Word on the Page
It won’t be to everyone’s interests, but R.R. Reno’s commentary on biblical exegesis is worth a read (see here if you don’t subscribe to First Things). The difficulty, as Reno describes it, is the overlapping perspectives regarding the Bible as an historical document, as a work of literature, and as an explanation of divine Truth. For Jews and Christians those perspectives must also accord with doctrine as ostensibly derived from the Book.
The influence of metaphysics is as it should be. To try to read any text without drawing on an implied metaphysical horizon is like trying to walk without legs or see without eyes. With texts we hold dear, however, we become more anxious about the role of the implied metaphysical horizon. We don’t just want to read Shakespeare in light of our assumptions about culture, history, and the human condition. There are profound truths in his plays, and we want these truths to influence our metaphysical horizon rather than simply be interpreted by it. We want to think about Macbeth or King Lear in a Shakespearean way.
This disposition of interpretive submission and obedience becomes acute when a reader approaches the Bible as the word of God. The Bible provides the master code for reality, and therefore we want the metaphysical horizon we use to frame our more ambitious and large-scale interpretations of the Bible to be itself biblical in substance.
Even people who aren’t very familiar with the Bible are comfortable raising internal contradictions as proof against its metaphysical coherence and contradictions between scripture and doctrine as evidence against believers’ claims, but that’s always seemed to me to be a prolongation of a debate that could be resolved in the first exchange. The unbelievers point out, rightly, that the Bible is not a clear and glowing handbook for proper living, and believers who maintain assertions of literal truth confirm, for them, the implausibility of religion’s deeper claims.
But Reno’s phrase “master code for reality” gets to the salient point, to my mind:
… we need hard questions—intellectually challenging and spiritually serious questions—and these theological exegesis provides. When we allow Church teaching and biblical proclamation to share in a common claim to truth, the obvious differences, the puzzling divergences, and the unexpected harmonies will naturally compel our minds and draw us into elaborate arguments that interweave theological and biblical analysis.
A code book for reality — if it is to remain applicable across ages and cultures — would arguably have to resemble literature in its obscurity, because the rules that human society must hear in different eras are different. Moreover, the Bible is not a rulebook for playing the game of life, to be memorized and put aside, but an actual, evolving player in it. The puzzles contained therein spur investigation and consideration, and only if we begin with faith in its deeper lessons will we pursue the possibility that its contradictions are not contradictions at all, but more like tightly packed metaphysical algorithms to be divined throughout the human story.