For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Scripture and Tradition Anno Domini

A recent presentation of the discipline and history of biblical criticism for the non-specialist is How To Read the Bible by James Kugel, who is Professor Emeritus of Classical Hebrew Literature at Harvard. The general thrust of the book, besides an overview of current critical theories about various Old Testament stories and the Pentateuch, is that the discipline has undermined the idea that there was a single author of the individual books of the Hebrew bible. Instead there are an unknown number of redactors and editors working at cross-purposes, taking bits and pieces of sometimes unrelated narrative and splicing them together with the purpose of giving a shape to Israel's history. The story of Cain and Abel, for example, we are told was originally a tale to explain the fierceness of the southern Kenite tribes, popped into position to fit a need for a narrative after the story of Adam and Eve. Further, as a result of linguistic analysis, scholars guess that there are different schools (e.g. both promoters of priestly privelege and prophets railing against the Temple cult) all re-working the stories of the Pentateuch.

But as well as summarising the often tentative conclusions of biblical criticism, Kugel has an eye on the ancient interpreters, who approached the text as divinely given, consistent and true, and as a word for them in their day. Their method was to uncover the hidden meaning of its words, and to understand what God was speaking through those words. Kugel's notes that (if the critics are right) the original intention of the Old Testament stories is quite plainly supplanted by the interpretative approach of the ancient Jewish rabbis and then Christian writers. But his conclusion, as a practising Jew, is that whilst all of this is troubling for his faith, he simply accepts that one is dealing here with two different methods, and that the critics' method is systematically opposed to a "religious" use of Holy Scripture. The ancient interpreters are supposing that there is an overall narrative in the Old Testament, the dealings of God with His people, and that this same God deals with us, His people in the present day, through this same narrative.

Setting aside the huge challenge that biblical criticism in general presents to believers, with its systematic doubt about the literal truth of the narrative, I suppose a Christian might sing the same conclusion in a different key. Christ (and His body the Church) are the grand narrative of Scripture, and it is by so interpreting the words of Holy Writ that God speaks. Whilst I firmly believe that this is true, there are several points thrown up by Kugel's book that touch on the question of Scripture and Tradition.

First of all, what is the relation between them? If Scripture is a collection of disparate sources, often lifted from their original context, then a rigorously sola scriptura method of dealing with the text (and this is something that Kugel points out) will dig down until it reaches the original source. But then one will have left the overall narrative meaning, which is something given to the text by both the redactors and their interpreters. It wasn't there in the original fragment or tale or whatever. If one is awaiting a divine message within it, then one must accept a list of interpretative assumptions about the bible before one reads a word. The whole cross-section of interpretative layers, generations and centuries and millenia old, are what makes the bible to be what it is. Thus, in one sense, the words are framed, directed, intended and willed by Tradition. Of course, one might say the Holy Ghost instead of Tradition.

But what then of the idea that Holy Scripture is the arbiter of truth, the judge of theology? There is, C.S. Lewis once noted, nothing to prevent the tradition of the Church deciding that such and such a set of books are "canonical", but from thenceforth being subject to the authority of those same books. The situation is, I think, somewhat more complicated. If Kugel's thesis holds water, not just the books but the meaning of their content is determined in advance: what can the words themselves possibly have left to do to exert their authority? I think this objection is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of literature in general, never mind inspired literature. Words are not static; they have a life of their own in the mind of men and nations. Words - take the American Constitution, for example - once admitted as authoritative even within a strictly defined hermeneutic, have the power to change a nation, and its laws, which then lends new meaning, scope and application to the original text. (Of course it isn't the words merely that cause change, but their life in the thought and acts of men.) The only way one can express such facts is to say that the words are living. This has an obvious application to the words of Holy Scripture, by which the Spirit speaks, and by means of which the Church is born. The Church in turn reflects upon the life-giving word and grows with it.

One is led, in turn, to a more profound mystery, and which was thrown into stark relief for me by the time I had finished Kugel's book. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, His consciousness of Who He was, His purpose and His filial love for His Father, was formed in and through the Holy Scripture. The more one reads of Jewish consciousness in the first century, its knowledge of the purposes of God and its choosing, the less one is inclined to posit some kind of vertical and directly infused conceptual knowledge that gave our Lord the certainty of His Sonship and mission. It came, I believe, primarily through the Holy Spirit speaking through the Holy Scripture. But, and if this is the case, then one is in effect canonising not merely a set of books, but also the understanding of those books that prevailed and was current at the time of Christ, and by which His own Messianic and filial consciousness was formed. And that is, for me, the key to understanding the role and purpose and relation of these two ideas, Scripture and Tradition.

Sadly, I am not an expert in the first century rabbinic tradition of scriptural interpretation. It is present, however in the New Testament: one can see elements of it in St Paul (his parallels between Adam and the Christ as the Last Adam in the letter to the Romans, and his theology of circumcision based upon Hagar and Ishmael in Galatians). There is also the parallel between Moses and Jesus as "that Prophet" prophesied by Moses in the gospel of Matthew particularly. A point of note is that Jesus and St Paul reject the forming of a body of law to interpret the Torah or Pentateuch in minute detail by the rabbinic tradition. And thus the significance of the Old Testament in the New, and in the early Fathers, is as a reservoir of exemplars of Christ and the sacraments, in addition to being an historical prologue. (As an aside, should one read the rejection of the Wisdom literature from the canon by the Jewish interpreters partly in this light? It was inimical to their project, but congenial to the Christian one. And should that give Protestants pause before jumping in on the Jewish side of the argument?)

The main point, however, that I wish to emphasise for the purposes of the next few planned posts, are the following: I wish to advocate a Christological approach to Scriptural interpretation, meaning more than just a hermeneutic that puts Christ at the centre. I mean also a hermeneutic that is has as its backbone the kind of interpretation that our Lord Himself must have had in order to understand the Old Testament to be about Himself. I really don't see how a Christian can get by this one, and I think it is good deal more important than any argument about which stories, or to what extent the stories of the Penteteuch are historical, legendary etc. Any valid development of Scriptural interpretation, I think, cannot leave this principle behind or even push it out to the edges.

Finally, by way of introduction to the next post, about Liturgy, I would like to point out what I believe Kugel to be lacking. He quite openly states that he is in reaction against the principle of sola scriptura because by setting the ancient interpreters to one side it has gradually dissolved the meaning of the word in a morass of opposing critical theories. He dislikes the hegemony of the Protestant paradigm of Scriptural interpretation in academia, because it misses the whole point of Scripture qua Scripture, which is to speak directly to our condition: and to recover that we need to go back to the old assumptions. I wonder, however, if Kugel is missing something even if he is not wholly of their party, something that I find Protestant scholars of the bible generally are blind to. This missing ingredient is Liturgy as a kind of key to what the Scripture is all about.

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