Mind the Gap: the Hermeneutical Problem of Distanciation

Whilst little Persephone had chicken pox on our lovely summer holiday in Tuscany last week, someone had to sit with her whilst she slept and the rest of the family went to the beach. It turned out to be a real gift of some extra time to write about something that has been on my mind for a long time and especially so after the ‘shared conversations’ at General Synod last month.

When we read ancient texts like the Bible, we’re often aware of just how much they belong to a world different to our own. At its most extreme, this can lead us to conclude that the text has nothing to say to us because of this historical gap. Even when we see Scripture as authoritative, this sense of historical distance can cause complications when it comes to applying Scripture to our own lives. This is the hermeneutical problem known as distanciation. In my article ‘New Directions in Early Christian Hermeneutics and Distanciation: Mind the Gap’ (coming out in the journal Theology early next year), I argue that distanciation is a by-product of Modernity and its ideas of history as something that progresses. I explore how early Christian interpretation of Scripture couldn’t have had a problem with distanciation because, even though some NT authors express a sense of the historical origins of the texts they interpret, they understood that they themselves were part of the story Scripture tells about God and his people.

New book on sale now!

“In much postmodern discourse it has become usual to argue that the biblical text has many meanings (as many as there are interpreters). Benjamin Sargent shows, in this tightly argued book, that many readers in the past believed it had a single, determinate meaning. This is a book that will challenge many assumptions, on the basis both of detailed examination of many texts and of a wide knowledge of secondary literature about biblical interpretation down the centuries.”
–John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of Biblical Interpretation, Emeritus, University of Oxford



Detecting the presence of typological interpretation in the New Testament

‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man will be lifted up’ John 3:15

Typological interpretation is one of the best-known but least understood features of scriptural interpretation in the New Testament. John 3:15 is a great example of it from the Prayer Book Communion reading for Trinity Sunday I preached on this morning – the past is seen to set a pattern for its future – in this case prefiguring the cross of Christ. As the bronze snake was lifted up for the healing of the people of Israel, so the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, would be raised up on high to offer salvation to those who believe in him. Both past and present in the typology are brought together beautifully in this sculpture from Israel.

The question that interests me is this: ‘how do we know when typological interpretation is being used?’ In the case of John 3:15, it perhaps seems obvious. Past and present are related to each other quite explicitly. But scholars are quick to spot typological interpretation where there is far less evidence. For example, is Ex 19 interpreted typologically in 1 Pet 2? Is Peter saying there that just as God’s people Israel were his ‘holy nation’, so to is the Church in the present? This is certainly what scholars like Joel Green maintain. But what is the evidence? How do we know that Peter, like a modern reader, recognised that a text has a prior meaning in its original context from which, through some process or other, we find meaning for the present? The truth is that there is no evidence at all that Peter would have shared this assumption. Indeed, the evidence seems to point the other way: that Peter saw Scripture as utterly and exclusively orientated towards Jesus Christ and the Church (1 Pet 1:10-12, as in my analysis in Written to Serve). Could it be that much of our concern to see typological interpretation is anachronistic, an attempt to see New Testament authors read texts in a way we think legitimate? Might there actually be less typological interpretation in the New Testament than generally assumed?

This is what I hope to think and write about over the next few weeks. I’ve had a major period of writer’s block for the last two months, partly due to parish busyness and helping out a little bit at Moorlands. But I’ve finished my studies on Ignatius of Antioch now and hope to get stuck into typology!


Shared Conversations and Biblical Interpretation

In November last year I went on one of the regional shared conversations about human sexuality that are part of the Church of England’s strategy for reflecting on the issues of same-sex marriage and Christian sexual ethics. It was a privilege to attend, especially to be able to hear people’s very personal stories. I came ready to think about biblical interpretation – the issue at the heart of this disagreement – and with the ambition of sharing some of my thoughts as participants were encouraged to do (within the guidelines of the Coventry Conventions we all had to consent to). As a result, I wrote an essay – ‘The Ghosts of the Past: Hermeneutical Reflections on Historical Criticism within a Shared Conversation on Human Sexuality’ – to be published in Expository Times later this year.

I came to the conversation with the knowledge that the issue of human sexuality has opened up new avenues in biblical hermeneutics that depart from the historical concerns of the biblical hermeneutics that came to dominate 20th Century interpretation of the Bible. I came expecting to see a great variety of understandings of how Scripture ‘means’ during the conversations. I was surprised that most participants actually had a very modern (historicist) view of Scripture and that the main disagreement was not what the texts mean/meant, but how they should be related to the contemporary debate – this is the hermeneutical issue know as distanciation. The shared hermeneutical assumptions of participants led me to consider whether ‘good disagreement’ jumps the gun, when actual agreement could still be possible. I’ll let you know when the article comes out.

Hot off the press!!

I’ve just received several copies of the latest issue of Churchman with an article I wrote about biblical interpretation which is influenced by American literary pragmatists – blokes like Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty. They argue that there’s no such thing as ‘objective’ interpretation of texts, simply different ‘uses’ of texts within specific interpretive communities. This sort of hermeneutic has been really significant in the debate on homosexuality and marriage.

If you want to read it, it won’t be on the online database for a while. I’m happy to give away my free copies (I’ve already read it!)

Ignatius and History

A lovely old dispensationalist Revelation history diagram. It’s hard to find pictures that depict history, but this one is particularly exciting – even if, like me, you’re not dispensationalist

This week I’m still thinking (and trying to write) about the interpretation of Scripture in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. Now I’m looking at Ignatius’ assumed narrative of history and how that informs his understanding of what Scripture means. In Magnesians 8:1-2, Ignatius claims that the prophets of Israel’s past ‘lived according to Jesus Christ’ and preached the Gospel beforehand. Their whole concern, Ignatius says, was Jesus. I want to argue that this reflects the kind of theological narrative of history which climaxes in the person and work of Jesus Christ seen in 1 Peter 1:10-12 and Matt 13:17. Again, I think this New Testament similarity helps obscure the picture of Ignatius’ use of Scripture as an illustration of how far the Church has moved (in the early Second Century) from the conceptual world of the New Testament, shaped by Scripture and apocalyptic Jewish thought.


Ignatius and the Old Testament

Poor old Ignatius of Antioch

This week I’ve been thinking (and trying to write) about the interpretation of Scripture in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius’ seeming ignorance of Scripture is well-known. His opponents once came to him and said, “you keep saying ‘as it is written’, but you never tell us where ‘it is written’! If we can’t find it in the archives, we won’t believe it!” (Philad. 8.2, paraphrased slightly) For an early Second Century writer with a somewhat anti-Jewish interest, this seeming neglect of Scripture has often been taken as confirmation of the old theory of the ‘parting of the ways’, the gradual separation of Christianity and Judaism along identifiable trajectories. But it strikes me that the number of times Ignatius refers to particular passages of Scripture and the way in which he does so is not that different from some Pauline letters – particularly Ephesians, Colossians and the Pastorals (which Ignatius appears to have known well). This is especially so in Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians which has three very clear references to scriptural texts. If the use of Scripture is significant for Christian Origins, it is so because it adds to the increasingly complex picture now recognised by most scholars: Ignatius mirrors the earliest known Christian use of Scripture whilst also recognising a real distinction between Judaism and Christianity (both terms he actually uses).