Biblical Intratextualism

Those familiar with some of the schools of constitutional interpretation will know what is commonly called the intratextualist or structuralist method of divining meaning. The idea is to understand the meaning of a word or phrase by searching out and comparing like words or phrases in the same document in order to arrive at a unified meaning. There is a kind of horse-sense fundamental principle sitting somewhere beneath the method: words used at different points in the same document ought to mean the same thing throughout the document, and variations on word usage ought to be understood as signifying difference of meaning. The meaning of the words in the document should render the document a coherent whole. The several usages of “necessary” in the Constitution, for example, are useful in teaching the virtues and vices of intratextualism.

But intratextualism is not just for constitutions. It is a more general approach to extracting meaning from text. Here’s an interesting passage from Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity that describes early developments in Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. This is from the chapter on the great Origen of Alexandria (p.62):

Origen was to spend the rest of his life in Caesarea, and his most mature works were written there, including many of his biblical commentaries. He was the first Christian to write scholarly commentaries on books of the Old Testament, such as Genesis and Psalms, as well as on the New Testament, including the Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul. Two features stand out in his commentaries: a deep respect, even reverence, for the words of the text, and the conviction that a spiritual meaning could be drawn from every passage of the Bible.

Consider his interpretation of the following passage from the book of Deuteronomy, for example: “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17). Origen begins by putting questions to the text. If “rain” is given as a reward for those who keep the commandments, how does one explain that this same rain is given to those who do not keep the commandments, and “the whole world profits from the common rains given by God”? This leads him to propose that the term “rain” can have another sense than water from the heavens, because in this passage it seems to refer to something that is given only to those who walk in God’s statutes and observe the divine law. It signifies something given “only to the saints.”

With the puzzling use of the term “rain” in the passage as a starting point, Origen proceeds to examine the term “rain” elsewhere in the Scriptures and discovers that it is sometimes used in a metaphorical sense. Moses, for example, said, “May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew” (Deuteronomy 32:1-2). In this passage rain is a metaphor for Moses’s words, and hence of the word of God. That is to say, in the Scriptures “rain” can have another meaning than the plain sense.

Fiddes on the Roots of Religious Freedom

Paul S. Fiddes (University of Oxford) has posted The Root of Religious Freedom: Interpreting Some Muslim and Christian Sacred Texts.  The abstract follows.

A comparison of a recent Open Letter from Islamic scholars entitled A Common Word Between Us and You (2007) with an earlier Christian text, A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity by Thomas Helwys (1612), shows that both locate a claim for religious freedom in a theological appeal to the sovereignty of God. Both also state or imply a claim for freedom of conscience with the same theological grounding. A Common Word proffers an exegesis of the Qur’anic text Aal ‘Imran 64 in which the phrase ‘that none of us should take others for lords besides God’ is understood as a defence of religious liberty. Three reasons are offered for this interpretation: consistency with the commentary tradition, the situational need for religious co-existence and a hermeneutic in which love is predominant. The Mistery of Iniquity proffers an exegesis of New Testament texts, and especially John 18:36 (‘My kingdom is not of this world’), which similarly roots religious freedom in the sovereign claims of God over human life. This ‘theological’ approach seems to have resonance with an unease about the anthropocentric nature of ‘human rights’ as expressed recently in some Christian theology. However, there are gains in setting a theological approach alongside an appeal to human rights rather than allowing one to suppress the other. Comparison of the two texts under consideration, and of the reasons why they adopt the hermeneutic they do, allows us to understand how an assertion of religious freedom might be framed in terms that carry conviction within different religious communities.