I am tempted to cut and paste Don Collett’s superb contribution to this Conversation and pass it off as my response (though I’m also tempted to remove the word “probably” from the clause “why Leithart is probably right”). As Collett correctly observes, “to argue that the real issue at stake in reading the Bible is a matter of finding the proper controls strikes me as a misguided project that arose in the late 18th century.” I share his judgment that the other responses in this Conversation are “hard to disentangle . . . from the project of modernity.” Like Collett, I don’t think “the modern fixation on method and controls has given us a better reading of Scripture,” and I fear he’s right that “we’ve thought ourselves ‘out of’ the world of Scripture and into another world where we enjoy the status of detached observers, out of the reach of Scripture’s judgments.”

Alastair Roberts suggests that learning Scripture is less like learning our first language than like learning a second language. This seems to reflect the same modern stance in that it locates us as outsiders to God’s Word. By contrast, Collett rightly notes that through baptism we are united to the “ecclesial body of the risen Christ and its language for confessing Christ. . . . through baptism and faith I . . . belong to that language.” Grafted into Christ, we know that “Jesus is the promised Christ of Scripture.” This is the “Rule” that governs all rules and methods, but it’s not a methodological axiom but personal communion with Christ in the Spirit. As a practical matter, baptized infants don’t start outside and have to work their way in. They’re in from the get-go. My children learned to speak and think Bible as they learned to speak, and the Bible was one of the first books they learned to read. Their imaginations were typological before they knew the word “typology” or could formulate any sort of theory or guidelines for typological interpretation. For many Christian families, the Bible is much closer to a first language than Alastair suggests. Though there are always mysteries yet to plumb, I find no biblical or historical support for the idea that Christian teachers are supposed to interpret Scripture “haltingly, like foreigners.”

Alastair says there’s “little agreement on how a great many parts of Scripture are to be read.”

Though that needs qualification, I’ll grant the point for the sake of argument. My question is, How much does this disagreement or variety matter? In de doctrina Christiana, Augustine offers the two great commandments as hermeneutical rules. Since edification is the aim of biblical interpretation and teaching, any reading that encourages love of God and neighbor is commendable. Augustine isn’t a relativist; some readings conform to and open the text better than others. But the measure of a good reading is its power to form Christ in the community of believers, rather than its conformity to a set of carefully articulated rules. Explicit rules may exacerbate disagreement. A grammatical-historical exegete will say the text means X and only X, a typological exegete will argue for Y, while a post-colonialist reader will insist it means Z. A generous Augustinian exegete will be able to affirm some of what each says. The fragmentation of the church herself damaged our reading of Scripture far more than the absence of agreed rules. If we’ve grieved the Spirit with our divisions, is it any wonder that we aren’t being led into all truth?

Of course, I am not, and did not, argue for uncontrolled reading. Both Alastair and James Bejon focus on my critique of rules, but miss the force of my positive argument. Alastair captures part of my point when he observes that rules develop “over time” and need to be “open to inspection and susceptible to revision.” But then he says that, in the absence of articulated rules, the church is “dependent on the private illumination of certain gifted parties.” No. My point is that interpretation is not private, but communal, interpersonal, conversational. As I wrote, “Other people provide the brakes and checks.” Even if we prioritize rules, we need other people, because rules can’t enforce themselves. In the end, other readers will have to make judgments about whether or not our reading is sound. As Alastair puts it at the end of his essay, “we submit to the examination of others.” Alastair wants to submit rules for inspection and correction. It’s far more critical that we submit our readings.

James poses some sharp questions: “How does Leithart know the early Church made mistakes. . . . How does Leithart know his community is right and (some of) the early Church’s mistaken?” The answer is that I form my best judgments about a reading, and then put my judgments out for inspection and correction. I may be wrong. I don’t measure my interpretive judgments against some criteria that transcend the give and take of mutual correction. Besides, James’s questions can be turned back to him: How does he know his rules are right, especially if, as Alastair has said, the rules are revisable?

Perhaps my vision is distorted by my cheery postmillennialism, but it seems that James is looking to short-circuit the labor of interpretation, which is the work of millennia. James is certainly right that churches may “regress in their knowledge and interpretation of Scripture,” but we trust the Spirit to guide us into all truth over time, a long time. On many issues, we can’t wait to see how things come out. James is right that every generation must test all things and hold fast to the truth. But I suspect our tests are sometimes distorted by panic and impatience. And I doubt that foregrounding rules is the way to perfect our testing. Immersing ourselves in the Word and cultivating the fruits of the Spirit in a unified church will be more effective.

James’s questions raise the wider concern: How does one identify a good reader and a good reading? Many factors play into this. The best readers recognize Jesus as the center of Scripture and submit to Him and His Spirit; they respect the text and its claims; their readings account for everything in the text and attend to detail; they read in the humility of the Spirit. All these are crucial, but the most important factor is found, as it were, on the other end of reading – not in an a priori rule or readerly virtue but the impact of the reading. Michael Polanyi said we know we’ve made contact with reality when our discovery foreshadows “an indeterminate range of future discoveries.”[1] A good reading isn’t one that battens down the edges of meaning, but one that “opens” the Scriptures (Luke 24:45; Acts 8:35). A good reader habitually opens fresh vistas, so that our hearts burn within us as we glimpse a landscape for future exploration. Jim Hamilton projects modern concerns onto Justin and Origen when he suggests they concluded that Rahab’s cord marked a new Passover by “calculating.” I suspect any calculation happened after the fact, after they saw the connection in a blaze of insight, a sudden “Aha!” moment when the pieces fit together with a satisfying snap.

Hamilton rejects my claim (which is really James Jordan’s)[2] that humanity matures from priest to king to prophet as “nonsense.” I wonder what this means. Does it mean “I’ve never heard that before”? Or, “I can’t immediately see how it makes sense, so I’ll reject it”? Or, “I have thoroughly examined the evidence and have determined that it doesn’t fit the text”? In any case, his (rash?) dismissal provides a useful, though negative, illustration of the argument I’ve presented. I urge Jim to let the suggestion percolate a while; before you give up on it entirely, wait to see if it opens the Scripture and foreshadows “an indeterminate range of future discoveries.”

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

[1] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015) 143.

[2] See Jordan, From Bread To Wine: Creation, Worship, and Christian Maturity (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2019).

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