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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