Sunday, March 09, 2008

How to read the Bible profitably: But don’t look to modern liturgists for help

One of the major claims of the liturgists, who gave us the first round of new prayer books thirty years ago, was that they were recovering the shape and content of the liturgy of the ancient Church of the period before Constantine the Great. Much of what they claimed is now severely modified or rejected in academia, but it still is both heard and felt within the churches (a) from clergy recalling their seminary training of years ago, and (b) guiding the liturgies used Sunday by Sunday (e.g. from the Episcopal Church Prayer Book). [See further The Oxford History of Christian Worship, 2006, chaps 1-2.)

One area where the 1970s liturgists certainly did not make any attempt to recover for the western churches of the 1980s the universal doctrine and practice of the Early Church of the third and fourth centuries was in the crucial matter of “how to read the Bible profitably.” In fact, by their commitment to “inclusive language” and by their use of dynamic equivalency in translation they made a recovery of the Early Church doctrine and approach well nigh impossible. In fact, had they even tried to recover it, it would have challenged the very principles they held important in their work of producing relevant liturgy and creating new Lectionaries.

The easiest way to enter into what I am talking about it is take the American 1979 or the Canadian 1985 Prayer Book, and go to the Psalter and to the first verse of the first psalm. Here to conform to current politically correct views of human equality what should be “Blessed is the man…” becomes “Happy are they” (or in other places “Happy is the one…”). In the Early Church only the literal translation would suffice for it was then seen by all as a clear reference to “the Man, Jesus the Christ;” and it indicated that the whole Psalter as Christian Prayer had to be read and prayed not only through Christ but also in and with him. (I have a chapter on this subject in my Worship without Dumbing-down: Knowing God through Liturgy, )

For the early Christians the Old Testament, the Scriptures of Jesus and the Apostles, was very much, together with the New Testament , the Word of God. There was one Bible with two testaments and both testaments testified and witnessed to Jesus, the Christ and Incarnate Son of God. Thus, although the early fathers well knew that the books of the Old Testament originated in specific circumstances and thus had an original historical interpretation, to them the basic way to read these books was by spiritual exegesis or allegory. In fact, unless one bears this in mind one can hardly make sense of many of the homilies and expositions and books of the early Fathers.

Spiritual exegesis or allegorical interpretation –although it is used by St Paul [see 1 Cor. 10:1ff., & Gal. 4:21ff.] – is so far from the ways and methods of modern Biblical Studies in the West that in order to enter into it, and even think it has value, one needs to go through a kind of mini-conversion! That is, without in any way rejecting the attempt to find out what the text meant as originally written, and to those for whom it was intended, one has to come to see that the Christian reading is to see Christ revealed in the inspired Word and along with him the Holy Trinity, the Father together with his Son and with his Holy Spirit.—and thus the word of grace and salvation.

When this conversion has occurred, then one reads and hears in the texts from the Old and New Testament of the Daily Lectionary, and in the chanting or saying of the allotted Psalms, the message of the one Christ, anticipated in the one Testament and made known in the other. The use of the Gloria at the ending of each Psalm indicates that it has been read/sung as a word of the Holy Trinity pointing to the Son of God incarnate. Likewise any use of the Psalter in The Eucharist is of the Word of God pointing to Jesus Christ himself or our relation to him.

[For a concise introduction to the Early Church way of reading the Bible, see “How to read the Bible” in First Things, March 2008, by Robert Louis Wilken.]

With historical criticism in place for a long time as the dominant form of biblical interpretation in the Western churches, allegorical interpretation has been discredited, and confused with the excesses of medieval flights of fancy. Not even those who claim to be “orthodox” Anglicans usually read the Bible as did the Early Fathers for they have been trained to read it using only historical criticism in a measured way. Only within the early Tractarian movement, and here and here within anglo-catholicism, has spiritual interpretation, following the Early Fathers, been found acceptable and persuasive in modern Anglican devotion and piety. And it is difficult to see how there can be a revival of the Early Church doctrine and method in modern times when individualism and rights-monism are so dominant in Christian thinking. (However, traces of the Early Church approach remain in some church use of the Old Testament –e.g., Isaiah 52-53 of the Passion of Jesus and Zechariah 9:9 for Palm Sunday.)

In closing I must indicate that a method that some evangelicals employ and think is a spiritual reading, because “prophetic-historical” reading of the Old Testament, is far removed from the Early Church use of the first Testament. What I refer to is the quarrying in the O.T. for texts that appear to point to events that have occurred, and are to occur, in the Middle East with respect to the ultimate triumph of Israel in that region over all its (God’s) enemies. Such quarrying and the pro-Israeli religion related to it, is a major business in some parts of the U.S.A. and other places (perhaps in parts of Nigeria). Often such quarried texts are used to point as a form of contemporary apologetics to the veracity of the Bible to outsiders in terms of its predictions concerning history in the ancient and modern Middle East.

However, this “prophetic-historical” approach, unlike the Early Church approach, is not Christ-centered, seeing all texts of the first Testament as opening up to the eye of faith by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and for the edification of the faithful. March 9, 2008

1 comment:

Mark Carroll said...

Thanks Dr. Toon,

For the past six months or so we have been using Augustine’s Expositions on the Book of Psalms for Sunday homilies in our fellowship.

It is a good example of allegorical reading of Scripture that you have addressed. We have arrayed the Psalms throughout the Church year using a plan that I believe that I took from an old prayer book; it will take us about three years to get through Augustine -- time well spent.

Here is Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms:

and here is an annual reading list for the psalms on Sundays:

Mark Carroll of Kentucky