“Participatory” does a lot of work in Matthew Levering’s latest book, Participatory Biblical Exegesis, a contribution to the burgeoning contemporary interest in theological interpretation of Scripture. It refers, above all, to a conception of history that, Levering argues, should serve as foundation for biblical exegesis. In proposing a participatory vision of history, Levering, who teaches at Ave Maria University, challenges ideas that shaped the development of historical-critical biblical scholarship.
From the rise of nominalism in the Late Middle Ages through the modern period, history has been conceived in an atomistic and “linear” fashion. History consists of discrete events, and the forces of historical causation are all immanent within history. It’s not surprising that secularists would gravitate to a linear notion of history, but theologians and biblical scholars have eagerly accepted the same theory. The result for biblical studies, Levering shows, is a gradual but unmistakable drift from theological interpretation of Scripture toward a purely immanent understanding of the history recorded in the Bible and of the goals of exegesis.
He traces this drift by examining selected interpreters of John 3 from Aquinas, whom he arrestingly describes as the last great patristic-medieval biblical commentator, through Nicholas of Lyra and Erasmus, to Raymond Brown. By the twentieth century, historical interpretation of the text has been severed from theological consideration. Brown is an advocate of sensus plenior, but he doesn’t see it as part of exegesis strictly speaking, and in his later work he hands it over to the theologian rather than to the exegete. Levering neatly summarizes the rift between theology and exegesis by noting that neither Scotus nor Ockham wrote commentaries, leaving the task to mystics.
A “participatory” understanding of history, by contrast, recognizes that history is an “ongoing participation in God’s active providence.” To understand history, it’s necessary to consider its “vertical” as well as its “horizontal” dimensions. The implications for exegesis are obvious. If history is purely human, then a nontheological interpretation of the historical record suffices. If, however, “history” is humanity’s participation in God’s providence, then “history” includes robustly theological/metaphysical events and realities, such as creation, the call of Abraham, exodus, exile, return, incarnation, Pentecost, and the ongoing participation in Christ that is the Church. History writing is a record of divine interventions, and if this is history, then a “historical” interpretation of Scripture has to reckon with theological and metaphysical realities.
Levering’s decision to focus attention on history is a brilliant theological and rhetorical move. Theologically, Levering recognizes that exegesis always assumes some conception of history. Typology, as de Lubac recognized, was not so much a way of reading texts as a way of reading history. Rhetorically, by focusing on history, Levering upends historical-critical exegesis in its own living room. Historical-critical scholarship has boasted of its historical achievements, often with considerable justification. Yet it has also used historical scholarship as a solvent of theological interpretation. Levering could have taken the easy, polite route of saying that historical critics only need to add a theological layer to their historical interpretation. Instead, he mounts a direct assault: “Historical exegesis can’t even get history right.”
But Levering is ambiguous about the implications of this argument, largely because Participatory Biblical Exegesis contains too much meta-exegesis and too little actual exegesis. Levering summarizes others’ interpretations, but his most illuminating examples are from Aquinas, who, for all his attention to the literal sense, read the Bible without the aids of modern historical scholarship. Levering’s examples often focus on comparatively easy texts from the Gospel of John. As a result, it’s not clear what contemporary participatory exegesis should look like, and it’s not clear how radical Levering intends his proposal to be.
At times it appears that theological exegesis should be “added” to historical-critical endeavors, leaving the latter modes of exegesis more or less in place. Yet that is at odds with much of what Levering writes. Taken in a stronger sense, Levering is arguing that historical-critical exegesis is simply illegitimate, since the object of its studyimmanent historydoesn’t exist. Historical-critical tools, forged precisely to exclude participatory history, need to be retooled in fundamental ways, and all the energy and resources devoted to that centuries-long project should be redirected toward faith-driven theological exegesis. This is what Levering seems to intend, but if so, his proposal is broader than he indicates, because history didn’t stop being “participatory” after the canon of Scripture closed. Should modern historical scholarship as such be abandoned in favor of “theological history”? And what about the other social sciences: If history is participatory, can sociology be anything but “theological sociology”? Aren’t there “vertical” as well as “horizontal” dimensions to economies and polities? A strong Levering thesis sounds quite radically orthodox.
Though centrally concerned with history, Levering also uses “participation” to describe various facets of the practice of biblical interpretation. The goal of studying Scripture is sapiential rather than strictly scientific. Theological interpretation seeks transforming communion with God the Teacher. Biblical exegesis is not interpretation of a dead “text” but a living communion in which the words of Scripture mediate God’s transforming, saving presence. Interpreters should engage in specific “participatory” practices, by which they participate in the Christological and pneumatological realities they study in Scripture. The object of investigationGod’s providential historyis not “out there”; interpreters participate in the reality they study.
A focus on communion with God as Teacher does not, however, eliminate human authors or teachers, a point that Levering intriguingly develops by focusing on the Bible in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Historical-critical exegesis has been defended on ecumenical and interreligious grounds. It claims to be a neutral method that allows scholars of different faiths to find common ground in the historical meaning of the text. Levering argues that historical-critical interpretation, in fact, ignores what is most important to Jewish and Christian readers. What unites Jews and Christians is their commitment to a “participatory understanding of historical reality.”
In a final chapter, Levering addresses the Enlightenment charge, lodged especially by Hobbes and Spinoza, that exegesis by committed believers is inherently violent because inherently sectarian. If exegesis is to be peaceable, Hobbes argued, it must be wrested from cynical priests who complicate the simple message of the gospel to maintain their mystical control of the masses, and handed over to kings. Levering responds by arguing, in dialogue with Stephen Fowl and appeal to Aquinas, that peaceable interpretation is found only in the Church, where interpreters exercise a freedom to be bound to Christ.
Levering is a connoisseur of unfashionable things: providence, metaphysics, God as Teacher, Thomas Aquinas. His judgments are almost invariably sound. He criticizes the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible” for excluding “sapiential practices” that provide the matrix of biblical study, for treating the Old Testament as if it were equivalent to the Jewish Bible, and for ignoring the participatory dimensions of history. Following Stephen Fowl, Levering argues that Yale’s Brevard Childs, for all his contributions to the revival of theological interpretation, leaves historical-critical norms in control of interpretation. Levering asks whether Fowl’s valuable work is disturbed by an individualistic account of freedom and authority. Fowl rejects a “consumerist” model of church authority, yet also worries that the Church might become “authoritarian.” Levering wisely points out that a nonconsumerist church authority necessarily challenges believers and thus always runs the risk of being dubbed “authoritarian.” “Cruciform” church authority, he notes, doesn’t have to be soft authority. It might well be authority despised and rejected of men.
The book is overstuffed with notes and bibliography (the text ends on page 148, but the endnotes and bibliography carry on to page 302). This gives the book an encyclopedic quality and the reader plenty of direction for further reading, but ultimately the surfeit of citations distracts more than it enhances. Given the ecumenical breadth of contemporary theological interpretation, Levering’s discussion of church authority needs to be augmented with a fuller and more direct treatment of the role of the magisterium.
Participatory Biblical Exegesis leaves as many questions as it answers, but the questions it raises are the most important ones for the future of theological interpretation of Scripture, one of the most promising developments in recent theology.
Peter Leithart is professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is also the author of many books, including Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature and 1 & 2 Kings: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.
Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation by Matthew Levering