The Shape of the Text

I am reading Peter Leithart’s Deep Exegesis which is quite good so far and brings to the fore (up to where I have read at least) many of the problems I have been rolling over in my mind about the depth of meaning that a text can bring to the table. The original languages are, of course, extremely important in this, but Leithart’s first chapter is a polemic against what he perceives (and I tend to agree though the Platonist struggles against me) as the biggest problem with the hermenuetical landscape of evangelicalism: Kantian presuppositions about the nature of meaning, or what he calls the “Text as husk” method of interpretation. This is where the meaning that the text is carrying is more important than the text itself. In the beginning of the chapter, he compares The Message with the KJV on Psalm 23 to show the big problem. I think this is a great quote that leads from his discussion of the problems of The Message translation/paraphrasation:

“My point is not merely aesthetic, and it is not at all nostalgic. I am not pining to hear the echoing, arching rhythms of the KJV ring from pulpits everywhere. My point is theological, and one of the main themes of this book. For The Message, the crucial thing about the Bible is the substance of what it teaches us, and many readers and interpreters come to the Bible with the same interests. For translators, commentators, preachers, and theologians, the idioms and cadences, the rhetoric and the tropes, the syntax and the vocabulary of the original have been reduced to mere vehicles for communicating that message. If the vehicle fails reach its destination, we change vehicles. We substitute, add, or subtract words to make the Bible sound normal. We change idioms to be more familiar. We turn God’s names into generic terms of divinity. We fiddle with the Bible’s rhetoric so that it fits our rhetoric, rather than letting the Bible’s rhetoric shape ours. Once we think we have found the spirit of the text, we feel free to mold the letter… Scripture once transformed the world precisely because the Bible students clung to the letter. Once the letter is reduced to a malleable vehicle, Scripture loses its potency. It no longer shapes our imaginations, our poetry, or our politics, because it is not allowed to say anything we do not already know. We have lost the Bible because we are no longer theologians of the letter.” – Leithart, Deep Exegesis p. 5,6

This is something we should really strive to let happen more than just technically in terms of the Bible’s wording and such, but in terms of our total interaction with the God-breathed Word. We should always let it shape us. Its poetry becomes our poetry. Its music, our music. And that of course includes that which it points to, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus of Nazareth. That Jesus, a real man living in a real time and place in a real culture who was and is the Eternal Son of God. All of that is what the Bible gives us, and all of that should be for all of us.

“For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” – 1 Corinthians 3:21b-23 (ESV)

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  1. This reminds me of something Sanders once said:

    Some people ask questions like, “What’s more important, the Bible or reading the Bible?” And I say, “I don’t know! The Bib–? That’s a stupid question!”

    I think asking if the text or the meaning of the text is more important is a similar kind of thing. On the one hand, God’s language has to be so much better and more meaningful than ours, so in that sense there is meaning that the text is only trying to convey. On the other hand, the text is God-inspired. He doesn’t fail to communicate what he intends to communicate, and the text is how he has chosen to do so.

  1. January 19th, 2011

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