instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Accommodating the accommodater

If I offer an interpretation of a passage of Scripture, how do I know whether I'm proposing one of the meanings of the passage intended by the author, validly accommodating the passage to a different meaning, or simply distorting the passage beyond reason?

I'd say, first, I ought to at least know whether I'm trying to do exegesis, or simply trying to say something true that is suggested by the passage. In my "The wine always runs short" post, I pointed out that taking the wines as symbols of the Mosaic Law and the Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus was an accommodation, so I don't need to argue that Jesus intended this symbolism or that John wrote the passage to emphasize it.

Athanasius has a post interpreting the blind man near Jericho as signifying the sinner in his blindness -- i.e., all of us:
Consider the blind man. Is this story merely a tale about a miraculous cure? I don't think so. Think about the blind man in connection with Matt 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. If you are pure of heart, you will see, but what if you aren't pure of heart? Isn't it reasonable to suppose that if purity causes vision, sin causes blindness? ...
This story represents the core of Eastern spirituality, I think. We are lost in a culture of sin and death, blind to the true dignity of both man and creation, but we hear the marvelous news proclaimed to us that God is with us. Our response can only properly be "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me a sinner!"
It's not clear to me if Athanasius means Jesus healed the blind man in order to signify restoration of purity through Him, or that Luke included the story to signify restoration of purity through Jesus to his readers, or simply that we are, in fact, restored to purity through Jesus, just as the blind man was restored to sight.

But -- and here I show my bias -- I don't think it matters in the end, for us non-scholars, as long as our commentary leads to the truth. (I assume we've already passed the Catholic Encyclopedia's second and third rules, so that what we say is neither farfetched nor irreverent.)

Which raises the question, how do we know whether we're saying something true? If we're accommodating Scripture, we can't simply point to the passage we're accommodating (that's the first rule). But we can argue from other passages, as I did below with Romans, or from extra-Biblical principles, as Athanasius does with his proposed experiment of weekly confession (an excellent suggestion, by the way).

Why bother with potentially accommodating commentary at all? Why not stick with firm exegesis? I think part of the reason is that Scripture is not merely a static text; it's the Word of God, and in reading it we meet Christ. Accommodation is a way of saying, "This is what Jesus just told me." A truth is rarely expressed the same way twice, and expressing it in different ways brings out different aspects, which resonate with different people at different times.

The Bible is not a "User's Guide to Human Nature, Creation, and Right Worship." It's a means to encounter our God, and no two encounters with God can be the same.