Theological Moorings for Canonical Readings

My doctoral supervisor, David Hogg, was once asked in my Theological Method PhD seminar what his method is. I still love his response: “I look for patterns and weird stuff.” That is, his approach to reading Scripture consists largely of paying attention to what is repeated and what stands out as extraordinary, either in terms of actual events or their description or both. This interpretive method produces readings that sometimes (many times) vexes those who hold to the historical-critical method and its evangelical cousins.

What, then, are the *theological* rationales that give an interpreter the hermeneutical warrant to link certain biblical texts together in a typological chain? To put a finer historical point on it, why does Irenaeus, in his¬†On the Apostolic Preaching, feel justified in linking the Virgin Birth to the untilled ground out of which Adam is made, or Eve’s creation out of Adam’s rib to the Church’s birth out of Christ’s pierced side? I want to suggest that there are least three theological reasons that readers feel justified in these types of patterned readings.

  1. Spirit-Inspired and Christ-Centered: Of course, a canonical method, however clearly or vaguely defined, finds its ultimate ground in confessing that Scripture is one Spirit-inspired book with one Christological point. Because Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to his people, its ultimate source is the Triune God. Its inspiration and purpose are therefore related to God’s economic activity of redemption, and specifically to his work of revealing himself to his people. Because God ultimately makes himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, we should expect that the Scriptures’ primary point is to show its readers the incarnate Son. This is bolstered by the fact that the Spirit who inspired the biblical text is a Son-centered Spirit; that is, the Spirit’s job is to testify to the Son, because the Son demonstrates to us the Father. For these pneumatological and Christological reasons, we should not find it strange when Christian interpreters insist that Scripture’s ultimate referent is the incarnate Christ.
  2. God’s Providence: Patterned readings – readings that pay attention to biblical repetition, either at a lexical or narrative level – are rooted in the fact that God has providentially ordered redemptive history to progressively¬† and repetitively intensify until it reaches its culmination in Christ. That is, God has so ordered the events from the first Adam to the Second Adam that they a) are repetitive at both the level of the event and the level of the author’s description of that event and b) intensify via this repetition to point forward to their eschatological fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. This providential ordering is related to the previous point, in that God’s revelation of himself centers on the person of Jesus Christ, and therefore God’s providential ordering of redemptive history also points forward to that same Christ. We should therefore expect at both the literary and historical levels to find repetition from one biblical story to another.
  3. The Christological Center of Human History: Christ is not only the center of biblical history; he is also the center of human history, of the entirety of God’s economic activity in redemption and also in creation. Interpretations of the Bible that focus on seeing repeated patterns at the lexical and narrative levels find their ultimate foundation in God’s providence over all of human history, since that providential ordering centers on Jesus. This last point actually grounds the first two: because God’s economic activities of creation and redemption both center on the incarnate Son, he has ordered all of human history, and therefore all of redemptive history, and therefore his revelation of himself as part of that redemptive activity, to point to and find their culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology: An Allegory

This is anecdotal, and, for the purposes of this post, a bit hyperbolic, but in my experience there is still a divide within evangelical scholarship between biblical studies and systematic theology. To be sure, there are those who do these together and do it well, albeit from one or the other discipline, but, for many evangelical scholars, an academic version of Lessing’s ditch makes its disciplinary mark and it, like the original, cannot be crossed. Biblical studies is biblical studies, and theology is theology, and never the twain shall meet. Again, of course there are biblical scholars who believe all sorts of things about theology, and of course there are theologians who read the biblical text. But with respect to how these two disciplines mutually inform one another, the implied answer, at least from their praxis, seems to be that they don’t.

Here’s an example: I have witnessed, countless times, evangelicals trained in biblical studies exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to systematic categories, concepts, and terms. To my biblical studies friends, theology is something that should be kept at arm’s length, at least until we’re done exegeting. Dogmatics is also something that, to many biblical scholars, isn’t rooted in the Bible but instead in tradition, philosophy, and so forth.

I have also witnessed, namely through reading but also through listening to papers and to conversations among peers, systematic theologians theologize without exegeting the biblical text. Constructing dogmatics appears to be, for many, a task we can do without exegesis. Theologians look to philosophy, the hard sciences, the social sciences, logic, and history to “do theology,” but the biblical text is a footnote at best.

To put it simply: my biblical studies friends are often suspicious of systematicians, and my systematician friends often find exegetical work boring and useless.

Or, to put it allegorically, biblical studies and systematic theology are, in this view, like Jacob and Esau: they are family, twins, even, but different in stature, interests, and outcome. While they greet each other warmly on the outside, they do so under a cloud of suspicion on the inside (Genesis 32-33).

Rather than these two roads diverging so widely in the wood of Christian scholarship, though, it would be better if we did not put asunder what God has joined together. Frankly, this mutual suspicion between tasks is born not out of the superiority of one discipline or the other, but is instead a hangover from modernism. In seeking to cast aside every authority but the self, modernism separated exegesis from theology, interpretation from the church, hermeneutics from confession. This ought not to be so.

Biblical studies and systematic theology, rather than suspicious but related brothers, are instead more like covenanted friends. They push one another, edify one another, love one another, encourage one another, protect one another. Instead of Jacob and Esau, brothers in paternity but rivals in spirit, these tasks should be seen more like Jonathan and David: covenanted friends who seek to serve the one God together. Each has its strengths, but each needs the other to edify its work in places where its tools are insufficient in and of themselves.

Suspicion is a product of the spirit of the Enlightenment; mutual love is a product of the Spirit of God.

In Defense of the Fourfold Method

Allegory gets a bad wrap these days. If you want to charge someone with bad exegesis, just call them an allegorizer. Compare them to Philo or the worst excesses of Augustine and Origen, slap an “allegory” sticker on their essay, and throw them to the wolves or carry them off with pitchforks (ok that’s a bit melodramatic, but you get the point).

Here’s the problem: I like allegory. And Paul does too, at least in one instance (Gal. 4:21-31). Further, even when the NT authors aren’t using the term “allegory”, I think they’re still doing it in lots of places. Now, that might get me kicked out of some evangelical hermeneutics classes. But I don’t think it should. I think allegory actually helps evangelicals understand the most difficult of questions concerning inerrancy, the New Testament’s use of the Old. I think allegory actually helps evangelicals understand how it is literarily (as in, literature) true that their (our) claim that Scripture speaks about Christ in all its parts. And I think it helps that we, you know, give Paul credit where credit’s due as an interpreter of the OT and in his use of the term allegoroumena.

I can only do so much in a blog post, so I just want to give two reasons why I like the fourfold method of interpretation. First, I think it helps us understand and interpret the Bible in a way that acknowledges its historical and literary detail without missing its bigger theological purpose. Second, and because of this, I think it helps us understand how the NT authors interpreted the OT (and copy their method!!).

In terms of the big picture of Scripture, evangelicals recognize that Scripture is primarily for two things: revelation and transformation. Through the inspiration of the Spirit it reveals who God is in Christ and through the application by the Spirit it transforms us into the image of God in Christ. The fourfold sense recognizes this. The spiritual sense, which can be broadened out into the latter three senses of the allegorical, the anagogical, and the tropological, understands that the Bible has these two purposes of revelation and transformation. The allegorical sense demands that interpreters recognize the Bible’s purpose of revealing Christ who reveals the Father; the tropological (or moral) sense demands that interpreters recognize the Bible’s purpose of transforming believers into Christ’s image; and the anagogical (or future sense) recognizes that a) the Bible is written as a metanarrative with a telos and b) that the tropological sense has a telos as well (to be completely like Christ; 1 John 3:2).

Second, at least in the theories of the Fathers and Medieval theologians, the spiritual sense MUST be tied to the literal sense. For this reason, the literal sense – historical background information, literary context, intertextuality, and literary features – ought to always be done very carefully and be the foundation for understanding the spiritual sense. This is where people get tripped up, because so often in practice the Fathers and Medieval theologians did not apply this theory evenly. But that doesn’t mean the theory is bad, it just means that we as practitioners mess up its application.

Further, this helps us to understand how the NT authors read the OT. They saw the intertextual connections between OT passages, how the OT authors themselves used other OT passages, and how that entire scriptural web has one primary goal – to reveal Christ and to make us like him. They are seeing the literal sense, but are also doing what the literal sense is supposed to do – reading the details as pointing to and as a part of the larger picture of Christ.

So don’t give allegory such a bad wrap – at least not in theory.