Blogroll: The Hadley Rectory
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Stephen Westerholm & Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans , 2016), 1-2
The unity of thought and language has tremendous implications for Nevin’s hermeneutics. The “in-forming word” (thought) is the basis from which the “word processional” (language) emanates. We cannot, therefore, consider the interpretation of language apart from the “animating spirit” from which it derives its “being.” Language is not merely the “algebraic sign” of this animating soul, “but the very form in which it looks out upon us with its own living presence.” There is a “spiritual element,” a “distinctive life,” which belongs even to the outward form of language. This needs to be grasped before the language can be understood. The key to the meaning of language, then lies in the soul of words which is in them “objectively before they reach our minds.”Nevin draws a graphic example of his linguistic theory from poetry. Without “poetic taste” no amount of philology or history can reveal the sense of great poets like Homer, Horace, Shakespeare or Goethe. The language of the poet affects the minds of his readers only as they are drawn into felt sympathy with the spiritual elements of his own life. By “spiritual infection” they thus become poets in their own measure and so enter into the “true historical sense” of his or her language. Only the “spirit of poetry” – that is, the same mind in both the poet and the readers – can be trusted to articulate the sense of a poet’s composition. All language is thus “the embodiment of spirit in word.” The soul that is in literature, art, and science can only be grasped “by inward soul-intuition.”If this is true of language in its capacity to convey natural truths, how much more is it true when such language is animated by the substance of supernatural truth? As in poetry the mind of God lodges itself in the Scriptures so that it cannot be understood or explained apart from this supernatural and spiritual element which is “part of its very being.” The divine and the human meet together in the totality of what is spoken and so must also be apprehended “each in the other” in order to render the language intelligible. Or, in the language of Ricoeurean hermeneutics, to “experience” the world of the text the reader needs to engage the text with some attitude of belief.Nevin believed that the outward letter of Scripture can never exhaust its meaning and power because the mind of God is truly in the Bible. The situation is analogous to common human speech which involves much more than we can see or record. Our “external natural mind,” as he explains it, forms only a small part of “our full inward existence.” Within this, our rational mind opens “right into the spiritual world itself; and there it is, that the real complex forces, which enter as innumerable fibres into the constitution of our outward conscious thought and speech, are all the time at work for this end – though we know it not.” Behind the complex web of human language, therefore, “is the interior ocean of things, invisible, immaterial, and eternal – the region of the universal in distinction from the single and particular, the region of ends and causes in distinction from mere effects – which is continually pressing, as it were, to come to some utterance in his outward thought and speech.”The propositions of Scripture, then, are pregnant with a sense going beyond logic and grammar. Neither thought nor language alone can fully fathom them. In this way, Nevin could say that the Scriptures are mystical. Not that they are shrouded in uncertainty, rather they possess an undivided simplicity. John’s gospel, for instance, has the logical sharpness of a scholastic and the depth of a mystic. he was intuitive and contemplative, seeing the object with the soul.But how is it, asks Nevin, that the divine life (which he regards the spirit of prophecy) can “be actually resident in the words spoken, when the speech itself is at an end,” much less in a printed book? In the constitution of God’s word, whether spoken or written, nothing less in reality than a Divine life of its own, derived from the life which it is thus made to enshrine.” The words of Christ are spirit and life. As such they must enclose “universally the quality of His own being.” Standing in the power and glory of the heavenly and spiritual world, they are “interiorly pregnant also with the celestial fire of that life.”Obviously, existential participation in this Divine reality involves more than reading and studying the word for Nevin. It necessitates both obedience and faith. Keeping Christ’s commandments is nothing less than “the simple being of the soul in the element of spirit and life thus effluent from Himself.” The ancients, according to Nevin, attributed wisdom to the one “who had the knowledge of the good in himself practically, as his own inmost being – something well understood, at the same time, to be in him only by indwelling inspiration from the Almighty.”Nevin identifies this dimension of participation with faith. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the quintessential Romantic, Nevin defines faith as the organ by which the supernatural element in Scripture is grasped. It is “an original capacity for perceiving the divine.” There is, therefore, “an original, necessary correlation” between faith and the objective side of revelation just as there is a correlation between the eye and the light it sees. As in art and poetry, the object is not placed in the word by the interpreter nor produced by the word, rather it is already in the word, waiting to be grasped. The word of God possesses an innate potency and life by which, as 1 Peter 1:23 says, we are born again. In the words of Jesus, “He that is of God heareth God’s words; ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.”
From the back cover:John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886) was, with Philip Schaff and others, a progenitor of the “Mercersburg Theology.” Nevin’s transcendental hermeneutics is one of the most penetrating and sophisticated theological systems to emerge from American soil. In The Interior Sense of Scripture, William DiPuccio unfolds for the first time Nevin’s vision of a biblical hermeneutic based on the centrality of the Incarnation. In part I DiPuccio explores Nevin’s hermeneutics of a new creation and the Eucharist. In Part II he presents Nevin’s critique of American culture in the light of his hermeneutical conclusions. More than a century has passed since he spoke, yet Nevin’s polemic against materialism, religious skepticism, individualism, and sectarianism retains its creative force and insight.
For Nevin, the Incarnation is the transcendental (or top-down) archetype of all hermeneutics and philosophy. And it is as true today that the decay of American culture and religion lies in its widespread adoption of Common Sense Realism (a bottom-up paradigm) which values the material above the spiritual, the actual above the ideal, and the particular above the universal. Thus Nevin’s transcendental/incarnational hermeneutics is as appropriate for the current worldview situation as for his own time.
The blurb should have alerted me to the prominence given in this work to cultural critique. The title led me to expect rather more on Biblical hermeneutics – how to read the Scriptures – and so I was disappointed. It was nevertheless valuable to read about the conflict between William Nevin and Charles Hodge and to see how sacramental realism/nominalism are connected with traditional/modern approaches to Scripture. Metaphysics and hermeneutics are indeed closely tied together.