[An older article, slightly revised…. And copyright retained….]
Theologians and churchmen in the central tradition of the Church have usually have been left somewhat free in their interpretation of Scripture. That is not to say that everyone is free to believe anything whatsoever about everything in the Bible whatsoever. But there are different schools of thought, different general approaches, different emphases, and the Church has seldom attempted to enforce a single approach. The differences can be plotted along several different axes, but the most important of these is the axis we may call the literal versus the figurative. We find examples of these different approaches already in the gospels, in pre-Christian Jewish interpreters of the Old Testament, and even in Greek interpreters of Homer and the pagan classics. The two approaches continue in the ancient Christian catechetical and interpretive schools of Antioch and Alexandria. The truth, as so often, lies in between. To grasp the best way to view Scripture, or the safe range of ways which we are free to adopt, it is useful to look at the dangerous extreme forms of the two broad approaches.
The most extreme literal-minded approach is hardly possible to maintain consistently. It attempts to interpret everything in Scripture in the most literal, plain terms, and then sees those terms as describing actual, historical events, scientifically-verifiable facts, and potentially photographical and recordable persons and places and things. It is virtually impossible to maintain such a view, as a little thought will show. Often in Scripture we find parables and stories which are meant to teach without describing actual events. So, for instance, in II Samuel 12:1-6 the prophet Nathan tells a famous story to convict king David in his heart of his murder of Uriah the Hittite. The story of the poor man’s one little ewe lamb is not describing an actual lamb and men and injustice. It is an illustrative story. The thorough-going literalist would have to treat it as an historical description to which Nathan chose to refer. Likewise, the parables of Jesus are seen as describing actual events and people. On this view there must actually have been a merchantman seeking goodly pearls who sold all that he had to buy one pearl of great price; there actually had to be a good man from Samaria who was the Good Samaritan of the parable; and so on. There are a few, a very few, Christians who really do hold this extreme literal view. Even they, however, are defeated by our Lord’s sayings such as ‘I am the true Vine’ or ‘I am the door of the sheep.’ And if they are orthodox Christians, who confess that God is a being without body, parts, or passions, they also must be defeated by such expressions as ‘God’s mighty arm’ or ‘the eyes of God’.
At the other end of this axis is an extreme and arbitrary interpretation of the Bible as almost entirely allegorical, figurative, and mythic. So, for instance, the stories in the gospels of Ss. Matthew and Luke of our Lord’s virginal conception and miraculous birth do not, for the extreme symbolist, assert facts rooted in actual events, but merely are stories that convey a symbolic meaning about Jesus: that he is a great hero such as Moses or a figure of surpassing, even God-like importance. For such people the meaning of such stories is, as I have said, arbitrary; arbitrary because it is free-floating and not tethered to actual worldly events. Anything may be symbolic of anything else, on this view, and interpretation is then determined by the interpreter, not by what he reads or interprets. Now it certainly is true that Matthew and Luke describe our Lord’s miraculous conception and birth in ways that use symbols to clarify and assert his true significance. But in the great tradition of the Church such symbols and figures are rooted and grounded in historical, real events and in other passages of Scripture. Meanings are, for orthodox Christians, not free-floating, but rather are dependent upon the actual, the real, and upon a system of meanings and interpretations established elsewhere in Scripture. The meaning of Scripture properly is given and received, revealed and accepted, not constructed or chosen or made.
Which is why I keep referring to ‘the central tradition’ and to orthodoxy. The Bible is a book about itself, among other things. It is impossible to think properly about the story of Jesus walking on water without thinking also about the continually recurring passage of dangerous waters by God’s people in the Old Testament. Noah’s ark, the passage of the Red Sea at the beginning of the Exodus, the passage of the Jordan river at the end of the Exodus, Elijah and Elisha’s passage of the Jordan, and a number of less obvious passages of water: these events are the system of stories that help to fix the meaning of our Lord’s miracle. Likewise, the miracle is read about and understand by a community (the Church) whose sacrament of baptism draws from and flows into this system, from the New Testament (the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, I Peter 3:20f.) including the miracle of walking on water. These events have a tethered, moored meaning, determined by the tradition, which limit the symbolic possibilities. Likewise, the central elements of the symbol system (the Exodus, the miracle of Jesus, baptism in the Church) are not merely stories or ahistorical symbols, but are rooted and grounded in historical, worldly, actual events.
On the one side, then, is an exaggerated literalism. Such literalism can lead to absurdity, as if God had physical arms or Jesus were a grapevine. It also often misses the allegorical and figurative interpretation which Scripture itself frequently uses when reflecting upon itself (consider St. Matthew 12:39-40; I Corinthians 10:1-4; I Peter 3:21; Hebrews 9). The other extreme is a purely ethical or figurative interpretation which pulls the central Christian doctrines from their foundations in history. Such a view, for instance, sees the Resurrection as a symbol for hope and an affirmation of humanity and goodness, while denying or falling silent about the bodily Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord. This view is not Christian but agnostic or New Age.
The literalist tendency is correct in seeing the need to root our faith in a basically reliable account of what happened. The allegorical tendency is correct in seeing that the deepest meaning of a Biblical text always lies in its significance for our understanding of Christ, his sacraments, and his Church. When our Lord treats Jonah as a double symbol for himself in St. Matthew 12:39-41, he suggests that those symbolic meanings for Jonah, his preaching, and the great fish or whale are the deepest meanings. In such cases the literal-historic sense is secondary in importance, though first in order. By that I mean that unless we understand the literal ideas of being swallowed up and in the dark for three days, we cannot move on to the proper symbolic meaning of the Jonah story as a prefigurement of the burial and Resurrection of our Lord. We always must begin with the literal sense of a passage; however, the truest meaning is often not the literal-historical sense but the ‘literal-allegorical’ or ‘literal-spiritual’.
This approach is not novel. We find it in Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and many other Christian Fathers and writers. A few passages from Saint Thomas will illustrate the pedigree of the previous paragraph:
When rams and other creatures are used as signs of persons other than Christ they should be taken as pieces of fiction, not as historical facts….[T]hey have been chosen to typify Christ, shadows of his substance. Then the allegorical sense is superimposed on the historical sense….The spiritual sense of Holy Writ is the planned symbolism of real things…. (VII Quodlibets vi.14)
Thomas elsewhere warns of the danger of such spiritual interpretations. Symbolism when divorced from historical events, from the clear implication of more literal-historical passages, or from the teachings of the Creeds and the Church, can easily become fanciful or be put to heretical uses. Or as Thomas says, ‘The spiritual sense brings nothing needful to faith which is not elsewhere clearly conveyed by the literal sense.’ (Summa Theologiae Ia.i.10, ad 1). So, for instance, we do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus because we read the story of Jonah and the whale. We believe in the Resurrection because of the historically-rooted accounts of the Resurrection in the four gospels, which we believe to be basically reliable. The ultimate meaning of Jonah is in the gospel accounts of the burial and rising of Jesus, not in the historicity of Jonah and the whale. But the ultimate meaning of the Resurrection itself is rooted in an historical event, whose meaning is then illuminated by symbolic interpretation of the story of Jonah and the whale: an interpretation which Jesus himself gave us in Matthew 12.
Much of the heat, though less of the light, in the literalist versus symbolic debate, is generated by the Genesis stories of creation. The Church has always read these stories as the foundation of a number of doctrines and also as foreshadowings of Christ, our Lady, and Christian salvation. The doctrines grounded in the Genesis stories include creation ex nihilo (from nothing – God at the first created from nothing, he did not merely shape something preexisting); creation of humanity by divine inspiration or ensoulment; the monogenetic origin of humanity (we have a common ancestor); and the fall.
So far as I can see none of these doctrines rooted in Genesis is in conflict at all with modern science or history. The Big Bang looks to me like creatio ex nihilo, and I once heard of a prominent physicist who said the Bang could well be described as ‘Let there be light!’. Likewise with ensoulment. At some point, if one believes in evolution, then one believes that that which was not human became human. Evolutionary theory which now dominates among biologists is simply an explanation of the mechanics of that ‘becoming’, which explanation cannot contradict the doctrines of creation and ensoulment. God formed the physical being of man from preexisting matter, from ‘the dust of the ground’, according to Genesis 2:7. The evolutionists’ theory about how dust became man has no bearing on the question of ensoulment. As for the monogenetic origin of mankind, I believe geneticists think from the genetic record that in fact there is one common human ancestor. And the reality of the fall is amply demonstrated by walking or, even more, by driving down the street. So, the literal-historical meaning of Genesis is quite adequate to support the doctrines of the Church about creation.
As for the details of the Genesis creation stories, we are not bound to the historical sense as ultimate. Augustine thought that Genesis 1-3 speaks of two creations, one cosmic and one worldly. He did not believe that the seven ‘days’ of creation meant seven 24 hour periods. Likewise, the story of the fall, while rooted in the sin of our first parents, is described by details whose truest purpose is to point to Christ. Jesus is the new Adam. Our Lady is the new Eve, the mother of the Church. The serpent is Satan. Eden is lost innocence. God walks in the garden to show his original intimacy with us. God’s clothing of Adam and Eve shows that at the moment of the fall God already is bestowing new grace. The curse of the serpent in 3:15 foreshadows the coming of Christ. The thorns and thistles of 3:18 find their way onto the brow of our Saviour in his Passion. God created us. We fell in the person of our common ancestors. God recreates us. These are literal truths. But many of the details of the stories are ultimately significant as pointers to Christ and not in the literal-historical sense.
Yet neither should we dispense with the stories as trivial or as less exact expressions of truths that are more precisely given in the creeds or that can be more precisely formulated in theological propositions. Our religion is incarnational: the Word was made flesh, and the truth ultimately is expressed and understood in worldly, fleshly terms. The stories express truths in ways that ground the creeds and theological propositions and that cannot be replaced by creeds or propositions. The stories are essential. Yet saying that does not justify a foolish literalism.
In short, I think that in Biblical interpretation there is a conservative, non-fundamentalist, mean between the possible extremes. We should neither divorce Scripture from facts, nor push the facts beyond the need to ground necessary doctrine. We should not push the stories too far; nor should we presume to judge the stories as primitive.
Church tradition is the key to steering a right course between the extremes. Anglicans are and were right, I think, to insist on a Biblical foundation for all dogmas or essential doctrines. In that respect our tradition could be said to maintain sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, a cry of the Reformation. But the Protestant church-bodies almost always understand sola scriptura in a sense that cannot, in my judgement, be sustained. Scripture does not exist apart from the tradition of the universal Church. The Bible is the Church’s book, and the Church is its authoritative interpreter. The Church existed before the Bible in point of time. The Church determined which of many contending books were in fact authentic Scripture. The Church decided which of many contending interpretations of the contents of Scripture were correct. And the Church still shows us the proper interpretation of Scripture. Scripture holds the roots of the tradition, for the developing books began to form with and in the earliest Church, but Scripture never exists apart from that tradition. There is no sola Scriptura in that sense.
We see these ideas already in the Elizabethan divine, Richard Hooker. Hooker warns against the idea that Scripture can be read without consulting the tradition, as extreme Puritans and Anabaptists proposed: ‘When they and their Bibles were alone together, what strange fantastical opinion soever at any time entered into their heads, their use was to think the Spirit taught it them.’ (Laws, Preface VIII.7) The result of isolation from the tradition is ‘phrensies concerning our Saviour’s incarnation, the state of souls departed’, and the Trinity, as well as civil revolution, moral enormities, and in fact anything the human mind can think up. Apart from the tradition as an anchor, Scripture can be twisted to support almost anything.
One central problem in the Christian world today is the exaltation of private opinion above the tradition. This exaltation fits well with modern individualism and the common suspicion of all authority, not to mention the postmodernists’ radical perspectivism, skepticism, and relativism. While the abuse of authority often may explain suspicion of authority, Christianity cannot long survive where the tradition is rejected wholesale.
Again the Anglican tradition has tended historically to look for Christian consensus as a guide to discerning the contents of traditional belief. Because our own tradition is small when compared to the great worlds of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, we have never supposed that we have a monopoly on apprehending the truth. We tend more modestly to think that the truth is known to some degree in most Christian traditions and with fuller sufficiency in the great Churches of the East and West. It is always safest to look for consensus, for agreement among the great and ancient Churches.
So far as Biblical interpretation goes, the Church guides interpretation through tradition and living consensus. Creeds and doctrine clarify and focus the meaning of Scripture, and especially of Scriptural narrative. The narrative, with its stories, histories, parables, and allegories, in turn both grounds the creeds and also has a dynamic openness that creeds and theology alone would never have. The story of the Good Samaritan, for instance, illustrates and teaches propositions about universal obligations and charity; but it also is dynamic, inexhaustible, and never fully reducible to mere propositions. Foolish literalism instead would wonder what the Samaritan’s name was or where the mugging occurred.