Meaning or Meanings of Scripture?

Can a reader read the same text twice?

This is an odd question, one that has been asked many times since the beginning of this “postmodern” age. Yet the thought behind it is as ancient as the pre-Socratic philosopher who asked if a person can step twice into the same stream. Now, as then, the answer is both Yes and No.

This is an important question for those who read the Old and New Testament Scriptures, since it provides us with a key to answering other related questions. Just how do those biblical writings convey meaning? And what exactly is the meaning they convey?

Ever since the 18th century Enlightenment, people have tended to become polarized over the issue of reading the Bible. On one side we find “biblical literalists,” those who read the sacred writings as though they were primarily history books that present us with a series of facts and events on everything from the creation of the world (in six calendar days) to the Second Coming (with trumpets from Heaven, a place “up there”). On the other side there are scholars who adopt a historical-critical approach that has little confidence in the historical accuracy of biblical texts, but focuses rather on the content and argument of a given writing, the circumstances that gave rise to it, and its function within the community of faith.

Although these approaches seem to be poles apart, they are identical in one major respect. They both assume that the only real meaning to be found in Scripture is the “literal” one. This is usually defined as the meaning “intended” by the biblical author: the sense he understood and attempted to convey. Biblical interpretation (exegesis), therefore, should concentrate on what the text “actually says.” From this perspective, the literal sense of the text is typically reduced to its “historical” sense: either “what really happened” (in the eyes of the biblical literalist) or “what the text claims happened” (as discerned by historical criticism).

The earliest Christian theologians, however, knew better than to limit the work of biblical interpretation to either of these extremes. Against a literalist or purely historical approach, for example, Origen in the third century asked rhetorically regarding the creation stories in the book of Genesis: “What intelligent person would believe that the first, second and third day, and the evening and morning, existed without the sun, moon and stars…and heaven? And who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, ‘planted a paradise eastward in Eden’?”

This is not skepticism. It affirms rather that biblical accounts often have more than one meaning, and that the primary meaning is rarely what is referred to as the “literal” or “historical” sense.

Therefore Origen continues: “When God is said to ‘walk in paradise in the cool of the day’ and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual event.” [1]

Nevertheless, Origen, with the whole of the patristic tradition, will see in Scripture historical facts and events as well as figures or symbolic images: facts including the birth of Jesus from a virgin, together with His miracles and His resurrection from the dead. Biblical interpreters of the early Church understood in a “literal” and “historical” way virtually every affirmation that makes up the Nicene Creed. Yet even those affirmations point beyond the literal meaning to a “higher” or more spiritual, more “mystical” sense. They can be understood not only as statements about what happened in history, but as images of what can transpire in our own life and in the life to come.

Accordingly, the Church Fathers often distinguished between several different senses of Scripture. A good example is the way some of them read the Exodus tradition. In this account of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt they found at least four different levels of meaning: 1) the “literal/historical,” which speaks of Israel leaving Egypt for the Promised Land; 2) the “allegorical” or “typological,” which sees Old Testament images (e.g., Moses and Joshua, the manna and rock in the wilderness) as figures or “types” that are fulfilled in Christ and the Church’s sacraments; 3) the “tropological” or moral, which sees in Israel’s journey an image of the soul’s conversion from sin and death to grace and “newness of life” (Romans 6:4); and 4) the “anagogical” or mystical sense, which speaks of the believer’s journey toward eternal glory (“anagogical” means “leading upward”).

This brings us back to our original question: Can a reader read the same text twice? On the one hand, the answer is Yes. The text (a biblical narrative) is an objective reality in itself. It was produced at a moment in the past and, as canon, it has come down to us in a fixed and immutable form. Although translations may differ, the original (Hebrew or Greek) text remains the same. What we read once we read again, each time we take up the Bible. The words do not change.

The meaning of those words, however, can and does change depending on our immediate, personal circumstances and what message, under the guidance of the Spirit, we are seeking in the biblical witness. This will determine which words make an impression on us—and what the text will in fact convey—at any given time. If we read Psalm 22/23, for example, we may encounter Christ the Good Shepherd, who “leads us beside still waters” and restores our soul with His presence, grace and peace. Read it again in times of acute anxiety or before a major operation, and our attention may be drawn to the psalmist’s reassuring cry, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me!” The psalm has not changed, but our way of reading it most certainly has.

Then again, the way we approach the accounts of Christ’s Passion will determine whether we see in the Cross the magnitude of Jesus’ physical and emotional agony, or an image of His redemptive sacrifice, or an invitation to struggle and remain faithful to Him through ascetic discipline and works of love, or a promise that “through the Cross, joy has come into all the world,” a joy that will be ours as the Risen Lord welcomes us into the glory of His Kingdom.

Can we or do we read the same text, the same biblical passage, twice or even repeatedly? Yes, insofar as Christ and His Word are the same today, yesterday and forever. Yet no, insofar as the text is a living reality, constantly changing because it is charged with the presence and inspirational power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit “rewrites” the text, as it were, at every moment of our life, at every step of the tortuous journey that leads us through our daily experience and toward the fullness of life to come.

It is that constant “rewriting” that makes of the Bible not simply an historical record or a document to be deciphered and analyzed, but a living Word that conveys both truth and life.

[1] On First Principles (ed. by G.W. Butterworth, NY: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 288.