Houses of the Interpreter: Reading Scripture, Reading Culture

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Hardcover New David Lyle Jeffrey will probably surprise you. An erudite scholar and author of twelve other books, he earned his PhD from Princeton and currently teaches ... Literature and Humanities at Baylor--all of which are academic distinctions worthy of note. But what's astonishing, even brilliant about Jeffrey's work is the way he marries the breadth of his knowledge with lucid and revelatory prose. What do we mean? As one reviewer put it, Jeffrey is ''robustly pithy'' and able to ''breathe a refreshing sanity as well as wisdom'' into the history and culture surrounding biblical interpretation. In these pages, Jeffrey means to direct us to ''manifold rooms of Christian instruction'' containing ''portraits and parchments in conversation with each other down through the ages, and that these several voices, in their own reflection of the Holy Spirit, are of great value to us. '' Theologically, he draws sensitively and accurately from the Church Fathers as well as Louis Bouyer, Pope John II, John Wyclif, Read more Show Less

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In Houses of the Interpreter, David Lyle Jeffrey explores the terrain of the cultural history of biblical interpretation. But Jeffrey does not merely rest content to chart biblical scholarship and how it has both influenced and been influenced by culture. Instead, he chooses to focus upon the "art" of Biblical interpretation --how sculptors, musicians, poets, novelists, and painters have "read" the Bible. By so doing, Jeffrey clearly demonstrates that such cultural interpretation has deepened the church's understanding of the Bible as Scripture and that, remarkably, this cultural reading has contributed to theology and the practice of faith. Jeffrey's chapters effectively root the theological issues central to any hermeneutical enterprise (e.g., Scriptural authority, narrative, the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, the role of the reader, gender, and postmodernism) in specific authors and artists (e.g., Chaucer, Bosch, Sir Orfeo, C. S. Lewis) --and he does this in constant conversation with literature, both eastern and western.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

These essays are vintage Jeffrey--lively, literate, and learned, rich in wit and wisdom, ranging from ancient epic to medieval literature and art to postmodern parody, distinguished by a passionate erudition that attends with single-minded, open-hearted illumination to the interpretation of Scripture across cultures. Above all Jeffrey's writing enacts the kind of intertextual theological resourcement that our own houses of culture so desperately need: building up the Christian literary imagination through the scriptural education of our loves. Jeffrey brilliantly displays the virtues he holds up as characteristic of the exemplary reader: the rigorous analytic disciplines of the pilgrim mind, and the generosities of an open-hearted imagination.

-Travis Kroekers, McMaster University, Ontario

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780918954893
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2003
  • Series: The Provost Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Lexile: 1550L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author


David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities and Provost at Baylor University. Jeffrey earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University and is the author or editor of 12 books including A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (1992) and People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (1996).
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Houses of the Interpreter
Reading Scripture, Reading Culture
By David Lyle Jeffrey
Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2003 Baylor University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-918954-89-3



Chapter One
How Firm a Foundation ...? Omnis ergo qui audit verba mea haec et facit ea, assimilabitur viro sapienti, qui aedificavit domum suam super petram ... Matthew 7:24, Vulgate

It occasionally happens among Christians that a passage of Scripture comfortably familiar from childhood comes back much later to haunt us with an unfamiliar severity. This can especially be so when rereading those teachings of Jesus typically first encountered in "sword drill" verses and Sunday School songs.

"The wise man built his house upon the rock.... The foolish man built his house upon the sand ..."-I can still hear the rollicking meter and anticipate the final, thunderous clap and clomp which nearly shook down the lights of our Baptist church when "the house on the sand went flat."

But before me now, in a considerably more tentative middle age, is the whole text, the concluding sentences of the toughest teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!' Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; And it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall. (Matt 7:21-27)

Now, the cheerful singing of my childhood notwithstanding, I have to admit that I have been one of those who from the time I learned that song until now have said "Lord, Lord" quite a lot and heard his sayings many times but have put them into obedient practice far less often than counts in this tough text as "wise." When now I read or remember that last sentence (v. 27), it is not the church hall lights that get to shaking.

Anyone who teaches for a living notices further that it is the matter of authority which immediately sets the teaching of Jesus apart for his first hearers: "And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt 7:28-29). Attempting both to acknowledge and assuage my guilt when teaching this passage to the mostly cheerful pagans in my erstwhile secular university, I have sometimes mischievously paraphrased this last as "He taught them as one having authority, not like our professors." The students' typically generous laughter indicates their appreciation of both points: they have already learned about the gap between first-order and second-order discourse, and, without being taught it, that many who practice the second kind, in their second-hand fashion and self-interestedness, have lost what little authority they might once have had. As with the scribes in Jesus' day, lost authority has become a fact of contemporary life-in our universities as in other public institutions. Even in the church.

Teaching now at a historically Christian university still rooted in the Baptist tradition, I have found the loss of authority in general an occasion for frequent reflection. Recently, as a background for our consideration of the modern British novel (from Joyce and Wilde to Rushdie and Julian Barnes) my students and I read and reflected upon Hannah Arendt's Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Famously in this book Arendt declared that, as a viable concept, "authority has vanished from the modern world." She defines authority as that which implies obedience in a context of freedom, not of coercion. What Arendt concludes about modernity is that foundations, or tradition, have little or no power to constrain either anarchic impulse or pragmatic temporizing; we have divorced ourselves from mutual obligations to objective, mind-independent realities wherever possible. As a lamentable result, we know a great deal about power and very little of authority.

Confusion of authority with power persists with a vengeance in our putatively postmodern world. But when we still speak of "authority figures" we dutifully echo Freud, and typically mean to identify persons whose tacit or explicit standards, or censure, are perceived to constrain or critique our absolute personal freedom. That is, we are not much different from early moderns like Samuel Butler (1835-1902), author of the (appropriately enough) posthumously published semi-autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh. Butler's rebellion against his parson father and his father's religion is, summarily, the story of his life. For him, rebellion grew readily into hatred, first for his father and his faith, then for even those prominent intellectuals whose resistance to Christianity he first shared and whose favor he often shamelessly curried (e.g., Sydney Smith, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold). In the end, Butler even turned on his greatest hero, Darwin, with such vehemence as to prompt one of his biographers to observe of him what could be said of many moderns, that "his attitude in fact was as authoritarian and narrow as his father's, only exercised upon a different set of prejudices."

Rebellion against authority, symbiotic passion that it is, remains an almost intractable feature of our fallen condition. But in our time it has come to be regarded as a virtuous condition, even the signature of what it means to be authentically modern. The Death of the Father (Freud) and Death of the Author (Barthes) and the Death of God (Nietzsche) are, after all, projections of a single impulse-a desire for the elimination of any authority which might constrain or inhibit our personal freedom, perhaps especially our sexual freedom, but also our "freedom" to make "truth" what we want it to be. That the concept of truth thus suffers from the same syndrome as the concept of authority is clear enough.

Truth is, effectively, authority, and nowhere more explicitly synonymous than where biblical religion is the context. This is so obviously the case in a proto-Reformation reflection such as John Wyclif's De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae (The Truth of Holy Scripture) that translators are understandably divided as to whether Veritate in the title should be rendered "Truth" or "Authority." In Wyclif's understanding, these were in respect of Scripture practically indistinguishable in the term.

Among the Reformers a century after Wyclif were Luther and Tyndale, for whom resistance to ecclesiastical and magisterial authority was construed as obligation to still higher authority, or truth, which the institutional church was, with some warrant, no longer perceived as serving. Intermediation of the authority of the Church in restriction of access to the sources of the Church in Scripture had become at last an exercise of raw, sometimes brutal power. Resistance here, too, became rebellion (and divorce), and because it was "of the Church," its implications were far-reaching indeed. To the degree to which the Reformation celebrated the shift from the authority of the institutional Church to the authority of the individual ("Hier stehe ich") it liberated an individualism previously unknown and unanticipated. But this too, in its turn, has occasioned further confusions of authority and power.

Protestants in general have usually presented individualism-even in biblical interpretation-as pretty much an unmitigated good. John Bunyan's conviction that the Bible by itself is far better mental furniture than the entire libraries at Oxford and Cambridge without it became a sentiment both shared (and narrowed) among his evangelical and Baptist successors; his conviction that freedom to interpret Scripture by and for himself was the purest form of access to the truth was to be no less warmly embraced by that wing of the Reformation most successful in America.

Now, with radical individualism and the autonomous interpretation of Scripture having grown to proportions of anti-authoritarianism, general biblical illiteracy, and theological incoherence no Tyndale or Bunyan could have imagined, there is at last some evidence that Christians in the evangelical tradition are willing to reconsider the role of authority in relation to biblical interpretation. What was already clear enough to a thoughtful Puritan like Richard Baxter is apparent now to the most modest reflection of anyone who is willing to think about it: loss of authority of the Church, de jure, has led inexorably, on these lines, to the de facto loss of authority of Scripture. To put it as plainly as possible, the hackneyed adage among some adversaries of the faith, that Christians can make any verse of the Bible mean anything they want it to, is almost perfectly mirrored in the proclamation of some believers that the highest religious good is their right to interpret Scripture in whatever way they see fit. When an insistence on absolute interpretative independence is coupled, as increasingly it is, with an almost staggering loss of biblical literacy amongst its champions, then the actual authority of Scripture can become so negligible as to make any claim to a biblical foundation either comic or tragic depending upon your point of view.

All of these factors make the governing ideas about biblical interpretation and the life of the Church before the Reformation of timely interest for Protestant Christians. For Catholics on the other hand, a recent outpouring of scholarship on biblical exegesis in the early Church is a retracing of steps, and it has led to a dramatic revival in biblical scholarship and biblical teaching.

In fact, as Pope John XXIII, Vatican II, and most recently Pope John Paul II himself made clear in his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), it is by means of such careful rehabilitation of the teaching of Scripture in the historic Church that the Catholic magisterium of today has become so remarkably articulate about the centrality of Christ, "the decisive answer to every one of man's questions," for "it is he who opens up to the faithful the book of the Scriptures and, by fully revealing the Father's will, teaches the truth about moral action." Whatever we choose to make of it, while many evangelicals were doing their utmost to be "seeker-sensitive" and, in the Church of the Blessed Power-point Projector, "moving on" to a kind of piety-lite, prominent Catholic biblical scholars and theologians were retracing their own way back to the fork in the road. It was they who saw more clearly, ironically, the necessary interconnectedness of the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Church.

For the group of Ressourcement theologians of whom de Lubac was a member, it is essential to understand that the road first forked for Catholics not at the Reformation but earlier. In the rise to preeminence of scholastic theology with Bonaventure and Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and the subsequent shift away from the direct study of Scripture to a more abstract philosophical theology and the analytical study of systems of reflection on the Gospels such as Peter Lombard's Sententia (Sentences) of the twelfth century, Catholic theology had moved away from the scriptural rock to a less secure, though intellectually impressive, philosophical foundation. By the nineteenth century, if one may speak metonymically, Aquinas ruled. Whereas medievalists like de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, M. D. Chenu, and Jean Daniélou might thus have been expected to follow in the dominant neo-Thomist tradition of their guild, they surprisingly joined forces with Henry Brouillard and the younger Hans Urs von Balthasar to go back well beyond the thirteenth century to the early church and patristic writers in particular. What they discovered there was a vitality in relationship to Scripture itself which renewed for them also the life of the liturgy.

The key to the intimacy of Scripture and worship in the early church and in the Fathers was clearly the vital place of spiritual exegesis in their practice as readers of the Bible. Here is how it is explained by Bouyer:

Spiritual exegesis, which is supposed by the whole liturgy, is an exegesis dominated by two principles. The first principle is that the Bible is the Word of God, not a dead word, imprisoned in the past, but a living word addressed immediately to the man of today taking part in the celebration of the liturgy. The second principle is that the Old Testament is illumined by the New, just as the New only discloses its profundity once it is illumined in the Old. We must be still more specific: the bond between the two is determined by allegory in the precise sense given to that term by antiquity.

The rehabilitation of allegory in the hermeneutic of the Ressourcement biblical scholars, so far from displacing the foundation of the literal and historical sense of Scripture, gives back to history the charged sacramental resonance it had for Augustine, Ambrose, and the early church. De Lubac cites authorities from Clement of Alexander to Scotus to show that for the whole tradition:

[Scripture] is neither an exposition of abstract doctrine, nor a collection of myths, nor a manual of the inner life. It has nothing atemporal about it. [...] Divine revelation has not only taken place in time, in the course of history: it also has a historic form in its own right. It is contained within a res gesta: a thing that has been accomplished.

The allegorical sense, rooted in history and seeking no referent apart from God's action in history, simply points all of that history to Christ. Allegory is preeminently the application of Scripture's meaning to the life of the Church, moving through the ages, looking unto the end, awaiting the Bridegroom. What was needed for a true revival in contemporary worship, de Lubac reasoned, was not so much continual dogmatic insistence upon Thomist and post-Tridentine formulations as a return to the source, Scripture itself, and a reestablishment of continuity with the pilgrim company of its great interpreters.

Accordingly, when de Lubac published his four-volume Exégèse médiévale (Medieval Exegesis) in 1959, it was truly an epoch-making moment, even as Fr. Joseph Lienhard, S.J. has suggested, for the "life of the Church" in the fullest sense. Among other things Medieval Exegesis continued de Lubac's rehabilitation of one great ancient interpreter of the Bible whom Catholics had long dismissed as heretical, a rehabilitation begun with his earlier Histoire et Esprit (History and Spirit). Origen (ca. 185-254), first supported and later opposed vehemently by St. Jerome (yet always supported by Gregory Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom) was as much through misinformation as anything else condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople (in 553). This dismissal was sufficient to perpetuate his oblivion until de Lubac's careful and remarkable rectification of the misinformation and hence judgmental misunderstanding. It turns out that works were sometimes attributed to Origen which in fact were written by someone else. Worse, all along and "much more often, Origen [has been] copied, summarized, amplified, adapted, or plagiarized, sometimes in the most massive way" by persons whom political skills had made more successful and yet who were only too glad to have secretly an advantage in interpretative acuity borrowed without acknowledgment from the out-of-favor Origen. Thus, an early scholar of Scripture whom de Lubac shows to have been extraordinarily insightful, powerfully instructive, and almost overwhelmingly orthodox, by reason of the dishonest appropriation of many successors, was doubly maligned and obscured. The story, painstakingly yet beautifully documented by de Lubac, is broadly instructive.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Houses of the Interpreter by David Lyle Jeffrey Copyright © 2003 by Baylor University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface and Acknowledgement

PART ONE: Scripture in the House of Theology

1. How Firm a Foundation...?

2. Masterplot and Meaning in Biblical Narrative

3. Self-Examination and the Examination of Texts

4. Charity and Cupidity in Biblical Tradition

5. The Gospel according to Isaiah

PART TWO: Scripture in the Houses of Art

6. Authority and Interpretation in the House of Fame

7. Chaucer's Friar's (Unpaid) Rent

8. Conversion in the English Saints' Plays

9. Parody and Piety in Bosch's Haywain

10. Sir Orfeo's Harp: Music for the End of Time

PART THREE: Scripture in a House of Mirrors

11. Reading Wisely, Reading Well

12. Reading the Bible with C.S. Lewis

13. Scripture, Gender and Our Language of Worship

14. The Teaching Authority of Jesus and the Fatherhood of God

15. Postmodern Theology and Perennial Truth

Notes

Index

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