There was a time when I would have found Saint Paul’s initial statement in this week’s reading unbearably arrogant. After all, the principles of responsible reading that I learned both as an English major and as a Bible minor (and later as a seminarian) all warn against solipsistic reading, the approach to a text that says that the only significant thing about a text is “what it means to me.” When one comes to a text, my training told me, the task at hand was to discern the structures and particulars that constitute the text, reserving judgment until one had an adequate account of the text itself articulated. I still battle that mentality when I teach college literature, anticipating with dread the inevitable moment each semester when a student is going to ask, “So this research paper is basically our own opinion, right?” Of course, I have no place to complain when I confront that question–the role of a high school teacher is to teach students that there are differences between claims, and my job as a college teacher is to introduce students to a more robust and complex range of possibilities among those differences. But being vigilant rather than assuming that my students are already college-educated is always part of the challenge.
I note my own background here because it points up my own hypocrisy: just as my own students lack the intellectual tools to go beyond the fact-opinion binary until someone teaches them a more complex range of options (or dies trying), so my own training pointed me towards a binary between solipsism on one hand and objective exegesis on the other, and my own shortcoming was to close off reality once those two had been covered. I’m not sure what binary has me captured just now (the nature of such binaries, as T.S. Kuhn would remind us, is that one can’t spot them when one abides within one), but I know that the subjective-objective binary did not have Saint Paul captive as it did me.
For Paul, the Scriptures are written “for our instruction” precisely because both the Scriptures and we live and move and have our being within the larger schema of God’s creating and redeeming the world. If one takes that larger system as prior not only to the text but also to the production of the text and the self’s encounter to the text, then there’s not too much of a problem asserting that, for instance, Isaiah might well have had a Jerusalem king rather than a Galilean tekton in mind when he spoke the oracle of Isaiah 11 about the shoot from the stump of Jesse, but nonetheless God’s interpretive agency could well add Jesus of Nazareth to the field of valid readings when the time was full. Moreover, Jesus could well become the primary referent to that passage, taking priority over the historical content of the text’s earliest production without eradicating that original sense, without doing violence to either history or to devotion. In other words, what Paul is doing is sloppy exegetical work only if one assumes that the post-German university’s model of history is ultimately the standard which judges all things. If a living tradition instead is the prior context, then a different set of rules governs how a community reads a sacred Scripture.
And if that living tradition ultimately governs the use of the Bible, then the old saw about Jesus’ and Paul’s failing homiletics class is neither an indictment of Jesus and Paul nor a relativistic nod to “ever-evolving standards” of Bible-reading but a commentary on the narrowness both of strictly “objective” and strictly “subjective” readings of Scripture. (Incidentally, from what I’ve gathered in conversations with seminary professors, people fail homiletics courses not because they’re too much like Jesus or Paul but because they take shortcuts to the big flashy payoff without taking seriously the historical work that underlies a really good allegorical reading. Just sayin’.) What seems like fast and loose use of the Greek ethne (Latin gentilum and English “nations” or “Gentiles”) in today’s reading only remains so if one fails to note that Paul’s self-identification as prophet and teacher “to the Gentiles” is an echo of Jeremiah and that “the Gentiles,” when Paul takes that word out of its narrow-minded Judean-nationalist framework and recasts it in light of Christ, comes to mean not “everyone but the Jews” but “all those human beings who have not yet confessed Jesus of Nazareth as anointed Lord.” In other words, in Paul’s writing (and again, he’s echoing Jeremiah), “the circumcision” moves upwards in altitude several inches, becoming a mark on a person’s totality and patterns of life and rendering adiaphora the mark of Abraham and the diet of Moses.
As the Advent season rolls on, Scripture itself calls for the strongest efforts and most clear-minded awareness of the reading self as we approach the gift of the Scriptures, which in a real way do stand written for “our instruction” precisely because they have their own historical integrity and because they stand as moments when God makes God’s self known in the movement of allegory. When “one crying, ‘In the wilderness make a path for the LORD” becomes “one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make a path for the LORD,'” God is teaching us how to read. May all of us approach the Scriptures as students of the past and of the future, that our own presence might be a blessing to the nations.