Virtuoso Theology: The Bible and Its Interpretations
By Frances Young
Pilgrim Press, 198 pages, $15.95
In August 1995, in a crowded hall at Oxford, Frances Young reflected on her scholarly and religious pilgrimage. Journeying from the theological impasse of historicism to a rediscovery of the mystery and spiritual power of the Bible, this one-time contributor to The Myth of God Incarnate has produced in recent years several ambitious studies of the early Church. In part, Virtuoso Theology ”which looks to the theological exegesis of the Church Fathers for help in appropriating the Bible today”follows a general trend in contemporary patristic studies, taking early Christian biblical interpretation seriously and rejecting the view of the Fathers as ruthless allegorizers in a hapless pre-critical age. But the book is no mere apology for the Fathers. It is a theology of Scripture and an appeal for a renewed sacramental view of Scripture, investigating a set of classic issues”authority, canonicity, tradition, the doctrinal content of Scripture, inspiration, etc.”as they once again challenge the Church in postmodern times.
The organizing principle of Virtuoso Theology is the analogy of performance (the book was originally released in England as The Art of Performance: Towards a Theology of Holy Scripture ). The analogy is not new. The theological roots of a performance hermeneutic go back to the work of, among others, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar”though Young would say that it was certainly incipient in the Fathers, indeed in the Bible itself. Nicholas Lash and David Ford, among more recent scholars, have also helped to give performance greater theological credibility. Simply put, the analogy signals the fact that Christians have never merely interpreted the Bible in the sense of mechanically extracting an inherent, objective meaning from it. As Christians struggle with new social contexts and try to merge the world of Scripture with their own, the Bible comes to life precisely as they perform it afresh. Like good music or good drama, there is always room for diverse interpretation-in-performance, for improvisation.
But the question remains, What will constitute authentic performance true to sacred writ? What are the criteria of authenticity? Are they fixed by the texts themselves, by a traditional rule of faith, or by the strategies of religious communities? For Young, historical criticism has at least helped us to understand the constraints on, and humanity of, Scripture. Discovering that the Christian biblical canon did not fall from heaven but was a messy human business frees us to appreciate the Bible’s integrity and resilience as a classic repertoire of diverse writings that survived ongoing re-performance in communities that quoted them, alluded to them, and developed classic readings of them. The authority of the canon did not develop prior to the authority of communities and of their traditions.
But this only leads us deeper into the quest for authentic performance. A biblical canon can no more impose its own unitive framework on interpretation than a musical repertoire can direct its performance. Without an overarching framework there can be no authenticity or fidelity.
Enter the Church Fathers. It was Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century who”together with Tertullian, Origen, and others in the creative era when the Christian Bible was still in formation”sought an authoritative framework for performing the Scriptures by appealing to a Rule of Faith ( regula fidei ). In many of its versions in early Christian writers, the Rule appears as a portrait of the work of the Trinity in creation, incarnation, redemption, and consummation”a summary of what Scripture, in all its tensions and complexities, is really about.
According to Young, the Rule of Faith, which these early theologians claimed had been handed down from the apostles, was not the self-evident framework built into Scripture. It was rooted, to be sure, in traditional readings of Scripture emerging in the first and second centuries. But the Rule as elicited particularly by Irenaeus was itself already a kind of performance that engaged the interpreter’s own selection and virtuosity. Indeed, with Irenaeus that performance was backed by a full theological vision centered on Christ’s incarnation as a recapitulation of God’s purposes for the world.
It is this virtuosity that Young desires to recapture for Christian interpretation today. Her challenge is all the greater because of the profound fragmentation of the Church to which the classic repertoire of Scripture belongs; but diversity of perspective is vital to the process for Young. The threat of a tyranny of frameworks of interpretation was present even in the early Church. Although Paul and Irenaeus managed to uphold the integrity of the Scriptures (Old Testament) while reinterpreting them in the light of Jesus Christ, subsequent generations facilely flattened the Hebrew Scriptures by collapsing everything into a typology or prophecy of Christ”resulting in a disastrous Christian triumphalism, especially toward the Jews. Of course, Christ is in some sense the end of the Scriptures, but his incarnation is the reversal which leads us toward the end, the ending yet not the ending. Scripture does not provide us with the absolute ending of the story: we are seekers, pilgrims toward a mysterious finality, not definitive finders.
The heart of Virtuoso Theology is Young’s recommendation of strategies from patristic biblical interpretation that can enable modern Christians to recognize that the Bible is really about a gospel persuading and leading souls into spiritual mysteries transcending the human constraints of Scripture. Its authority is neither intrinsic to it nor simply accorded it by the believing community, but [lies] in its persuasive and converting power. Young’s analysis will perhaps be more satisfactory to teachers of spirituality than to systematic theologians, but she gives an elegant and compelling account of the manner in which the Fathers read the Bible with a view to the spiritual connections holding the texts together and drawing the reader in. There is much here to commend to contemporary Christian communities destitute of models by which to re-enact the Bible’s rich narrative score in liturgy, sacraments, preaching, ethics, and ministry.
If Young’s book disappoints at all, it is in her insistence on the categorical impossibility of identifying any stabilizing doctrinal groundwork of interpretation within the Bible itself. Scripture itself, she concludes, provides paradigms of pilgrimage, of progress and setback, of faith and hope, rather than concepts, doctrines, or definitions. To many it will seem an odd proposal that the Bible may lead toward the mysteries of the Trinity and Christ, but is not somehow in the first instance about those mysteries. Young rightly criticizes any facile hermeneutical circle between the Bible and the Church’s doctrines, but her study lacks a straightforward statement of what the genuine first principles of interpretative performance would look like.
Young is at last committed, however, to an essentially sacramental and Chalcedonian perspective on the Bible: two natures, divine and human, in one text. The convergence of those two natures is a mystery analogous to the mystery of the person of Jesus Christ. As the Word incarnate in Jesus assumed human diversity into his own person, so the Word incarnate in Scripture is able to assume the human limitations of Scripture”the Church must conversely struggle through those limitations to achieve intimacy with the person of the Word. Meanwhile, every interpretative performance fails to capture both the divinity and the humanity; we are left to improvise as faithfully as possible amid the inherent indeterminacy of meaning. Virtuosity and mystery belong together. As Young forcefully concludes, ultimately Christ himself challenges every presumption of a definitive performance. What remains to be seen from Young’s book, however, is how Christ’s sacramental incarnation in the Scriptures itself functions as criterion, and how his mysterious presence there (concomitant with the Spirit’s mysterious indwelling of the Church) can inspire our own performance.
Paul M. Blowers is Associate Professor of Church History at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee.