I am currently reading one of the most fascinating theological works I’ve ever read: John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch. It’s a pretty rigorous 600-page theological tome, so if you’re not real familiar with your Bible yet, you probably don’t want to dive into it. But for any of you who are pastors, seminary students, or theologically-minded types, this is one book you absolutely must read. Additionally, if you have been raised in evangelicalism and its rather staid and scientific view of Scripture, Sailhamer’s work might rekindle a love for the Bible you haven’t felt in a long time.
One of the most fascinating discussions Sailhamer embarks on is an examination of meaning. Saint Augustine was the first theologian to really tackle the question of how we discern the meaning of biblical texts. According to him, words are signs which point to “things” in the real world (hence Augustine was also a thoughtful philosopher of language). In many ways this is a good, true, and helpful understanding of meaning. But the downside is clear: “once the words of Scripture have done their part by leading us into the real world of things… one has no further need of Scripture and its words. Consequently, Augustine believed, many Christians live happy and blessed lives without the Scriptures” (Sailhamer 76).
If you wonder how this understanding of meaning (which still exerts massive influence today) affects our reading of Scripture, just think about what most people do with the book of Revelation. Rarely do Christians seek to read Revelation as a narrative, following the storyline and getting inside the author’s mind by paying attention to the words and images he uses. Rather, we try to figure out what the words “really” point to. Who are the Beast, the False Prophet, and the Antichrist? Once we decide what “realities” these words point to, we have figured out the meaning of the book and therefore we don’t feel the need to read it anymore.
Sailhamer points out that Augustine’s view of meaning was not the view held by the Protestant Reformers or by the authors of Scripture themselves (though today much of evangelicalism has unintentionally defaulted toward an Augustinian view of meaning). In classic evangelical theology, the locus of meaning lies not in the things that words point to, but in the words themselves. “The biblical words point to and assign meaning to the extrabiblical things in the real world… the meaning of Scripture [is] tied directly to the meaning of its words.”
Sailhamer’s life work is to get us away from reading the Bible as an instruction manual or a codebook and back to reading the Bible as a coherent narrative. So far, he is definitely working on me.