The New Testament The Tradition Of Interpretation

Traditional interpretation of the New Testament is discussed in this chapter in both its loose and its strict senses. Loosely, it refers to interpretations which precede the rise of biblical criticism in the eighteenth century or which thereafter, reject or continue in blissful ignorance of it. Strictly, it is interpretation according to tradition, that is, according to the system of belief and practice of the Christian religion handed on within living communities. Even when, as at the Reformation, a contrast was drawn between the teaching of the New Testament and contemporary ecclesiastical tradition, the use of Scripture remained traditional in this latter sense. It is only in the modern period that attempts have been made to interpret the New Testament in a purely historical way, without regard for, or even in conscious opposition to, the beliefs and practices of the communities that claim it as their title deeds.

The precise character of the 'shift to modernity' at the Enlightenment is itself a subject of intense research and debate. It is, for instance, possible to describe it as a move from fragmentation to synthesis, from the New Testament as a repository of proof texts to the New Testament as documentary evidence for historical reconstruction. But the method of extracting proofs from authoritative text did not exist in isolation, either in Medieval Scholasticism or Protestant neo-Scholasticism; it was always accompanied by other types of reading that emphasized context and integration. The two types of Jewish exegesis, halakah and haggadah (see Chapter 2) function in this way, and they have had their counterparts in Christian exegesis; in medieval terms, for instance, sacra pagina (Scripture studied in the Schools) and lectio divina (devotional reading). Doctrinal, often figurative, interpretations of individual texts were underpinned by a single, integrating biblical narrative, the history of salvation from Creation to the Second Coming. Thus, it is equally possible to characterize the advent of modern biblical criticism (with Hans Frei 1974) as the exact opposite, a movement from synthesis to disintegration, dividing up the text into its component elements and treating it as the residue of contingent history, with no necessary relation to the timeless truths of reason.

It is not our present concern to describe the causes of the transition from traditional to modern interpretation, or evaluate them. But one result did emerge clearly from the change. The study of the New Testament was displaced from its former, central place in Christian theology and was seen to provide at best only historical prolegomena, and, at worst, a sharp historical criterion which threw into question the legitimacy of all subsequent developments. Historical-critical study drove a wedge between the original meaning of the New Testament and the uses and abuses it had suffered at the hands of the Church. With the truth of the foundational, literal scheme of salvation history under critical attack, the allegorical interpretations, constructed upon it, stood out even more blatantly as arbitrary and absurd. New Testament scholarship, in Germany first and then elsewhere, broke with its own past and started over again, with a narrower focus on the texts themselves, their dates, authenticity, inter-relationships and pre-literary sources, as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus and the beliefs of his first followers. Like revolutionaries in other spheres, critical New Testament scholars became obsessed with the story of their own recent liberation, and were glad to pass the study of traditional, now discredited, interpretation over to others, patristic and medieval historians, systematic theologians and sociologists of religion.

However, recent changes in New Testament study are beginning to modify the account New Testament scholars give of their own discipline, and to reestablish certain points of continuity with the aims and methods of traditional interpretation. In the following sections I shall first describe some of the distinctive characteristics of traditional interpretation; then, I shall review some of the ways in which it typically distorts the meaning of the text; and lastly, I shall attempt to assess the reasons for, and possible hazards in any move back towards the traditional use of the New Testament.

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