual Exegesis

Temporality in Francis Martin, Joseph Ratzinger, and Denis Farkasfalvy


Part I: Reading the Fathers

1 “In Many and Various Ways”: Towards a Theology of Theological Exegesis

I. Oral Traditions

II. Interpretation and Theology

III. The Meaning of the Whole

IV. Multiple Meanings?

V. Some Principles

2 “There’s Fire in That Rain”: On Reading the Letter and Reading Allegorically




3 Origen Against History? Reconsidering the Critique of Allegory

I. Introduction

II. Origen Against History (Part I)

III. Origen Against History (Part Two)

IV. Origen Against History (Part Three)

V. Conclusion

4 “This Is the Day Which the Lord Has Made”: Scripture, Manumission, and the Heavenly Future In Saint Gregory of Nyssa

Manumission in Annisa

Slavery and the Image of God

Slavery and the Resurrection


Part II: Reading Scripture

5 Imperial Lover: The Unveiling of Jesus Christ in Revelation

I. “In the Spirit”

II. Jesus the Lover

III. Son of Man and Ancient of Days

IV. Conclusion: The Political Theology of Revelation

6 Translation and Transcendence: The Fragile Future of Spiritual Interpretation

Translation and Motive

Sacral Language and Divine Names

Piety Without Poetry

Translation and Worldview

Translation and Spiritual Interpretation

A Final Note on Translation

7 Readings on the Rock: Typological Exegesis in Contemporary Scholarship

I. Richard B. Hays: Typological Imagination and the Church’s Practices

II. Peter Enns: Historical Criticism and the Meaning of the Old Testament

III. Peter Leithart: Typology and the Fabric of History

IV. Conclusion

Part III: Reading in Contemporary Context

8 The Self-Critique of the Historical-Critical Method: Cardinal Ratzinger’s Erasmus Lecture

1. What is Dearest to Us?

2. Clarifying the Geography of the Conflict

3. Three Aspects of Greek Logos

4. The Denial of Greek Logos: Islam, Scotus, Ockham, Bacon, and Descartes

5. The Choice of Mechanics

6. Three Consequences

7. The Challenge of the Regensburg Lecture

9 Profiling Christ: The Psalms of Abandonment

1. Introductory: Profiling

2. Realism vs. Symbolism in Biblical Exegesis

3. Liturgy: Why the Psalms are a Specific Case

4. Symbolic Reading as Montage

5. Symbolic Reading of the Psalms: Merton on the Totus Christus

6. The Dynamism of the Psalms

10 Reading the Book of the Church: Bonhoeffer’s Christological Hermeneutics

1. Introduction: The Legitimacy of Theological Interpretation

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Hermeneutic

3. Reading the Bible as the Book of the Church

4. Conclusion: The Sacrament of the Word

11 “Ascending the Mountain, Singing the Rock: Biblical Interpretation Earthed, Typed, and Transfigured”

I. Introduction: Does Evangelical Protestantism Rest Upon a Mistake?

II. Sexting the Song: “Earthing” Biblical Interpretation

III. Singing the Rock: “Typing” Biblical Interpretation

IV. Can Evangelicals Sing the Rock? Ressourcing the Reformers

V. Ascending the Mount: “Transfiguring” Biblical Interpretation

VI. Concluding Ontological Postscript: “If Anyone Knows Why These Two Should Not Be Wed . . . ”


Directions in Modern Theology Book Series

Born out of the journal Modern Theology, the Directions in Modern Theology book series provides issues focused on important theological topics and texts in current debate within that discipline, whilst looking at broader contemporary topics from a theological perspective. It analyses notions and thinkers, as well as examining a wide spectrum of “modern” theological eras: from late Medieval through to the Enlightenment and up until the present “post-modern” movements. Attracting distinguished theologians from a world-wide base, the book series develops what is a unique forum for international debate on theological concerns.

Titles in the series include:

Heaven on Earth? Theological Interpretation in Ecumenical Dialogue
Edited by Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering
Faith, Rationality and the Passions
Edited by Sarah Coakley
Re-thinking Dionysius the Areopagite
Edited by Sarah Coakley and Charles M. Stang
The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning
Edited by David Ford and C. C. Pecknold
Aquinas in Dialogue: Thomas for the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Jim Fodor and Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt
Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa
Edited by Sarah Coakley
Theology and Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium
Edited by L. Gregory Jones and James Buckley
Catholicism and Catholicity: Eucharistic Communities in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
Edited by Sarah Beckwith, L. Gregory Jones and James J. Buckley
Theology and Scriptural Imagination: Directions in Modern Theology
Edited by L. Gregory Jones and James Buckley
Spirituality and Social Embodiment
Edited by L. Gregory Jones and James Buckley
Title page

Introduction: Spiritual Interpretation and Realigned Temporality

Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering

The current scholarly trend of increased attention to spiritual or theological interpretation of Scripture shows few signs of abating. Both by way of underlying hermeneutical reflection and in terms of biblical commentary, historical-critical interpretation appears to be on the wane as the dominant mode of biblical scholarship. The articles that comprise this special issue of Modern Theology are written in the conviction that this renewed attention to spiritual interpretation not only represents a positive re-appropriation of earlier modes of exegesis but also offers renewed opportunity for ecumenical dialogue, in particular between Catholics and evangelicals. While historical exegesis has impacted both Catholic and evangelical biblical scholarship, it is nonetheless possible to discern differences between the two traditions. Within the Catholic Church, spiritual interpretation has always had a privileged position, and arguably the development of doctrine within Catholicism (including at the earliest Councils) depends in part on the conviction that historical exegesis does not provide exhaustive insight into the meaning of Scripture. Evangelicals, partially out of concern with controls for a proper guidance of doctrinal development, have tended to be more reticent with regard to spiritual exegesis, and can at times be quite critical about patristic and medieval approaches to biblical interpretation. Since the renewed focus on theological interpretation cuts across traditional ecclesial divides, however, it has become necessary for Catholics and evangelicals to enter into conversation both about what spiritual or theological interpretation should and should not look like and about possible doctrinal implications that this renewed focus may have for the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals.

These considerations were the reason for the authors of this introductory article—at the same time co-directors of the Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue (—to organize a conference at Regent College in Vancouver in September of 2011 on the theme of “Heaven on Earth? The Future of Spiritual Interpretation.” This conference, the result of a Lilly Research Grant of the Association of Theological Schools, brought together Catholic and evangelical scholars in ecumenical discussion about the question of whether the recent flourishing of theological interpretation represents some sort of “heaven on earth” or whether we ought to be aware also of shadow sides to this recent trend. Further, since these developments raise important questions about the relationship between historical and spiritual meaning—as well as between nature and the supernatural, reason and faith, and earthly and heavenly realities—the conference theme conveys a double entendre, raising explicitly the most intriguing issue at stake in the question of theological interpretation.

In this introductory article, we want to offer some initial reflections on the topic of spiritual interpretation. We will focus, however, not on the spatial categories of “heaven” and “earth” but on the question of time. We have become convinced that the way in which we evaluate the relationship between historical and spiritual exegesis not only depends on our understanding of the relationship between heaven and earth but also has to do with how we understand temporality. In particular, it seems to us that when we look at time not just in chronological but also in sacramental fashion, patristic approaches to spiritual interpretation become intelligible. The first part of our article will show how this functions in the pre-modern Christian distinction between “secular time” and “higher time.” In the second part of this article, we will make clear that, in their discussions of the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum, various theological voices have recently appealed to a similar sacramental understanding of time in defence of spiritual exegesis.1

Temporality, Participation, and Spiritual Exegesis

Time, for the premodern mindset, was not simply a strictly chronological affair. Charles Taylor, in his book, A Secular Age, draws a distinction between “secular time” and “higher time.”2 Secular time, Taylor maintains, is something we can also refer to as “ordinary time,” seeing that the word “secular” is derived from the term saeculum, meaning “century” or “age.” “People who are in the saeculum,” explains Taylor, “are embedded in ordinary time, they are living the life of ordinary time; as against those who have turned away from this order to live closer to eternity. The word is thus used for ordinary as against higher time. A parallel distinction is temporal/spiritual. One is concerned with things in ordinary time, the other with the affairs of eternity.”3 Secular or ordinary time, in other words, refers to the basic chronological progression of temporal events, whereas higher time has to do with the eternal, unchanging realm of eternity, which Europe had inherited from Plato and Greek philosophy.

Taylor then makes the crucial move of insisting that the notion of “higher time” enabled various chronological moments in “secular time” to be linked to each other. Taylor mentions the example of the sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Christ as two moments in secular time that are somehow linked together or, we could almost say, become contemporaneous:

Now higher times gather and re-order secular time. They introduce “warps” and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events which were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked. Benedict Anderson in a penetrating discussion of … some of the same issues I am trying to describe here, quotes Auerbach on the relation prefiguring-fulfilling in which events of the Old Testament were held to stand to those in the New, for instance the sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Christ. These two events were linked through their immediate contiguous places in the divine plan. They are drawn close to identity in eternity, even though they are centuries (that is, “aeons” or “saecula”) apart. In God’s time there is a sort of simultaneity of sacrifice and Crucifixion.4

The “simultaneity” of two chronologically distinct moments in time is a remarkable feature of premodern Christianity. And it is no coincidence that Taylor uses the example of the sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Christ. Somehow, it appears, the two sacrifices are joined together at a “higher time,” in eternity.5 Two historical events, one of which we could describe as Old Testament type and the other as New Testament antitype are linked and become simultaneous because together they participate in the “higher time” of God’s eternity.

This distinction between secular and higher time had obvious and significant implications for the interpretation of Scripture. The typological and allegorical exegesis of the church fathers generally did not result from an arbitrary imposition of alien meanings onto the biblical text, so as to avoid its more obvious historical meaning. Rather, premodern theological or spiritual interpretation resulted from the conviction that Old Testament events occurring in “ordinary time” were contiguous with (in fact, in an important sense, linked in with) their Christological fulfillment in the New Testament. This connection resulted from the fact that both events were linked in the providential rule of God in eternity. We have described this participatory understanding of time elsewhere as follows: “When history is understood as a participation in God, the words and deeds depicted in John’s Gospel take on what for Christians is recognizable as their true and deepest meaning. Jesus Christ constitutes the center of linear and participatory history as the incarnate Word, the one Mediator, in whom human beings receive the Holy Spirit and are led to the Father.”6 Participatory exegesis assumes that chronologically disparate events participate, in and through the Christ event, in the “higher time” of eternity itself.

Charles Taylor rightly points to St. Augustine as an example of an exegete who recognizes that “all times are present to [God], and he holds them in his extended simultaneity. His now contains all time.”7 Augustine, however, is not the only one for whom time functioned in this manner, and for whom, as a result, exegesis both distinguished and linked historical and spiritual levels of meaning. We find much the same in several places in Gregory of Nyssa’s writings. We will restrict ourselves to just one example. In his Easter homily De tridui spatio (On the Three-day Period), Gregory depicts for us the neophytes entering the church, each of them holding a burning candle. St. Gregory maintains that the light of the many candles is derived from the one light of Christ himself. The one light of Christ thus sheds its light forward to the many lights of the neophytes. As he reflects on the many Old Testament passages that foreshadow this one light of Christ, Nyssen maintains that they, too, function like many little candles that derive their light from the Christ candle himself. Thus, the one light of Christ also sheds its light backward to the many lights of the Old Testament Scriptures. Comments Gregory: “And just as in the scene before our eyes one light blazes about our vision, though constituted by a multitude of candles, so the whole blessing of Christ, shining by itself like a torch, produces for us this great light compounded from the many and varied rays of scripture.”8 It appears that for Gregory, both the many lights of Old Testament history and the many lights of today’s neophytes participate in Christ, while in and through him they participate in the “higher time” of the eternal light of God’s providential life.

Temporality in Francis Martin, Joseph Ratzinger, and Denis Farkasfalvy

In their discussions of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, several contemporary theologians present understandings of time that are remarkably similar to that of Gregory of Nyssa. The biblical scholar Francis Martin credits his fifteen years in a Cistercian Monastery with giving him the awareness that “the native home of Scripture is the Liturgy.”9 Martin, like Gregory, in convinced that saving realities revealed in Scripture continue to be present today in a way that strictly time-bound realities could not be. Drawing upon a range of thinkers, including Henri de Lubac and Matthew Lamb, Martin proposes thinking of history in terms of “temporality” and thus of presence.10 He notes that modern historiography conceives of time solely as a succession of moments, whereas from a more biblical perspective Augustine argues that time is a participation in infinite presence: “Temporality, the proper mode of creation’s existence, is not just succession; it is succession with the dimension of presence.”11 Martin’s claim is that when time is understood as “temporality” in Augustine’s biblical sense, the saving mystery can be seen to be intrinsic to the event that occurs in history.

What about historical-critical reconstructions that seek to move behind the biblical text in order to explore critically the text’s historical referents (or lack thereof)? Indebted to his teacher Luis Alonso-Schökel, Martin finds these reconstructions to be valuable, so long as one recognizes that the biblical authors’ narrative techniques are the means by which the Holy Spirit enables humans to interpret the actions of God in history. These narrative techniques disclose the mystery in the event, the way in which the temporal reality participates in God’s infinite presence. Martin observes that it is this relationship between word and event that Dei Verbum describes as follows: “This economy of Revelation is realized by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other. As a result, the works performed by God in the history of salvation show forth and bear out the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain.”12

On this view, historical-critical reconstructions can illumine the biblical text but cannot, if interpretation is to succeed, become a norm that displaces the biblical text. Historical reconstruction can set forth hypotheses about the temporal progression but cannot (unlike the inspired narrative) mediate understanding of temporality’s presence to God. This is all the more the case when the temporal moment involves the Word incarnate, the Creator of all things who sustains all things by his presence and who guides all things by his providence, and whose actions thereby constitute the very center of history.13

The approach taken by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) moves along lines quite similar to Martin’s. Ratzinger describes Dei Verbum as “a decisive step forward” in terms of the relationship between theology and historical-critical method in Catholic biblical interpretation.14 Agreeing with Dei Verbum §12, he argues for the necessity of the historical-critical method, especially since the historicity of God’s saving work is a central claim of the Christian faith. At the same time he notes that the historical-critical method, given its understanding of history as a succession of temporal moments with no metaphysical or providential relationship to God, must leave the history that it seeks to reconstruct strictly in the past. Although it can demonstrate the intra-biblical exegesis that relates the texts to each other, the historical-critical method cannot defend the unity of the diverse texts as one “Bible.” In the ability of biblical words to be appropriated by later biblical authors, Ratzinger identifies an openness of the words themselves to a fulfillment or deeper value unknown to the original authors. This openness of the words corresponds to the openness of the community in which they were written: the people of God journeys forward in faith, and the sacred writings live within this community of believers. The words have their full, trans-historical meaning within the presence of God to his people and of his people to God.

In an earlier essay, Ratzinger argues that the modern understanding of history as “pure facticity, which is composed of chance and necessity,”15 needs to be augmented by a metaphysical understanding of time as participating in God’s eternity, with a resulting openness to providential teleology and to analogous relationships between past, present, and future events. Indebted to Thomas Aquinas, he finds that this understanding of history allows for God’s action (above all God’s action in Christ) to be recognizable as “the principle of the intelligibility of history.”16 Given this understanding of history, one can affirm in faith that “the deeds that occurred in the Old Testament have their basis in a future deed.”17 Among other things, this perspective unites word and event as participating in God’s creative and providential work and thus recovers the teleological unity of Scripture with Christ at the center.

Indebted to Brevard Childs’s canonical exegesis, Ratzinger envisions two phases of interpretation, the first of which seeks to understand the texts’ ancient near-Eastern contexts, while the second of which locates the texts within “the entire historical movement and in terms of the central event of Christ.”18 Without openness to completion in the second phase, the first phase of interpretation—which, it should be noted, cannot prescind from metaphysics—can see only parts rather than the whole. The exegete of the Bible, which is a whole, does not therefore “occupy a neutral position above or outside the history of the Church.”19

A third significant contemporary effort to develop the insights of Dei Verbum for Catholic biblical exegesis comes from Denis Farkasfalvy. Citing Oscar Cullmann, he remarks that “[t]he literary heritage of the apostolic Church represented by the books of the New Testament is so closely and organically related to the Eucharist that one is entitled to state that all New Testament Scripture has a Eucharistic provenance.”20 The Gospels were written and proclaimed within the context of early Christian worship, as believers assembled to hear about Jesus and to share in table fellowship with him through the breaking of the bread. In this way, the encounters with Jesus depicted in the Gospels extend to the community of believers. Jesus is the one who comes and who is coming, not only to persons in his earthly life but now eucharistically to believers. Farkasfalvy also argues for the liturgical framework of the Book of Revelation, which he links with the Resurrection appearances presented in the Gospel of John. The Book of Revelation confirms the New Testament’s emphasis on “the coming of God in the coming of Jesus, both complete and to be completed,” an emphasis that locates interpretation of the texts within the eucharistic task of building up the Church in relationship to the Lord.21


Several conclusions may be drawn from the above reflections. First, each of the authors discussed holds that from a Christian viewpoint, one cannot limit a proper understanding of time to a purely linear, chronological progression. God’s providential action in history—and particularly in Jesus Christ—opens up spiritual registers that are not limited to a purely historical progression of events. Second, several of the authors reviewed above point to the liturgy as the event through which time is opened up, as it were, to a deeper dimension. Or, to put it in terms of the conference theme, it is particularly through the liturgy that heaven impinges on earth, and that earthly, historical events can be said to participate in heavenly realities. Third, the implication of such an understanding of time would appear to be that historical exegesis is incomplete when the Christological, spiritual dimensions of historical events are ignored. Spiritual exegesis, then, is founded on the conviction that the biblical events recorded in Scripture find their climax and true reality in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is in him that heaven and earth are truly joined together.

Of course, in developing this argument, we are not speaking on behalf of the authors of this issue of Modern Theology. As the various articles will make clear, while each of the authors supports spiritual interpretation in one form or another, they do not all arrive at their respective positions in the same way, and differences remain about what constitutes legitimate theological exegesis. Nonetheless, it is our hope that by reflecting on the notion of temporality in Gregory of Nyssa and various contemporary theologians, we have presented an approach to temporality that offers a potentially fruitful way of dealing with spiritual interpretation.

With respect to the articles that follow in this issue, we will be brief. We have asked five Catholics (Lewis Ayres, Brian E. Daley, Matthew Levering, Francesca A. Murphy, and Michael Maria Waldstein) and six evangelicals (Hans Boersma, David Lyle Jeffrey, Peter J. Leithart, Peter W. Martens, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Jens Zimmermann) to contribute an article on the topic of spiritual interpretation. Part I (“Reading the Fathers”) deals with patristic exegesis. Brian Daley argues from a broad-ranging discussion of patristic authors that while we are to take original authorial intent as the starting-point and guide for our exegesis, we are to look also for the greater depth of history, which is rooted in God’s reality, comes forth from God, and leads to God. Lewis Ayres looks to the second-century Christian adaptation of classical reading practices in order to discern what reading the letter of the text meant for subsequent patristic exegesis. In the process, he argues that we need to read doctrinally not only the establishment of the canon per se, but also the emergence of the Christian community’s practices and patterns of reading that allowed people to see Scripture as Scripture. Peter Martens subjects the objections to Origen’s alleged neglect of history to detailed analysis and critique. He argues that these criticisms of Origen have rarely hit their intended target, and that when they have, they do not appear to be particularly troubling. Hans Boersma turns to the issue of slavery in Gregory of Nyssa and notes that his opposition to slavery is one of the fruits of his spiritual exegesis. Thus, his theological approach to Scripture does not imply a disinterested otherworldliness but a genuine concern to bring heaven to earth.

Part II (“Reading Scripture”) consists of three articles that focus specifically on biblical and exegetical matters. Here, Peter Leithart finds typological links between the book of Revelation, on the one hand, and the Song of Songs and Daniel, on the other hand. He argues that the political hope expressed in Revelation is for an imperial lover whose love is better than wine and who confers his kingdom upon his saints. David Jeffrey shows that many of our contemporary Bible translations reduce theological mysteries to mundane analogies. The result is a tacit desacralization of Scripture, which hinders our ability to engage in spiritual interpretation. In light of Paul’s typological exegesis, Matthew Levering argues that typological exegesis cannot be denied its place as a valid way of interpreting Scripture in the Church, not only for the purposes of moral exhortation but also for instruction about the realities of salvation history. The truth of particular instances of typological exegesis requires the discernment provided by the Church’s liturgy and magisterial tradition.

Part III (“Reading in Contemporary Context”) looks at the functioning of theological or spiritual interpretation in today’s context. Here, Michael Waldstein sets the stage by drawing attention to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1988 Erasmus Lecture. Waldstein builds on Ratzinger’s critical engagement with Raymond Brown’s use of historical criticism, and he cautions against the narrowing of our epistemological horizons inherent in Brown’s approach. Francesca Murphy sheds light on how to read the Psalms of abandonment by drawing on analogies taken from the cinema. She concludes that we need to read these Psalms both in their historical setting as referring to David and also as having a further Christological reference. Jens Zimmermann draws on Dietrich Bonhoeffer to argue for the legitimacy of theological interpretation, as he shows that Bonhoeffer offers a consciously sacramental and Christological hermeneutic. Finally, Kevin Vanhoozer lucidly defends Protestant typological exegesis. He argues that such “transfigural” interpretation does not add additional meanings to the literal sense but rather extends the latter, so that spiritual interpretation renders the Spirit’s intended transfigural meaning, an intention that includes the reader’s own transfiguration.

The first and last articles originally functioned as the two keynote addresses in the conference where this collection originated. Brian Daley, as the Catholic keynote speaker, makes a significant observation toward the end of his article: “To read Scripture figurally, as well as critically and analytically, is not to abandon a modern sense of the history in which we live, but simply to see history in greater depth, as having ‘spiritual’ significance—as rooted in God’s reality, coming forth from God, leading to God.” Vanhoozer, our evangelical keynote presenter, comments poignantly in his article: “Christ’s physical body is to his transfiguration what the literal sense is to its spiritual rendering. It is not a matter of leaving the body, or the verbal sense behind, but of penetrating more deeply into their intrinsic nature. The glory (i.e., the divine discourse) that was formerly implicit has become explicit.” The two comments show a remarkable convergence. Where Daley refuses to abandon history, Vanhoozer declines to leave behind the body. Where Daley maintains that a figural reading means to recognize history’s “greater depth,” Vanhoozer suggests that spiritual reading penetrates “more deeply” into the intrinsic nature of the verbal sense. This is not to suggest that no differences remain, either between these two authors or among the various articles in this Modern Theology issue. Nonetheless, it seems fair to suggest that this ecumenical endeavour has arrived at a great deal of convergence regarding the need for Christian biblical exegesis to find ways of recognizing the work of the living God in the very fabric of history and temporality. If some of this may be achieved also among our readers, our editorial labour will have been worth the effort.


1 The material below on contemporary Catholic scholars will also be published in Matthew Levering, “’The Scriptures and Their Interpretation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology, ed. Lewis Ayres and Medi Ann Volpe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap—Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 54.

3 Ibid., p. 55.

4 Ibid. Taylor is referring to Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983), pp. 28–31.

5 Cf. the discussion in Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), pp. 126–127.

6 Matthew Levering, Participatory Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), p. 33.

7 Taylor, Secular Age, p.57.

8 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Three-day Period of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, trans. S. G. Hall in Andreas Spira and Christoph Klock (eds.), The Easter Sermons of Gregory of Nyssa: Translation and Commentary: Proceedings of the Fourth International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa; Cambridge, England: 11–15 September, 1978, Patristic Monograph Series, 9 (Cambridge, MA: Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1981), pp. 273–274. For further discussion of De tridui spatio, see Hans Boersma, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

9 Francis Martin, Sacred Scripture: The Disclosure of the Word (Naples, FL: Sapientia Press, 2006), p. xii.

10 Ibid., p. 239.

11 Ibid., p. 240.

12 Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, in Austin Flannery (ed.), Vatican Council II, Vol. 1, The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, 1975), §2.

13  Cf. Martin, Sacred Scripture, p. 272.

14 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2007), p. xiv.

15 Joseph Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict: On the Foundations and the Itinerary of Exegesis Today,” in José Granados, Carlos Granados, and Luis Sánchez-Navarro (eds.), Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), p. 23.

16 Ibid., p. 24.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., p. 25.

19 Ibid., p. 29.

20 Denis Farkasfalvy, Inspiration and Interpretation: A Theological Introduction to Sacred Scripture (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), p. 63; cf. ibid., p. 75.

21 Ibid., p. 86.

Part I

Reading the Fathers


“In Many and Various Ways”: Towards a Theology of Theological Exegesis

Brian E. Daley, SJ

Texts are everything in the modern (and post-modern) world. Since the rise of philosophical hermeneutics with Heidegger and Gadamer and Ricoeur, since the days of deconstructivist literary criticism and the growth of contemporary theories of philosophical and literary interpretation, scholars in the humanities have tended, increasingly, to see their work as dealing above all with written productions as their objects of study: texts that conceal as well as disclose the writer’s intended meaning in written, time-bound, culturally determined words; texts that always involve both the reception and the destruction of older traditions of thought and language; texts that challenge the readers who come after them to enter and rearrange their world, like the furniture in a living-room.

For Christians, this focus on hermeneutics and textual theory can feel both natural and alienating. On the one hand, Jews and Christians and Muslims—perhaps more than any other set of religious traditions—regard their holy texts, their “Scriptures,” not just as the historic monuments of a sacred heritage, but as the place of God’s continuing revelation: the foundation of their faith’s present understanding of the reality of God, the chief guide towards how God calls us to act now. Our holy Scriptures form a book constantly in the process of being understood for the first time, a collection of writings that, by its very significance for their religious tradition, requires constant re-interpretation and re-application. On the other hand, for the faithful of all of these traditions, the text of what they regard as Scripture is not an object to be toyed with or even objectified, but a human, linguistic set of voices witnessing to an ultimate reality that is the reason all the other realities we know exist at all. The book of Scripture, unlike all other books, is something sacred, human words communicating the Word of God; as such, it transcends time, and even its own original historical context. So the text of Scripture, precisely as Scripture, acquires for what are sometimes called “the religions of the book” both an urgency, a religious normativity, that no other writings in those traditions, however valuable, possess, and at the same time a translucency—an invitation to continuing reflection and interpretation— that other religious works can never have. What believers seek in them is not simply information, or historical evidence of ancient religious thought, but the reality of God as he speaks and acts in our midst.

Reading and interpreting Scripture correctly, then—discovering its meaning correctly so that we can understand it and live by it—presents us with unique challenges, if only because the one whom believers take to be speaking in and through the text is God, not simply a historical human author or editor. At the same time, human authors and editors, as well as translators and interpreters through the ages, have clearly been involved in the production of Biblical texts from their remotest origins. To know what the Biblical text means requires that, as far as possible, we know what these authors meant, and take that “original meaning” as a starting-point and guide for determining what it might mean for us today.

So reading the Bible and understanding it, in a way that allows us to take its content and meaning seriously, is clearly a complex, even paradoxical process that calls into play both a sophisticated conviction of God as creator, mysteriously yet really involved in human thoughts and actions, and of the ordinary human circumstances of literary authorship and the communication of meaning. In the words of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, from 1965:

Those things revealed by God, which are contained and presented in the texts of Holy Scripture, were written under the influence of the Holy Spirit. … In the process of composition of the sacred books, God chose and employed human agents, using their own faculties and powers, in such a way that while he was acting in them and through them, they committed to writing, as genuine authors, everything which he willed—but only what he willed. Since, then, everything that the inspired authors or “sacred writers” affirm should be considered to be affirmed by the Holy Spirit, the books of Scripture should be confessed as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wished to be sealed in the sacred books for the sake of our salvation. … But since God, in Sacred Scripture, has spoken in a human way through human beings, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture—in order to grasp what God has wished to communicate to us—must carefully investigate what the sacred writers really intended to signify, and what it has pleased God to reveal to us in their words.1

This paragraph tries to walk a fine line between a more traditional understanding of divine inspiration, which saw the authors of the Biblical books as passive instruments for communicating the thoughts of God, and a more modern, historical and critical approach to the Biblical text, which approaches these works first of all as human compositions, written by particular writers in particular circumstances that inevitably frame their range of possible meaning for future readers.

The long tradition of Christian theology, East and West, has regarded the books of the Bible, and the various layers and sections that make them up, as being the definitive norm for our understanding of who and what God is, and how God acts in our world. For thinkers of the Western Enlightenment, however, the very notion of a God, who is genuinely transcendent, actually communicating in direct, intelligible and specific terms with creatures, seemed awash in contradictions; there may be a transcendent first cause of beings in the world whom we call God, it was sometimes argued, but information is communicated to human minds through language, action, and symbol, all of which are enacted within history, by finite historical agents. This emphatically inner-worldly understanding of historical reality, and of how history is investigated and facts ascertained, still stands in the background of the modern historical criticism of Biblical texts. Yet to many believers today who read Biblical texts in a spirit of faith, simply seeking to reconstruct the circumstances and possible “original intention” of Biblical texts is not enough to let us discover their meaning as Scripture: their significance through the centuries, and today, for the community of faith.

To conceive of the works contained in the Bible—narrative, moral and ritual commands, praise and lament, wisdom teaching and theological reflection—as embodying God’s Word to humanity in more than simply a metaphorical sense requires, first, an understanding of how God acts in the world that allows for him genuinely to sustain and steer human speech and action for his own purposes, without infringing on the full, conscious activity of human prophets, poets and redactors. And it implies, too, that the ideas expressed in Biblical books, or the events narrated by Biblical authors, may well take on new significance, beyond the “surface” meaning of fact or law, when received as Scripture by the community of faith in later generations. So to understand the Bible as the Word of God—to read it as Bible, and not simply as a collection of disparate religious texts of varying ages—the interpreter needs to understand both God and the continuing meaning of human words: to be both a theologian and a linguistic, literary and historical scholar.

I. Oral Traditions

For early Christian writers, in fact, it was clearly the understanding of Jewish faith in which they shared, the faith heard and professed in their Churches—centered on the conviction that God’s promise to Abraham and God’s covenant at Sinai had found their fulfillment in Jesus—which was the primary claimant to being the vehicle of God’s saving revelation. Justin, for example, in his lengthy Dialogue with Trypho (written probably in Rome in the early 160s) makes relatively little direct reference to written documents about Christ,2 although it is clear he is familiar with at least the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Synoptics. What he declares, in the dialogue’s opening narrative, is that he has come to Christianity as a result of looking for the best available “philosophy,” the way of life best suited to lead a person to happiness and hope.3 Having been directed eventually to the Christian way, Justin is able to interpret the corpus of Israel’s Scriptures as finding their true, if hitherto hidden, meaning in Jesus’ life. Scripture, as written text, is for him the confirmation of a preached and lived message about who Jesus is.

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing his monumental treatise Against the Heresies some twenty-five years later, emphasizes that the disciples of Jesus first proclaimed the Gospel of salvation verbally (praeconaverunt), and only “afterwards, by the will of God, handed it down to us in written form (in Scripturis).”4 As Irenaeus tells the story, Matthew wrote his Gospel text in Hebrew, while Peter and Paul were preaching the same Gospel orally in Rome; Mark, who was Peter’s “interpreter,” “handed on to us in writing what had been proclaimed by Peter,” while Luke did the same for Paul’s message.5 The priority in the formation of the Christian message, in Irenaeus’s view, clearly also lies with oral, rather than with written witness—the oral witness preserved in the living traditions of the Churches around the world through the leadership of the Twelve and their successors.6

And if a discussion should arise on some issues of reasonable importance, should one not have recourse to the most ancient Churches, in which the Apostles were active, and take from them whatever is certain and substantially clear on the issue at hand? But what if the Apostles themselves had not left us written accounts (scripturas)? Should we not follow the order of tradition, which they entrusted to those to whom they gave responsibility for the Churches? Many peoples of those foreign tribes (barbarorum) who believe in Christ show their agreement with this arrangement: they have salvation written on their hearts, through the Spirit, without parchment or ink, and by carefully preserving the ancient tradition they believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is in them, through Christ Jesus, the Son of God … 7

Irenaeus goes on to summarize the story of Jesus’ life and death, and of his coming appearance as judge and savior, as it is contained in the “rule of faith,” and concludes:

Those who have come to profess this faith without written documents are, as far as our language is concerned, “barbarians,” but as far as what they hold, and their customs and behavior, are thoroughly wise because of their faith, and are pleasing to God, behaving in all righteousness and purity and wisdom. And if anyone were to announce to them, speaking in their own language, the things that have been fabricated by the heretics,8 they would immediately block their ears and flee as far away as they could, not even enduring to hear such blasphemous talk.9

The final criterion for recognizing the authentic Christian message, in other words—the interpretation of the world and human history that is genuinely based on the teaching and works of Jesus—is not any written text in itself, for Irenaeus, but rather the tradition of faith, maintained in properly constituted communities of faith, in which the texts that summarize that tradition are received and understood. Those who have been trained in this tradition develop, in his view, an ability to recognize Christian teaching intuitively, simply on the basis of living it.

It was Origen, however, writing a generation after Irenaeus, who recognized that this very process of maintaining and recognizing the faith is more complicated than it sounds. Origen’s life’s work was principally the careful interpretation of the texts used by the mainstream Christian Churches as Scripture. In his time, this included both the generally accepted Hebrew canon, as contained in the Septuagint and its various corrected versions, and the four Gospels and Pauline corpus, which by this point had almost reached a canonical status parallel to that of Israel’s Bible in the Christian Churches.10 In his influential and comprehensive treatise On First Principles—a work which, as I have argued elsewhere, seems really to be an attempt to sketch out the foundations and methods of Christian Biblical interpretation11—Origen begins the preface with a clear affirmation that the source of saving wisdom for all Christians ought simply to be the written teaching of Scripture:

All who believe and are convinced that “grace and truth have come into being through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17) and recognize Jesus as the truth, according to his own saying, ‘I am the truth,’ receive the knowledge which invites men and women to live well and happily from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ. But by “the words of Christ” we mean not only those by which he taught when he had been made human and was placed in flesh; even before [his incarnation], after all, Christ the Word of God was in Moses and the prophets.12

The problem facing Christians, however, even in the third century, as Origen sees it, was not the availability of Scripture, but its correct interpretation. There were many Christian sects, many individual lines of understanding; everyone understood the Bible according to his or her prior assumptions about God and the world. What the community of believers needed was a set of criteria for making sense of the Bible itself, as the ultimate criterion of faith. He continues:

Because, then, many of those who profess faith in Christ are in disagreement, not only in small, insignificant things, but even in large, very significant ones—for instance, on God or on the Lord Jesus Christ himself, or on the Holy Spirit; and not only on them but also on other creatures, that is, on the dominations and the holy powers—for this reason it seems necessary first to lay down a clear line and an obvious rule on these details, one by one, and then to ask also about the other things.13

For Origen, this “clear line and obvious rule” can only be found in actively following Christ, and in understanding Christ in the way the Apostles have taught the Churches: