Anchors Aweigh! The Neglected Art of Theological Interpretation
Anchors Aweigh! The Neglected Art of Theological Interpretation

Anchors Aweigh! The Neglected Art of Theological Interpretation

The nature of visual art sometimes permits it to do a better job of spiritually interpreting the Bible than can text.

November 1 st 2012
Appears in Fall 2012

Walter Hook, a nineteenth-century Dean of Chichester Cathedral in southern England, once related an unusually eventful study session. He was reading Britain's first taste of German historical criticism, that rigorous scholarly project to find out what the Bible "really" meant. Just then, Hook paused to look out his window to admire the Cathedral's central Gothic tower that had stood for 450 years. At that very moment (1:30 p.m., February 21, 1860), the impressive spire—weakened by subsidence— collapsed. Dean Hook pronounced the event God's judgment on what he was reading.

The anecdote serves as an alarming metaphor for how the scholarly project of historical criticism seemed to threaten the church, as it still does today, as evidenced by popular Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman's autobiographical reminiscence in the beginning of his book Misquoting Jesus. From a born-again youth group experience, to Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and then Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman describes how serious Biblical study relieved him of his faith. (Interestingly enough, for the legendary Biblical scholar to whom Misquoting Jesus is dedicated, Bruce Metzger, serious Biblical study appears to have had the opposite effect, but I digress.)

Having had a born-again experience in high school which also took me to Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary, I share some steps of Ehrman's journey. But times, as they say, have changed, for to study Biblical scholarship today is very often to undergo the reverse of the Dean Hook's disturbing experience, not to mention Ehrman's. In fact, it is to see the church spire being beautifully reconstructed (as indeed the collapsed Chichester spire soon was by the great Victorian architect, George Gilbert Scott). This is because the project of higher criticism has in many ways run its course, being challenged by a new movement known as theological interpretation, which—in brief—enables Christians to read Scripture as the church without surrendering their academic integrity. "There is a pervasive sense," writes Craig Bartholomew, summarizing the new scholarly situation, "that the historical-critical paradigm can no longer be taken for granted, and if it is to be adopted then it will have to be argued for in competition with alternative hermeneutics." How did this come to pass?

It is important to emphasize that the new situation is not simply a product of postmodernism. Indeed, the roots of theological interpretation are roughly three thousand years deeper. That said, the postmodern ethos has much to do with what enabled theological interpretation to catch on. A more direct explanation for the shift I am describing is the longstanding dissatisfaction with the abovementioned historical-critical method, which, after its devastating stop in Chichester, quickly crossed the Atlantic thanks to its many tireless American evangelists. Among them was the great Presbyterian Bible scholar Charles Augustus Briggs, who nicely encapsulated the premises and presumptions of historical criticism in 1899:

The valleys of biblical truth have been filled up with the debris of human dogmas, ecclesiastical institutions, liturgical formulas, priestly ceremonies, and casuistic practices. Historical criticism is digging through this mass of rubbish. Historical criticism is searching for the rockbed of the Divine word, in order to recover the real Bible.

Briggs's predecessors in historical criticism have lost most of his lingering confidence in divine inspiration, but they shared his zeal for attaining what the Bible "really" meant, detached from (or in defiance of) Creedal commitments. The quest may have some academic value, but many scholars have come to the realization that the historical-critical quest was an impossible mission. Generations of indisputably brilliant and disciplined minds had produced libraries full of commentaries and lexicons, but the "real Bible" promised by Briggs was still at large. The apparent "rockbed" of scholarly agreement turned out to be unreachable, because— brace yourself for this revelation— the conflicting presuppositions of scholars frequently cause them to fundamentally disagree.

Bart Ehrman tells us that his defining seminary moment came when one of his Bible professors refuted his attempt to defend Mark's gospel with the words "maybe Mark made a mistake." After this, Ehrman tells us, "The floodgates [of doubt] opened." By contrast, a defining seminary moment for me and many of my peers came with the discovery that Biblical scholars of unquestionable rank, themselves thoroughly trained in historical criticism, were happily frontloading their faith commitments in their academic work. "It is really only through an appreciation of the original idea of Scripture, and the apprehension of God that underlies it," concluded the Jewish scholar James Kugel from his (then) post at Harvard, "that those [historical- critical] difficulties can be put in proper perspective." Likewise, the late Brevard Childs contended from Yale that "the role of the Bible is not being understood simply as a cultural expression of ancient peoples, but as a testimony pointing beyond itself to a divine reality to which it bears witness."

Such pronouncements were particularly persuasive because no one could accuse Kugel or Childs of not having mastered Biblical languages or the political exigencies of the Ancient Near East. Context, mind you, was still profoundly important for these scholars. But context must extend to the future as well, to our own contexts—including contemporary communities of faith. Which is to say, maybe Mark was right. To read Kugel or Childs was to break the powerful historical-critical spell that had sadly, and unnecessarily, generated so much disbelief. And then, to borrow Ehrman's metaphor, the floodgates opened.

Perhaps the library's reference section tells the story best. To browse the Biblical sections at an American theological seminary a decade ago was to encounter the standard commentary options, all of which—to one extent or another—took historical-critical approaches. Among this bewildering variety, the most intimidating set on the shelves was the "Anchor Bible Commentary," recognizable by its blue (Old Testament) and red (New Testament) covers, each emblazoned with an unmistakable Anchor, as if to signify the weight of scholarly authority. The anchor may have once been a venerable symbol of faith for the early church, but this Anchor was different. The Anchor reminded us that the Pentateuch, thought to be have been authored by Moses, had been fractured by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) into the scribal schools of J, E, D and P; or that what was once simply "Isaiah" was now first, second, and third Isaiah, with different authors and historical situations posited for each segment; or that the book of Ephesians was no longer written by Paul, but by "Paul"; or that the epistles of John were written not by the Apostle John but by something known as the "Johannine community."

This is not, of course, to say that this information necessarily undermines faith. Father Raymond Brown's Anchor commentary on John was anything but skeptical, even while it was an exemplar of historical-critical method. Still, one never quite knew what the dreaded Anchor, which claimed to offer an objective, universally agreed upon "literal" meaning of Scripture, might reveal. In effect, the Anchor symbolized everything that caused evangelical pastors to warn their tender sheep that seminary could often be the cemetery of faith.

But oh how those bookshelves have altered! A walk through those same intimidating reference shelves today shows that new interpretive methods have crowded out the Anchors. Commentary series that highlight earlier methods of interpretation have emerged (the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture or the Reformation Commentary on Scripture). Others have permitted theologians, inspired by exegetical pioneers such as Karl Barth on the Protestant side and Henri de Lubac on the Catholic one, to write their own commentaries that frontload matters of faith (The Church's Bible, Blackwell Bible Commentaries, and The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). The once-intimidating weight of historicist questions has been lifted, and the ship of the church, one might melodramatically suggest, is again free to sail happily on the Spirit-swept seas. So long as it remembered that theological interpretation is no excuse not to grapple seriously with original languages and historical study, one motto of recent Biblical studies might be "anchors aweigh!"

* * *

The gains and setbacks of theological interpretation as a movement have been well rehearsed elsewhere (for example, in Dan Treier's Introduction to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture or Peter Leithart's Deep Exegesis). Suffice it to say here that the movement is maturing. Even historical-critical scholars such as Walter Brueggemann have graciously conceded its importance, and its internal advocates have freshly emphasized the fact that attention to the literal is (and always has been) necessary, which vindicates any (legitimate) historical-critical gains. In other words, historical criticism has not been tossed aside as much as recognized to be a curious constriction of the Bible to its literal sense, unnecessarily neglecting broader horizons of Scripture's moral, allegorical, and anagogical meanings. Karlfried Froehlich, a Princeton Seminary professor well schooled in ancient methods of interpretation, delightfully translated the famous Latin rhyme that charted those wider horizons:

The letter tells the deeds of the past
Allegory, what to believe thou hast
The Moral tells what thou must do
Anagogy the higher Path to pursue

In addition, conservative critics of theological interpretation, who have inherited the Reformation's justifiable concern with allegorical flights of fancy, have been met with convincing and eloquent defenses of theological interpretation from within evangelicalism, especially from Kevin Vanhoozer. In short, it is fair to suggest that theological interpretation is here to stay not because it is new but because it is normal.

And yet, there is reason to think the norm has been underestimated. Spiritual interpretation of the Bible has been so pervasive in the history of Christianity that its more recent advocates, primarily Biblical scholars and theologians, have failed to notice that one of the most widespread examples of this way of reading Scripture is, surprisingly enough, not verbal. Which is to say, one of the theological interpretation movement's blind spots is a literal one, for few scholars associated with the movement have pointed out the method's prominence in the realm of visual art. Amidst attempts to cast off historical-criticism and imitate precritical modes of interpretation, scholars appear to have left the modern (and quite artificial!) disciplinary divide between words and images intact. To avoid the sloppy scholarship of what he calls "Biblical Criticism Lite," James Kugel's advice is to "keep your eye on the ancient interpreters." But doing this necessitates using those eyes to see that their manner of interpretation was not limited to words.

I issue this complaint because after seminary I enrolled in a secular university for further graduate study in the history of art. I did not expect to revisit theological interpretation, which seemed—by its very self-definition—an intraconfessional matter. And yet, theological interpretation kept appearing again and again in the seminar room and in my research. It is not that art historians have suddenly taken to interpreting the Bible through the Nicene Creed. Instead, it is that art historians, who generally know little and care less about the theological interpretation debate, are stewards for some of the greatest evidence for this normative mode of reading the Bible—even if they have not been consulted by Biblical scholars. A.K.M. Adam was on the right track when he suggested we might "break out of the circle of texts interpreting texts, into a world in which every sphere of human action expresses our biblical interpretations and invites critical analysis. Biblical interpretations formulated as stainedglass windows or paintings." But Adam's suggestion does not seem to have been taken further. It's as if the entire art historical tradition was borne to enhance the dust jackets of theological literature, and nothing more.

One of the reasons that spiritual interpretation of the Bible is so convincing is because the method is used by the Bible itself, specifically Christ's interpretation of Jonah (Matthew 12:40) or Paul's suggestion that "the Rock was Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:4). Interestingly enough, these two famous instances of theological interpretation are also two of the most common themes in early Christian art of the catacombs. Jonah appears ten times more often than any other Biblical figure, in what is obviously a veiled reference to the resurrection of Christ (Fig. 1). And while Moses at the burning bush or crossing the Red Sea would seem to be more obvious candidates for frequent illustration—the scene from Moses's life interpreted theologically by Paul appears instead (Fig. 2). Another popular motif is Abraham sacrificing Isaac, which signified the crucifixion long before this subject became common in Christian art. In the catacombs, the Old Testament appears in visual form four times more often than the New, because the Old Testament was read theologically. Such images, furthermore, may very well have inspired the verbal interpretations of these texts by Christians with which we are so much more familiar. In her extraordinary work in this area, the art historian Robin Jensen calls this underestimated method of early Christian interpretation "Visual Exegesis."

Perhaps there is one exception to my observation that the recent literature on theological interpretation neglects art. Ireneaus's comparison of biblical interpretation to the art of mosaic-making is frequently cited. Tesserae can be recklessly arranged to make a fox or a dog—or properly positioned to display the image of king. In the same way, argues Ireneaus, Biblical interpreters either distort the Bible to serve various agendas, or properly arrange it to give glory to Christ the king. But the historical record goes much further than this oft-cited reference. Theological interpretation is just as easily found in the mosaics themselves as in Irenaus's analogy to the practice of mosaic- making. Robin Jensen cites Eusebius of Caesarea, who even goes so far as to defer to a mosaic as his primary proof for seeing Christ in the Old Testament. To support his suggestion that the three visitors that appeared to Abraham was a vision of Christ, Eusebius describes the way one of the angels was more prominent than the other two in a (no longer surviving) mosaic. Christological interpretation of Mosaic passages in mosaic form seems to have been the inspiration for sermons.

Gregory the Great's quip that art is the Bible of the illiterate is well-known assertion— but it often serves to undermine art's ability to speak to the learned as well. Of the surviving early Christian manuscripts of the Old Testament, the frequent illuminations do not just illustrate; they constantly interpret. "Art's advantage," writes art historian Herbert Kessler, "is precisely that it permits both the Old Testament prefigurement and its Christian realization to operate simultaneously." In other words, the nature of visual art sometimes permits it to do a better job of spiritually interpreting the Bible than can text.

For example, the table of showbread in the Temple is depicted as a Christian altar to foreshadow its fulfillment in the Eucharist. In the Byzantine Octateuchs (manuscripts of the first 8 books of the Old Testament) Christ constantly appears where, according to historical criticism, he should never be: Giving a promise to Abraham and Sarah, or presiding over the angel of the Lord's interference with Balaam's unfortunate donkey. In one Byzantine illumination of the prophet Isaiah's commissioning vision, the artist interpreting the text was well aware that the embargo on the depiction of God was still valid. But because God had been legitimately depicted in Christ, depictions were now legitimate; consequently, the vision of Isaiah was retroactively interpreted as a vision of Jesus himself (Fig. 3). Western medieval versions of the Old Testament, known as the Bible Moralisée, without so much as a spoiler alert, luxuriously revel in depicting Christ as the architect of the Universe on the Old Testament's opening page! (Fig. 4). This is less a confusing of the Persons of the Trinity as much as a reminder that "through him all things were made" (John 1:3).

Such depictions are a far cry from the kind of Biblical illustration on offer in nineteenthcentury realism or in diagrams of the Temple in modern study Bibles, nearly all of which tend to operate (problematically) on the literal level. Instead, early Christian, Byzantine, and medieval art shows us spiritual interpretation in visual form. Might Christian artists, schooled in these ancient methods, cautiously take up the same kind of visual interpretation today?

In short, Christian art is a neglected wellspring that further confirms the liberating return to theological interpretation. And while this is no place to offer a catalogue of instances, there might be one art historical moment that is representative, even offering a guiding image for theological interpretation's task. I first saw the painting I am referring to on a research trip to Mount Athos, that all-male enclave of Orthodox Monasticism in northern Greece. In the centre of the peninsula is a town called Karyes, where one can still find an ancient church called the "Protaton," the monastic republic's primary church. Within its hallowed walls is the famous Axion Estin (worthy it is) icon, sparkling both with its silver revetment and votive offerings of men's watches. But what surrounds the image often leaves a grander impression: A majestic interior painted around the year 1300 by a figure retroactively named "Manuel Panselinos." As his name reveals, Panselinos (which means "full moon" in Greek) reflected the light of Christ and the saints just as a full moon reflects the sun. The Protaton frescoes have been described as the final flowering of Byzantine art. The artist not only embodied the best of the tradition before him, but pushed that tradition forward as well (giving the lie to the notion that Byzantine art is static and unchanging). In one apse he painted an image that, so far as I know, is unique. The title is "Christ in another form," an image of Christ at Emmaus (Fig. 5).

The iconographer was faced with a dilemma. Depictions of Christ in Byzantine art were the result of a hard-won struggle, a struggle which determined he be depicted with regular, recognizable features. But the text of Luke where this appearance of Christ is recorded is clear: "But their eyes were kept from recognizing him" (Luke 24:16). Interestingly enough, Panselinos was guided by Scripture to buck Byzantine convention and depict Christ in an unrecognizable way. To stand before this image, wondering who it might be, is to recapitulate the experience of the apostles before Christ on the Emmaus road (to say nothing of our daily failures to recognize Christ in the "least of these"). Likewise, to read the Bible theologically is to walk to Emmaus all over again, with this man: Christ the interpreter, who unfurls the very Bible that Panselinos has him hold: "Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27).

Many Christians, Protestants in particular, have refused typology and allegory lest it detract from Scripture's literal sense. But as Jason Byassee persuasively argues in Praise Seeking Understanding, for readers like Augustine the literal sense was frequently Christ himself! To surrender allegory, furthermore, is to surrender our liturgies and to surrender Emmaus. It is, in Byassee's words, to give up "the chance to see Jesus anew, now refracted through the words not only of the New Testament, but of the Old as well."

On that road, the disciples walked with Jesus whom they did not recognize as he showed them all the places in Moses and the prophets where he was not recognized as well: in the Garden's Tree of Life, in Joseph's rising from pit to throne, in the bush that did not burn, upon the smoking mountain, in every slain offering, in the Holy of Holies itself, and in the words of all the prophets. This is the way the Christians have long read the Bible, and are beginning to read it again.

But Panselinos's painting, and countless other places in the neglected history of Christian art, remind us that they saw it that way as well. Because beauty and truth are united, it might be a rule of thumb to suggest that any historical movement lacking extensive and exquisite witness in art and architectural history might not be true. Theological interpretation easily meets this criterion, in ways that this short essay can only begin to relate, and which merits further exploration. Has historical criticism afforded art and architectural testimony? Apart from a ruined spire, not so much.

Topics: Arts
Matthew Milliner
Matthew Milliner

Matthew J. Milliner teaches art history at Wheaton College.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?