Thursday, May 3, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Source Text

Next we are concerned with the use of Scripture in providing a corpus of texts for other purposes. Hymns, poetry, prayers, and so forth, all draw from Scriptural roots, often borrowing phrases quoted whole, modified slightly, paraphrased, or alluded to. The Scriptures form a set of images, stories, metaphors, and such, which can be deployed in other and different contexts from where they began.

Scripture in Prayers

The use of Scriptural text in prayer is ancient, but often neglected today. It is difficult in an ex tempore prayer to effectively make use of Scripture, and the result is that churches which laud ex tempore prayer as the only genuine prayer tend to have a fairly low dose of Scriptural content in the prayer. (Ironically, such churches are often found to hold very high doctrines of the importance of Scripture!)

We are not concerned here with whether prayer is "Scriptural" in some sense of being obedient to it. Of course, prayer ought to be orthodox; and if orthodoxy is captured by being "Scriptural", then prayer ought to be such. Instead, the concern here is whether the language of Scripture is also the language of prayer.

Perhaps the most important example here is the Lord's Prayer. As Anglicans have always pointed out, when Jesus was asked to teach how to pray, he responded with a set form of words and a rubric ("go into your closet and shut the door"). The wholesale use of prayers from Scripture as one's own prayer is deeply embedded in the traditions of liturgical worship. The Lord's Prayer, the psalter, canticles, and so forth, must always have pride of place.

The use of Scripture as a source text for prayer is not only however that it gives us texts to pray; it also gives us phrases and ideas. So prayers do not merely refer to the contents of the Bible by treating the Bible as a source of true statements about history and theology, but also as a source of images, metaphors, and so forth. "Here I raise my Ebenezer" went the traditional words of "Come thou font of every blessing." The Episcopal Church has now dropped those words, under the (surely correct) assumption that almost everyone who sings them has forgotten—or never learned—1 Samuel 7.

Meaning and Interpretation

Immediately with all these uses of Scripture as source texts runs the worry that the text will be taken in a way which does violence to its meaning. I believe that this worry fundamentally misunderstands the nature of scriptural interpretation. It operates with the idea that there is a "meaning", which is determined separately and apart from the actual use of the text in the Church, and which the Church's use in prayer must then be respectful of. This is the right description, because if interpretation is not to be separate and apart from the actual use of the text, then we would see the actual use of the text as source material as precisely one of those things which interpretation must take into account, rather than judge over.

But this does not mean that a text cannot be misused in quotation. Of course it can be. What it means is simply that the judgment whether it has been misused cannot be made on the basis of fidelity to some separately acquired meaning. And the caveats about historical continuity now apply. We must be extremely cautious about deciding that a traditional use of a text in quotation is a misuse. If we are tempted to say that indeed it is, we must now step back and re-evaluate that perhaps it is rather our criteria for judging use and misuse which should be amended.

Two examples will make the point. The liturgy grabs one verse of Psalm 118 and embeds it in the Eucharistic Prayer, in which it functions as an acclamation of Jesus Christ, the one who "comes in the name of the Lord." And many worshippers have gone further and re-interpreted the text as referring to themselves. (This is a convenient modern idea, but has no basis in liturgical history; it then drives the text to be re-translated to avoid the "he" since the worshippers are both men and women.) But this is not what Psalm 118 means, the Biblical Scholar proclaims; it does violence to the psalm; the psalm is a Royal Psalm, about King David, and not about Jesus.

The second example of the use of Scripture as quotation is the celebrated quotation of Isaiah in Matthew, in which we are told that a "virgin will conceive", now applied to Mary. Not even a mis-applied quotation (since in Isaiah, we are told, it was about Ahab and the immediate political context), but a misquoted and mis-applied quotation, since Hebrew almah does not imply virgin, as Matthew is using it.

What to do?! Notice now the validity of the historical caution. If we decide that the antecedently determined meaning must control all use in quotation, then we must jettison not merely the Benedictus in the Eucharistic Prayer, but also large stretches of the New Testament—for starters. This should tell us that the rule being proposed is the wrong rule.

Many adopt a quite bizarre rule, one which says that it's ok for Scripture to misquote and misuse Scripture, but not ok for us to do so. This cannot be right. Instead, what we must give up on is the idea that these are misuses or misquotes at all.

Matthew is quoting Isaiah, we must say. We can comfortably say that Isaiah never intended what Matthew gets out of it, but so what? Isaiah does not own the text, and have we not learned that "authorial intention" is the shakiest of grounds to base a hermeneutic upon?

But once we say this, that Matthew is quoting Isaiah, we must also say that this is not the only way one may quote Isaiah. The other ways remain; the other uses of Scripture remain. If one is worried that we will not be able to hear about Ahab and his situation because Matthew has altered the meaning of the text, then this worry can be put to rest. Since we are not engaged in a search for "the meaning of the text", we need not worry that affirming Matthew means discarding other uses and interpretations.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index