Reading Notes: Deep Exegesis by Peter Leithart

Peter Leithart’s concern in Deep Exegesis is to ask not just how we should read and interpret Scripture but how Scripture shapes how we read all texts. His is an attempt at recovery and reformulation of the ancient “Four Ways” strategy of reading Scripture which attending to the text’s (1) literal (2) allegorical (Christological) (3) tropological (ethical) and (4) anangogical (eschatological) meanings.

He argues that most modern exegesis attends primarily to Scripture’s tropological (ethical) dimension and so is methodologically liberal, adopting a strategy of reading that takes a particular ethical system as the locus of the texts meaning (kernel) and sloughs off the ancient cultural accretions surrounding that surround it (husk). He traces this move back to Spinoza and Kant who sought who sought to ground ethics and religion in timeless universal principles, a task which is impeded by the gross cultural particularity of the Bible. The liberal theological use of this strategy is obvious. Take, for example, gay marriage. If current ethical reflection leads one to believe that two people should be allowed to marry regardless of gender, then where the Bible contradicts this notion it will be rejected because it is merely reflecting the biblical author’s culturally regressive understanding of human sexuality. The conservative Protestant use of his kernel/husk strategy is less obvious, though no less pervasive. The conservative ethical emphasis the application of biblical texts in the lives of the faithful – from sports to cooking to running a corporation – is no less reductive in its tendency to flatten the text to suit the needs of contemporary life.

This kernel/husk approach distracts us from the task of reading and allowing Scripture itself to shape how we read. Leithart gives the example of the New Testament’s use of the Old and asks whether or not we are allowed to read like Matthew or Paul. How are they not doing violence of the Old Testament Scriptures by reading them into situations which they clearly do not address? One answer is that we know better than they did and another is that they were inspired authors and so the Holy Spirit allowed them to read in such a way that we are not. For Leithart neither of these solutions will do and so he seeks to undertake a reading of Scripture that will provide us with a theology of reading that does justice to how the authors of Scripture read Scripture.

The first step on this journey is attending to texts as events, that is attending to the factor of time in our interpretation of what texts mean. Meaning isn’t stable and fixed in the text, instead meaning emerges in the interaction between the text and its reader. The meaning of the Declaration of Independence is very different given the outcome of the Revolutionary War in the colonies favor. If the colonies had lost it would stand as a testament to a failed rebellion and the strength of the British monarchy over its global empire. All this to say a text’s meaning isn’t fixed when it is written, but that its meaning emerges over the course of time in light of circumstances. So, the meaning of the Servant Songs in Isaiah isn’t determined only by the historical circumstances of the Babylonian captivity of Judah but further dimensions of the Servant Songs emerge in the passion of Christ. A text’s meaning isn’t closed, it is open given the larger narrative or history into which it is incorporated. In the case of the Bible, the meaning of the Old Testament only fully emerges as its various dimensions reach their climax in the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is why Matthew can quote Hosea (“out of Egypt I have called my son”) as a prophecy of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. It’s not that Hosea had this in mind when he wrote this prophecy but that the meaning of the New Exodus for which Hosea longed finds its full meaning in Jesus. Thus, Matthew isn’t a poor reader of Hosea, he just reads Hosea as part of a larger narrative in which the fuller meaning of Hosea emerges. So, Medieval exegesis with its “Four Ways” wasn’t just flights of fantasy but was actually a way of reading that reflecting a theological understanding of meaning of Scripture being a part of a larger narrative than could be envisioned even by the original author. Authorial intent must be taken into consideration if exegesis is to be anything other than eisegesis, however, the teleology of the narrative of which a text is a part is also a dimension of the text’s meaning that the reader cannot ignore.

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