Friday, March 5, 2010

Exegesis of Scripture

It is standard in interpreting Scripture to ask questions like: "What did the Paul hope to accomplish by this passage?" or "What motivated the prophet to write this verse?" or "What must the p been thinking given that he wrote this?" These questions are interesting to ask and the answers seem to illuminate our understanding of Scripture. We investigate secular texts in exactly the same way. It potentially illuminates our understanding of Aristotle's thought to ask why he waited until Met. H.6 to give a solution to the problems of Met. Z.

But there is a crucial difference between the secular case and Scripture: Scripture is authoritative. But, I think, what is authoritative is the text that the human author wrote, rather than the human author's motivations and thinking behind that text. The inferred motivations and thinking of the human author give us insight into what the text means (more strongly, I think that speaker-meaning is the relevant kind of meaning for Scripture, but the point remains even if one denies this), and hence help us know what is being taught. But the human author's motivations and thinking, in and of themselves, are quite fallible, while, in the words of the Vatican II ecumenical council, "everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit" (Dei Verbum 11, emphasis added) and hence is true.

Let me argue for the claim that the author's motivations and thinking are not in and of themselves authoritative, though I may need to qualify it. Suppose we infer from internal and external evidence that an author wrote the text to a particular audience with the confident belief that the text would convince the audience of some proposition. Can we conclude that it is authoritatively taught that the audience was in fact convinced of that proposition? Surely not. We gain an insight into the intentions of the author, and this helps us understand what the text means, but the author's motivating belief is not authoritative. Or for an even more obvious example, from the fact that a sacred author writes a sentence s we can typically infer that he thought s was orthographically and grammatically correct and stylistically good Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. But this claim about grammar and spelling is not authoritative. Scripture is not to be taken as an authoritative examplar of style—that would be like the confusion of apostle and genius that Kierkegaard inveighs against (this is probably a point at which Christian attitudes to Scripture differ from Islamic ones).

It is sometimes possible to infer from the fact that the author wrote a sentence s that asserts the proposition p that there is some other proposition, q, which he also believed. For instance, suppose the author writes with great emphasis that anyone who does A will be doomed for eternity. We might be able infer from the emphasis that the author believes that some people do A, or at least that it is quite possible to do A. This belief, however, is not asserted by the author and need not be authoritative. However, the belief does help us with the interpretation of what the author meant. For instance, suppose we have two ways of interpreting "A": A1 and A2. Suppose, further, that internal and/or external evidence shows that the author probably would not have believed that anybody does A1 but would have thought that some people do A2. This now gives us strong evidence for the claim that the author meant A2 by "A". Thus, probably, we are being authoritatively taught that those who do A2 are doomed for eternity. But it does not follow from this that we are being authoritatively taught that anybody actually does A2, even though our exegesis depended on attributing that belief to the author.

However, the above needs to be qualified. We must avoid the serious theological mistake of limiting the inspiration of Scripture to the inerrance of its assertions—the inerrance of assertions is a consequence of inspiration, but does not exhaust inspiration. There are large chunks of Scripture—much of the Psalms, for instance—where the illocutionary act is not assertion, but, say, prayer. Those parts are inspired as well, but the doctrine of the inerrance of Scriptural assertions says nothing about them. Similarly, even in the parts where assertion is the (primary?) illocutionary act, we should be open to the idea that something more is going on than inerrance. (Besides, inerrance is something basically negative—a preventing of error—while inspiration is a positive thing.) Thus, while what should be open to the idea that it does not exhaust the authority of an assertion of Scripture to say that we need to believe its content.

In particular, this raises the question of whether what is implicated by a text of Scripture is also authoritative. Here I will be entirely speculative. I think we need to distinguish between two kinds of implicatures. The first kind is where we can infer from some hypotheses about the text, such as that it tends to obeys Gricean maxims, that the author believed something, but the author does not intend for us to make that inference. The second is where the author intends for us to make some such inference. In the case where the author does not intend the inference, but we can make it nonetheless because we're clever, the inferred belief is not authoritative. In the case where the author intends for us to make the inference, we still need to distinguish between cases. The author may just want us to infer an autobiographical fact about him, that he happens to believe p. (For instance, maybe by a particular way of phrasing a question, the author wants to indicate to the reader which theological faction in Jerusalem he belongs to, and membership in the theological faction may be defined by believing p.) In that case, p need not be authoritatively taught. But the author may intend for us to learn that p from the text. In that case, p is authoritatively taught. Though maybe then p was in fact asserted?

In any case, in untangling these issues there is material for someone who is both interested in Biblical exegesis and philosophy of language for years of fruitful research. I am hoping that these reflections also show the necessity of a deep familiarity (greater than my passing acquaintance) with contemporary analytic philosophy of language to serious work on the theology of biblical inspiration.


Adrian Woods said...

Scripture is not intended to be an epistemological criterion for knowledge. This is why the Vatican attempts to ground the authority of scripture in the Holy Spirit.

Rather scripture is a means of grace through which the HS transforms the participant. It is primarily formative not informative.

See, William Abraham's "Canon and Criterion" 2002 OUP. See also most any patristic, they tend to see scripture a in terms of formation rather than information.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It clearly follows from Dei Verbum 11 that everything asserted in Scripture is true, and this the Fathers all agree with. Now whether or not the primary purpose of Scripture is to give us knowledge, if we know that everything asserted in Scripture is true, then we can gain knowledge from Scripture.

But why have an artificial division between the formative and the informative? The truth forms by informing. Virtue informs by forming. The two are not to be separated. The transformation of the participant is a transformation that conforms both the intellect and the will to the mind of Christ, and it does so not only directly by the activity of the Holy Spirit, but by the creaturely causality of learning from Scripture, including learning propositions taught by Scripture. The Fathers do not separate formation from knowledge.

Adrian Woods said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adrian Woods said...

You have as early as Origen in on first principles say that if you read scripture literally your going to have problems. So, I dont know what you mean by true and I dont know what you mean by ALL fathers.

Again, you can look at the history of chrisitianity and see how different theologians from different communities wrestled with the questions of truth and knowledge as it relates to the Bible. It is a different conversation before Aquinas than it is after, where Luther asserts Sola Scriptura.

Its not an artificial division. There is a distinction between the acquisition of a bunch of information and the formation of a person. Patristics and Orthodox theologians are more concerned with the latter.

Pseudo-Dionysus argues that you must forget everything you think you know. Knowledge and Propositions are no good for forming you into the kind of person who becomes one with God.

St. Symeon the New Theologian argues that concepts and knowledge gained from books are worthless compared to divine illumination. Divine illumination is gained by the participant who conforms to the image of Christ by denying herself. Eucharist, Baptism, Contemplation, Meditation, Spiritual Examplars, and the entire canonical tradition (not just the Bible) all function to cultivate humility.

Maximus and even Nyssa are much more in line with Symeon. Augustine On Christian Doctrine says that Scripture is no longer needed once it has served its purpose of forming the participant.

You are right that transformation conforms intellect and will. This does not mean that the Bible is a criterion for knowledge.

It is unclear what you mean by creaturely causality of learning scripture, including propositions. It is fine for you to assert that, whatever you mean by that, but you ought not to confuse that assertion with what Symeon, Maximus, and Origen are doing. For them, the formation of the person to cultivate humility is central. Scripture has a primarily formative role. Not an acquisition of a bunch of true propositions. Again see Christian Theology from the reformation through the twentieth century as they conflate the canon to the bible and try to make the Bible an epistemic criterion for knowledge. Or see Abraham's book as suggested.

You are right that the Fathers and the Mothers do not separate formation from knowledge. This does not support your case.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am afraid the prospects for a definition of truth--as of just about any other non-stipulative term--are bleak. We can give rough paraphrases, like correspondence between mind or thought or sentence or proposition and reality. We can also give examples of the use of the word. For instance, the sentence "Snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white, and the sentence "God is love" is true if and only if God is love.

We need to distinguish between the literalistic and the literal meaning of a text. The literalistic meaning can be grotesque. The literal meaning is the meaning intended by the author. And the assertion intended by the biblical author is true. There are meanings over and beyond the literal meaning in this sense, but the literal meaning is, nonetheless, true and authoritative.

That the concepts and knowledge gained from books, including Scripture, are worthless as compared to illumination seems true. But it does not follow that the concepts and knowledge gained from books are worthless--only worthless as compared to illumination.

I certainly agree about the centrality of the sacraments, asceticism and prayer as forming the person. Indeed, Scripture itself is not a sacrament.

I do not know what you mean by an epistemological criterion for knowledge.

Scripture--unless perhaps we conjoin it with the exegetical tradition of the Catholic Church--does not contain the whole of Revelation. However, coherence with Scripture is a necessary condition for knowledge.

"Let the inspired Scripture, then, be our umpire, and the vote of truth will surely be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words." (St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Trinity)

St. John Chrysostom in the 68th homily on the Gospel of John talks of "the unerring truth of Scripture".

St. Augustine writes to St. Jerome: 'Better far that I should read with certainty and persuasion of its truth the Holy Scripture, placed on the highest (even the heavenly) pinnacle of authority, and should, without questioning the trustworthiness of its statements, learn from it that men have been either commended, or corrected, or condemned, than that, through fear of believing that by men, who, though of most praiseworthy excellence, were no more than men, actions deserving rebuke might sometimes be done, I should admit suspicions affecting the trustworthiness of the whole "oracles of God."'

Adrian Woods said...

(AP1) However, coherence with Scripture is a necessary condition for knowledge.

(1) This claim is ambiguous.
(2) However you slice this claim, it is patently false – see the history of theology since Luther where a lot of brilliant men and women have tried to do what you are doing.
(3) It is also historically inaccurate. The Church canonized creeds, liturgy, theologians, icons, etc. along with a collection of books. It is likely that the church used the creeds to determine which books would be canonized. I think the relationship within the entire canon functioned like the relationship of the bishops. The bishop of Rome was first among equals. At least until the 11th century or when the pope receives infallibility in the 19th.
(4) I think my reading of the patristics – who are not a systematic sort – offers a better reading within the context of their entire corpus; as opposed to your proof texting. Augustine is certainly not a very consistent thinker, as you certainly demonstrate. I don’t think it undermines my position given the larger context.
(5) Rome goes with the Church or the Pope not Scripture, Orthodoxy goes with the Fathers and Theologians (there are three theologians in the church: John the Apostle, Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Symeon the New Theologian), Protestants go with the Bible.
(6) There is a long history of Biblical Exegesis and Methods, there are a lot of different vantages points to take.
(7) AP1 does not cohere with scripture. You have no place in scripture which says that scripture is the authority, and that all knowledge is to cohere with scripture. In fact, in scripture, all authority in Heaven and on Earth is given to Jesus, who gives it to the Apostles, who in turn – as the Church has always held – gives it to their successors, i.e. the Bishops.

(AP2) The literal meaning is the meaning intended by the author. And the assertion intended by the biblical author is true.

(7) This is simply naive. Leviticus says that no one should work on the Sabbath, and if someone is even caught carrying sticks on the Sabbath you should stone him or her to death. Jesus says, that is not what is meant. The Bible itself refutes your claim.

So again, I recommend to you Canon and Criterion by William Abraham. He lays out very nicely the history of theologians attempting to make the move you are trying to make. There are also new developments re-reading the Christian tradition in the way that I suggest.

enigMan said...

This is a nicely thought-provoking post, for which I'm grateful; but I'm wondering in particular about:
what is authoritative is the text that the human author wrote
My main problem is that we don't know what the human author originally wrote down. We must distinguish between such authors and the copyists (since 22 does not equal 42) and editors, but we have no access to anything that has not been copied and edited. So we have to speculate about what the authors (and hence what the divine Author) wrote; and to do that we must ask questions about what he was likely to have been meaning to write (and what the divine Author was doing through him). The problem with regarding the copyists and editors as as inspired as the authors is that 22 does not equal 42 (2Kings 8:26; 2Chronicles 22:2). Regarding the text as primarily formative (when read via the divine Reader) does seem to resolve that problem (as well as Adrian's 7th point above:)

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. I think when you say that the necessary condition I give has been a historical failure, you are confusing two questions: (a) is the condition true? (b) is the condition conveniently applicable? I am defending (a). There may be some ambiguity in the condition, but not much. If p is inconsistent with what Scripture asserts, then p is false, and if p is false, it is not knowledge. I challenge you to find one of the Church Fathers, or one of the great theologians of the East or the West prior to the Reformation, who asserts something he knows to be inconsistent with Scripture.

2. "You have no place in scripture which says that scripture is the authority, and that all knowledge is to cohere with scripture." That's irrelevant. I am not claiming that all theological knowledge has to be found in Scripture, but that all knowledge must be consistent with what Scripture says. Scripture does say that all Scripture is inspired of God, and the traditions of the East and West unanimously agree that it is a word of God.

3. The stick-gathering episode is in Numbers 15. There is no divine command there that everyone who gathers sticks on the Sabbath be put to death. Just a specific command from the Lord that that particular man be put to death. Maybe the Lord knew that he was gathering sticks in a way that was a deliberate and open defiance of the commandment. We are not told.

Yes, there is a general prohibition against work on the Sabbath in the Torah, applicable to the old Israel and to sojourners in the land, but "work" is not defined by the text.

We generally would not think that shelling a few peanuts and eating them counts as work, and likewise we should not say that taking a few ears of wheat and taking out the grain and eating it counts as work. One can, very reasonably, say that this is just how one eats fresh wheat (at least that's how I've eaten fresh wheat, and I can say it's quite yummy)--and it's not work.

Jesus also emphasized the case of David to argue that in cases of necessity it is permissible to work on the Sabbath. This does not contradict the Torah. For the assertions of a text must be understood according to its genre. The genre of a legal text must be understood according to operative legal conventions. In U.S. traffic law, there is a convention that allows a general "necessity" defense. If there is a person lying down in the middle of the road, and the only safe way to avoid hitting the person is to cut through a double central line on the road, then you are permitted to do that, even though the law says you are not to cross a double central line. You aren't breaking the law about double central lines, because the law has an implicit proviso provided by the interpretative tradition within which the law was given. Jesus is pointing out a general interpretative principle behind the Sabbath laws: they are to be interpreted as to be beneficial to man.

4. I challenge you to find one text from from the Church Fathers or from a great and respected theologian of the East or the West where the author admits that there is a genuine contradiction within Scripture.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think the case of copyists and editors does need to be addressed. I think the two cases are different. The final editor of the biblical text is, I think, the person who is best called "the human author" of it. For the final editor takes the text, according to his interpretation, adapts it as he sees fit, and the publishes it with his endorsement. He is the responsible author. When his intentions for a verse differ from those of the person who penned the original verse, I think the editor's intentions are the relevant ones. For an extreme case, suppose I write a letter by cutting words and phrases out of a newspaper. The meaning of the text I produce is determined not by the meaning that the words and phrases had in their original context, but in their new context, as placed there by me. This is controversial.

The case of copyists is different: When there is discrepancy, it is the original text that counts. However, I actually think the amount of copying errors that affect anything of much significance is very small, perhaps non-existent. Most of the cases we know of are tiny variations. There are some theologically significant cases, but in almost all of them, and maybe even all of them, the theological doctrine expressed by each variant is still true (which is unsurprising if the copyists were orthodox Jews and Christians).

As for the specific case you give, yes there is a question of copyists. But maybe the copyists got it right. After ll, it is a difficult question how much of the theologically-irrelevant detail counts as asserted in the relevant genre--did the author really intend to teach us the age of the king, or only the fact that he had a short reign. Donnellan's distinction between the referential and attributive uses of language is relevant, and I think there are further generalizations of his point that could be brought to bear. (In fact, I think Donnellan's paper might not unreasonably be thought of as one of the most important contributions to the debate on biblical inerrancy, though I assume it was not intended as such.)

Adrian Woods said...

(AP1) coherence with Scripture is a necessary condition for knowledge.

How would you determine that this statement is True?
(1) It is not analytically true.
(2) It is not true in relation to any reading of scripture.

(BTW, scripture does not say anything. It’s a book. Unless you have a talking book, if so, I got to see that. Scripture does not say, you interpret. You can not remove yourself and your community from the reading of scripture.)

(3) Perhaps its true because AP says so. And that may be so. It may be that AP received Divine Revelation last night, but let’s bracket that possibility for the moment.

(4) Is it true because the Church declares it to be?
(5) Is it true because the Pope with his pointy hat sits in his special chair and declares it to be true?

I kind of thought Jesus was the Word of God (John 1) and the Bible is the word of God only to the point in which it properly points to Jesus. It is not necessary for me to walk you through the history of Biblical exegesis and Theology, you can do that. You can seek to understand the differing perspectives within patristic thought, seek to grasp a more robust understanding. I don’t have the time to take up your challenge. It is a na├»ve reading of both scripture, the history of interpretation, and theology.

Origen argues that God is Intellect and we need to cultivate our intellect through humility in order to gain knowledge of God. It does not strike me as a reading straight off the page of scripture.

Dan Johnson said...

Good stuff, Alex -- very helpful. I'd been wondering about the status of implicatures myself.

Also, I've been wondering about the status of non-assertive speech acts in Scripture, like the Psalms. Does the doctrine of inspiration require us to take those Psalms as expressing appropriate and good attitudes? C.S. Lewis thinks some Psalms are lacking in an important way: the authors fail to see their own sin and inadequacy when they imprecate against their oppressors. So Lewis thinks we as Christians know that the attitudes expressed in these imprecatory psalms are inappropriate attitudes.

Is Lewis' view compatible with inspiration? It is compatible with inerrancy, but I'm not sure about the consequences of the doctrine of inspiration.

Alexander R Pruss said...


(AP1) follows from:

AP1a. Every assertion in Scripture is true.
AP1b. Anything that does not cohere with a set of truths is false.
AP1c. Anything that is false is not knowledge.

I think AP1b is an obvious necessary truth. AP1c is partly definitory of how I use "knowledge". That leaves AP1a. This follows from the Church's tradition and the universal agreement of all the Fathers who speak about the issue.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I really don't know. But we have someone in the Dept who is thinking of a dissertation on related questions.