Scriptural exegesis is a delicate balancing act involving many factors – it requires an examination of the historical context that the passage in question was written in, the content of the passage needs to be compared to related passages in other parts of Scripture, weight needs to be given to the way in which people have used the text previously, and how it is being used now, plus many other things. Yet, when all of this has been taken into consideration, there still remains the question of why one is reading Scripture in the first place. If it is from a purely academic perspective, it can become easy to allow the process of exegesis to become overly technical, and lose sight of what sort of document the Bible is.
The Bible is a collection of writings about God, written by people who believed in God, and read by those who believe Him to be its ultimate author. For the Christian, the primary reason for reading the Bible should always be to know Jesus Christ better – for it is Him that the Scripture speaks of, and it is in the light of who He is and what He has done that we view the whole. An exegesis that is solely academic, and divorced from personal faith in Christ, whilst still able to uncover fresh data or possible interpretations that may benefit the believer, thus lacks the one dimension which makes reading or studying the Bible meaningful in the first place.
To conduct one’s study of Scripture in such a manner that lacks this Christocentric perspective will then necessarily always fall short in some way – the least that will happen is that the most fundamental way of seeing the texts (i.e.; the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, and what He has revealed about God and His purposes therefore limits the interpretive process according to the content of this revelation) will be denied to the exegete, and so they will potentially miss much that would be otherwise significant; the worst case scenario is that in lieu of a faith-filled perspective, other agendas will determine how the texts are read.
No individual is completely impartial, no matter how hard they try to be, and everyone brings something to the act of interpretation that will to some extent determine how they go about interpreting. Seeing as this is the case, one has to decide whether one way of interpreting is better than others; and seeing as the Bible is a Christian document, the most appropriate way to interpret it is in the light of Christ and what we know about Him. Austin Farrer, in a sermon on ‘History and the Gospel’ preached at Great St. Mary’s Cambridge in 1948, put it this way:
‘There is no history of the things concerning Jesus (to use scriptural phrase) without an understanding of Jesus; any more than with any other biographical passage – it cannot be written without the understanding of the principal person concerned. Without understanding Jesus – but Jesus, what was Jesus? The secularist historians think they know; but their hypotheses produce no agreement, even among themselves, but wildly various travesties of what seems historical probability to Christians’
from A Celebration of Faith (1972), p.43, Hodder and Stoughton.
Farrer’s basic point here is that we cannot truly get to know Christ through Scripture unless we already know who He is. There is no neutral interpretation of history, and Christians must interpret Scripture ‘Christianly’ (i.e.; in the light of Jesus Christ). Farrer then goes on to say (in what I think is a rather beautiful passage) that we know this because of the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts:
‘…we understand what it is for Christ to be the Son of God, because we perceive ourselves to be, in him, partakers of divinity. The God incarnate is not to us an unintelligible enigma, because our existence in grace hangs upon the fringes of his incarnation. We know, on our knees, and in the depth of our heart, what Christ is, by knowing what he has made us; and we know what he has made us, by knowing what he is.’
Whilst what Farrer says here is very true – that the Holy Spirit does indeed witness to us in the depths of our being that Jesus is the Son of God, and that we know this not just as a proposition to be accepted, but in the light of what He has done in us, so that He is the very air that we breath and in which we move – he does not go quite far enough. What is lacking in his description of how the Christian approaches Scripture is the ‘ecclesial sense’ described by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the foreword to his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy – the sense that we read Scripture not just in the light of our own personal experience of faith, but alongside those others whose lives have been changed by Jesus, and the insights their reflections have brought to bear on the text.
Just as Farrer’s secular historians produce wildly varying hypotheses, so do individuals reach wildly varying conclusions about what the Bible means in this or that passage. If one truly wants to engage with Jesus, to know Him by engaging with Scripture, the uncertainty of a purely private interpretative act will not suffice – the Bible instead must be read in and with the Church. In his foreword, Pope Benedict affirms with Farrer the need for a Christological hermeneutic (and emphasises that this must work in tandem with the historical-critical method, whilst always logically preceding it), but also adds:
‘The Scripture emerged from within the heart of a living subject – the pilgrim People of God – and lives within this same subject…
…The connection with the subject we call “People of God” is vital for Scripture. On one hand, this book – Scripture – is the measure that comes from God, the power directing the people. On the other hand, though, Scripture lives precisely within this people, even as this people transcends itself in Scripture. Through their self-transcendence (a fruit, at the deepest level, of the incarnate Word) they become the people of God. The People of God – the Church – is the living subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that the words of the Bible are always in the present. This also means, of course, that the People has to receive its very self from God, ultimately from the incarnate Christ; it has to let itself be ordered, guided, and led by him.’
Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (2007), pp.xx-xxi, Bloomsbury.
There are two main points that Pope Benedict is bringing to our attention here. The first is that the Church is the birthplace of Scripture and thus the most appropriate place in which to read it – the writers of the texts were part of that same People of God that exists even now, and what they wrote is part of that one living organism that is the Church; to read it outside of this context is not just unwise, it impoverishes the Scripture, removing it from its natural environment. The second point is that the Church (and all those who read the Bible within her folds) ‘has to let itself be ordered, guided, and led by’ Jesus – it is very hard to truly let oneself be ordered, guided and led by the voice of Christ when that voice is uncertain, subject to one’s own interpretative bias, or perhaps muffled by the voice of an alternative tradition.
If we want to know Jesus as He is, in all His fullness, either as an exegete or someone reading for purely devotional purposes, we must not let ourselves be swayed by the voices telling us that the most recent scholarship disproves that Jesus could have said such and such, or disallows that He could have been quite what we had always imagined He is. We must be open to scholarly findings to be sure, but should always approach them with a healthy degree of scepticism, questioning who the scholar is, and what agenda they may have. The Faith cannot be something that is subject to the ever-changing whims of the academic world, and therefore great prudence is required when consulting its findings.
Similarly, one cannot get to know Jesus alone. In reading Scripture, we must recognise that it did not just drop out of the air into our favourite translation, and that the place in which it was born – the Church – is also filled with a great many people who have been filled with the same Holy Spirit and encountered the same Christ over the years. We must have the humility to allow our own views on what certain passages mean to be corrected by the cumulative wisdom of two thousand years, as well as the living voice that still speaks through the Church today – a voice that speaks through channels that Jesus Himself appointed. What better guide could we have?