For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.
1 Corinthians 10:1-6
It’s a truism in the way that many are taught to interpret the Scriptures today that one must pay very careful attention to the human author’s intention, and the original audience in order to understand the text. Now, I don’t dispute that both of these considerations are important, I only dispute the relative importance of them in comparison to other considerations. There are many other considerations, but here I want to consider two things briefly: firstly, the way that texts of Scripture relate to the historical events described within them; and secondly, the way that the ‘word of God’ forms communities, and the way that texts function within those communities.
In doing so, I hope we can pay more attention to the divine author (and speaker) revealed in Scripture and by Scripture by paying attention to his dealings with people and nations in history. I hope also to explore the way that the ‘word of God’ was received by people and in communities, and to explore the complexity of deciding whom we should consider the ‘original audience’ to be. From there, we may consider how we too may, through the text, enter into relationship and covenant with God, acting in the light of Scripture, understanding His redemptive ways in the world, and living in joyful response to His love.
The Scriptures are a Theological History
When St John is given the revelation of Christ on the island of Patmos, he is given a peek behind the curtain of history to see what is going on. The Emperor Nero is revealed to be a blasphemous beast, Jerusalem a harlot city, drunk on the blood of the saints. But what Revelation does in its own vivid, mysterious, and memorable way, all of Scripture is doing: revealing the ways in which God works in the world. Any student of history could determine that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, it takes the student of Scripture—that is to say, it takes the revelation of God—to determine why Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. This is part of what we mean when we say that Scripture is a revelation: it reveals to the reader what they could not have fully understood by their own reason, in this case, how and why the death of a Jewish rabbi was the turning point of history.
God works in history, and reveals himself historically. At many times and in various ways God spoke to and through the prophets, who spoke to Israel about historical realities such as coming judgment from the nations around more often than they offered insights into the secrets of ecstatic religious experience, or teachings on how to get to heaven. In the Olivet discourse, the Lord teaches his disciples how to read the signs of the times to know when the destruction of Jerusalem is imminent. He doesn’t teach them how to read the prophets—he is the prophet they need to pay attention to—he teaches them how to read the newspaper.
Indeed, most of the Scriptures (perhaps the Psalms and Wisdom literature can be exempted here) is theological history. Across genres—law, history, prophets, gospels, epistles—the Spirit of God inspires the writers of Scripture to discern the activity of God in his redemptive acts, and his covenants made with his people. It must be stressed: this is more than insightful commentary, such as one might find in an op ed of the New York Times, since this is the revelation of God to an individual charged to write down what God is doing. That means that we don’t therefore give archaeology the same weight of revelatory power as Scripture. Like God’s revelation in creation, it doesn’t reveal motive, character, it doesn’t bring anyone into covenant, it doesn’t even really reveal God’s agency. But finding archaeological artefacts relating to the events of Scripture is like finding graffiti on a toilet door: the LORD woz ere.
The Scriptures are a Speech to Text Technology
Not all the historical events of Scripture are non-verbal, however. Some major ones are—the exodus, the sack Jerusalem, the death and resurrection of Christ—and so the Scriptures are needed to give us the correct theological interpretation of these events, but, by contrast, many events are verbal, and carry their own explanation. What I primarily have in mind here are the promises and covenants made by God. In these cases, the revelation of God is oral before it is written. This is profoundly important when it comes to our understanding of what the phrase ‘the word of God’ means. It is often used totally synonymously and identically with Scripture. Scripture is indeed, the word of God, but unless we want to violate the Scriptures themselves, we have to be able to say that the word of God has, at times, come in purely oral form, with no text. Abraham did not stumble across the complete book of Genesis, and thereby find out that he was to be the father of kings. Rather, the word of God came to him in Ur of the Chaldeans, and brought him into covenant with God. To take the Scriptures seriously, we have to say that Abraham received the word of God without reading it or writing it down. Those who heard Christ preach the Sermon on the Mount did not have to wait until Matthew published his gospel to hear the word of God, they got the first edition live.
Does this make the written form lesser? Not at all. The way in which speech becomes text in the word of God brings more revelation in, rather than less. Typology works in this way: it is through the details of the written narrative that events are connected to each other, and shed more light on each other. We gain revelation, from the written word, we don’t lose it. The written word also brings that enlarged revelation to a broader audience, preserving the promises to Abraham so that they might be claimed by all of his faithful descendants. We do not miss out on revelation for having the written form after the event, we may see the event in fuller detail. If you stand right next to a painting, you may miss the full picture for the details. In the same way, we who are not as close to the events may have the benefit of our more distant vantage point.
Furthermore, it is certainly true that we have no unwritten access to the events. Some may have countered the above by saying, ‘Yes, of course the word came to Abraham like that, but it came to us in the form of the text, and we have nothing else with which to work. Therefore we ought to consider only what the human author wants to convey, and how the original audience would have understood it.’ The premise is indeed correct, but the conclusion does not necessarily follow. After all, the author, at the deepest level, wants to communicate the ways in which God moves in history (climaxing in the Father sending the Son into the world, and the Father and Son sending the Spirit into the world), and to invite the reader into participation into that reality. That participation is done through our membership in a historical community of faith, that is, a community that understands itself to exist as a result of what God has done at specific points within history. The Scriptures are not the door out of history and into heaven, or into disembodied spirituality, but the door into a fuller understanding of the events of the world: as we understand the Scriptures rightly we understand history rightly, for you can only understand history through Christ.
The Text, the Event, and the Community: Two Covenants, Two Worked Examples
Let’s connect some of this with our original starting point, the idea that to understand any text we have to consider the original human author’s intention and the original audience of the text. My contention is that this causes a huge issue in relocating the revelation of God in its entirety from the events described within the text, to the text. This has profound and dire implications for our understanding of God, our understanding of history, and our understanding of worship. Let’s begin with a few worked examples to sketch out some of the issues here.
The promise to Abram: In Genesis 12, The LORD spoke to Abram, telling him to leave his father’s house and to go to the land that he would be shown. The recording of this episode comes to us through the book of Genesis, which forms part of the Torah, or the books of Moses. Let us, with the whole Church, take this as being a ‘book of Moses’, though that may be in the sense that he edited the stories that here happened many hundreds of years before him. Who is the author here? and who is the original audience?
If we admit that the text actually corresponds to some historical reality, then the original ‘author’, that is, the one who reveals the word of God, is God, who spoke the words to Abram, although He did not feel the need to write His words down. Abram, it would follow, is the original audience—the one who receives the word of God, which brings him into a relationship with God, and causes him to act in faith in God. As the promise is to Abram and his seed, this word does not just create a relationship (later a covenant) between God and Abram, but creates a community in covenant. Before there was any written Scripture, there was a Church: the family of Abram living in covenant with YHWH, responsive to his word, the promises given to their father.
This early Church, the people of God, in time found themselves in exile in Egypt, in slavery and bondage to Pharaoh. Exodus bears witness to the fact that they were still living by faith in the word of God, that word being the promise to Abraham. The people of Israel ‘groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help… God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.’ The word of God, by which we can only mean the promises given to the Patriarchs, had formed a community with a particular self-understanding, and relationship to God. Though at this point they couldn’t be the original audience of a text of Scripture, they were the recipients of the promise of God. God had given his word to Abraham, and his word is his bond.
But, as some are prone to do, if you want to locate the revelation of God solely in the text, divorced from the historical events, then Moses is the original author, and the Israelites who received Torah are the original audience. This works for those Israelites who came out of Egypt and received Leviticus and Exodus, but drives a wedge between the recipients of the word of God within Genesis. Indeed, it renders nonsensical the response to the word and revelation of God which happens within the events of the text.
The Blood of the Covenant: We may consider this also in terms of asking the question of what the New Testament is. We primarily think of the New Testament as something that we read, but when Christ speaks of establishing a New Testament, or ‘Covenant’, it is in the context of the Last Supper. In Exodus 24, Moses reads the Book of the Covenant to the people at Sinai, and they promise their obedience. He then sprinkles the blood of the sacrificed ox over them, saying, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’ We see here the way in which the text, as well as a physical sign, relates to the community. Obedience to the word, and participation in the blood, seals the Israelites in the covenant with YHWH. As Jesus forms the new people of Israel around him, he brings them into the new covenant with God, which means loyalty and obedience to him, the incarnate word of God, and participation in his ’blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’
As with Abram, identifying the revelation of God entirely with the completed text as received by whichever community first read it, rather than firstly in the acts as performed, then in the acts as recorded, obscures the way God works within Scripture, and creates historical problems. Just as the Israelites had some form of covenant with God before Torah was written (as a covenant had been made with Abraham), so the early members of the New Covenant lived in that covenant for around thirty years before the earliest books we have of the New Testament. The centre of the revelation which, the Word and sacrifice by which the covenant is created, is Christ. As above, this is not to diminish the written word, which is the glorious, Spirit-written revelation of Him to us in later generations. It is to say that its glory and authority is derived from the fact that the written word participates in the eternal and incarnate Word. The words of the Old and New Testaments are the very words of Christ, the Word of God.
This has obvious liturgical implications: the eucharist is our means of participating in the New Testament, the bread broken and wine poured out is our covenant meal. In the New Testament, God’s word creates a real community in covenant with him that express that relationship with him in communal acts of devotion. The eucharist is the new covenant. Just because Catholics say it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
It also means that we do not have to drive so much of a wedge between ourselves and the first hearers. The community of Christ is gathered and regathered each week not simply to remember, and peer back into history and hope that we can learn lessons for ourselves today—we gather to meet the Risen Christ, who is active among us today, who meets us each week in the Word and at the Table. We do not come together simply to remember grace past, but to receive again—now, immediately, in our current need—from the boundless grace of the Father, Son, and Spirit. As we learn to read Scripture, we learn to read history, and in do so, we enter it, and understand that the history of God’s work in his world has not finished yet.
Something Like a Conclusion: The World of the Text is the Text of the World
The insistence on understanding texts purely on the basis of the way they would have been received as completed texts by their first audiences obscures the revelatory action of God in history, and his pattern of breaking in to deal with his creatures—that is, it obscures the very thing that the text reveals. It traps the revelation of God in an eternal past, rather than bridging the gap of the years and making immediate and present to the reader the revelation of God here and now. Further, it creates a distinction between the world of the text and the text of the world, in which the text becomes self-contained, with only an arbitrary connection to reality. From there, it is easy to approach the text in such a way as to understand the text without understand the world.
How, then, should we read? To be clear, human authorial intent and original audience are both important considerations in exegesis, but these shouldn’t be flattened so as to miss the wood for the trees. When Paul writes to the Galatians, his authorial intent is indeed to warn them away from Judaising influences in the Church, but at a deeper level it is to help them understand that what has happened in history, in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, has ushered in a new age of relating to God, and created a new community, defined by faith rather than circumcision. The text is tied to event and community, and Paul’s epistles are often efforts to make sense of particular concerns and pressures in light of the Christ-event.*
The solution, in large part, comes through typological exegesis. In his commentary on Matthew (which is well worth reading), Peter Leithart states that typology is a way of reading Scripture, but more fundamentally, a way of reading history. God acts consistently in history, and so history repeats itself (though not necessarily, as Marx said, first as tragedy, then as farce), usually along patterns of resurrection, exile, exodus, etc. Typology helps us understand the action of God in both the past and the present: the ways in which Jesus recapitulates and fulfils the story of Israel, and the ways in which His life prefigures ours as we follow him, as the story of the head is the story of the body. It comes from relating text to event.
Good exegesis will also relate the event to the community in the present. In 1 Corinthians 10, St Paul interprets the events of the desert wanderings, and brings us into the same reality. The Israelites too, were baptised, and had spiritual food and drink: they had the same sacraments as us. St Paul, by the Spirit, reads these historical events into the Christian Church in Corinth. As God acted then, so God acts now, so take care that the community is pure in its life and worship.
In these ways, careful study of Scripture does not just lead us to just understand the Scriptures better, but to understand the world better, as wise sons and daughters of God called to exercise dominion over it. The work of Biblical interpretation, and certainly of Biblical preaching, is not so much to explain the text to the congregation, but to explain the world** to it by the revelation of that world that God has given in Christ, and by the Spirit who spoke through the prophets, the world in which the Father, Son, and Spirit have worked and still are working.
*As an aside: the general practice in Conservative Evangelical churches is to treat narrative as exceptional and epistle as normal. Narrative, it is argued, records strange one-off events; epistles give us an insight into what normal, day-to-day Christian life is supposed to look like. This seems to me to be backwards when considered in terms of audience: it is the epistles that are written to specific audiences (i.e. local churches) and addressing specific concerns, it is narrative that address the entire people of God (i.e. Israel, the catholic Church). This can easily lead to a misreading of narrative and epistle, as it obscures the fact that the epistles are offering commentary on the events of history for the sake of helping individuals and churches in localised churches understand the shape of faithful participation in the new covenant and new world that Christ has ushered in.
**This is connected to another question that we won’t explore fully here, but you should be able to guess my answer already: does the Bible say it because it’s true, or is it true because the Bible says it? My money is on the former, but many people reason more from the latter. This makes the commandments of God in Scripture somewhat arbitrary, and the results are seen in the current way that sexual ethics in evangelical circles rest on foundations of shallow biblicism alone, rather than Scripture engaged with natural law, and deep engagement with the question of why God would have commanded such-and-such a thing.