Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Biblical Literalism according to Wright

I have been reading N.T. Wright's book "The Last Word -- Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture." This is a good read, shorter than usual for Wright, that discusses a number of issues surrounding Biblical inspiration in what I believe is a very healthy light. My quote of Wright in this post, while it links to an online article, is also in the text of this book.

I wish Wright went a little further than he has done in his analysis of the historical perspective on Scriptural authority. He does offer a great deal in explaining the ways in which the church fathers throughout the last twenty centuries saw that authority in a variety of lights, none of them much like the current perspectives of either "liberal" or "conservative" Christianity. However he appears (and I qualify this by saying I'm only about 2/3 of the way through at this writing) to completely hop over the synonymization of the concepts "authoritative scripture" and the "word of God," which concepts, as I have previously argued, ought not to be conflated. I had hoped that the evolution of this conflation would be part of his history and it is not.

Nevertheless, I came across a couple of very interesting passages today (pp 68-74 for those who have the book) in which he informs us that even the term "literal interpretation," so hot among fundamentalists in the past century and today, meant something very different to the 16th-century reformers, and before them, to medieval theologians. Medieval scholars saw four different "senses" in which to interpret various parts of Scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical, and the moral (Wright is not advocating this structure, in fact he points out potential error in it). In medieval usage, "literal" meant the original meaning of the words as actually written (same Latin root as our words "literature" and "literary"), as opposed to any other means of interpretation. As Wright points out, the "literal" interpretation of one of Jesus' parables does not mean that we approach the events of that parable as though they actually happened (which is what would mean in modern English if we took the parable "literally"). Rather, we accept that the writer is representing that Jesus told a parable--a story that may or may not be factually true but illustrates the real truth Jesus was trying to convey.

This sense, for the reformers, put them at odds with Catholic theology in that, to the Catholic interpretation, the literal sense of Jesus statement "this is my body" provided the foundation for the dogma of transubstantiation, while the reformers argued that the literal interpretation (remember that Wright says "literal" means "the sense that the first writers intended" rather than our modern definition of the word) recognizes that the text is relating truly a metaphorical statement by Jesus.

Obviously this difference in approach could be applied all over the place--so that a "literal reading" of the Genesis account of creation could be as the poetic narrative of God starting things out good, and humans jealous of God screwing it up, rather than justifying the seven days, the talking snake (apologies to Bill Maher), and other things that create so much heartburn in cosmological circles.

As Wright states, ". . .we need to note carefully that to invoke 'the literal meaning of scripture,' hoping thereby to settle a point by echoing the phraseology of the Reformers, could be valid only if we meant, not 'literal' as opposed to metaphorical, but 'literal' (which might include metaphorical if that, arguably, was the original sense) as opposed to the three other medieval senses (allegorical, anagogical and/or moral). This is one of those many points at which the later appeal to the rhetoric of the Reformation needs to be scrutinized rather carefully. Today, when people say 'literalist,' they often mean 'fundamentalist.' The Reformers' stress on the literal sense by no means supports the kind of position thereby implied."

I'm not suggesting that literalism in any form is necessarily a biblically-derived concept anyhow--although in its medieval sense I think it has a lot more going for it than in the modern sense of the same word. But it is important to understand how terms of art have evolved before going off half-cocked about what some historical authority is saying.

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