In my post on Mitchell Chase’s 40 Questions about Typology and Allegory, I noted that Peter Leithart is an unhelpful mentor in the area of hermeneutics. A number of years ago I read Leithart’s Deep Exegesis and jotted down these notes.
Leithart, Peter J. Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009.
1. The Text Is a Husk: Modern Hermeneutics
In general, I found this chapter helpful.
- His critique of paraphrastic translations was on point.
- He rightly identified Spinoza as the turning point who ushered in modern hermeneutics.
- His discussion of Kant’s influence on modern religion, including evangelical religion was on point.
- I think Leithart’s goal of allowing the NT authors to shape our hermeneutic is correct.
Caveat for chapter 1:
- Leithart clearly likes the four-fold hermeneutic; he even tries to connect Calvin with it. I don’t think Calvin is easily connected to the four-fold hermeneutic. Calvin completely rejected the division of senses into literal and spiritual. He even identified the hermeneutical turn to allegory in the previous era as Satanic (cf. Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. King, 1:114; Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans. Pringle, 135). Calvin did have a richer literal sense that was attuned to analogy, typology, theology, and moral issues. But this richer literal sense is fundamentally different from the fourfold sense approach.
- By linking Calvin to the quadriga, I fear that Leithart will present us with a false option in this book: modern hermeneutics or the quadriga. But I think Calvin shows us that this is a false choice. The argument in my dissertation is that we can look to the Reformers and Post-Reformation exegetes—standing as they do between the medieval and modern periods—for a pre-critical exegesis that avoids the problems of both modern and medieval hermeneutics.
2. Texts Are Events: Typology
- The observation that placing texts within various contexts (original historical context, canonical context, personal life context) affects meaning.
- The analogy drawn between the meaning of historical events and the meaning of texts
- Leithart does not provide definitions for meaning or for typology. Part of what makes this chapter work is the slipperiness of the terms. They mean (!) slightly different things, I think, in different parts of the chapter. If E.D. Hirsch has drawn too stark a line between meaning and significance, Leithart keeps things fuzzy where it would be helpful to make some distinctions.
- It would have been helpful for Leithart to make use of the categories of author, text, and reader.
- Surely the author has an intended meaning. A merely human author can write in such a way as to fail to communicate his meaning, but the divinely superintended authors of Scripture do communicate divinely intended meaning. We do need to assert the stability of that meaning or else we participate in what Carson calls the gagging of God. These author-intended meanings are not found outside the text but within the text.
- These texts are found within the canon of Scripture. While that means that when we read earlier texts in light of the whole canon, we can see a fuller meaning than we would if the text were isolated, I would want to insist that this fuller meaning is always tethered to the original meaning of the text. The fuller meaning is seen because of God’s progressive acting in history and because progressive revelation.
- I agree with Leithart that readers have a role to play in interpretation. Leithart brings out that texts may mean different things to the same person at different points in their life due to differing life experience. But here it is important to note that we are not talking about the meaning of but the meaning for. If the connection between the meaning of and the meaning for is utterly broken, we would say that the reader has misunderstood the text. On the other hand, if the connection is close, we would be willing to say that a reader better understands a text after having greater life experience. With certain non-inspired texts I would even be willing to say that some readers can better understand the meaning of a text than the author—if the meaning of the text concerned some aspect of reality that the reader understood better than the author. This, of course, could not apply to the divine Author of Scripture since the Bible since God is omniscient (though it may describe a difference between the human writers of Scripture and Christians readings of Scripture today).
- It is unhelpful to collapse the difference between meaning as it relates to author, text, and reader. For instance, I dealt in the dissertation with Paul’s use of Genesis 16 in Galatians and found that Paul was not allegorizing as the Fathers conceived of allegory. Leithart’s proposal regarding parallels between Ishmael, Isaac, and Israel are interesting, but I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind in Galatians 4. Paul’s reading was something that could be derived from a theological reading of the literal sense of Genesis 16. I think Leithart’s explanation for the rock following the people in the wilderness is on point. Regarding Hosea 11, it seems that Leithart opts for simple typology, which is fine. But Leithart is misleading when he says this changes the meaning of Hosea’s text.
3. Words Are Players: Semantics
- I think the opening critique of dynamic equivalence is correct. I have long thought that common arguments regarding translation and interpretation that are narrowly informed by linguistics are too often lacking in literary sensitivity—texts and their words are interpreted almost mathematically rather than literarily. Leithart is sensitive to the literary nature of biblical interpretation.
- Characteristically, Leithart takes a good thing and presses it to the point where it is no longer valid. I seriously doubt that the name Nicodemus is meant to be a play on the words nike and demos in connection with his being called a ruler of the people.
- I am also unconvinced of Leithart’s argument that the diachronic meanings of words are routinely significant for exegesis. Leithart’s point only works with certain, selected words, but no one is aware of the history of most words. Thus, writers do not bring a historical awareness of most words to their writing. (I am indebted to Mark Ward for this observation)
4. The Text Is a Joke: Intertextuality
In this chapter Leithart again elides certain key distinctions. He makes the valid point that good readers bring information with them to the text. So, a good reader of Matthew 1:1 will bring a knowledge that “book of the genealogy” is making a Genesis allusion, that “Christ” is a messianic term, that “son of David” and “son of Abraham” carry covenantal connotations, etc. But Leithart then labels this eisegesis because this information is not explicitly stated in the text. He links his Matthew 1:1 example to the fathers who compare Moses’s outstretched arms to the cross or Rahab’s red cord to the blood of Christ.
The problem is that Matthew intended the allusions in Matthew 1:1 (likewise with Leithart’s bartender, Shrek, Virgil, Eliot, Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, and Lion King illustrations). It is exegesis, not eisegesis, to notice allusions that the author has put into his text. The fathers were operating from different principles in which harmony with the rule of faith was more decisive than authorial intention (though the latter was not irrelevant to them) (see Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, 3.2.2; 3.2.5; 3.27.38; 3.28.39).
5. Texts Are Music: Structure
- I’m not opposed to the idea that texts can have multiple structures.
- But Leithart’s example from John 9 falls flat. In part, I’m not convinced that the biblical writers regularly structured narratives (as opposed to poems, proverbs, etc.) as chiasms. Narratives outlined chiastically always seem to be forced, and the chiastic structure regularly stands in tension with the normal flow of the plot: rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, resolution. Often the chiastic center does not align with the crisis or the climax, and yet it is taken to be central or most important according to the chiastic structure.
- In the next chapter Leithart admits, with reference to his John 9 example, “As we saw in the previous chapter, the narrative of John 9 is constructed, rather oddly, so as to put the Pharisees’ interrogation of the blind man’s parents at the chiastic center. This is not obviously the main episode in the story, and its presence in the center of the text’s labyrinth is something of a disappointment” (177-78). I think this shows the flaw in the proposed chiastic structure.
6. Texts Are about Christ: Application
- Leithart wants to see Christ-centered application that does not stand over against or in tension with the personal lives of Christians.
- He rightly bemoans: “If the Bible is about Christ, some preachers and interpreters conclude, then any direct application of Scripture to the life of the believer introduces works and threatens to collapse into moralism. Other preachers insist that the Bible be made practical, so that the stories of David are read not as foreshadowings of Christ but as stories that teach us courage, faith, and tricks (e.g., spittle on the beard) for dealing with oppressive fathers-in-law and kings” (174).
- Leithart’s solution is itself problematic. He wishes to revert to the fourfold hermeneutic. As he says in the epilogue, “the hermeneutical method offered here is very similar to the fourfold method developed by medieval Bible teachers. For the medievals, the literal sense of the text opened out into a christological allegory, which, because Christ is the head of his body, opened out into tropological instruction and, because Christ is the King of a kingdom here yet also coming, into anagogical hope” (207).
- Leithart thus opts for a patristic and medieval solution to modernist hermeneutics without reckoning with why the fourfold sense was on the wane in the latter part of the Middle Ages. Early on the spiritual senses had precedence for medieval interpreters because the spiritual senses seemed to solve apologetical difficulties and because that is how certain texts seemed to become relevant. But as the Middle Ages progressed, the literal sense became more and more important. The rise of Aristotle gave interpreters are greater appreciation for the theological significance of the material world. In addition, teachers outside the church’s mainstream could make use of allegory in ways that exposed it as a two-edged sword. Though the spiritual senses were not abandoned in the Middle Ages, the literal sense gained more prominence. In the Reformation, hermeneutical skill had developed to the point where interpreters could address apologetical challenges and make applications from texts without leaving the literal sense. Leithart hasn’t demonstrated why a pre-critical Calvinian or Bucerian approach would not provide the proper corrective to modernist hermeneutics.
- Leithart demonstrates by his multivalent reading of John 9 the problems of the fourfold hermeneutic. Leithart’s argument that John 9 supports infant baptism (because the blind man washes his eyes before he knows who Jesus is and confesses him as Lord) shows that those operating with this hermeneutic end up imposing their rule of faith on Scripture rather than attentively hearing the voice of God from Scripture.