skip to Main Content

Participation and Interpretation Theory

We have endeavored to practice the craft of biblical interpretation along the lines of our participative approach, on the premise that all forms of interpretation might be helpfully viewed as forms of participation.  Obviously the precise form of the participation varies with the particular reality in which one is participating.  Participator and that in which one is participating need to congenially correspond to each other.  And learning how to do this is something of the art of arts, requiring the skills and virtues of practical experience.  The process successful marriages employ, in order to achieve successful communication and consensus, might be a good example to keep in mind.  We do not claim to have worked this out in any extensive manner, but readers with a more pronounced hermeneutical interest might be interested in a little more explanation.

Typically religion and theology types think of literary texts when they think of interpretation, because of the authority of sacred texts in the various religions.  Interpretation theory (or hermeneutics) is then narrowed down to textual interpretation.  And this may only have been an item of interest to a privileged few in an earlier, more visual age, when access to formal education and literary texts was more rare.  The democratization of education and reading, however, has probably intensified the proclivity to identify interpretation with textual interpretation.  Today’s computerized world might add something of an auditory component to the mix, and this can alert one to the fact that interpretation goes on in all forms of communication, not just in reading.  The speaking/listening situation is a communication-interpretation event, and in analogous ways so, too are musical and aesthetic experiences, among others.  Interestingly the interactive nature of the computer and web might also reinforce the role of participation in interpretation, although it is tricky and ambiguous.  For the ability to interact almost without any thought and discipline, and the ability surgically to alter texts on the web, both from the side of the reader as well as the side of the provider, tends to separate participation from the matrix of skills and virtues needed for humane understanding and communication.

We have been employing a form of literary textual interpretation in this second chapter, and this is as it should be in a study of biblical texts.  As we plunge into the labyrinth of interpretation theory, this focus upon a literary (biblical) text offers us some focus.  At the same time, it is helpful to employ our imaginations and ask how the use of participation in the textual realm might be analogously applicable in other areas as well.  Gadamer suggested that the written text enjoys something of a privileged place in hermeneutics because it intensifies the verbal dimension present in the living, face to face dialogue situation.  In that face to face exchange, the verbal dimension can at times be lost from view, especially with facile speakers.  Hence speakers might miss the crucial role that the word plays in the speaking situation.[1]

A more comprehensive approach to interpretation theory would need, minimally, to consider the (1) author/s, (2) the text or work, (3) the world of meaning/truth potentially available, and (4) the interpreter/s (or receiver/s).  Some consideration should also be given to whether and how these four dimensions are related; that is, do we simply impose a relationship between them, or is there already some kind of connection or flowing between them rendering the experience of shared understanding possible?  Different schools of interpretation theory have typically concentrated upon or sometimes exaggerated the role of each of these dimensions.[2]

Author-oriented approaches to interpretation in one way or another challenge us to think about what an author is, and what are the productive and creative processes authors employ in the crafting of texts.  Texts do not fall out of the sky or emerge from nowhere; they result from agents acting within history and society.  Some attention in interpretation theory, then, should be given to the productive role of the imagination (and creativity, which seems closely related to imagination), and also to the nature of consciousness, for it would seem that imagination is a dimension of human consciousness.[3]  We have also suggested that we consider deprivatizing the notion of authorship, recognizing the productive role of companions, social influences, and culture in the creative process.

Text-oriented or work-oriented approaches to interpretation challenge us to attend to the form or medium through which the creative process occurs.  With literary texts, the medium is language and its various genres.  If we think of “text” as an analogous phenomenon, then our imagination might think of musical compositions, paintings, sculptures[4], even the living, verbal form of the discourse situation, even within a “solitary” and “silent” context (the “mental word”[5] or “inward dialogue”[6] of the Classical philosophical tradition).  We have tried to suggest, following Ricoeur especially, that we attend to the possible or likely productive nature of the medium, as distinct from the simply classificatory nature involved.  How do the media work to facilitate and produce meaning/truth?  Obviously a poem, for example, differs from a narrative.  But why is an author moved to write or speak in one or the other?  And how might what the author is seeking to say be related to the way it is said?

Approaches focused on the world of meaning/truth potentially opened out to us by and through the authors and works challenge us to attend to the heady issues of reality, history, and truth.[7]  Are texts simply diversions from life, locked up in themselves, or do they put us in touch with dimensions of reality?  What is “reality” anyway?  In some way, ideas, words and texts are aspects of reality.  Is history one of its dimensions, and is this history the site of the human experience of the divine Ground?   Do texts, which seem to try to ignore such reality issues, despite their best efforts, still force us to grapple with these questions?  What is the distinction being aimed at in the two words “meaning” and “truth”?  Or is this a distinction without a difference?  And on the questions go.

Reception-oriented approaches challenge us to attend to the receiver/s or interpreter/s of texts, and the role they play in interpretation.  Obviously receivers bring their own preunderstanding and level of spiritual development to the interpretation process, and this must in some way affect the way in which author, text, and world of meaning and truth relate to the interpreter.  Typically reception theory would look to the skills, virtues, community formation or deformation, the “spirituality” (if you will), of the receiver/s, attending to their role in the interpretation process.  In some respects, reception theory is a sort of mirror of author theory.  Consequently, just as we have endeavored to deprivatize the notion of the author, albeit without dissolving the author into an amorphous collectivity, so we should consider a similar deprivatization with respect to the receiver/s.

Our participatory approach to interpretation seeks to honor these four dimensions, at a minimum, and recognizes that this calls for a much more extensive analysis than we can offer here (an exhaustive analysis exceeds the author’s competence in any case).  But let us offer at least some minimal observations.  Voegelin’s notion of the partnership in the community of being gives us one way of imagining the connection between the four dimensions noted here.  We do not in the first instance artificially need to build a connection between authors, texts, meaning/truth, and receivers, for we are all already partners in the community of being, albeit on a scale of vast range and diversity.  How can a reader hope to connect with a book?  How can a reader hope to connect with an author, perhaps long dead and having written in a language foreign to her/him?  These questions stress first the distance between interpreter and the to-be-interpreted, and they overlook the connection, namely our partnership in the community of being.

Yet there is a certain distance that is experienced too, sometimes more (as with the need to rely on translations and in reading texts from distant cultures), sometimes less (texts in our own language and from our own culture).  In other words, we are back with the interplay between strangeness and familiarity which characterizes all events of participation.  This distance can be fruitful and productive, but it requires effort and the development of the skills and virtues necessary to make it so.  At a minimum it requires fidelity to, hope in, and love for, the community of being, and a willingness to submit to the challenges this community imposes.

As knowledge and understanding come from participating in the community of being, rather than from hopelessly seeking to avoid it, so too in interpretation.  Interpretation is a participation phenomenon, one more example of participation in the community of being as linguistically mediated.  The text forces us, of course, to attend more doggedly to this aspect of linguistic mediation, an aspect which in some manner always seems to be present, but which can easily be overlooked by people whose language facility is either highly developed or, paradoxically, too unnoted.  The text is a window onto the community of being and at the same time a dimension of that community.  It can be the former because it is the latter.

The world of truth is simply the community of being coming to luminosity in the event of interpretation.  “Truth” here is being used in the Classical Greek sense of both reality and disclosure (alētheia).  Truth is simply reality (the community of being) in its experienced and historical disclosedness, at least in the primal sense.[8]  Inasmuch as we are always within our partnership in the community of being, we have no access to a perch from which we can see the community in its entirety.  Knowledge comes from within experience and history, not from without.  It is an “inbetween” gift, as Plato’s Diotima memorably expressed it in the Symposium (202a,b,e).  Inasmuch as reality is the full community of being, this kind of world-oriented approach to interpretation potentially makes room for articulations of the historical nature of human existence in the sense used in this book, namely, surface facticity, and the humane and transcendental dimensions of human existence.[9]

Recall here, if you will, Voegelin’s comments on luminosity and intentionality from the previous chapter’s supplement.  Truth as luminosity is reality as disclosedness or manifestation.  Within this matrix, of course, there is room for truth as a correspondence between a subject’s ideas/words and an “object” to be known.  But such intentionality is always derivative from and a moment within the larger participatory matrix.  Inasmuch as participation is an action or form of engagement, it would also seem to offer a way to think about a pragmatic view of truth as another dimension within the community of being.  To this we should add an aesthetic notion of truth as well, that is, the affective attractiveness which draws us into participation.  Participation’s fostering of a luminosity model of truth, in other words, offers us a way to keep the true connected to the good (action) and the beautiful (the aesthetic).  Just as truth as correspondence (a subject’s ideas corresponding to an object) is a derivative phenomenon within the larger matrix of the community of being, so objectified actions and beautiful objects, so to speak, are derivative phenomena within the same matrix.

What should we make of the possible distinction between meaning and truth?  Some writers seem to make a distinction between the intelligibility of something and its truth.  For example, it might be suggested that we can understand a dream, but the events it describes may not be true.  Here “truth” seems to be equated with what exists “out there” in the “real” world, that is, outside the mind.  However, if truth be understood to be luminosity, then it would not seem necessary to make this distinction between meaning and truth.  It would seem sufficient to distinguish various forms of luminosity.  Some also add a further distinction, namely “meaningfulness.”  That is, something might be intelligible (possess meaning), but the knower only appropriates that when he or she converts meaning into meaningfulness.  The luminosity model would also seem to make this further distinction needless.  Or perhaps we might say it has some derivative worth in intentionality analysis, along with “meaning.”

Ignoring any one of the four dimensions involved, at a minimum, in interpretation would seem to distort or even to mutilate the community of being, a community embracing all partners, in the present, in the past, and yet to be in the future.  There would seem to be no shortcut to truth apart from commitment to this vast partnership.  At the same time, these considerations on interpretation need to link up with our first chapter’s discussion of alternatives to our participative approach, as well as with the geographical, historical and social coordinates within which participation occurs, with their respective challenges.  For example, our approach moves from a fundamental trust in the community of being, and suggests that only in the light of the luminosity it offers can one arrive at judgments of distortion, error, evil and sin, that is, at judgments regarding attacks on or damages to the community of being.  In other words, we are seeking an approach to interpretation which is as surgically noninvasive as possible, that is, one that follows the curve of the movement of participation itself, trusting its guidance.

Some theories of interpretation begin with a stance of distrust or suspicion, for example, approaches of deconstruction, and seem to question whether there is any “being” whose logos or disclosedness is available at all.  Our approach would argue that suspicion is a second moment in interpretation, and derivative from trust in the luminosity of being, and we do not see how a radically deconstructive approach can avoid relying upon some implicit understanding of truth in order to recognize that which should be “deconstructed.”  On the other hand, our approach, while in some sense “logocentric,” argues that we know the logos only from within the event of participation, and not from any totalizing perspective.  Hence our emphasis upon the originating (Ricoeur) or the engendering (Voegelin) experience.  Historically there does seem to have been a tendency to sever the logos from the engendering matrix, and thus to hypostatize it into a “possession” requiring little more than taking a look (Lonergan’s “already out there now real”).  Hence it is not surprising that Levinas, for example, will seek an alternative to such totalizing “presence” by employing the notion of the “trace.”  How might one suggest signification without simple appearance, if we may rely upon Ricoeur here?  Our approach has some sympathies with Levinas’ recourse to the “trace,” and would suggest that our participative approach to the logos seeks to critique a naive presence-ism or hypostatization as well.[10]

The Bible as a Canon or Norm

Readers may want, and certainly deserve, some further observations on the question of the canon of Scripture, given the way our participative approach has somewhat relativized the role of the Bible.  We have relativized the Bible in the sense that we have placed our approach within the general context of a theory of participative interpretation, that is, the Bible represents an instance of participation within the community of being, like other books as well.  Obviously this begs the question of whether and how it is a privileged instance of participation, which Christian believers would want to maintain in some form.

Participation occurs on a vast scale, in the sense that the luminosity of the community of being varies with the quality of participation exerted.  Thus, the range of authors (understanding this in our ample sense as not excluding a more community-oriented view of authorship) involved in the creation of the Bible is extensive, and so too, plausibly, is the scale of participation.  This is reflected on a practical level in the fact that not every writing within the Bible enjoys the same degree of authority.  In the first instance the authority of a writing is not a matter of a legalistic determination, but one of the resonance between the logos coming to luminosity through the writing and the receiver/s of that luminosity.  In other words, the authority of a writing derives in the deepest sense from the truth disclosed through the work.

Our participative approach certainly would be congenial with the customary view of the Bible as one of the great classics of western culture and indeed of world cultures.  “Classic” here is meant in the sense of a compellingly expressed articulation of constant dimensions of the community of being.  One returns to a classic – indeed, the phenomenon of “returning” to it is itself a sign of a classic – because of this constancy of compellingness.  In this sense, the Bible is a norm or canon for us all.  Further degrees of normativity for Christians will depend upon the authority of Jesus as the Christ, it would seem.  Inasmuch as Jesus and his movement is the canon in person, so to speak, so the written canon derives its authority from that.  It becomes an authority inasmuch as it is an icon through which participation in Jesus and his movement can occur.  Hence, Thomas Torrance’s suggestion that the determination of the Christian canon and the determination of the Church’s Christological beliefs were nearly simultaneous and interrelated phenomena seems quite plausible.[11]  In a certain sense, then, the struggle over the truth of Jesus is always also a struggle over the nature of the canonicity of the Bible.  Both are intertwined.

The “closure of the canon” might then be viewed as a metaphor for the Bible as a relatively adequate icon into participation in Jesus and his movement.  For example, an incarnational faith, which accepts God’s accommodation to our finite, human condition, would seem able to accept relative adequacy as an appropriate phenomenon.  If you will, the derived normativity of the biblical canon in all its historical particularity corresponds to the normativity of Jesus and his movement’s historical particularity.  But in a certain sense, the canon is also “open,” not in a relativistic and amorphous sense, but in the sense that participation therein is eo ipso participation in and into the entire community of being.[12]  Readers such as we are, who dwell in this community, should not, and do not need to, grant the same level of authority to every “event of participation” therein.  At the same time, reality has a way of drawing us into its truth.  Thus, for example, we need not claim canonical status for the Nag Hammadi texts or other works historically “excluded” from the Christian canon.  This need not deny their potential for the disclosure of truth.  The community of being is certainly wide enough for this!  On the other hand, a view of textual interpretation that overlooks or even suppresses this larger community context within which interpretation occurs could easily exclude the Nag Hammadi texts and virtually anything else from its register of sources.

In other words, the community of being and participation therein should foster a certain willingness to open oneself to as much of a disclosure of its richness as possible.  Hopefully this suggestion offers us a mediating position between those who perhaps seek to widen the canon, on the one hand, and those who seek radically to deconstruct it, on the other.[13]  Correspondingly, our participative perspective, which recognizes the role of community in interpretation, also would be congenial to some forms of canonical criticism, which are resurfacing this community dimension (the canon as an ecclesial community norm).[14]  However, our Voegelin-inspired view of community would also somewhat relativize the notion of an ecclesial community, keeping it open to the entire community of being, and it would also seek to reroot the canon within the originary, engendering experience of revelation, seeking to avoid dogmatic totalization.

Just as our participative approach widens our understanding of canonicity, hopefully without destroying its privileged particularity for the Christian community, at the same time a corresponding rethinking of biblical inspiration is called for.  That is, the Spirit at work within the wider community of being (“inspiration” in the wider sense) is also at work in the more particularized sense of the incarnation and its history of effects (the Jesus movement, the Scripture, the Church, etc.).  Inasmuch as the issue of inspiration is a corollary of the reality of the Holy Spirit, and inasmuch as issues of pneumatology are closely linked to issues of our participation in the divine Ground (as we have endeavored to suggest), then our participatory approach would seem to get along quite well with belief in inspiration.  A special problem is that of the possibility of error in Scripture; that is, is the Bible so “privileged” through inspiration that from its human side it is incapable of error?

If by “error” we mean a distortion of one or the other partner in the community of being (God, humans, society, and cosmos), then it would seem that a certain element of error is detectable in the Bible, with respect to all these partners.  Notions of slavery, the inferior status of women, some strands of divine vindictiveness, religious “wars” – these are some of the deformations that come to mind.  In other words, there is a history not only of development (differentiation), but also an element of deformation and regression.  But this is a contested issue, even in the more “liberal” Christian churches, obviously.[15]  Again, an incarnational faith can appeal to God’s accommodation to the human condition, expressed poignantly in the divine enfleshment, as a way of understanding the paradoxical interplay of divine inspiration and human error in the biblical inheritance.  That is, divine revelation is as noninvasive a process as possible.  The human process of participating in divine communication is matched by and grounded in the divine, participative Ground.

Jesus Research

We are using the subtitle “Jesus Research” with a certain measure of irony, since we have very deliberately refused to separate “Jesus” from the “Christ”-dimension.  This has to do with our understanding of history, which simply in an up-front way recognizes the attunement to the divine Ground as the crucial component transforming temporality into historicity.  Recognizing the divine dimension of history, then, fosters an openness to our recognition of the divine (“Christ”) dimension of Jesus.  This notion of history as the site of a divine-human interplay is also related to our discussion in chapter one regarding the relationship between faith and reason.  Combinative approaches to faith and reason would, then, correspond to our view of history.  At this point the reader might want to return to chapter one’s supplement and restudy the various forms of combining faith and reason.  In any case, issues of faith’s role in historical scholarship are simply further and more specific forms of the issue of the relation between faith and reason.

What usually goes under the topos of “Jesus research” is the very diversified field of the quest for the historical Jesus and its cognate aspects.  This has an extensive history, which has a way of enriching, challenging, frustrating and annoying those of us involved in one way or another in the study of Jesus.  At the very least it has forced us all to become more reflective about our methods and presuppositions; for example, the comments in the preceding paragraph.

The historical Jesus quest, as many have observed, actually embraces many “quests,” and a number of fine surveys are available.[16]  Usually all the quests share in common an attempt to bring the science of modern history, with its cognates, into biblical studies.  Thus they reflect all the bumpiness of the history of the relation between historical science, faith (in its various forms), theology, and church authorities.  These already somewhat uneasy relationships are further charged by the growing tension among those historians who think of their field as more of a social science, and those who think of it as within the traditional liberal arts.  We have layer upon layer of “charged” relations here!

The earliest, eighteenth century phase of the quest initiated the use of modern history in biblical studies.  The general tendency was to approach the New Testament with suspicion; it was the result of accumulated layers of influences (tendencies toward legend building, superstition, borrowings from the Greco-Roman sphere, apologetic motives, etc.).  “Critical” historians should peel away these layers and reconstruct the “real” Jesus and his influence, usually basing themselves on a mixture of historical techniques and philosophical preferences of one sort or another.  Some gave the impression that the Gospels were hopelessly incapable of yielding accurate history; others, basing themselves on the view that Mark and a hypothetical sayings source (“Q”) seemed to be relatively early, held out hope that the New Testament might well provide us with access to a more accurate view of the historical record.  Albert Schweitzer’s celebrated critique (1906, in the German edition) of this “old quest” as one of projecting the interpreters’ biases onto their conclusions is generally regarded as the closure of this first phase.[17]   Still, some positives were evident: renewed attention to the apocalyptic dimension of Jesus’ teaching; a sense of the history of transmission of the Jesus tradition and the role of the community therein; differences between the synoptics and John.  Unfortunately there was a relation of hostility between historical reason and ecclesial faith, which made it very difficult to work through the issues of the relationship between faith and reason.

Schweitzer had presented a Jesus who was severely apocalyptic in character.  This may have influenced some to think that the “historical” Jesus was not a particularly welcome object of inquiry in our very modern, “rational” world.  Others seemed inclined to stress the role of faith in exegesis, against the earlier swing to the other side of reason, arguing that the kerygma (preaching) of the New Testament is the proper object of our inquiry.  And in any case, a “historical” Jesus could not really be extracted from the kerygmatic Christ of the Gospels, it was held.  This promoted a period of skepticism about the possibility of an historical quest for Jesus, along with a period of seeming uninterest, on theological and other grounds.  The writings of Rudolf Bultmann are usually associated with this phase of the quest.

Bultmann’s student Ernst Käsemann is usually credited with inaugurating a “new quest” with his 1953 essay, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus.”  He suggested that one of the reasons for the emergence of the New Testament writings was the need to discriminate between historically accurate and wildly legendary and gnostic portrayals of Jesus.  Likewise, he reminded us that Christianity is a religion centered on an historical person, rather than an unhistorical “myth.”  He recognized the difficulties involved in a renewed quest, however, arguing for a more modest enterprise than in the earliest period of the quest.  This more modest approach would discipline itself through criteria, such as that of dissimilarity, noted above, albeit recognizing that Jesus was a Jew sharing many of the faith convictions of his fellow Jews.[18]  Käsemann’s work inaugurated a very fruitful rethinking of the relation between faith and historical reason, and his legacy continues today in various ways among those pursuing a combinative approach.

We have moved from an “old quest,” to a phase of skepticism and “no quest,” to a “new or second quest,” in our brief sketch.  Scholars now write of a “third quest,” characterized by an intensified pluralism of approaches and contributions.[19]  This likely reflects our postmodern situation, with all its challenges yet confusions.  N. T. Wright, for example, has written: “Perhaps the most striking feature of the third quest is its current open-endedness.”[20]  At the same time, it is not clear that those included under this nomenclature would always find it congenial.  Today’s Jesus scholars clearly cannot be adequately labeled “third questers,” if one takes a wide enough view of the matter.

The celebrated Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 by R. Funk with J. D. Crossan, in general leans toward a separation of faith from historical reason, or at least toward a severe bracketing of the faith dimension, in principle.  Some of the writers associated with it exhibit a desire to expand history beyond its traditional frontiers, incorporating more of the anthropological and social sciences.  Some also exhibit a methodological self-reflectivity and deliberate pluralism, along with a claimed distance from a narrow historical positivism (getting at “pure,” that is, uninterpreted facts) of the past.  The Seminar, however, in a way only reflects a small portion of the work of the scholars involved, if by “seminar” we mean the regular meetings in which the participating scholars cast a vote on the sayings and actions of the “historical” Jesus.[21]  On the other hand, that so many reach a similar conclusion indicates a convergence of approaches among them.

In what follows, we will single out for brief consideration four issues; among those, that of the Jewishness of Jesus is an issue of somewhat major concern among those usually considered “third questers,” although those concerned with it transcend that group as well.  Third questers generally tend to ignore or reject the significance of the remaining issues, for reasons which will become obvious to the reader.

The Jewish Dimension

This is certainly one of the more developing areas of current research on Jesus, and it should be.  Common sense indicates that Jesus was a man of his times and culture, and the latter was clearly predominantly Jewish.  Käsemann had already cautioned that the use of the criterion of dissimilarity should not obscure the obviously Jewish background of Jesus, namely, the fact that he shared much in common with his people in terms of culture and beliefs.  “Certainly [Jesus] was a Jew and made the assumptions of Jewish piety, but at the same time he shatters this framework with his claim,” he wrote.[22]  Since the “new quest” (of Käsemann and others) the interest in the Jewish dimension has deepened and complexified.  Many factors seem involved, not all of them mutually congenial.

The desire to reclaim what Jesus shares in common with his fellow Jews is a way of reclaiming important dimensions of his humanity and his “ordinariness,” so to speak.  It is also a fruitful balance to an overstressing of the Hellenistic prism of many of the strands finding their way into the New Testament kerygma and teaching.  At the same time, the emphasis upon Jesus’ Jewishness can become a way of casting suspicion upon the “later” elaborated and Hellenistic-seeming Christological beliefs as we find them in the final text of the New Testament.  This can also be connected with today’s global situation, in which we are more intensely aware of the competing claims of the various religions; hence the desire to seek the commonly shared between us.

Is the Jesus movement at its core a form of Judaism or a radically incompatible mutation?  And not to be discounted is the Holocaust, which has uncovered a deep strain of Anti-Semitism in the Christian West, thus raising the question of possible anticipations of this in the Jesus movement’s earliest beginnings.  To what extent, for example, do the harsh portraits of the Pharisees in Matthew (e.g., Mt 23) reflect more of a growing fissure between the Jesus movement and the synagogue rather than Jesus’ own practice itself?  This very naturally has led to an intensive debate over the execution of Jesus, given the all too horrible charge of deicide leveled against the Jews in western, Christian history.  Who was responsible for that execution, and why?  At the same time, on a larger level, this has raised questions about whether Christians respect the integrity of the Jewish tradition itself.  That is, is not its covenant (in an embracing sense) still valid, its sacred scripture hardly adequately named an “Old” Testament, and its purpose in history hardly adequately defined as a temporary preparation for the emergence of Jesus and his movement?

We have layer upon layer of questions and proposed answers, and the spread of views is rather extensive, especially upon matters of exegetical detail.  However, some general trends have emerged, and readers can easily consult the literature for more.  Regarding Jesus’ execution, the tendency is to argue for a mixed causation, namely, some Jewish authorities, probably the Sadducees, and the Roman authorities would share the responsibility, inasmuch as culpability can be gauged at all.[23]  To some extent the novelty of Jesus was something perhaps too mind-stretching, as it remains to this day!  Regarding the Shoah (the catastrophe of the Nazi genocide of the Jews), scholars tend to recognize multiple causative factors, among which was a significant Christian history of contempt for the Jews.  There is also a tendency to distinguish between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, the latter a more racial, Nazi tendency, the former a more religio-cultural denigration with some roots already in earliest Christianity and the New Testament.  For example, Raymond Brown unhesitatingly suggests that the problematic verse 8.44 of John, in which, speaking to the “Jews,” Jesus tells them that their father is the devil, needs to be understood in terms of the polemic situation of the times (the growing fissure with the synagogue).

Clearly something is happening which we may fairly describe as an anticipation of the sad anti-Judaic history of contempt, it would seem.  Brown does not say this, but it seems a fair implication.  But it is not anti-Semitism.  At the same time, Brown cautions that John 4.22 also tells us that salvation comes to us from the Jews.  So the matter is rather more blurry at this point.  It would seem that John and the New Testament is not in fact condemning the entire Jewish people, and certainly contemporary scholarship would not want to sanction such a thing.  It would certainly not make sense to view this growing fissure as racial; Jesus himself and most of the original followers of Jesus would be included.  Thinking in such purely racial, materialistic terms is rather more of a “modern’ deformation, it would seem.[24]

Regarding the Jewishness of Jesus himself, some trends are discernible.  First is an emphasis upon the rich diversity of Jewish religio-cultural thought and practice in Jesus’ time.  Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians, reformists, intertestamental apocalyptic visionaries, followers of John the Baptist are some of the more notable.[25]  Common sense suggests that Jesus was in varying relationships with some or most of these groups, reflecting in some cases something of their influence in a positive way.  For example, there is something reformist about Jesus’ teaching; he was baptized by John the Baptist, which would indicate some assimilation of the Baptist’s mission; Jesus was a lay teacher or rabbi, celebrating the everyday presence of God and the call to authenticity in one’s living out of Torah, like the Pharisees; he was also willing to risk himself politically, and likely had some sense of the radical implications on a societal level of his teachings.  Was there something of a conservative strain in his work as well, reflecting something of the Sadducees?  He was not a revolutionary in the usual sense of that word (someone actively seeking to overthrow the government).[26]  His preaching of the reign of God would also reflect something of an apocalyptic or eschatological visionary, along with various prophetic and Mosaic strands, as we have noted.

We have argued that the inclusiveness and divine personalism of Jesus are key distinguishing dimensions, which differentiate him from all of these groups, yet without completely rupturing plausible elements of continuity with them as well.  The growing novelty of his movement reflects the novelty of his work and message, yet maintaining elements of continuity with the Jewish heritage.  This is reflected above all in the way the Hebrew Testament forms the sinews of the New Testament.[27]  As Jesus’ movement developed, his earliest followers turned to their own Hebrew scriptures for guidance, and noted the obvious correspondences and yet perplexities arising therein.  This caused his followers to stretch traditional Jewish titles, such as “messiah,” “Lord,” even “God,” in ways congenial to the singularity of this man from Nazareth.[28]

Some scholars maximize the Jewish dimension of Jesus, nearly rejecting any significant differences between him and the range of tolerable Jewish views of his time, attributing the “substantive” differences to later and apparently needless reinterpretation by the Christian movement as it differentiated itself from its Jewish roots.[29]  Earlier brands of scholarship tended to maximize the Hellenistic influence on the New Testament, ignoring the Jewish roots of Christianity’s view of Jesus.  The participatory view we have suggested has tried to be polyvalent, arguing for sameness in difference, or discontinuity within continuity, along with many biblical scholars.[30]  At the same time, we have tried to indicate that this polyvalent appropriation of Jesus was not always unambiguously progressive.  History does not seem to be a simply linear and progressive reality.

Satan and the Demonic

John Meier’s magisterial second volume of his A Marginal Jew stands out as a challenging and fair treatment of the theme of the demonic, as well as that of the miracles of Jesus, to be noted next.  Both in terms of narrative form, and in terms of the historical ministry of Jesus himself, the exorcisms and miracles are too central to the Gospels to be ignored.  Readers should consult Meier’s work for succinct summaries of the historical development of demonology and satanology, along with challenging analyses of individual accounts of exorcisms in the Gospels.

The Hebrew Scriptures make some mention of evil spirits (for example, Saul’s problem in 1 Sam 16.14-23, etc.), but for the most part it is only in the intertestamental and New Testament literature that the theme becomes particularly pronounced in the Bible, not unlike similar emphases in Near Eastern religions.  In the apocalyptic framework, experiences of evil and sin are human phenomena and demonic phenomena simultaneously.  One might be bodily taken over by the demonic (possession), or one’s body might somehow fall under its influence in an external way (obsession), although these distinctions might to some extent be somewhat too precise.  At the same time, we are not necessarily dealing with sin in these cases; that is a separate matter.

For example, with regard to Luke’s recounting of “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others” (8.2-3), a story which Meier regards as basically reliable historically, chiefly on the basis of the criterion of embarrassment, there is no reason to suppose these women are being accused of personal sin.  We cannot know for sure, and maybe matters are never so pure.  But the unfounded tendency to equate Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of Luke 7.36-50 might lead one to too easily and unsoundly think of personal sin when either possession or obsession would seem sufficient.[31]   A further issue worthy of note is the New Testament tendency, shared with some of the pseudepigrapha, to “organize” the demons into a kind of (negative) kingdom under Satan, who may or may not be identical with “Beelzebul,” a name which is apparently unique to the New Testament and some early Christian literature.[32]

A critical question a biblical interpreter must grapple with is what would be lost in our appropriation of and participation in the Jesus movement if we were simply to ignore this demonic and satanic dimension?  Is it, for example, simply an archaic, pre-scientific remnant, which we can rearticulate in more modern terms?  That is, it seems to represent forms of evil of various kinds: individual psychosomatic maladies, societal and even cosmic forces of evil (Eph 6.12; Jn 12.31, etc.).  All of these are especially vivid in the apocalyptic literature, and one can then understand why some authors wishing to stress the social and ecological dimension of evil and sin at times call for a renewed attention to apocalyptic.[33]  The natural tendency here is to demythologize, and it is difficult not to do some of this, inhabiting the modern and postmodern world in which we presently dwell.

At times one will find interpreters suggesting that mythical narratives may bring the benefit of dramatizing the encounter with evil, and this can have the beneficial result of somewhat personalizing the matter for us moderns.  On the other hand, one of the tendencies of the postmodern landscape is to invoke the language of “angels,” and perhaps this indicates something of a renewed openness to the demonic as well, for the demonic and the angelic are somewhat analogous phenomena (albeit as opposites).  The postmodern sense of reality as in radical flux, with at best very fuzzy borders, in which “matter, time and space have liquefied,” may be one of the reasons for the postmodern reappearance of angel talk, suggests Graham Ward.  Is the other side of this the possible reappearance of demon talk?  This is not exactly a reaffirmation of the traditional demonology of the medieval tradition, and indeed it may only be a “virtual theology,” in Graham’s terms, reflecting much of the postmodern virtual world.  But it may indicate a space in which a fruitful reconsideration of the issues might take place.[34]

At least worth considering is Voegelin’s suggestion, relying upon Plato, that we never simply outgrow the myth, our primary experience and symbolization of reality, as we have noted a number of times already.  It is primary in the sense that its compact expression of the consubstantiality of the partners of the community of being remains the never to be outgrown dwelling within which we live, and by means of which we achieve somewhat more differentiated experiences and symbolizations of reality through philosophy, theology, and the other forms of noesis.  Plato knew this, despite his breakthrough to philosophical analysis, and his deliberate philosopher’s use of the likely but true story (“myth”) is perhaps something of a model of one way we might proceed in this matter.[35]

For one thing, when we seek to tell the story of evil and sin in our existence, we find ourselves falling back upon the language of the likely but true stories of evil and sin: in their personal form as “personally realized”[36]; in their irrationality which defeats our reason and challenges our faith; in their sinister and demonic force which grips individuals, peoples, cultures; in their strange interconnectedness, even on a cosmic scale (the experience of consubstantiality in its sinister aspect), and so on.  Evil and sin particularly defeat our rational calculus, despite our best intentions and projects.  Again, we are at one of those border regions, this time of a negative kind, which we cannot ignore.  Particularly when we seek to describe how the divine Ground does “battle” with these forces, how can we do so?  We know by theological analysis that God is not an object among other objects in the world, but the ground or condition of the possibility of all objects.  We also know that we humans and other creatures are on a deeper analysis not objects over against one another, although in some derivative way we experience ourselves this way too.  Still, knowing all these things through noesis does not eliminate our need to tell the story of our battle with evil and sin in all its dense reality.  So we will tell true but likely stories, it seems.


“Any historian who seeks to portray the historical Jesus without giving due weight to his fame as a miracle-worker is not delineating this strange and complex Jew, but rather a domesticated Jesus reminiscent of the bland moralist created by Thomas Jefferson,” concludes John Meier.  Meier also notes the common interpretation of these miracles (including the exorcisms) as events which “not only supported but also dramatized and actuated his eschatological message . . . and may have contributed to some degree to the alarm felt by the authorities who finally brought about his death.”  Meier is known for his use of the criteria of multiple attestation, embarrassment, etc., and it is on the basis of these that he renders his judgment, particularly that of multiple attestation.  At the same time, when he passes from such “global” judgments to analyses of individual exorcism and healing stories, the results become much more limited.  For example, of some fifteen healings and exorcisms found in the Gospels, Meier estimates that around seven or eight have some claim to historical authenticity.  On the other hand, he thinks the famed raisings from the dead stories (Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son, and Lazarus) can claim historicity, given their multiple attestation, although this naturally strains our modern credulity, to say the least.  Among the so-called nature miracles, he thinks only the feeding of the multitude can claim historicity.[37]

Meier is only making the claim that these stories can claim some origin in the historical ministry of Jesus himself.  He is not arguing that we can always know much more, although he is arguing that Jesus’ followers regarded the events as miracles.  For example, are the raisings from the dead originally more modest “miracles” which have been elaborated in the tradition?  Likewise, the feeding of the multitude?  At the same time, Meier knows that one inevitably moves into philosophical and theological perspectives when one endeavors to interpret further dimensions of the events.  From our participative perspective, we are inevitably engaged in these issues all along the line to varying degrees.  And, we suggest, while we can and should seek for philosophical and theological clarity, we will likely never outgrow our need for recourse to the “likely but true story” in this border region.

The brief, following suggestions are meant to give further texture to the important and embracing observation that these miracles (including the exorcisms) express and actualize the new community of inclusiveness in dramatic ways.  First, the interrelationship between the physical and the spiritual dimensions, that is, their inseparability, finds dramatic expression in these events.  The new community promises a togetherness and wholeness, a healing of our fragmentation.  In this sense, the miracles are icons of the inclusive wholeness of the new community.  Secondly, they express something of the personal, individuated nature of the new community.[38]  That is, unique persons experience a unique address from God through the miracle activity of Jesus (and later through his followers).  The new community, we have suggested, is not one in which our unique identities are erased.  Each one uniquely counts and enriches the community.  Thirdly, the miracles can fruitfully be deprivatized, thus more fully uncovering their community, social dynamic.  To some extent they offer support and consolation to people in the midst of adversity, and in this way build up community.  They direct the community’s focus toward people’s real needs, rather than toward an uncaring and impersonal power.  They teach us to be open, that is, to God’s unexpected sites of grace, namely, those who are hurting, weak, and left out because of infirmities.  In this sense, the miracles can open us to the preferential commitment for the poor.

Fourthly, not everyone is healed, and this is perplexing.  Miracles happen to some but not to all in need.  What might this indicate?  At the very least, it suggests that God is in charge, not us, and that for now the new community is between the already and the not yet.  In a surprising way, the miracles in their limited nature manifest the humility of this new community.  They are not a demonic attempt to play God.  At the same time, perhaps our human free response is also being indicated, inasmuch as the miracles do not violate human integrity, even if they are quite capable of graciously surprising it.  Naturally here we have one of the great distinctions between miracles and magic, and this also makes us very skeptical of the punitive type of story we find in Acts (5.1-11) or some of the apocryphal Gospels.  This also distinguishes authentic miracles from propaganda techniques and from totalistic ideologies, both of which are seeking to play god and to destroy the sanctity of the relationship between human freedom and the divine Ground.[39]

Fifthly, the extraordinary nature of the miracles, the way they seem to depart from our ordinary experience of existence, can be taken as a sign of the extraordinary nature of Jesus and his new community.  History is taking a novel turn here in his person and ministry, and in his companions.[40]  Here too we touch on the uniqueness of the divine and human interchange we noted coming to expression in John’s Gospel especially, although not exclusively, for the synoptics overlap with John on this.

Finally, the miracles raise questions about the very nature of reality itself, and this should not be dodged.  The biblical cosmology is one in which God is present in the cosmos.  In this sense, God does not “intervene” into the world in miracles, for God is already present therein.  Miracles, then, might more fruitfully be viewed as intensive and concentrated icons of the divine efficacy always at work in the cosmos.  The reality of the lower material and biological dimensions of existence are integrated into the higher dimensions of freedom and spirit, which introduces a certain indeterminacy and openness into existence, the miracles suggest.  Somehow the patterns of nature and this openness do not cancel each other out, but the former are actually grounded in the latter.  “It requires a certain intuition and a certain trusting self-involvement in order to see the higher in the appearance of the lower, and in order to withstand the temptation to reduce the higher into the lower and to overlook the qualitative leap.”[41]

A note on the relationship between miracles and the resurrection of Jesus deserves a place here.  For various reasons, one might prefer not to range the resurrection under the topos of miracles, although the definition given above would certainly seem to fit here especially.  In fact, the really central issue all along the line on these questions of the miracle-element is the reality of the divine Ground and the nature and quality of the Ground’s relationship with the other partners in the community of being.  Miracles, as understood here, are but corollaries of this.  If there be no divine Ground who transcends the cosmos and grounds our own personal destinies, then, of course, a resurrected existence is absurd.[42]

But of course this is precisely the challenge of the New Testament, and here especially our participative hermeneutics is challenged.  If Karl Rahner is correct in his suggestion, which I embrace, that Jesus’ resurrection “is the miracle in the life of Jesus in which the real significance of his life coalesces in radical unity and becomes manifest for us,” then in some sense all his other miracles find in it their validation and intelligibility.[43]  The miracles become anticipations of the resurrection destiny, of Jesus, and of his companions and the new inclusive community.  His resurrection, inasmuch as we are challenged by it through the various resurrection encounter episodes[44] noted in the New Testament, helps us as it helped his followers participatively to piece together the iconic significance of his miracle activity and indeed of his life as a whole. In this way the resurrection becomes the miraculous sign addressed to everyone, inasmuch as it is through the resurrection that the universal significance of Jesus is disclosed.

Something of a mutual feedback between the many miracles of the New Testament and the great and definitive miracle of the resurrection of Jesus seems to exist.  The former anticipate the latter, and the latter clarifies much about the former.  As one participatively grows in sensitivity and awareness from one side of this equation, then the other side receives a fresh evaluation.  We had earlier suggested that it was in the light of the Easter experiences that the Gospel narratives took their shape and that the developing Christologies and soteriologies of the New Testament emerged.  There was likely this same kind of mutual feedback between earlier experiences and reminiscences of Jesus and the later Easter experiences.

Perhaps this mutual feedback might throw a bit of heightened light upon two highly contested miracle traditions which we have only slightly noted, namely, that of the virgin birth of Jesus (Mt 1.18-21; Lk 2.26-38) and that of the empty tomb (Mt 28, etc.).  A tomb might well be empty for any number of reasons (a body was never placed there, the body was stolen, etc.), and a young maiden might be pregnant for a number of reasons too (normal marital relations, rape, for instance).  By themselves each of these miracle traditions has an ambiguity, which can only be somewhat clarified in the light of the resurrection of Jesus and its effects, if they are going to be clarified at all.  What looks like sheer nonsense or legend-building from one side of the feedback suddenly becomes much more challenging from the other, post-Easter side.

An empty tomb, for example, might well become a sign of the physical and spiritual wholeness promised in the reign of God.  A virgin birth might well be a sign of a qualitatively unique relation between Jesus and his Father, commonly expressed in his filial consciousness.  At the same time, each would signify something of the radically new turn history is taking with Jesus and his movement.  This would not remove all the ambiguity, regarding how these might more precisely occur.  Recourse to a theological use of myth is not inappropriate, nor is the need for suspicion about over-credulity.  Drawing inappropriate implications from these traditions is also something to worry about, for example, that marital relations are somehow tainted or evil.  In any case, this author’s suggestion, which he has endeavored to follow, is that a possible mode of entry into an appreciation and acceptance of these traditions, of a second naivete kind, is through the participative feedback mechanism suggested here.[45]

The Retrieval of Patristic and Medieval Hermeneutics?

Given the tendency of much of the Jesus Quest to employ a modern hermeneutic of suspicion and deconstruction in New Testament interpretation, it is unsurprising that a counter-reaction has taken place in the form of a rehabilitation of the “spiritual sense” practiced by the patristic and medieval traditions of biblical interpretation.[46]  This kind of reaction in biblical exegesis is rather typical, if one takes an historical sweep of the history of exegesis.  To some extent there is something postmodern, however undefined that may be, in this renewed attention to the “deeper sense” beyond the literal surface one, so to speak:  an interest in the polyvalent nature of reality, in the hidden (“unconscious,” in the psychological language), in metaphor.  But there is also a more traditional factor, in something of an alliance with the postmodern critique of modernity: a renewed interest in the spiritual dimension of reality, and thus in spirituality, and hence the intuition that literalist forms of interpretation run the danger of eliminating the soul from exegesis.  Cardinal Newman is an eloquent spokesman for this sensitivity in his comment that “it may almost be laid down as an historical fact that the mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together.”[47]

On the other hand, the immediate critical response to allegedly deeper, “mystical” meanings is their proclivity to legitimate nearly any kind of interpretation, by individuals or ecclesial authorities claiming a special, mystical sensitivity or endowment of some kind.  But the conflict of interpretations shows no signs of letting up, for the supposed literal sense is often not so apparent after all, as the many modern quests illustrate.  Hence the “spiritualists” suspect that a hidden “deeper” meaning is operating among the “plain sense” interpreters as well, usually in the form of the currently reigning orthodoxy within the academy of historians.

Returning to the patristic perspective, it should be clear that our participative approach to interpretation expresses a certain congeniality with some of the patristic exegesis.  Interpretation is a form of spirituality at work, an expression of engagement with, rather than simple neutrality toward, the partners in the community of being.  As such, it does demand a willingness to sound the depths of reality as best one might, recognizing that this imposes an ascetical discipline upon the interpreter, which is necessary so as to cauterize the passional obscuration that can come from personal investment.  And naturally when one speaks of depths of reality, one is indicating a preference for an analogical and metaphorical perspective to a reality that is polyvalent in nature.  So there are points of conviviality between some of the patristic sensitivities and the perspective sketched in this book.  The Fathers also display a stress upon the guidance of the church community as a framework within which interpretation occurs, which again brings out the community orientation of the partnership in the community of being (although it tends to be limited to the ecclesial community).  On the other hand, our stress upon the need for a second naivete, and upon the needed dialogue with modernity as well, hopefully is something of a balance here to the patristic orientation.

At this point it would be useful for the interested reader to sample a range of biblical interpretations by the Fathers.  What will strike one rather quickly is the diversity of perspectives, but also a complex and hard to articulate web of common assumptions. For example, one typically contrasts the Alexandrine (more “mystical”) and Antiochene (stressing the “literal” sense) schools of exegesis, and there is some legitimacy to this, but at the same time both schools have something of an appreciation for the other’s emphases as well.  At the same time, these two schools are an inadequate range of patristic exegesis, for one must also note the Latin and the Syriac schools, which further complexify the issues.  In each of these traditions, what is meant by the literal and the spiritual senses (the terminology is not always uniform) needs to be gauged rather carefully; one cannot assume an always consistent usage, even within the same school.[48]

The very creation of the categories of a “spiritual sense” in distinction from a “literal sense” seems to be something that traces its origins back to at least Philo (dies c. 50 c.e.) and his time.  One could argue that the distinction represents a more differentiated philosophical and theological vocabulary, but one might also argue that it represents something of an intellectual regression from the standards of a Plato, for example.  If one follows this latter view, for example, one would suggest that something of a crisis of interpretation has occurred at the time of the Fathers – a loss of contact with the richness of experience, and a replacement of that richness with various dogmatic “theories” put forward by various schools, such as the Stoics, the Jews, the Christians, the Platonists, etc.  In order to rescue the biblical text from the attacks of opposing dogmatisms, one has recourse to the “deeper” or “spiritual” sense apparently missed by the unfriendly interpreter.

The tactic of such recourse is well intentioned:  One wishes to defend the biblical inheritance in a culture which is suspicious of it.  The deeper, allegorical meaning is the alleged defense, but the unfriendly interpreter has missed it.  And it does seem to be true that the rich texture of human experience was suffering a thinning out or reductionism.  If you will, reality was somewhat materialized by the Stoics, and its deeper transcendental and spiritual dimensions were given inadequate attention.  Hence the tendency to literalize texts (Lonergan’s “already out there now real”).  The only problem is that it seems that the Fathers themselves, in their own exegesis, seem infected by a fair dose of such literalism as well, and hence the sometimes strange interpretations of biblical passages we find among them, despite many inspiring exegeses as well.  I am applying Voegelin’s intepretation of Philo to the patristic materials, and if we employ Voegelin’s terms, we could say that the Fathers, like the Stoics and other dogmatists at the time, have tended to sever symbols from their engendering experiences.  Those symbols have thus lost their polyvalent richness, become thinned out, and then transformed into propositional doctrines of one sort or another.[49]  Hence, what we are getting in some or even many samples of the patristic exegesis is not plausibly the experience of participation in the community of being potentially mediated by the biblical text, but rather a “dogma” or opinion (doxa) of one sort or another that “does not reach down to the experiences from which true insights, whether old or new ones, arise.”[50]

We do not usually associate a literalism with the Alexandrines, for example, but when an Origen writes that “every description of God recorded in the Bible, even those that do not strike us as appropriate, we must regard as worthy descriptions of a good God,” one cannot help wondering if he is not rather imposing a dogma or opinion on the text, which in its own way betrays a form of literalism.  Hence his sometimes questionable allegorical rescue interpretations.  At the same time, Origen has himself accepted in a rather doctrinal way certain dogmas of the philosophical and theological schools of his time.  These, too, become available to him then in his allegorical rescue operations.  See, for example, his interpretation of the text in which Jeremiah complains to God about his being deceived by him (Jer 20.7-12).  A text which is a prophet’s lament over the Babylonian captivity becomes an occasion on which Origen seeks to rescue the thought of attributing “deceit” to God.

An example of a “profitable deception” might be one in which one is “deceived” into not remarrying, for “it is better for her to be deceived, thinking that remarried women will be lost, and keep herself pure on account of that deception, than for her to know the truth and be placed in the lower rank of those who are twice married.”  And the same applies to the celibates: “You will find the same to be the case with those who practice virginity and complete continence, and you will find many other things that we do under deception that are useful to us.”[51]  The implication is that God practices a physician’s deception, so to speak, for the greater good.  The text has, of course, been greatly literalized, severed from its engendering experience, in this case the need for recourse to mythopoiesis (the true but likely story) when a prophet attempts to articulate his lament over how he is experiencing the guidance of God.

This kind of literalism in large doses is found in the patristic exegesis alongside beautiful and profound insight into the text as well.  This is why it is so ambiguous and so attractive and yet off-putting at the same time.  We find the same thing in the Antiochenes, of course.  In their efforts to avoid some of the more bizarre allegorical interpretations of the Alexandrines, they fall into an equally bizarre literalism, for example, in the literalistic interpretation of the creation accounts.  Augustine, to take a Latin exegete, can sometimes seem like Origen in his rescue operations, as when he salvages Jacob’s lie (Gen 27.19-29) by asserting that it is not a lie but a mystery!  The Syriac tradition, however, developed a rich symbolist approach to exegesis in the sublime poetry of an Ephrem the Syrian and others, and seems to have somewhat avoided the problems we are noting here.[52]

The upshot is that the patristic distinction between the literal and spiritual senses, widely found in most the schools in some form, is a mixed bag.  I have not mentioned the medievals, but much the same problem recurs there.  The heavy doses of literalism indicate that we are confronting a symptom of a separation of symbols from their engendering experiences, a thinning out of experience and its near-replacement with dogmatisms and opinions.  Following the participatory curve has been cramped in various cases by a certain closure.  We can only speculate as to why: the general problem of institutional dogmatism, whether ecclesial, philosophical, or societal; the Stoic physicalism of the times; perhaps Roman legalism, and more.[53]



[1] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 395-405.

[2] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 113, first suggested these dimensions to me.

[3] See, for example, William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960); Edward L. Murray, Imaginative Thinking and Human Existence (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1986); Voegelin, In Search of Order, 51-54, 64-66; Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (New York: Dell, 1967); Eugene Webb, Philosophers of Consciousness: Polanyi, Lonergan, Voegelin, Ricoeur, Girard, Kierkegaard (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988); and Kearney, The Wake of Imagination.

[4] Helpful here is Joshua C. Taylor, Learning To Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[5] E.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1, 27, 1; 1, 34, 1, etc.  References are to the Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos (“BAC”) edition (Madrid, 1961-65).

[6] E.g., Plato, Sophist, 263e (trans. F. M. Cornford [Hamilton and Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato, 1011]).

[7] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 442-53, for basic insights into the notion of a “world” as used here.

[8] See Zubiri, Sentient Intelligence, 24, for helpful insights into the convertibility between reality and knowing; also see index, “reality: formality of the de suyo.”

[9] For more on this, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), and Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), besides the references in the text on the historical dimension of experience.

[10] See Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 3:119-26, and Emmanual Levinas, Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1981), 100.  I do not imply that Levinas would agree.  Is all logocentrism eo ipso a derailment into hypostatization or simple presence-ism?  This is my impression from, for example, Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 61-62, although he recognizes that one cannot simply do away with transcendental phenomenology, it appears.  Levinas would seem to view the logos as a derivative and secondary move entailed in metaphysics; ethics is first philosophy; metaphysics, second (?).  Voegelin’s critique of hypostatization would seem to suggest that a non-hypostatizing form of logocentricity seems a viable possibility.  See Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989; distr.: Columbia: University of Missouri Press), 72-73.

[11] Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1988), 125-32.  Also see chap. 1, n. 31, above., on the notion of the classic, as well as Tracy, The Analogical Imagination, 125.

[12] Or one might come at this in a trinitarian way, that is, the Holy Spirit as the Giver of participation into the divine Ground of the community of being keeps the “closed” canon “open.”  The Spirit who draws us into biblical participation draws us out to all the partners in the community of being, and then, back again to Scripture, and then outwards again, etc.

[13] See Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 101, for an introduction to this discussion; see 10-15 (canonicity in general), 829 (for the role of noncanonical works in some contemporary Jesus research).  For surveys, James A. Sanders and Harry Y. Gamble, “Canon,” Hebrew Bible and New Testament respectively, Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:837-52, 852-61.

[14] See Gerald T. Sheppard, “Canonical Criticism,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:861-66.

[15] See, for example, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990), index: “inerrancy of Scripture.”

[16] Very helpful, with good bibliography, is appendix 1, “The Historical Jesus,” in Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 817-30.

[17] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. W. Montgomery (New York: Macmillan, 1961).

[18] Ernst Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes, trans. W. J. Montague (London: SCM, 1964); 15-47 (for the 1953 essay).

[19] Wright, “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3:800-801.

[20] Ibid., 801.

[21] Brown’s characterization: “The color-coded voting was designed to catch attention: red = he undoubtedly said this or something very much like it; pink = probably he said something like this; gray = the ideas are his even though he did not say this; black = he did not say it”; “. . . the results have been exceptionally skeptical.  Of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels, some 50 percent were voted black and 30 percent gray, leaving less than 20 percent that have a chance of being authentic (red or pink).  A red vote was accorded to no statement of Jesus in John and to only one saying peculiar to Mark!” (An Introduction to the New Testament, 820, 821).

[22] Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes, 38.

[23] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 822-23, for Brown’s critical observations on Crossan’s view that there was no Jewish trial; his execution was a Roman matter.  See John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).

[24] See Brown, The Gospel according to John, 2:368; and on the Jewish background of Jesus in general, including issues of the Shoah, see the helpful introductory summary in Forward, Jesus: A Short Biography, 95-121.

[25] Meier’s third volume of his A Marginal Jew is perhaps the most exhaustive and magisterial treatment of the many relationships of Jesus to various groups within Judaism.

[26] In addition to our treatment of the sociopolitical aspects of Jesus’ message and work, with its references, see also Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), for some provocative proposals.

[27] For example, the Pentateuch is referred to some 157 times (from 109 distinct sources); the prophets, some 115 times (91 sources); the psalms, some 79 times (58 sources); other Hebrew Testament references, 9 (from 7 sources).  See Jacques Trublet, “II. Le Psautier.  Témoin de l’itinéraire spirituel d’un people,” in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, vol. 12/2, ed. M. Viller et al. (Paris: Beauchesne, 1986), col. 2553; and Thompson, The Struggle for Theology’s Soul, chap. 2 (“Christology as Psalmody: The Role of the Psalms in Christology”), 33-63.

[28] O’Collins, Christology, 22-46, presents a fine summary of central Hebraic themes and their mutations in the New Testament.

[29] E.g., Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).  For example: “. . .what distinguished Jesus’ prophetic message from those of others was primarily its timetable, not its content” (266).  Cf. her references for others.

[30] Referring to current studies on the titles of Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God and Lord, along with Jesus’ unique relationship to God, Brown observes: “Therefore, a continuity between Jesus’ lifetime and the Gospel portraits may be more inclusive that hitherto thought.  Readers are encouraged to explore the trend to emphasize this continuity, for it has major following among highly reputable scholars” (An Introduction to the New Testament, 820, and 820 n. 7, for bibliography).  This trend toward recognizing such continuity he characterizes as the more conservative trend among biblical scholars since 1980, in which he shares, as opposed to a more radical trend, represented by the Jesus Seminar (819).

[31] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:657-59, 673 nn. 55-61; for exorcism in general and demonology, 2:404-7, 462-63 n. 40, 646-77.  The importance of Mary Magdalene as a crucifixion, burial, and empty tomb witness is what inclines Meier to invoke the criterion of embarrassment as the main argument in favor of the historicity of Luke 8.2 (2:658).  The Gospel of John, interestingly, omits accounts of exorcism; see ibid., 2:621, 637 n. 18.  Of course, Satan, or the “Prince of this World,” is quite present in John (13.27;12.31, etc.).  See Victor P. Hamilton, “Satan,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:985-89.  On obsession and possession, see Augustin Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer: A Treatise on Mystical Theology, 6th ed., trans. Leonora L. Yorke Smith (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1910; repr. Mokelumne Hill, Calif.: Health Research, 1970), 428-29.

[32] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:462-63 n. 40.

[33] See, for one example, Johann Baptist Metz, A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Paulist, 1998), 47-53.

[34] Graham Ward, Cities of God (London: Routledge, 2000), 223, 224; see 205-24.  Graham is writing of angels, not demons.

[35] I am building on Voegelin here; I do not know how he would have in fact treated the demonic, although his understanding of myth lends itself to this, I think; at least it can do so.

[36] I am leaning on Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler here, who write of “the personal nature of the devils” as meaning that “every essential disorder in the world is personally realized” (Theological Dictionary, ed. Cornelius Ernst, trans. Richard Strachan [New York: Herder and Herder, 1965], 127).  At the same time, Rahner’s way of interpreting the “personal” nature of the demonic might fruitfully be brought into dialogue with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s suggestion that Satan is in some sense an “un-person,” an expression of the “disintegration of being a person,” inasmuch as personhood results from a positive relationship to God (Dare We Hope “That All Men Shall Be Saved”?: With a Short Discourse on Hell, trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988], 145).

[37] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:970, 969; see all of part three, “Miracles,” 507-1038.  Meier tends to think that Jesus would have been thought of as “the eschatological prophet and miracle-worker from Nazareth . . . clothed in the aura of Elijah” (2:1045).

[38] I am influenced here by Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 261-63.

[39] I am influenced here by Walter Kasper, Jesus the Christ, trans. V. Green (New York: Paulist, 1976), 96.

[40] The christological dimension of miracles is helpfully surveyed by Latourelle, The Miracles of Jesus and the Theology of Miracles.  Latourelle emphasizes the miracles as signs of agape “addressed not solely to intellectual elites but to all men and women of good will” (299).  Louis Monden, Signs and Wonders: A Study of the Miraculous Element in Religion (New York: Desclee, 1966), remains in many ways the most sophisticated philosophical and theological overview of the issues.

[41] Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 260; 258-60.

[42] Helpful on the resurrection as “a corollary of theism” is Gerald O’Collins, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson, 1973), 104.

[43] Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 264.  Interestingly the holistic, psychosomatic nature of the miracles would then find their validation in the psychosomatic fullness of the resurrection of the whole person, bodily and spiritually, proleptically revealed in Jesus’ bodily and spiritual resurrection.  How one endeavors to understand this, without succumbing to physicalistic fundamentalism, is a matter of rich discussion, obviously.  See Kasper, Jesus the Christ, 144-60, for some helpful suggestions.  See O’Collins, Christology, 98, for some hesitations regarding associating the resurrection with miracle-language; see 82-112 for a superbly succinct analysis of the philosophical and theological issues involved in the resurrection.

[44] We do not “know” the resurrected existence of Jesus in its fullness, but we participate in it; if you want, the encounter episodes and the empty tomb story are expressions of such moments of participation, albeit within the form of our “recourse” to a theological use of myth.

[45] For overviews, see Raymond E. Brown et al., Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress; New York: Paulist, 1978), and George W. E. Nickelsburg, “Resurrection (Early Judaism and Christianity),” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:684-91.

[46] See, for example, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 2, Dramatis Personae: Man in God, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 102-15, and references.  For a clarifying debate on some of the issues, see Luke Timothy Johnson and William S. Kurz, The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[47] John Henry Newman, The Arians of the Fourth Century, 4th ed. (London: Basil Montagu Pickering, 1876), appendix, note 1, 405.

[48] Extremely useful, with ample examples of exegesis, is Joseph W. Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 9 (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988).  Also see Donald K. McKim, Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1998), for the historical range from patristic times to the present.

[49] See Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 74-83.

[50] Ibid., 85.  Voegelin has some appreciation for the rescue effort involved in allegoresis, characterizing it as a way in a new situation “of preserving the continuity of meaning in history” and as “a state of noetic semiconsciousness” (82).

[51] Origen, Homily XX on Jeremiah, 1, 4, 3, in Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, 74, 81, 78.

[52] For the Antiochenes and Syrians, see Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, 163-220; the Antiochenes also had their form of “spiritual sense,” to be sure (“contemplative” and “typological” senses, for example; see ibid., 32-33).  Augustine’s text is from his Against Lying, 10, 24.

[53] For a more affirmative but sophisticated appropriation of the patristic and medieval exegesis, see Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).


This excerpt is from Jesus and the Gospel Movement: Not Afraid to be Partners (University of Missouri, 2006). Also see Eugene Webb’s review of “Your Kin-dom Come” and William Thompson-Uberuaga’s “Interview,” “Mapping the Different Approaches,” “Eschatology, Geography, and the Advancing Jesus Movement,” Being, Becoming, and Metaphysics,” “History and Place, Historiogenesis and Geogenesis,” and Craig Baron’s “The Postmodern “Christian” Theology of William Thompson-Uberuaga.” 

William Thompson-Uberuaga

William Thompson-Uberuaga is an Emeritus Professor of Theology at Duquesne University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He is author of eight books and a co-editor, with David L. Morse, of Eric Voegelin's Collected Works Volume 22: History of Political Ideas - Renaissance and Reformation.

Back To Top