Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Eastern Orthodox hermeneutics

Swinburne on Interpretation of the Old Testament

“The modern world… has become very conscious of the fact that some passages of the Old Testament cannot be treated [in a literal or straightly historical way]; for they state (and not merely presuppose) scientific and historical falsities, or they represent God as commanding immoral conduct (not merely conduct which might seem less than the best), or otherwise behaving immorally. It has therefore tended to say that the Old Testament contains a mixture of truth and falsity, revelation and misunderstanding; and that attitude of course leads to a fairly low view of the sacredness of Scripture. And if one reads the books of the Old Testament on their own, either straight or historically, one must certainly say that, if God was inspiring the development of Israel and its recording in the Old Testament, his inspiration got mixed with much error. But what the modern world has forgotten is that the Church, which followed Irenaeus and subsequent Fathers in proclaiming the Old Testament to be Scripture, also followed the way which he initiated in interpreting in metaphorical senses many passages of that Testament which were not edifying if taken in straight or historical senses. As noted above, Irenaeus himself tends to assume that all such passages are to be understood in straight or historical ways, even if they had also a more important metaphorical meaning. But his successors took the logical step of maintaining that these passages had only a metaphorical meaning (or more than one metaphorical meaning). This metaphorical meaning is a meaning forced on the passage, not by considerations of the need to make sense of that passage as a passage of the biblical book taken on its own, but by the need to make sense of it as part of a Christian Scripture.”

Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy p 265

8. MG - January 23, 2009

I am likewise fascinated by Swinburne’s solution to the issue of OT immorality, and the fact that it isn’t overwhelmingly implausible (once we jettison Protestant assumptions about the Bible–which are not themselves plausible).


The Antiochian School of Biblical Exegesis

Besides the great names you already know about and you will hear in the Church from time to time, Antioch became known in the fourth and fifth centuries for its tradition of biblical exegesis represented in Diodor of Tarsus, the city of the Apostle Paul, his students Theodore of Mopsuestia and St John Chrysostom, as well as later Theodoret of Cyrus. Unlike the biblical approach prevailing in Alexandria at that time which made much use of allegory in its interpretation of Scripture, the Antiochian school stressed the primacy of historical exegesis.

The Alexandrian Allegory

Allegory tends to find different meanings in the one text, the premise being that men undergo three different stages in their seeking after God and union with Him: the lowest being the 'physical', then the 'psychological', and the highest being the 'spiritual.' At each of these levels, the allegorists say, man is capable of a different understanding of the same text, which thus offers different levels of meanings, the deepest being the 'spiritual.' From there it was only a tiny step to saying: the text itself has three different meanings! Now the fallacy as well as danger of such an approach lies in that its premise was rooted in a philosophical system that was alien to the Bible. This system conceived of creation as being essentially evil and thus of man's salvation as an 'inward' discovery, as well as growth in the knowledge of God, with whom eventually man becomes one. Consequently, history -- which is interaction between man and his fellow within the setting of creation -- is discredited as irrelevant. Furthermore, the text itself of the Bible becomes, as it were, at the mercy of the individual interpreter who could thus stretch it as far as his own interests dictate. In other words, the Bible becomes a mere crutch to prop our own preset ideas and preferences instead of the challenging and -- why not? -- upsetting Word of God.

The Antiochian Approach to the Bible

The Antiochian school reacted against such an approach and underscored the historicity of the Bible, namely that the latter consists of texts written by individuals to others at a given time of human history in the specific language as well as mindset of that time. Consequently, a given text can have only the one meaning intended by its author.


1 comment:

  1. Chrysostom said that Moses was the greatest of all Prophets, because all others predict the future, whereas he was the only one to prophesy about the past. I guess seeing Genesis in this light is more helpful than trying to make it fit into a literalism that would be impossible for Daniel or the Apocalyps.