October 27, 2003

From Shadows to Reality

Category: Bible :: Permalink

Yesterday, I finished reading Jean Danielou’s From Shadows to Reality, a very helpful study of the biblical typology of the early church Fathers.

In my early biblical studies, I was under the impression that the Fathers were all given to a methodology called “allegorization.” Danielou, however, shows that there is a difference between allegory, which involves using the Bible to express philosophical ideas, and typology, and that, while some of the Fathers blend the two, they were aware of the difference between them. As Danielou writes:

It would be an entire abuse of language to include moral allegory with typology under the one heading of the spiritual sense, as opposed to the literal sense: typology is a legitimate extension of the literal sense, while moral allegory is something entirely alien: the former is in truth exegesis, the latter is not (64).

Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that typology is included in what Danielou and others call “the literal sense.”

But what appears to have happened in some more modern exegesis is that, instead of asking about typology in a text, exegetes settle for “the grammatical-historical method.” That is to say, they endeavour to understand a passage of Scripture by looking at the meaning of words, the grammar of the passage, and the historical and cultural background of the passage.

Grammatical-historical exegesis may give an impression of scientific accuracy, especially when compared to some of the fanciful interpretations that the Fathers give (though some of them aren’t nearly as fanciful as they first appear). If you’re reading about Herod, you can look up Herod in your encyclopedia and learn which Herod you’re reading about and what he did. If you discover that a certain verb is in the present tense, you can say, “Aha! The biblical writer is talking about something which was is taking place even as he writes.” One may get the impression that if we apply the correct methodology in reading the Bible, we will be able to prove our interpretations of it beyond the shadow of a doubt.

That impression of scientific accuracy, however, is an impression. Interpreting a text is never a matter of “scientific accuracy.” (Indeed, one might also queston whether science is a matter of “scientific accuracy,” in this sense.)

For instance, learning some things about Herod doesn’t yet tell you what the text is saying about Herod, why he’s mentioned in this particular place, and so forth. Nor is grammar a matter of strict and unbendable rules. That a verb is in the present tense doesn’t mean that the action of the verb is taking place in the writer’s own time. Many of the verbs in Mark (like the verbs in my “Aha!” sentence above) are present tense, but they are describing events prior to the time when Mark wrote his Gospel. Interpreting a text involves more than analyzing the possible meanings of words, examining the grammar, and taking the historical context into account.

Furthermore, given that there is such a thing as symbolism, is it possible to come up with an interpretive methodology that guarantees you’ll be able to know (and prove) exactly what the author is doing with his symbolism? We read about a man who has been separated from the woman he loves and at that point in the story it’s winter. Everything is icy, cold, bleak. Later, when he finds his love again, it’s spring. I would like to say that the symbolism is obvious, that the winter reflects the bleakness and barrenness of his own life and that the spring fits with his new life, reunited with his love. And maybe it is obvious. But could you ever prove that the writer is using winter and spring symbolically?

But even more significantly, interpreting a text in Scripture involves reading it typologically. In particular, understanding Scripture entails understanding how Scripture speaks of Christ. That’s what Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27). Origen, commenting on that passage, says,

Jesus it is who reads the Law, when he reveals the secrets of the Law. We, who belong to the Catholic Church, do not reject the Law of Moses, but receive it if and when it is Jesus who reads it to us. For it is only if Jesus reads the Law in such wise that through his reading we grasp its spiritual significance, that we correctly understand the Law (cited in Danielou 283).

Origen is correct: we understand the Old Testament only if we read it the way Jesus read it to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, that is, only if we see it as speaking of Christ (which is what Origen has in mind, primarily, when he speaks of the “spiritual significance” of the Old Testament). As Peter Leithart has written, “Interpretation of the Old Testament must be grounded in grammar and history, but if it does not move to typology, it is not Christian interpretation” (A House For My Name 27).

Reading about the typology of the Fathers is helpful, then, for showing us how our forefathers understood Scripture and how they struggled to see all of Scripture as speaking of Christ. Their interpretations were not always correct. Sometimes they blended allegory with typology. Sometimes, even when their typological connections were correct, they missed key elements which would have helped to put their interpretations on a more solid basis. Nevertheless, they have a lot to teach us and their meditations on Scripture are useful for sparking our own meditations and for pushing us to a better approach to Scripture, one which isn’t characterized by their mistakes and abuses, but one which also seeks to avoid our own.

For that reason, I’m thankful for Danielou’s study. I just wish he’d covered more than the first six books of the Bible!

Posted by John Barach @ 4:37 pm | Discuss (0)

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