James K. A. Smith on the missing Author in authorial intent hermeneutics

I realize this is a week old, which in the blogosophere can make something quite stale, but I had some thoughts on James K. A. Smith’s surprisingly negative review of Peter Enns’ recent The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.

Smith’s criticism focuses on Enns’ methodology, which is based on the reasonable belief that we can’t decide what God may have meant by a passage until we know the immediate, contextual meaning of that passage.

On the contrary, says Smith, “The church has always staked its reading of the Bible on the conviction that Scripture’s meaning exceeds what the original human authors could have intended.” Smith expects the Church to derive the most appropriate and relevant interpretations of Scripture by basing our interpretation in “worship”, whatever that means, “which will generate meanings…that could never have been intended by [the] human authors,” meanings that are “intended as meanings to be unfolded ‘in front of the text’ by the divine Author.”

The notion that there may be meaning in Scripture above and beyond the original meaning may be a conceivably defensible position (a position I once espoused on this site), but he doesn’t stop there: Smith insists that Enns is wrong to try to recover the meaning of the authors for the original audiences because of the danger of it hindering us from extracting a more appropriate, divinely intended meaning for us. So in reading Genesis, Enns should not expend so much effort in recovering the Ancient Near Eastern context, including relevant literary and archaeological backgrounding. That sort of research is well and good, Smith allows, but it doesn’t tell us what the Bible really means now, because it doesn’t take into account the meaning intended for us as contextualized within the Christian canon:

First of all, the Christian church is not a recipient of the book of Genesis as a discrete unit; we receive the book of Genesis within the Bible and that Bible is received as a whole—as a “canon” of Scripture.  Second, internal to the canon is the conviction that meanings God intends are not constrained by what human authors intended.

Although he puts his preferred hermeneutic in terms of “recontextualizing” Scripture, in essence Smith is wanting to theologize the text before situating it in history, because we are apparently not allowed to come to any conclusions by examining individual texts like Genesis and Romans that make it hard for this recontextualization (which in practice looks like front-loading) to occur.

Because Jamie Smith is no fundamentalist, or even a Chicago style inerrantist, he concedes, “Enns is exactly right to push back on ‘conservative’ or ‘literal’ readings of the Bible that anachronistically impose a ‘journalistic’ sense of ‘history’ on ancient texts.” But in this review specifically he seems uncomfortable with Enns’ claim that Paul and the author Genesis might not have intended the same meaning in their passages on Adam and Eve: “In fact, if it becomes a contest between ‘the authors of Genesis’ [note the scare quotes, presumably to flag Enns’ avoidance of “Moses”] and Paul, Enns sides with ‘the original meaning’ of Genesis as the determinative meaning.” Not having read the book but broadly being aware of Enns’ perspective, I doubt that Enns would actually say either is determinative to the subjugation of the other; instead, it is Smith who wants to subjugate the intended message of both “Moses” and Paul to the meaning of the “divine Author”…whatever that might be. (I presume by Smith’s objection to letting Genesis carry its own meaning that he expects that God’s intended meaning happens to correspond more closely to Paul’s.)

But what of Smith’s “divine Author”? Should we put so much energy into finding the original meaning that we miss the message God intended for the Church to receive? My understanding is that Enns would affirm divine authorship in some capacity, although he rightly cautions us to avoid the “priority of the divine” that Smith here advocates.

To put it bluntly, I am no longer of the opinion that Scripture is layered with a special coating of “what God meant” sauce; neither do I believe that the Bible is composed of the flesh of human words attached to a divinely crafted backbone. Nor am I enamored with Peter Enns’ incarnational model of Scripture as I understand it, which is built off of the belief that divine and human authorship overlaps. In short, I have seen no compelling, non-circular reason to maintain the belief that God should in any meaningful sense be considered the author of the Bible. To believe in God’s providential intentions for the Church in the production and canonization of the Bible is one thing; I can affirm as much myself. To credit Him as the publisher might even work. I have sometimes drawn the analogy of God’s purposing of Scripture to that of King James commissioning the translation of the Bible. It occurs to me now that my view of Scripture as the response of humans to divine revelation and inspiration strikes me as fairly well analogous to a Festschrift. But God as author? Hardly. And the contention that He was the kind of author who overlaid the glaringly human text with some esoteric meaning recoverable independently of the meaning it had to the original audiences and available only to subsequent theologians reminds me quite a lot of the infamous “Bible Codes” from a couple years back. It sounds even more like Gnosticism.

But even if God did ordain a higher meaning upon the text, surely we can only hope to find it by first contextualizing and resituating each passage back in its original habitat and going from there. Otherwise the original meaning becomes completely incidental, despite the fact that something much closer to the original meaning than Smith’s canonical reading was the only one actually available to those who canonized it! They canonized the texts for what they were, not for some divine meaning that would override what they were after their canonization.

For these reasons, Jamie Smith’s canonical approach falls far short, and Enns’ approach – by no means uniquely his – of putting the effort into letting the original authors speak for themselves so that we can attempt to interact with each of them on a case-by-case basis handily continues to carry the day.

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  • Paul

    As someone who for a long time believed that the Bible was true, or at least there was an overarching purpose to the “book,” (although never a conservative), here’s how I see it:

    The bible represents the writings of people wrestling with the idea of God. The content reflects the culture and time period of the authors, nothing more or less.

    Although one can derive meaning from the writings, in the same way one can be inspired by any good piece of writing, there is no big picture or deeper layers of content. That would require us to believe that:

    1) The meaning of the writings were hidden from the original authors and readers, which would be cruel of God.

    2) The meaning is purposely flexible, but then how does that stop and who decides how flexible? How do we know the Rev. Moon isn’t the Messiah if the bible is endlessly flexible? That is a completely untenable position. (Although it is the position accepted by ancients such as Paul, who was able to read “Christian” theology into a Jewish book.)

    The bible tells us what people thought — not what we should think. In my opinion, what the writings show is that people developed cultural practices and ascribed them to a deity.

    Did God tell Israelites to kill other nations to claim some real estate? No, but people did that and were convinced that it was the will of their deity.

    Is there a God who hated pork and found money lending offensive, but then changed his mind so that now they are OK? No, for whatever reasons ancients found eating pork and charging interest offensive, and ascribed those concepts to a deity. Later cultures decided they were no longer offensive, and it turns out the same deity is now OK with that because of some new dispensation or whatever.

    I could go on all day with examples like that, but it is the only explanation that covers everything with no need for hermeneutics.

  • Steve, 

    I am not here to defend Smith’s view or Chicago-style inerrancy.  However, you said,

    “In short, I have seen no compelling, non-circular reason to maintain the belief that God should in any meaningful sense be considered the author of the Bible.”

    What then is your understanding of the expression “word of God”?  To be more specific, when the prophets said, “Thus saith the Lord” and then proceeded to deliver a message, do you consider God the author of that message?  

    • Hi Mike, good to hear from you!

      As I think you’re probably already aware, I don’t relish the term “word of God” applied to the canon itself. That said, I don’t at all rule out the idea that the prophets and other authors at least occasionally spoke a message from God that has been recorded in Scripture. I just don’t think we can know with any certainty which those occasions were, so we can’t rely on the fact that it’s recorded in Scripture to shortcut our need for discernment. As Lewis said, we must “[steep] ourselves in its tone and temper,” etc. I’m sure you won’t find that satisfactory, but that’s where I’m at. 🙂

      • Thanks for the response, Steve.  

        On issues like this, I like to look to Jesus as the example to follow.  Of course, that’s easier said than done – if for no other reason then because we do not have an extended teaching of his on this specific subject, nor do we even have an exact list of the writings he understood as constituting the Scriptures.

        Nevertheless, it seems he had what we would call a high view of Scripture.  At the very least, he seemed to regard the words of Moses and the prophets as relevant and even determinative in his own life.  The question for me, then, is how do I follow that example in 2012.  

        I don’t know all your views but you do seem to me to be a thoughtful man so I hope you will think on that, whether you have in the past or not.  

  • T. Webb

    Regarding the layers of scripture as a “Gnostic” approach, I did read
    JKA Smith’s article, and his point (stated more than once, throughout the article) is that such
    layered readings of divine intent are (according to Smith) seen
    chronologically as one reads later writings of Scripture interpreting
    earlier writings (I could add tons of nuance to that statement, but I’ll leave it at that). Again, according to Smith, it wasn’t just for theologians to see. What Smith says
    is probably crap, but at least criticize him for what he says, not
    because you have an axe to grind against such views a being “Gnostic” (another term requiring _tons_ of nuance). Crap it probably is, but not Gnostic, at least not what Smith is saying. Forgive me if I’m missing something, because I’m a moron.

    • T. Webb,

      You know, that amounted to no more than two sentences in my post. It is hardly evidence for an axe to grind with “Gnostic” approaches to Scripture! 🙂 You are right that the term “Gnostic” refers to a variegated stream of thought, but I thought it was fairly clear which aspect I was referring to, an aspect common to most if not all the Gnostics: the idea that there is a higher form of knowledge available only to the spiritual (and no, this idea is not wholly absent from canonical Scripture as well). I didn’t mean anything more than that. Besides, I didn’t use “Gnosticism” as an oath upon my own lips: I only drew the parallel because many who believe in the divine Authorship idea are those for whom Gnosticism is unthinkably bad.
      My problem is that even if Smith believes that his preferred readings are available for more than theological types, it took theological types to find them when they defined the canon of Scripture and passed down the correct interpretation to us; moreover, supposing that only those who are more theologically sophisticated or advantaged by their place in history have access to a proper chronology-discerned interpretation – without which Smith finds interpretation incorrect – yields the same problem of God the Author “inspiring” His human proxies to mean something entirely different from what they themselves understood.

  • Pingback: Collins and Enns on the “historicity” of Adam (Pt. 2). « Near Emmaus()

  • david

    Really good post.

    One of the often ignored problems for those in Smith’s camp is that they must assume the process of canonization was itself inspired in some way–something the text itself obviously does not (and cannot) attest to–in order to explain not only how the individual books and letters were written, but indeed how they were later pulled together under guidance of the Spirit. This puts an awful lot of faith in the infallibility of the church fathers and their little councils, amongst other things. 

    Much more could be said about this, but at the end of the day it seems silly (imperialistic, arrogant, or myopic might be more appropriate words) to me to suggest that the Protestant canon as we have it now is THE definitive collective of inspired documents; not the Catholic canon nor the Orthodox one, but ours dammit! 

    Of course this says nothing about the inspiration of a given biblical text per se, but it does shed some light on the absurd insistence that the bible has divine authorship, is inerrant (even in the original documents!), and infallible–AND most importantly, that in order to be a Christian one must subscribe lock, stock & barrel to these absurdities. As a theologian who takes his faith in Jesus very seriously, I find this notion, hidden in Smith’s assumption(s), to be rather primitive and quite naive. 

    Peace out.