The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation (Keith Stanglin) -- A Review

THE LETTER AND SPIRIT OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: From the Early Church to Modern Practice. By Keith D. Stanglin. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018. Xiv + 274 pages.



                Modern biblical studies is dominated by the Historical-Critical Method, which focuses on discerning authorial intent, as well as the literary and social constructions of Scripture. There is much to be learned from these processes. Like many who have gone to seminary I was trained in them and value them. Of course, one can engage in this form of study without having faith commitments. In fact, one is encouraged to engage in such studies with what is often called methodological atheism. You approach the text from an objective point of view, asking the same questions of the Bible that one would ask of any piece of ancient literature. It’s sacredness and implications for the contemporary age is a theological matter, that is different from exploring its historical and literary form. Again, there is much to learn from such studies, and I have benefited. But is that all there is?

In The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation, Keith Stanglin, professor of Scripture and historical theology at the Austin Graduate School of Theology, invites us to take a broader, more spiritual view of things. He does this through an examination of the ways in which Scripture has been handled historically, from the early church to the present. His perspective is influenced by David Steinmetz, whose essay "the Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis" suggests that pre-critical biblical study is able to uncover insights often lost through historical-critical exegesis. Stanglin wants us to see how pre-critical students of scripture focused not only the literal, face-value reading, but its spiritual form as well, with the most common form of spiritual reading being allegory. He writes this book, not for specialists, but for clergy and others who desire to have a fuller encounter with the Bible.

The current interest in theological interpretation of scripture, as witnessed in such commentary series as the Belief series from Westminster John Knox Press—this series asks theologians to write commentary on Scripture. This move emerges from recognition that critical study of scripture, while helpful, can be spiritually sterile. Stanglin, who is part of the Churches of Christ (a branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement) is more conservative than me, but as a historical theologian myself I found the book insightful and encouraging.

One thing we need to settle up front is the definition and use of the word "literal." By literal, Stanglin doesn't mean what in common parlance is as a flat, wooden reading of a text. So, for instance, one might take a day in Genesis 1 to mean a twenty-four-hour day. Or in Genesis 2, that God literally formed Eve from Adam’s rib. Early Christian theologians such as Origen and Augustine understood that not everything can be taken at face value. There are passages that require a different sort of reading to make sense. Thus, they turned to spiritual exegesis. Of course, as Stanglin notes, the embrace of an expansive form of allegory led to disenchantment with spiritual exegesis. Unfortunately, the proverbial baby got thrown out with the bath water, beginning with the Reformation, and then more fully with the Enlightenment.

In this book Stanglin tries to reclaim spiritual exegesis, a form that is pre-critical but not uncritical. To do this he seeks to bring the modern historical-critical studies into conversation with pre-modern spiritual reading. He does this historically. He speaks of this work in terms of "retrieval theology," which he describes as "not simply replicating or repristinating older theology, but taking the best of theology and, in this case, the best of biblical interpretation from the past and allowing it to inform our own theology and biblical interpretation today." (p. 11). He notes that in this study, he takes a Western trajectory, moving over time toward the Latin, Western expression of Christianity, since this is the trajectory that leads to our modern exegetical methods.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One offers us a historical survey that begins with the New Testament writers and moves through the earliest interpreters. It is in this early period that we see the development of a strong Christological reading of the Old Testament. Thus, in chapter one we encounter the Epistle of Barnabas, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. It is in this period that we see the emergence of the Rule of Faith as an interpretive guide for interpretation, but also for defining the parameters of the canon itself. This development being, at least in part, a reaction to Marcion and his limited canon. From these early interpreters, we move in chapter two to later Patristic exegesis, which begins with Origen. Origen is important for his development of the allegorical method. It’s not that he created it, but he took it a step further than earlier users, and he put it at the center of his reading of scripture. He assumed that texts can have more than one meaning, with the spiritual meaning going deeper than what is read at the level of the letter. This also enabled him to deal with texts that proved difficult to apply. What Origen set forth was a threefold reading of Scripture, which begins with the literal/historical, and then extends to the moral, and the mystical/allegorical. He compares this to the Body, Soul, and Spirit. Later interpreters would expand this to a four-fold reading. While there were different formularies, in essence there are two forms—letter and Spirit.  In this period, of course, not everyone took the same perspective. In time there became two schools of thought, one being Alexandrian and the other Antiochian. The former focused on the spiritual end while the Antiochians sought to stick closer to the letter.

With Augustine (chapter 4) we begin moving into medieval exegesis, which expanded more fully the spiritual side of interpretation. John Cassian spoke of four forms of interpretation, the literal, the tropological (moral), allegorical (spiritual), and the anagogical (eschatological). This format is known as the quadriga, served as the foundational guide for the next millennium. In chapter 5 we encounter Early Modern exegesis, which emerged at the end of the Medieval era, extending through the period of the Renaissance to the early days of the Reformation. Here we encounter Erasmus and his textual work, which enabled Luther and others to engage the original languages and translate Scripture into the vernacular. During this period, there was a desire to get back the original readings and engage the text historically. The printing press, of course, made all of this easier. This new effort led to questions about the spiritual side of interpreting, with the excesses of allegory brought into the light. With the Reformation the spiritual was largely set aside, which paved the road for modern exegesis, the historical critical method that holds sway today. All of this is laid out compellingly by Stanglin, who doesn't reject the modern form of exegesis, which he sees as the base, but he wants us to consider how we can reclaim earlier spiritual forms of interpretation that remain true to the letter but go deeper into the Spirit.

This invitation to engage both letter and spirit is the focus of Part 2. It's composed of two chapters. One titled "(Ir)Reconcilable Differences" and the other "A Way Forward." As you might imagine at this point, he believes that the differences can be reconciled. The letter, for instance, provides proper controls on allegory and other forms of spiritual interpretation. A text cannot be interpreted in ways that the letter cannot support. At the same time, the spiritual form puts some controls on the historical-critical reading, allowing the texts of Scripture to be of use for Christians. In the final chapter, "The Way Forward," Stanglin shows us ways in which the two can work together so we can understand the original meaning of a text, but then move from there to belief, behavior, and hope. That is, the quadriga of Cassian and Gregory the Great.

I found the book informative and helpful. I appreciated the fact that the author, whose tradition, like mine, is deeply informed by the Enlightenment, is willing to engage in conversation with Tradition, something both our branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement often eschew. He recognizes the need for the Spiritual forms to be guided by the Letter, but he also understands there is more to the story than the historical and the literary. Thus, he invites us to read Scripture anew, with an eye not only to its historical foundations, but also to its spiritual implications. As a preacher, I need to do this. I can't just stand in the pulpit and give a lecture on the historical meaning of a text. There are implications, spiritual ones, that emerge from the text. As a historian, I know that the past can speak to the present. We don't have to accept everything wholesale, but we can learn from those who have gone before us. In this book, we have an introduction to this possibility. Thus, it is highly recommended!

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