Earlier this year I posted a note that listed the areas I wanted to pay particular attention to in my studies this coming year. They represent issues that I’ve found myself wishing I knew more about, generally because they’ve come in conversation in the life of our congregation and I found myself wanting better answers to questions.
One of the three areas that I mentioned was looking into the proper use of Allegory as a tool for interpreting Holy Scripture. It was a common technique in the early church but it has fallen out of favor in academic studies. What I’ve discovered as a preacher is that when I make use of traditional allegorical interpretations of texts in a Sunday sermon, the congregation is fascinated by the ideas and wants to hear more.
So it turns out that the use of Allegory as a hermeneutical tool is a major area of Dr. Derek Olsen’s PhD research. He’s posted a quick response to my note on my blog that lays out some of the fruits of this study into the field.
Here’s a taste:
“The major change with Reformation biblical interpretation, I’d argue, is the jettisoning of the context. I think it could be argued that with the rise of the Schoolmen, the mendicant orders, and the turn into Nominalism the liturgical context had already lost its important restraining function making it appear to the Reformers that they were pruning away the bad rather than losing a key component. Nevertheless, that’s what happened. Suddenly biblical interpretation was not and could not be an act of play. It was serious business. Without the grounding practices of Mass and Office, how each text was read suddenly mattered a lot more because the interpretive act was transformed into the grounding practice of the faith.
So—the liturgy was the context. But that’s not all. Particularly in the early medieval church and most especially in my world of the early medieval monastics, the liturgy was not simply the guiding context but was the fundamental tool through which Christians were inculturated into the hermeneutics of the Church. They learned to read through the liturgy.
On one hand, this is a literal truth: new monks or child oblates learned how to read through the memorization of the Latin psalter, then learning to match the words on the page with the texts they already had in their heads. They literally learned how to read from reading the liturgy. On the other hand, they also learned how to interpret the Bible from the liturgy and this happened in two ways, the first explicit, the second not so explicit. The explicit is that readings from the Fathers in the third nocturn of the Night Office gave them examples. They learned to interpret through what they heard and what was modeled for them by the patristic teachers every Sunday and feast day in the early morning. And again at Chapter. And again at Mass. The not-so-explicit is the way that the liturgy introduces under-determined interpretive possibilities through the use of scriptural antiphons and responsories in the Mass and Office. When an antiphon taken from the Gospel of the Day is appended to the Magnificat it makes you hear it in a new way, as you are using new lens. When a Pauline snippet is paired with a psalm, the mind begins working at it to find what the implied logical connection must be between the two. The hymns held together Scripture and Season for mutual reflection. (As it happens, the first paper I gave at the big medievalist meeting in Kalamazoo was on this topic. I’ll try and put it up on Scribd for those who are following me there.)
So—where does all of this bring us? Back to the notion of a distinctively Anglican way of reading and interpreting the Scriptures. Is there one? Maybe… Is there the potential for one? Most certainly, because we of all of the Western Non-Roman ecclesial bodies have retained in theory that which was most important in the heyday of figural reading: the Mass and the Office.”
More here. Do read the whole thing. It’s really helpful. The idea of reading scripture through lenses formed by the prayerful encounter with the scripture is lovely, poetic, and in my experience, exactly what happens as you commit yourself to the regular reading of the Office.
And, yes, Derek, I’d love a copy of your dissertation.