My students are afraid to preach—not all of them, but more and more, it seems. And it is often the brightest and most eloquent, those who are least justified in parroting Moses’s excuse—“I am slow of speech and of tongue”—who lack the confidence to open the Scriptures for the people of God. I write now for them, though they are not alone: I have the same feeling of inadequacy, and I know that others do as well.
I am not talking about the fear that has always—and appropriately—accompanied the interpretation and preaching of the Scriptures. When God calls Isaiah to be a prophet, Isaiah is rightly terrified to see God seated on his throne: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Any brashness we may feel in reading Scripture crumbles when we’re mindful of the holiness of God.
Our insecurities are different from the dread that took hold of Isaiah. In fact, they are its mirror opposite. Isaiah was terrified because God came too close. Isaiah knew that “man shall not see [God] and live” (Exod. 33:20). Today, we fear that God is too far off. We are afraid to speak for him, not because he is immanent, but because we feel he is remote.
God seems removed from us because we’re detached from Scripture. We have forfeited the confidence that we can “rightly divide” the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) because we prefer to keep the truth at a safe distance. Our anxiety arises from what I will call dissociation: As modern Christians in the West, we have difficulty seeing that the Scriptures speak of us. When we read the Bible, we think it’s about other people, distant from us in time, and we’re troubled by the question of how it all might apply to us.
The problem is not that we are reading the Bible historically—for it is in history, after all, that God reveals himself. Historical reading is necessary for understanding, and even historical criticism has made its contributions (though its insights are overestimated). But exegesis is not only, not even primarily, a historical undertaking. From my experience in sermon preparation, I know only too well the temptation to equate “authorial intent” with the one true meaning of the text. Poring over lexicons and word studies, studying the latest commentaries, investigating the various contexts that may have delivered to us the text as we have it—all this hard work may encourage us to believe that through it we can master the text and extract from it its true meaning.
But that is an illusion, one that rests on fundamentally flawed assumptions. Historical research yields only approximations, never certainties. Nor can the study of history as a determination of this-worldly cause and effect account for the economy of salvation. That economy is predicated on God in Christ creating the world, taking on human flesh, and bringing the New Jerusalem to earth. Authorial intent, in this case, must mean not primarily the human scribe’s intent, but God’s own aim in Jesus Christ. To approximate that intent requires not a quasi-scientific method of circumscribing the meaning of the text, but openness to the Spirit’s ways of speaking to us in and through the text.
An inspired text aims for inspired lives. When we approach the Scriptures in a prayerful search for God’s purposes in our lives, the encounter produces knowledge both of God and of ourselves. Dissociation yields to a recognition of the many ways in which the Scriptures implicate us. For our dissociation arises from a lack of conviction that the Scriptures are indeed divine.
The language of “application” illustrates the point. It’s a dead giveaway when we find ourselves asking how to “apply” the biblical text. The notion that Scripture must be applied to our lives assumes a gap between what the text meant and what it means—the former being objective, a fact of history, and the latter subjective, a matter of present interpretation. The underlying premise is that the biblical text was written not about me or about us but about them, back then. But since exegesis is not only, not even primarily, the historian’s job, there is no need to move between exegesis (as a historical discipline) and application (as practical theology or homiletics). The gap between exegesis and application simply doesn’t exist. To imagine that it does is to assume that the meaning of the text lies in history, and that only in the application stage do we bridge the distance.
This dissociation whereby we place ourselves outside the Scriptures is as old as Paradise. But something in our cultural moment renders us particularly susceptible. If premodern Christians were afraid to read Scripture because of God’s immanence, we modern Christians are daunted by Scripture because we’ve convinced ourselves of the complexity of appropriating this ancient text. The cause of our dissociation has changed, because awe and reverence have turned into diffidence and skepticism.
I am not suggesting that reading Scripture is or should be easy. Throughout the Christian tradition, interpreting Scripture has been compared to the hard work of digging up soil. St. Irenaeus, in the late second century, read Jesus’s parable of the hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44) as a reference to the laborious task of interpretation:
If anyone, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. . . . For Christ is the treasure that was hid in the field, that is, in this world (for “the field is the world”); but the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables. . . . When [the law] is read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ.
Irenaeus calls upon his readers to dig up the treasure—to look for Christ hidden in the Scriptures. Origen, in his Commentary on the Song of Songs, likewise makes the point that Christ is “hidden like a treasure in the Law and the Prophets.” The metaphors of digging up a field or searching for a hidden treasure make clear that interpretation is and should be effortful.
Reading the Bible is hard work, not primarily because we lack technical exegetical skills, but because we lack spiritual discernment. When we treat the text as an object to be mastered, we place ourselves at a distance from it and lack the spiritual spade we need to dig up Christ. Behind its scientific pretense, historicism hides an inability to recognize what the Scriptures are really for. Jesus reprimands the experts in the law because the very Scriptures they search “bear witness about me” (John 5:39). The experts know the Scriptures, but their eyes are closed to their deepest meaning. When Jesus appears to Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus, he enlightens them by citing the Scriptures: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). It isn’t until Jesus breaks the bread that the two travelers’ eyes are opened. Technical skills naturally enter into the process of interpretation. But more often our obstacles to proper reading are like those that plagued Jesus’s detractors, as well as Cleopas and his friend: problems of spiritual vision.
The early Christians’ boldness in interpretation arose from their faith in the risen Lord. Since they confessed that Jesus is both God and man, their opened eyes were able to see him in the Scriptures, both when these Scriptures talk about God and when they talk about us. Irenaeus insists that when God appears in theophanies, it is the pre-incarnate Son of God who appears. After quoting John 5:46, the Bishop of Lyons comments that
the Son of God is implanted everywhere throughout [Moses’s] writings: at one time, indeed, speaking with Abraham, when about to eat with him; at another time with Noah, giving to him the dimensions [of the ark]; at another, inquiring after Adam; at another, bringing down judgment upon the Sodomites; and again, when He becomes visible, and directs Jacob on his journey, and speaks with Moses from the bush.
For Irenaeus, when in the Old Testament God appears and addresses the faithful, he does so as the pre-incarnate Son of God.
We can also discern Jesus’s presence in the activities and experiences of God’s faithful people. Melito of Sardis writes in a homily dating from 160–70: “This is the Pascha of our salvation: this is the one who in many people endured many things. This is the one who was murdered in Abel, tied up in Isaac, exiled in Jacob, sold in Joseph, exposed in Moses, slaughtered in the lamb, hunted down in David, dishonored in the prophets.” Using similar language, Irenaeus suggests that Christ “was sold with Joseph, and He guided Abraham; was bound along with Isaac, and wandered with Jacob; with Moses He was a Leader, and, respecting the people, Legislator. He preached in the prophets.” For the early Fathers, we learn to dig up the treasure once we see the relevance of the Incarnation for reading Scripture: The Incarnation gives us both knowledge of God and knowledge of self.
A few examples help make clear how such christological exegesis functions. In his Homilies on Joshua, Origen takes his cue from the fact that the Septuagint renders Joshua’s name as Iēsous. He begins his first homily magnificently with a reference to Philippians 2:9: “God gave the name that is above every name to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For this ‘name that is above every name’ is Jesus.” Origen notes that Moses was unable to lead the army into the Promised Land and that he asked Jesus (Joshua) to do so instead. Origen, therefore, discovers in the name Joshua—and in the entire narrative of the book that bears his name—a sacrament of a new covenant mystery. “I immediately see the symbol of a mystery (mysterii video sacramentum),” comments Origen.
Origen’s approach was a common one. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor discusses premodern Christians’ interpretation of the binding of Isaac as a type for Christ’s death on the cross: “These two events were linked through their immediate contiguous places in the divine plan. They are drawn close to identity in eternity, even though they are centuries (that is, ‘aeons’ or ‘saecula’) apart. In God’s time there is a sort of simultaneity of sacrifice and Crucifixion.”
A christological reading of the Scriptures redresses the problem of dissociation by bringing the Scriptures, and the God of the Scriptures, right to our doorstep. If a detached historical approach removes the subject matter of the Scriptures from us, a christological approach collapses the distance between the biblical text and its reader.
If Christ is in the Scriptures, then so are we. Many of us, in reading Psalm 22:1 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), have reflected on how marvelously fitting it is that both Jesus and we ourselves take these words on our lips. St. Augustine would put it this way: Christ speaks these words not just in his own person (ex persona sua) but also in our person (ex persona nostra). We can make the psalm our own because Christ identifies with us and we with him.
The antidote to skepticism, then, is the Incarnation. The way to regain boldness in handling Scripture is to start with the truth of who Christ is and where he expects us to dig him up. We must begin with the ancient rule of faith (regula fidei), which centers on the saving identity of Christ as both God and man. It is faith, not technical skill, that teaches us to discern Christ in the Old Testament Scriptures, in the form of God and in the form of man. Christological exegesis is spiritual exegesis inasmuch as it is through spiritual discernment that we see Christ in the Law and the Prophets.
Modern historical exegesis, in both its traditional grammatical-historical form and its historical-critical one, relies on dissociation. That is, modern historiography treats the text as a detached object to be analyzed and dissected scientifically. Andrew Louth warns against what he calls the “fallacy of imitative form,” the fallacy of attempting to treat the humanities, including biblical exegesis, with a precision borrowed from the sciences. The search for “method” in biblical interpretation, explains Louth, is an outcome of this fallacy.
When a biblical exegete sees it as his task to determine what a particular biblical author really meant, he assigns previous attempts at exegesis to the dustbin of history. He no longer reads earlier exegetes as sources of truth; instead, they become stepping-stones explaining how we’ve arrived at where we are today. Such are the consequences of the modern focus on method and scientific precision.
One may ask, don’t we need a kind of objective distancing from the subject matter in order to assess the historical meaning of the text? The answer is no, but to see why this is so, two observations must be made, the one negative, the other positive. First the negative point. The subject matter of the biblical text is the triune God who reveals himself in Christ through the Holy Spirit. What the question suggests we do is set aside (even if just momentarily) our faith commitments so that we may “properly” assess the text’s historical meaning—which, presumably, is something akin to authorial intent. Setting aside theological commitments, however, does not give us better access to history—instead, it gives us a narrower (usually a strictly naturalistic) view of it.
If God truly reveals himself within history, then to bracket faith in God—even if “only” for methodological purposes—means to strip our historical awareness of the element that allows us to make sense of history in the first place. As Louth puts it, when we strip away what does not fit within a “narrowly defined, rationalistic enterprise,” we end up explaining away the past altogether: “Nothing like traditional Christianity can survive in such an environment, for such traditional Christianity claims that through certain specific events in the past, God has revealed himself to men.” By separating reader and text, or subject and object, we turn Holy Scripture into an alien entity, describing a history from which we have already removed ourselves. Our late-modern loss of confidence is the inevitable and logical outcome of our attempts to assess the historical meaning of the text.
The positive point is this: The triune God who reveals himself in the divine Scriptures is the God of providence, the one who foresees and oversees the unfolding of history. The chronological, “horizontal” unfolding of temporal events is predicated on a theologically prior “vertical” bond between creator and creature. God’s bond with his creation, including human beings, makes any attempt to separate so-called natural events from their supernatural source illegitimate—silly, really.
The late John Webster, in his book Holy Scripture, points out that today we find it difficult to affirm that “texts with a ‘natural history’ may function within the communicative divine economy.” The reason, explains Webster, is that we have accepted a separation of history and eternity. In reality, however, nature is never independent from its supernatural source: God in Christ. For its continued existence, creation depends from moment to moment on the God who creates it.
In epistemological terms, supernatural convictions precede and undergird natural ones. Faith in Christ always comes first, and this faith allows us to make sense of the world around us and of the unfolding of history. Faith is not an obstacle to historical understanding; it makes historical understanding possible.
St. Gregory of Nyssa divides The Life of Moses into two parts, which he calls history (historia) and contemplation (theōria). In the first part, he exposits “in outline [Moses’s] life as we have learned it from the divine Scriptures.” In the second, he seeks out “the spiritual understanding which corresponds to the history.” It is obvious from this structure that the fourth-century Cappadocian recognizes an important distinction between history and spirit, or between literal meaning and spiritual or christological meaning. My hunch is that Gregory would have acknowledged what people today call a “relative autonomy” of nature (though the word “autonomy” remains a misnomer, since the law of nature is not its own but God’s).
Gregory never turns the distinction between historical and spiritual reading into a separation. Scholars often focus on the second part of The Life of Moses, wherein Gregory presents his beautiful allegorical reading (theōria) of Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai. The first part, however, is no less intriguing, for Gregory’s historia is rather unlike the historical exegesis that we’re familiar with.
At Mount Sinai, Moses approached the darkness and “entered the inner sanctuary of the divine mystical doctrine.” Moses was told to construct a tabernacle in imitation of the “immaterial creation.” On the mountain, he “participated” in the divine life forty days and forty nights, which was possible because (since he lived “beyond nature”) “his body had no need of food during that time.” Meanwhile, “by some mysterious antidote,” the Israelites who looked at the bronze serpent were healed of poisonous snake bites. It was “the divine power at work in the wood” that caused Aaron’s rod to bud. And when the time came for Moses to depart from this life, age had not deteriorated his appearance, because throughout his life he had retained an “unchangeable beauty.” All of this is just the “literal history,” claims Gregory. Clearly, it is not a history from which faith commitments have been removed.
Gregory involves the reader directly in the narrative. Not for a moment does he allow the reader to distance himself. Gregory acknowledges an objection that sounds like an early form of identity politics: “How shall I imitate them, since I am not a Chaldaean as I remember Abraham was, nor was I nourished by the daughter of the Egyptian as Scripture teaches about Moses, and in general I do not have in these matters anything in my life corresponding to anyone of the ancients?” Gregory has little patience for such crises of confidence. He replies that the biblical story of Moses is about the life of virtue, which is a matter of timeless concern: “We reply that we do not consider being a Chaldaean a virtue or a vice, nor is anyone exiled from the life of virtue by living in Egypt or spending his life in Babylon, nor again has God been known to the esteemed individuals in Judea only, nor is Zion, as people commonly think, the divine habitation.”
Gregory is convinced that Scripture speaks to us directly because our own lives are on display in it. He rules any distancing techniques out of court. National identity, race, gender, and wealth do matter, but for Gregory they in no way block our access to the Scriptures. Instead, we see virtue on display in the life of Moses and are called to practice it, regardless of circumstance.
For Gregory, created existence always already participates in the life of God. He maintains that we have being only by virtue of our participation in the being of God. This implies that our positive qualities—our virtues—depend on God and have their being by participating in divine Virtue (with a capital V). Gregory identifies the capital V with Christ. Human beings grow in purity or virtue by drawing from or participating in the Purity or Virtue that is Christ.
Thus, Gregory’s allegorical exegesis (as that of the Fathers in general) has its center in the Incarnation. God reveals divine virtue in the person of Christ, and it is by faith in Christ that we come to participate in divine virtue. For Gregory, there is not a hair’s breadth of distance between the reader and the text. His christological allegorizing implicates the reader from the start.
Traditionally, Christians have recognized that Scripture’s primary and proper location is in the Church’s liturgy. We have been habituated to the proper reading of Scripture by our encounter in the liturgy with the Church’s tradition of exegesis. I am writing this article on the day after Ascension Day. When in Psalm 24 the gates lift up their heads and the ancient doors are lifted up, the answer to David’s question, “Who is this King of glory?,” is not for a moment in doubt. The King is Jesus, and his ascent to Mount Zion is his Ascension into heaven. And when in Psalm 47 the peoples clap their hands and shout with loud songs of joy because “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet,” there’s no need to equivocate about Jesus’s identity as the one who has ascended to the right hand of the Father. These typological or allegorical readings are traditional, and almost second nature to us. We learn them in church.
Advocates of purely historical exegesis ask the reader to trust the biblical scholar. That demand removes the authority of interpretation from the Church to the academy. Not surprisingly, it is often my best students whose confidence is most shaken by this shift. They quickly notice that academics seem never to be able to agree on anything, certainly not on how to interpret a given biblical text. By contrast, the Church throughout the centuries has read Psalms 24 and 47 as meaning that Christ ascends into heaven, rules the nations from the right hand of the Father, and is worthy of worship from humans and angels alike. Arbitrariness, sometimes thought to be a problem in premodern interpretation, is actually the obvious Achilles’ heel of historicist exegesis.
David Steinmetz, in his essay “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” expresses the same insight: “Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted—as it deserves to be—to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.” Some members of the biblical academic guild continue to ask the faithful to trust their scientific prowess over the authority of the Church. Their historicism ignores the fact that the Bible’s proper place is not the academy but the Church. It ignores, as well, the fact that the only reason academics read these particular (scriptural) books rather than others is because of the powerful role they have played as Holy Scripture within the tradition of the Church. The demand that believers wait for the exegetical green light to emanate from the academic’s office before they can properly understand the Bible is no less imperious and no less damaging than attempts by the medieval Church to keep the Bible out of the hands of the laity.
My advice is this: Follow the Church’s tradition in looking for Christ in the Scriptures. By all means plunder the gold of the Egyptians when the opportunity arises—truth is found in sundry places, and historical exegesis makes genuine contributions. But keep in mind why you came to this text. It was to know Christ Jesus and to be found in him (Phil. 3:8–9). If Christ is the subject matter and you are in him, then you are there, along with the treasure itself. Don’t be pulled out of the text, for that’s the dissociation that yields the debilitating uncertainty we’re all struggling with. Stick to the text, look for Christ—don’t stop digging, for the treasure is there. You’ll discover you’re one of its gems.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House.