From the July/August, 2002 issue of Touchstone


“You Have Been Brought Near ” by R. R. Reno

“You Have Been Brought Near ”

Reflections in the Aid of Theological Exegesis

by R. R. Reno

The challenge of theological exegesis is not altogether different from other situations of reading and listening. The difficulties of interpretation rest in the problem of hearing what is said. We are often very distant from what is spoken, and so it is difficult to hear. For example, my daughter is often in the basement reading a book, and she only vaguely hears me yell for her to go and clean her room. She hears, but does not hear. As parents know, one must be close to children in order to get them to pay attention.

When we read the Scriptures, of course, the text is not on one floor, yelling, while we are distracted on another. Yet, the situation is similar. The text has something to say, or more precisely, as a written artifact, it is forever saying what it has to say. We, on the other hand, often fail to hear. Even when the Scriptures are open before us, as near as the desktop, we remain at a distance. What is being said is not always clear. Like my daughter, we often respond to Scripture’s word with a pregnant “What?”—or worse, an indifferent “Whatever.”

Hermeneutics are the disciplines of attention that help us overcome this distance. After all, Hermes was a messenger. He bridged the chasm between the gods and human beings. He traveled the distance from the divine speakers to the human listeners. For this reason, no matter how much theoretical heavy machinery is brought to bear on the problems of interpretation, hermeneutical reflection is always practical. It involves acquiring the knowledge and skill necessary to reach the goal of listening: to hear what is being said. It is, in a sense, the knowledge and skill of a traveler, someone who can find a way to overcome the distance that often mutes, obscures, and even silences. Any biblical hermeneutic worth its salt, then, will provide guidance for negotiating what I call the “problems of distance.” It must inculcate the knowledge and skill necessary to get from where we are to what the Scriptures are saying.

The most important—and debilitating—distance that separates us from what the Scriptures are saying should be understood spiritually. For all our worries about history, as well as those about the limitations of finite language and culturally conditioned texts, our difficulties in relation to the biblical text are not historical or metaphysical. Those difficulties are but subsets of the fundamentally spiritual reason why paying attention to Scripture is such a challenge. The Word of God is near to us, but even as it is before our eyes and on our lips, we are far. Only the cure of our souls will bring us to hear the Word of God.

But what do I mean by “historical,” “metaphysical,” and “spiritual” distance?

Historical & Metaphysical Distances

The notion of historical distance is familiar to anyone who has taken a course in modern biblical criticism. The idea is simple. My difficulties in communicating with my daughter are not only a matter of trying to make my voice reach the basement family room. Sometimes, I will chastise her for failing to perform a certain task. She will respond, “Since when I am supposed to do that!” With exasperation I ask her why she cannot remember what I told her only yesterday. For a ten-year-old, one day seems sufficient to erase memory!

For the modern reader of the Bible, the challenges to memory are even more severe. The Scriptures were written a long time ago, and as a result, the context, semantic use, and the very languages of the texts stand at a distance. This makes it easy for us to confuse anachronistic readings with accurate readings as we substitute assumptions about the present for the realities of the past.

A great deal of the angst of modern Christian biblical scholarship rests in the historical distance created by the passage of time, and the challenges it poses. One of my colleagues is emphatic: The distance is nearly unbridgeable. The New Testament, he insists, was written in a “high context” social matrix of Mediterranean agrarian culture. It cannot be understood by students raised in a “low context” Northern European industrial culture.

His way of formulating the historical problem of distance is idiosyncratic, but the basic judgment is widespread. The currents of history carry us so far from the original context that only heroic efforts allow for recovery. In order to pay attention to what is actually being said in Scripture, rather than projecting onto the text what we imagine or would like it to say, the hard work of traveling back in time must be undertaken. Theoretical aids, schemes of reconstruction, ambitious expeditions of textual archeology—these and many other vehicles carry the biblical critic across the distances created by the passing of time.

The metaphysical problem of distance receives less articulate attention among historical critics, but it is even more pervasive and threatening to modern readers of the Bible. Here, the difficulty rests in the fact that the depths of meaning are fundamentally greater than the limited forms of speech. Finite signs and utterances cannot capture the fullness of what is said. I can just hear my daughter saying, “Dad, if that is what you mean, then why not just say it?”

The problem is exacerbated when words seek to speak of God. How can the infinite be represented by the finite? How can spiritual truths take effective form as carnal or fleshly sounds in the air formed by our throats, or marks on the page formed by our hands? How can the array of ancient texts that we call the Bible, written by and for members of a small tribe of ancient people and the messianic movement they spawned, be the Word of God?

More often than not, modern interpreters treat this metaphysical distance as the nub of difficulty. What we often refer to as “historical context” is not just a challenge to our historical memories. It is also a challenge to our religious imaginations. To cite a widespread example, many contemporary readers are anxious to separate the patriarchal form of the biblical witness from its spiritual message. The finite form of the witness, wrapped in the historical and cultural limitations of its own cultural milieu, must be distinguished from the timeless and spiritual message it seeks to communicate. Just as I must reformulate my expectations so that my daughter “gets it,” so also must the biblical interpreter reformulate the message of Scripture so that the modern reader “gets it.”

Like traveling across historical distance, the distance between representation and that which is represented must be traversed. New words must be spoken, even new texts written, so that the Eternal Word might shine forth in our new age. For most twentieth-century academics, the word hermeneutics refers to theories of communicative interaction that guide our efforts to parse meaning from medium, and thus guide effective interpretation. A general account of what words and texts can and cannot do directs the journey from what is said to what is meant.

The itineraries vary. For some, we must navigate the difficult terrain that separates the finite form of signs from the fathomless depths of consciousness (Riceour) or from the effective power of texts (Gadamer). For others, we must renounce such a journey as futile, and instead prepare ourselves to be pilgrims devoted to following the swerves and twists of semiotic play (Derrida) or the forward movement of communal consensus (Rorty). For still others, we should gird our loins for the adventures of strong misreading (Bloom) or discipline our souls to endure the prison of language (De Man). In each case, metaphysical distance defines the journey.

An Ancient Problem

My descriptions of historical and metaphysical distance may give the impression that these are uniquely modern problems. This is not so. The church fathers were very sensible of both. Origen did not assemble the text-critical apparatus of multiple versions of the Old Testament, the Hexapla, in order to meditate. He did so because he was very aware of how the exigencies of history can corrupt the texts. The passage of time requires the transmission and dissemination of the written word, which is the visible form of memory, and in this process copyists make mistakes that must be identified and corrected. Origen’s judgment about how to discern and remedy these mistakes may lack the reliability of modern methods, but he certainly understood an important aspect of the historical problem of distance.

In the same way, Ireneaus did not commend the succession of teachers stretching from his time back to the apostles in order to provide a foundation for later catholic polity. He did so in order to identify the reliable basis on which believers can bridge the distance between their own time and the apostolic age. The public memory of the community, expressed in the doctrine of qualified teachers and buttressed by signs of holiness, provides effective guidance to our efforts to gain accurate knowledge of apostolic teaching.

The metaphysical problem of representation and the distance it entails was even more pressing for the Fathers. At a systematic level, St. Augustine famously distinguished between signs and things, and in so doing, gave conceptual form to the problem facing all biblical interpreters, both ancient and modern. Not only is there an inevitable slippage between signs and things, as we all experience in both the multiple referents of words and their varying uses, but more importantly, the “thing” of which Scripture seeks to speak is God, and God transcends all signs. As St. Augustine says, when he speaks of God, he enters into the paradox of not saying what he wishes to say, for he wishes to speak of the unspeakable (De doctrina Christiana I.6).1 The reality of God is so much greater than the finite forms of language that the most true thing that can be said is that he is ineffable. The metaphysical problem of distance knows no clearer expression.

Without doubt, then, the ancient Church was sensible of the historical and metaphysical problems of distance. What the Scripture says is difficult to hear. Time separates us from what is said, and the finite form of all signs and texts makes the Bible a peculiar instrument for speaking about God.

A Different Approach

However, to say that the Fathers were sensible of the historical and metaphysical problems of distance does not mean that they approached them in the same way as most modern readers. Indeed, the solutions they offered are very different from the ones we typically think appropriate.

We want historical methods to solve the problems posed by history. We want metaphysical theories of meaning to solve the problems posed by the fact that we use words to talk about things, texts to communicate realities.

In contrast, the Fathers offered spiritual or theological guidance for navigating the distances created by time and the finite form of language. For them, the challenges of interpretation, many as they are, revolve around a spiritual problem: the distance between sin and righteousness, the chasm that separates fleshly existence according the exigencies of “the world” from holiness.

For this reason, the Fathers treated the difficulties posed by history, as well as divine transcendence of language, as particular manifestations of this more fundamental distance between the ways of the world and the ways of the Lord. For example, Ireneaus does not dwell on the evidential value of public transmission of apostolic teaching. Instead, he draws a sharp contrast between the willfulness of heretical innovation and the obedient submission of orthodox teachers to the doctrine entrusted to their care.

Reliable guidance across the distances of time requires affiliating oneself with the community of the faithful in visible continuity with the apostles and adopting its rule of faith. What we might now call canonical interpretation, guided by the living magisterium of the Church, preserved in her creeds and alive in the consensus of the faithful, is an appropriate and accurate gloss on Ireneaus’s method for preparing ourselves to hear the testimony of Scripture.

St. Augustine’s approach to the distances created by finite language is no less theological in character. For St. Augustine, the soul seeks that which transcends time and finitude. Such a journey, however, is beyond our power. Augustine takes the metaphysical problem of distance very seriously indeed. “We would not be able to do this,” he continues, “except that Wisdom Himself saw fit to make Himself congruous with such infirmity as ours . . .” (De doctrina Christiana I.11). The Incarnate Word journeys to us so that we might journey with and to him. “He wished to assume flesh,” writes Augustine, “not only for those arriving at their estate but also to prepare the way for those setting out at the beginning of their journey . . .” (I.34). His form is fleshly, and encoded with the signs and language of prophecy, he dwells amidst the limitations of finitude. Here, the relation of Jesus to the Father is not governed by a general theory of mediation, either metaphysical or hermeneutical. Following Jesus’ path, we acquire the habits of a traveler along his way, habits of faith, hope, and love, and thus are we carried across the metaphysical distance from creature to Creator.

Biblical Time & History

The ways in which the Fathers analyze our hermeneutical situation can seem impossibly “pre-critical.” Surely historical distance cannot be overcome with the waving of some magical wand, as if prayer and fasting can substitute for the critical tools of modern textual analysis. The problems of historical distance must be treated independently of so-called theological exegesis. The limitations of historical context must be acknowledged! Something that scholars like to call “historical consciousness” cannot be gainsaid! Responsible exegesis must depend upon intellectual and not spiritual discipline!

Similar reactions worry that this spiritual turn ignores the real and enduring problems of representation. Surely we must not confuse words about God with God! Surely we should avoid being idolaters of the letter of Scripture! Unless we gain some sophistication about words and their function as representations, then we will confuse what is said with what is meant!

I cannot begin to answer these objections, common as they are. A full-scale defense of patristic hermeneutics would require a genealogy of modern historical inquiry, as well as close analysis of the ways in which the metaphysics of representation was understood by the Fathers. The Fathers inherited and modified a complex and sophisticated Platonic tradition that nests with the Old Testament’s dual structure of polemic against idolatry and affirmation of the power of divine presence in both Temple and prophecy. Unpacking this interaction of Platonism with exegesis requires heavy lifting in the realm of metaphysics.2

First, we must consider a theological assumption behind the usual historical-critical objections to precritical exegesis. This assumption is best described as historical pessimism, the assumption that time is a curse (or a blessing, if one wishes to wipe the slate clean) because it creates an unbridgeable gap between past and present. The passage of time wears away at our connection to the past, and the erosion is unstoppable. This assumption needs to be examined, for the Scriptures themselves advance a theological judgment at odds with the modern view.

Consider the way in which the Lord blesses Noah after repenting of the desire to end the cycle of generations. The blessing opens and closes with a commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1,7). The passing of generations turns the unmarked passage of time into human history. Geneaology is the archetypical biblical form of encompassing the distance from past to present.

Clearly, then, the Scriptures neither deny nor efface the passage of time, and in that sense, the biblical witness affirms and promotes “history,” as innumerable modern commentators on the Old Testament have noticed. Nonetheless, unlike the pessimism of modernity, the Scriptures do not treat historical distance as corrosive and corruptive; it is the medium of spiritual life, not an alien impediment. The space between past, present, and future creates room for blessing and curse. Time can be filled up and held together by covenant and faithfulness.

Memory & Spiritual Distance

In the Old Testament, faithfulness is bound up with memory. However, the mnemonic challenges are not simply technical or intellectual, as if proper critical techniques might suffice for, or even be relevant to, the problem of historical distance. My daughter forgets that I have told her to clean her room on Saturday mornings because she would rather read or play. We fail to remember because we are tempted to forget, and in this sense, the ability to bridge the distances of time depends upon a moral and spiritual discipline, not intellectual techniques.

Second Kings 22 and the discovery of the book of the law suggests such a situation. The scene is very much about “history” and the distances it creates, but the sentiments are antithetical to modern historical sensibilities. In Jerusalem, we read, a lust for evil has darkened memory and corrupted the disciplines necessary to keep the past ever before the eyes of the present. A series of bad kings marks the eclipse of the past. This makes the discovery of the books of the law a dramatic moment, and King Josiah’s reaction is telling. He does not muse about the odd religious views of an archaic culture; he does not consult with critics to discern the Sitz im Leben. Instead, “when the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11). He is a good king, and he has the eyes to see that which is written, to hear that which is spoken. The passage of time is a challenge to memory, but it is the drama of sin and righteousness that determines our connection to the past.

St. Paul’s reflections on the fate of carnal Israel assumes and deepens the view of history we find in 2 Kings. The passage of time creates a stage for the drama of God’s promises and the outworking of his redemptive will, not only in the triumphs of memory, but also in its failures. For St. Paul, the mysterious unbelief of Israel conforms to the Old Testament pattern of blindness and forgetfulness. Quoting from Isaiah, St. Paul interprets the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the consummating form of Israel’s blindness. The organs of memory—eye and ear—are disabled (Rom. 11:8).

Yet, for St. Paul, the very distance of carnal Israel from the fulfillment of the promise that is her birthright—she is cut off—allows for the nations to enter into the drama of history. They are grafted onto the genealogy of Israel that, as promised to Noah, will fill up the distances created by time and its passing. “I want you to understand this mystery,” writes St. Paul, “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25). Israel’s inability to hear, as did King Josiah, the word that, however distant in time or form, “is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (10:8), establishes the very conditions for the elongation of time. Time and the historical distances it creates are, for St. Paul, the gift that Jewish unbelief gives to the Gentiles. Or more precisely, this time before the end of all time is God’s gift, which he gives, mysteriously, through his providential hardening of the heart of carnal Israel.

I do not intend these brief exegetical digressions as sufficient for understanding the scriptural view of time. Nonetheless, I hope both cast doubt on the historical pessimism that characterizes so much of modern scholarly reading of the Bible. From the perspective of the Scriptures themselves, history does not necessarily or inevitably distance us from the word of God.

In 2 Kings, as in so much of the Old Testament, history offers both the opportunity to draw near and the risk of falling away. For St. Paul, the continued passage of time after the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus extends and intensifies that opportunity, as one form of falling away makes possible another form of drawing near. Thus, the distances created by time are very real.

Neither the author of 2 Kings nor St. Paul has any interest in denying the reality of historical time. Quite the contrary, both insist upon its reality, both as the medium for memory, and as the stage upon which divine promises find their fulfillment. What is important, however, is that in both cases, the distances of time are set within the broader problem of spiritual distance. What matters most is the relation of our souls to the Lord; the crucial issue is the distance at which we stand from that which is near.

To Read As the Fathers Did

If you are beginning to suspect that, as the Fathers so consistently taught, questions of historical distance, like those of metaphysical distance, are best considered under the greater and more fundamental problem of spiritual distances, then we have come a good way toward rethinking the notion of biblical hermeneutics. Yet neither the biblical view of history, nor the patristic account of the fundamental distances that separates us from the word of God, adds up to hermeneutics. As I indicated earlier, to have a hermeneutics is to have the disciplines of hearing that help us overcome the distance between what we hear and what is said, and these disciplines are just that, disciplines or practices that train our ears and eyes.

Hermeneutical skill does not stem from investigation of the biblical views on any particular subject, even a subject as central to modern interpretation as history. Nor does that skill result from sympathy with the larger, spiritual outlook of the Fathers. Instead, if you are beginning to think that the Fathers are right, that the difficulties of interpretation revolve around a fundamental problem of spiritual distance, and if you wish to address the exegetical challenge at that level, then you must acquire the skills of reading that characterize patristic exegesis. You must read as did the Fathers.

I can no more guide you toward the acquisition of patristic skills of reading than I can offer a full-scale defense of pre-critical exegesis against critical objections. Indeed, I can be of even less help, for the acquisition of a skill requires the tutelage of a master, not the observations of a scholar, and I am no master of the particular methods and techniques of reading that characterize patristic exegesis.

Nonetheless, I can offer two brief performances, one keyed to the problem of history, and the other directed to the problem of representation. Both are methods of spiritual reading that have dominated the exegetical practice of Christians for centuries, and they have been so influential and long-lived because they succeed in overcoming distance.

Figural reading is one way in which the Fathers traversed the distances that separate us from the text. Just what is involved in figural reading is a matter of endless debate. Nonetheless, Christian figural exegesis has a recognizable form. Jesus Christ functions as the disclosing antitype, and he illuminates the meaning of events both before and after his life, death, and resurrection. This illumination occurs because events or persons have a shape or form that outlines a common “figure.”

One common instance is the deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians through the Red Sea. The deliverance through water prefigures redemption in Christ, a redemption sealed in our passage through the waters of baptism. Here, an event in the past, separated from the reader by the distances of time, is brought near through figural conformity to events in the present. An event in Exodus is drawn through Christ into present ecclesial practice. In this way, figural exegesis overcomes distance. What happened to the Israelites has happened to each of us.

The Red Sea—redemption in Christ—baptism figural constellation is widespread in pre-critical exegetical works, but its very conventionality tends to disguise the dynamics of figural reading. Better, then, to undertake something more adventurous.

A Threefold Reading

Consider this particularly powerful figural interpretation that I draw from the work of Ephraim Radner.3 It involves three historical moments. The first is the division of Israel into Northern and Southern Kingdoms, the weakening entailed in this division, and the slow slide toward defeat, enslavement, and exile. These events serve as the background for the prophetic books, and they, in turn, are central to the Christian interpretation of the identity of Jesus as the Christ. Moreover, this sequence is not simply historical background to particular prophetic passages that are fulfilled. The sequence of division, diminishment, and exile is recapitulated and intensified in Christ: his betrayal, the scattering of his disciples, his diminishment and affliction in arrest and his God-forsaken death. In Jerusalem, Jesus alone is the remnant of holiness, reduced to death by the afflictions due to the unrighteous.

Here, the second historical sequence of events—the fate of the man, Jesus of Nazareth—enters into an illuminative relationship to the first historical sequence. The relation of type to antitype discloses more fully the redemptive suffering of those few faithful, who, bound to the body of Israel, were borne into the captivity that is rightly due to the unfaithful. Now, the power of the covenant is more fully visible. The union of the righteous to the body of the nation, like Jesus’ union with carnal flesh, cannot be sundered, and this union subjects the righteous to an undeserved and yet redemptive suffering. Under the burdens of exile, the remnant carries forward the disciplines of memory that make possible the return to Jerusalem and restoration of the Temple, just as Christ, enduring the final burden of death, rises and makes possible our return to the Lord in restored worship. Furthermore, to pursue the figure, neither return simply restores; both intensify and sharpen the disciplines of holiness. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are characterized by a redoubled rather than relaxed restoration of cult and Torah. St. Paul as well preaches the power of the risen Christ as spiritual worship and discipline that intensifies and fulfills.

The power of figure does not just extend from Christ backwards to the history of Israel. It extends forward to the history of the Church. The Church is Christ’s body, and as such, she participates in the figural sequence of exile and restoration. This forward lean of figure is primitive to Christian interpretation of present times. First Peter, for example, is addressed to the “exiles of the Dispersion” (1:1) who “suffer various trials” (1:6), all of which purify and refine so that a remnant of holiness might be called out of the darkness and into divine light (1:9). But the figure does not jump from Old Israel to New Israel. Instead for the author of 1 Peter, Christ is the illuminating center of the figural sequence. The desolation of trial, the afflictions of exile, should be embraced. “Rejoice,” exhorts the author, “in so far as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (4:13). Israel, Christ, and Church are three historical moments in figural relation.

First Peter establishes a pattern of reading that invites subsequent interpreters to place the history of the Church into the figural sequence. The Fathers did this at every turn. We can do so as well.

A Contemporary Application

As Ephraim Radner suggests, the divided Churches in the West, fragmented by the Reformation, suffer the same fate as the two kingdoms of ancient Israel. One need but visit a German or a French or an English church to feel as though 1 Peter speaks to the present. Truly, the few who gather are exiles in the Dispersion; they are a remnant that clings to the disciplines of memory that keep Christian faith alive in the enclosing darkness of a post-Christian culture.

For just this reason, Radner urges us to complete the figural sequence. We suffer the failures and weaknesses of our churches. Yet, such afflictions are none other than the suffering that shapes the Church into the Body of our Lord, so that she might share in his suffering.

Still further, if we press the figure from present into future, then we can look to the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah for a pattern of ecclesial resurrection in Western culture. Given this pattern, we should hope that the Church will come to weep bitterly in penitent confession of faithlessness, and, in redoubled zeal for holiness, that she will put away her foreign wives and children.

We need to be clear about how this figural sequence functions. In the first place, this way of reading is not a matter of matching up prophetic passages with Christological fulfillments that are, in turn, connected to specific ecclesial doctrines or practices. Instead, this figural approach takes historical events and brings them together. The division of Israel, the conflict between the two kingdoms, the diminishment and decline that follows, the vulnerability to captivity and affliction, the persistence of a remnant, the return and redoubled restoration enters into an illuminating relation to a parallel pattern to the present sequence of events in the Christian Church in the West, and it does so through the prism of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They share a common figure or form that makes events that are historically distant come together.

Of course, they do not merge. The historical sequences are very real. Neither a second-century reader who thinks Ezra and Nehemiah and the synoptic Gospels are utterly reliable accounts of what actually happened, nor the most sophisticated modern reader who has all the latest critical tools at his disposal, has ever imagined that these two sequences of events are not separated by the distances of history.

Nor do any imagine that the more recent history of the Church is any closer, in time, by virtue of figural interpretation. The point is that their figural association allows the reader to bridge the very real and enduring distances of time through an interpretive coordination. Each historical sequence says the same thing about the way of faithfulness.

For this reason, figural reading is the essence of Christian “historical” exegesis. The illuminating form of Christ provides the basis for understanding how the word of God is revealed in events and practices that stand at a distance from each other.

An Intensive Reading

Intensive reading is another and very different skill that was no less dominant among the Fathers. Unlike figural interpretation, which deals with patterns and sequences that make up historical events and practices, intensive reading focuses on the semantic plentitude of particular scriptural signs or episodes. Patristic commentary on the Gospel of John is paradigmatic. Origen, for example, gathers up many meanings of logos, and he does so not to sift through them in order to settle upon a single and univocal meaning, but in order to arrange the many meanings around the Christological focus of the Johannine text.4 In this way, Origen engages the problem of metaphysical distance. He follows the many threads of meaning, making progress across the difference between representation and reality, between the sign logos and the One who is signified.

I illustrate the intensive approach by considering a verse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John that I have long found puzzling. It involves a play of pronouns. Jesus teaches that he does not do his own will, but the will of the Father. In this discourse, the will of the Father, very much the crux of the passage, is semantically ambiguous. “This is the will of him who sent me,” says Jesus, “that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day” (6:39).

The passage perplexes me because “all” and “it” are words or signs that represent something central to Jesus’ message. Yet, they are pronouns that hold the place for something else. They are the open variables in an equation. Some x is given to Jesus. He shall lose nothing of this x. He shall raise up this x at the last day. Precisely because they have semantic openness—pronouns are wonderfully fungible parts of speech—the passage generates more questions than it answers. What is given to Jesus, and what will he raise up?

The immediate context of the passage suggests the proper referents for the pronouns. The very next verse tells us that all who believe in the Son shall have eternal life, and that Jesus will raise them up at the last day. By this reading, the “all” and “it” refer to the faithful. This reading is reinforced by Jesus’ emphatic affirmation of the saving power of his flesh and blood later in the discourse (6:54). The Father has given followers to Jesus, and the Father has given Jesus the power of redemption, manifest in the eucharistic ritual. Joined to his body and blood in the sharing of the consecrated bread and wine, we participate in his death and resurrection.

The reading seems right, but I am not sure that we have cracked the nut of this puzzling verse. Why would the verse say that the “all” given to Jesus is an “it” that he will raise up? I do not wish to suggest that we are not given to Jesus, and that he will not raise us up on the last day. I only wish to point out that the particular and carnal form of the signs used, that is to say, the difference between impersonal and personal pronouns, invites further exegetical reflection.

Perhaps the Father has given Jesus the power of life. Then, with this as the x in the passage, we can see that nothing of the power shall be lost, even if Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and crucified. This reading is also strongly reinforced by the immediate context. Jesus is the bread of life. Unlike the manna in the wilderness that sustains a few and only for a time, Jesus gives life to the world (6:33). Therefore, on the Cross, on his last day, he raises up the power of life. His flesh and blood is for all and forever.

These pronouns can shift yet again. Maybe the x represented by “all” and “it” is neither the faithful nor the power of life. Maybe the x represents the flesh that the Father gives to the Son by sending him to us as the Incarnate Lord. The Son will lose nothing of this gift, and for just this reason, the Eternal Logos will experience destitution, suffering, and death. Nothing of carnal life is left out or lost. All of “it” is raised up on the Cross in the form of the dead man whose flesh is pierced. For just this reason, you and I, flesh from flesh, are neither left out nor lost in the risen Lord. Christ will let go of nothing. As he bears the marks of the nails and the wound of the spear—nothing of the flesh is lost—he raises us to light and life.

The point of this kind of reading is not to decide which referent is the right one. Instead, the skill involves allowing the very distance between sign and signified to motivate us to undertake interpretive effort. In this case, I drew attention to the way in which the semantic openness of pronouns can open rather than close questions. This openness does not frustrate. Instead, the difficulty of settling on a particular interpretation forces us to look again and again at the possibilities.

Looking again and not elsewhere is the reason the Fathers did not view metaphysical distances created by representation with regret; such ambiguity stems from the plenitude of sense that is an inevitable consequence of the fact that the words of Scripture are effective but inadequate signs. They are inadequate for the reason St. Augustine identified: They seek to speak to us of the ineffable mystery of God. Yet they are effective, because these signs are not mute and sterile but vocal and fecund.

The “failures” of representation—in this case, the “defect” of semantic openness characteristic of pronouns—lead us toward the fathomless depths of that to which all the scriptural signs point: the mystery of Christ. Thus, the metaphysical distance between sign and signified is no more collapsed by intensive reading than historical distance is collapsed by figural reading. Instead, exegetical travel is undertaken, and that which seems impossibly distant comes into view in just the right way.

The Ascetical Core of Exegesis

Hermeneutical skill is the ability to understand words; it requires the virtues that sustain travel across the distances between what we hear and what is said. I hope that my brief illustrations of figural and intensive reading have provided a small degree of insight into classical Christian methods for overcoming distances. If we acquire the ability to see figural sequences, then we can travel across the distances of history. If we cultivate an appreciation of the plentitude of sense, then we can travel the distance between sign and signified. These skills, however, are not isolated. In both cases, a spiritual discipline undergirds the practices of reading.

On the central role of spiritual discipline, Origen is perhaps the most lucid and direct of all the Fathers. Origen is as emphatic as the most hard-nosed Evangelical preacher. “There is no possible way,” he writes, “of explaining and bringing to man’s knowledge the higher and divine teaching about the Son of God, except by means of those Scriptures which were inspired by the Holy Spirit, namely, the gospels and the writings of the apostles, to which we add, according to the declaration of Christ himself, the law and the prophets” (Peri archon, I.3.1).5

Yet, unlike a great deal of modern conservative reaction to the very real problems of historical and metaphysical distance that have come to dominate the academic study of the Bible, Origen is no proponent of easy perspicuity. The Scriptures are full of obscurity, contradiction, and offense. The examples Origen gives could just as well come from a contemporary introduction to historical-critical study of the Bible. Some passages of Scripture are patently mythological (e.g., when Genesis speaks of God as walking in paradise); some are culturally conditioned (e.g., Jesus’ commandment to his disciples not to possess shoes); some are morally repugnant (e.g., the Septuagint rendering of Genesis 17:14, which requires the uncircumcised infant to be destroyed after the eighth day); some entail contradiction (e.g., the synoptic and Johannine treatments of Passover in relation to Jesus’ passion). The distance between us and the text is very real indeed.

However, for Origen such distance is not a curse. Quite the contrary, “Divine wisdom,” Origen writes, “has arranged for certain stumbling blocks and interruption in the historical sense . . . by inserting . . . a number of impossibilities and incongruities, in order that the narrative might as it were present a barrier to the reader” (IV.2.9). Our distance from the Scriptures is part of the pedagogy of salvation. “By shutting us out and debarring us,” continues Origen, God “might recall us to the beginning of another way, and might thereby bring us through the entrance of a narrow footpath, to a higher and loftier road and lay open the immense breadth of divine wisdom” (IV.2.9).

The more sensible we are of the distance between what we hear and what God wishes to say, the more accurate will be our sense of the arduous and difficult nature of traversing that distance. Reading rightly will require the surest of guides, and here, for all his interpretive inventiveness and potentially dangerous theological speculation, Origen is utterly opposed to the complacent strategies of reading that seek to find relevance or that depend upon the inner resources of the reader.

The ability to traverse the distance, the power to read rightly, rests only in “that rule and discipline delivered by Jesus Christ to the apostles and handed down by them in succession to their posterity . . .” (IV.2.2). Only as we are formed by the common life of the Church, her ancient teachings, her ceaseless prayer, and her patterns of self-discipline and mutual service, can we read rightly. This is the most fundamental form of the patristic theory of hermeneutics.

The Cleansed Mind

The present age founders on the problems of history and representation because we are unwilling to enter into the spiritual discipline necessary to travel the distance between what we hear and what is said. The ways in which the Fathers read Scripture are alien, because their discipline is now alien. We no longer submit ourselves to the common life of the Church, not only because our modern souls fear authority, not only because intellectual life has come untethered from ecclesiastical reality, but also because Western Christianity has such a severely fragmented common life. The prayer of the Church is cacophonous. Her doctrines are defined in the spirit of mutual condemnation, not mutual service.

What Origen thought so indispensable, we now seek to recreate through ecumenical endeavor. Not surprisingly, then, the practices of spiritual reading are suspect; the communal conditions for their disciplined use exist only in part.

Equally important, spiritual reading gains little traction because the moral and ascetical practices that the Fathers thought essential to the Christian life are now divorced from intellectual training. Who would imagine that fasting might contribute to exegetical insight?

To a certain degree, modern historical study has inculcated moral discipline. Pursuit of truth requires the courage to consider all the evidence. Moreover, loyalty to truth engenders humility, especially the humility of a historian who knows that historical judgment traffics in likelihood and possibility, not certainty and necessity. Yet, even these virtues are in decline. Postmodern “methods” put few demands upon the souls of their practitioners, or the students they train.

Nothing could be further from the patristic atmosphere of interpretation. For St. Augustine, the ambiguities and uncertainties that finite signs produce do not yield a “play of difference.” We cannot turn what is hard into something easy. Instead, interpretation is difficult, and for St. Augustine, “this situation was provided by God to conquer pride by work and to combat disdain in our minds, to which those things which are easily discovered seem frequently to become worthless” (De doctrina Christiana II.6).

Here, the patristic outlook is clearly expressed. Hermeneutical discipline is no different from spiritual discipline. “The mind should be cleansed,” writes Augustine, “so that it is able to see [divine] light and cling to it once it is seen. Let us consider this cleansing to be as a journey or voyage home” (I.10). To read rightly will both require and lead to humility; it will both require and lead to a love of that which God wishes us to hear.

Do We Wish to Hear?

This assimilation of hermeneutical skill to spiritual virtue can seem pious and preachy. It is both, but that is because piety and preaching seek to bring us to exactly that which words seek to achieve: understanding that which is said.

I conclude with an exchange that typifies this truth. When I graduated from college, I lived in New York City, near Harlem. One day, on the way home from the subway stop, I tarried briefly to listen to a man harangue a small group that was gathered at the corner. His voice was filled with urgency; his eyes were aflame. What he said I cannot reconstruct, but I vividly remember the way he ended nearly every sentence. He would say, “Do you hear, my brothers? Do you hear me?”

He had no doubts about the volume of his voice. He was not wondering whether his listeners had their hearing aides turned on. He was asking them if they would allow what he was saying to gain leverage over their lives. Were his listeners with him? Would they undertake to travel with him toward that which he saw and sought? This was the hermeneutical challenge he posed, and it is, I think, the most fundamental challenge of anyone who wishes to hear something genuinely important and true.

Our relation to the Scriptures is no different, for they seek to speak the most important and pressing truth. Few wish to hear. Most wish to stand at a distance. No technical or intellectual aides will bring us near. Only spiritual discipline will carry us toward something that, however crowned in glory, is flavored with the bitter taste of vinegar and gall.  


1. I follow the translation of De doctrina Christiana by D. W. Robertson, Jr., (Indianapolis: The Library of Liberal Arts, 1958).

2. For two contemporary efforts to do this heavy lifting in metaphysics, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991). These two Christian philosophers draw on radically different philosophical traditions, but both undertake to “solve” the problem of distance created by the fact that Christianity requires the use of signs.

3. See Radner’s essay, “The Cost of Communion: A Meditation on Israel and the Divided Church,” Inhabiting Unity: Theological Perspectives on the Proposed Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat, Ephraim Radner and R. R. Reno, eds. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), pp. 134–152, as well as his extended uses of this figural interpretation throughout The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998).

4. See Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Book One.

5. I follow the translation of On First Principles by G. W. Butterworth (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1973).

This article was adapted from a paper delivered by the author at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, in September 2000, and is included in his book, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity, from Brazos Press.

R. R. Reno teaches theology and ethics at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and is author of In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos, 2002).

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