In the wake of the Enlightenment’s assault on tradition no field of theology has suffered more than the study of the Bible. With the emergence of “scientific” history in the nineteenth century and of new disciplines such as archaeology, the Bible came to be seen as less a book of the Church than as a mere artifact of the ancient Near East. Accordingly, it was to be interpreted within the context of the milieu in which it arose, the cultural and religious world that existed prior to the beginning of Christianity. What the Church made of the Bible, how it was used and interpreted within Christian tradition, was seen as tangential to the task of understanding what the books of the Bible meant when they were first composed.
The Reformation principle of sola scriptura, though it may appear also to have set the Scriptures off from the Church’s tradition, was an ecclesiastical principle. The reformers assumed that the Bible was a Christian book, that it was divinely inspired, and that it ought to be understood and interpreted in relation to the Church’s creeds, worship, sacraments, and moral codes. Martin Luther, for example, took the plural form of the Hebrew word for God, elohim, in the verse “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26) as evidence for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
However, when the Reformation notion of sola scriptura was combined with the new historical scholarship, the links between the Bible and the Church were severed and the Bible came to be viewed, paradoxically, as alien to the very tradition that had produced it and handed it down over the centuries. Its interpretation was chiefly an historical enterprise, the examination of a body of ancient religious literature carried on independently of the communities that lived by it. The idea that the Nicene Creed, for example, might have something to do with the interpretation of the New Testament appeared implausible.
The historical approach to the Scriptures is here to stay. The publication of encyclopedias, commentaries, and archaeological studies, not to mention the popularity of TV programs and magazines on the Bible, make clear that the public’s appetite for historical information about the Bible and its world is almost insatiable. In colleges and universities all over the country courses on the Bible are among the most popular. At the University of Virginia where I teach, introductory lecture courses on the Bible draw hundreds of students each semester.
Yet it has not gone unnoticed, at least in certain quarters, that the Bible one hears about in these classes or reads about in encyclopedias is not the Bible read in churches and synagogues. It is not Sacred Writ or the Holy Scriptures or the Word of God. It is a collection of disparate, and sometimes contradictory, ancient documents that have been arbitrarily brought together between the covers of a single book.
Thinking Biblically is an effort to rediscover the other Bible, the book of the Church, and it joins a growing library of works spawned by mounting dissatisfaction with the hegemony of the historical–critical approach to the Scriptures. As the authors make clear in the preface, the biblical text is not simply an object from the past lying inert awaiting the scalpel of the scholar, a “cadaver handed over for autopsy.” It is a living thing whose interpretation requires that one posit an intimate connection between the text and the community that reads it. To consider the text as finished and complete at the time of its final editing in antiquity, they say, would be “as though one were to give the funeral eulogy of someone yet alive.”
André LaCoque is a biblical scholar and Paul Ricoeur a philosopher, and they have marshalled their quite different intellectual skills to interpret certain texts from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. The volume takes the form of parallel essays on what they call “strong texts”: Genesis 2–3, Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), the Song of Songs, Exodus 3:14 (“God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’”), the Joseph story in Genesis 44, and others. In most cases LaCocque first prepared an essay on the text, Ricoeur responded, and each revised in light of what the other had said.
The book assumes, at least in theory, that the subsequent history of the biblical text, its role within Jewish and Christian tradition, can, indeed must, be a factor in its interpretation. The argument is developed more fully in Ricoeur’s essays, but in his chapters LaCocque discusses not only the “original” setting of the text but also its reinterpretation, particularly within later books of the Old Testament and, more briefly, within the New Testament and later Jewish tradition.
As a collaborative effort the project is only partially successful, and I suspect most readers will find themselves more drawn to Ricoeur’s chapters than to LaCocque’s. It is not that LaCocque does not have learned and illuminating things to say. He has perceptive comments on similarities between the patriarch Joseph and the prophet Daniel and on the “my” in “my God my God” of Psalm 22. The psalmist does not, as often in the psalter, say “our” God or the God of our fathers, but “my” God. It is not “our” God who has forsaken me, he says, but “my God,” the one I used to trust and who remains in all circumstances “my” God.
Yet for LaCocque the Old Testament remains chiefly a book of the ancient Near East, and though he will on occasion quote a Jewish midrash (though no ancient or medieval Christian interpreter) and cite Kierkegaard on Genesis 22 or Thomas Mann on the Joseph story, he does not stray far from the constricted world of academic biblical scholarship. For example, after the nice paragraphs on “my God” in Psalm 22, he undermines his insight with a tired sociological observation from a fellow scholar that the reference to a “personal God” originally occurred in “small–scale family worship in a setting of primary–group rituals.” So much for “my God.”
At times the fruits of collaboration are hard to discern, as in the two chapters on the Song of Songs. LaCocque’s essay offers what he seems to consider a bold interpretation of the historical Song of Songs. In his view the Song is a love poem that glorifies eros. Not satisfied, however, to let things stand with this rather commonplace interpretation, he goes on to say that its purpose is “subversive,” it strums the chord of “free love,” the poem makes no sense if the lovers are “legitimately married,” its liberating intention cannot be integrated into a “bourgeois mentality,” it cannot be the work of a scribe, i.e., a representative of a “conservative party,” it de–moralizes sex, its spirit is irreligious and irreverent, and, most telling, it cannot be read as an allegory “for the use of the straightlaced on the intimate relations between God and Israel (even less, of course, between Christ and the Church).” “The language of the author is naturalistic and thus exposed to censorship by ‘men of the cloth,’ and parodylike, as it imitates in a mode of mockery the jargon of the fundamentalists.”
Fortunately, Ricoeur ignores such fatuousness and largely goes his own way. His essay on the Song, pointedly titled “The Nuptial Metaphor,” is astute and perceptive. He has has taken the time to read what Christians (and Jews) have made of the Song of Songs in later tradition, and implies that whatever arguments LaCocque might have against an allegorical reading of the book, they are beside the point. For an “intersecting reading,” writes Ricoeur, “it does not matter whether the allegorical meaning was intended by the author of the Song of Songs, nor that the text itself give objective indications of such a reading.”
The key to the interpretation of the Song (and by implication the Bible as a whole), says Ricoeur, is to be found in its “use,” or perhaps better, its “re–use.” The Song of Songs was seldom received as a whole, that is read in its entirety; it was known through citations of specific passages or allusions in the liturgy and in prayers, in homilies and spiritual writings, and in theological works. Through citation the text was set in new contexts and its words served to fill the gap between the new situations and the old. In other words, the book’s use created a new “us” for the text. “In this way,” he writes, “an exchange is brought about between the rite and the poem.” “The rite opens the space of ‘sacramental mystery’ to the poem, the poem gives the rite the rightness of an appropriate word.”
As an example (drawing on Lectures du Cantique des Cantiques, the fine book by the French scholar Anne–Marie Pelletier) he cites a passage from St. Ambrose on the catechumens: “You must approach the altar. . . . The angels are watching, they have seen you approaching. . . . Thus they have asked: ‘Who is this who rises so white from the desert?’ You have approached the altar. The Lord Jesus calls you or calls your soul or the Church, and says, ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth’” (Song of Songs 1:1).
Two convictions underlie such “re–use,” says Ricoeur. First, the Scripture is a vast field of words and images bound together by the central story of the Bible. And second, “the spiritual sense is the sense intended by the author, that is, in the last analysis, by the Holy Spirit, who inspires the author.” “In this sense, the allegorical use of the Song of Songs is not aware of itself as an effect of reading, as the creation of new meaning through reinterpretation.”
Although the term “new” is ill–chosen, Ricoeur’s point is well taken. The spiritual sense is the sense intended by the author, because the Bible is given by God. Origen of Alexandria once observed in a sermon that there would be no point in reading the book in church (he was preaching on Leviticus!) “unless the readers received some edification from it.”
Allegory is not simply a technique for deriving meaning from the biblical text; it is also a way of saying things with different words and images. Some passages of Scripture are allegorical by intention, such as the story of the poor man and the ewe–lamb told by Nathan to David (2 Samuel 11), or the parable of the sower. But there are others things and words and images, e.g., the rock in the desert or the burning bush, that are capable of acquiring a sense that is deeper and richer than the surface meaning. And it delights the mind and pleases the soul to think of one thing in terms of another. Would the writings of St. Bernard or St. Theresa be able to touch so deeply (and so affectively) if they were shorn of the erotic and carnal language provided (and legitimated) by the Song of Songs?
Yet, there remains that intrusive word “new.” In spite of the laudable intention to vindicate tradition, occasionally one senses here a lingering biblicism. Philosophy, the authors say in the preface, brings concepts, arguments, theories “that were forged outside the biblical field of thought.” True, but not the full truth. As Ricoeur shows in his essay on Exodus 3:14, in medieval thought the question of “what is God” was driven by the question “who is God.” Gilson even went so far as to speak of a “metaphysics of Exodus,” one that was informed by the biblical tradition, in particular the verse, “I am who I am.”
Ricoeur acknowledges that it is more accurate to think of the “Christianization of Hellenism” than the “Hellenization of Christianity.” Would it not also be more reasonable to see the medieval philosophical (and exegetical) tradition as the outgrowth of biblical thought, as a finding, rather than as the creation of something new? What gave medieval thought as well as later Christian thinking its distinctive character was the fact of revelation, the givenness of the Bible. The “new” that is discovered in the text was only possible because the Bible was there in the first place. The creation of “new” meanings was less a creation of something new than a discovery of the old in new places or under new names. Biblical exegesis is ultimately about seeking that which is already known and finding that which must still be sought.
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.