How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the “Plain Sense” of Genesis 1-3

Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the “Plain Sense” of Genesis 1-3

Vanhoozer, Kevin J

Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the “Plain Sense” of Genesis 1-3. By K. E. Greene-McCreight. Issues in Systematic Theology, vol. 5. New York and Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1999. xii + 274 pp. $52.95 (cloth).

This book, a revision of the author’s 1994 Yale Ph.D. dissertation, now appears in a series dealing with issues in systematic theology. Its location is fitting, both because it treats a central question involving the doctrine of scripture, and because “being biblical” often serves as last court of appeals in discussions of other doctrinal matters. The heart of the book treats both aspects at once by focusing on what it means for theologians to appeal to the “plain sense” of scripture.

The book’s thesis is simply stated: the plain sense of the text should not be equated with its verbal sense only nor with the intent of its historical author only, nor indeed, with any property of the text itself: “More goes into the reading of the literal sense… than a simple reading of verbal sense alone” (p. 243). Instead, the plain sense is viewed as a combination of verbal sense and the way it is read in the believing community. Greene-McCreight terms the latter component “Ruled reading”: “the hermeneutical application of the Rule of Faith” (p. 22). Reading according to the Rule of Faith means, concretely, reading the Old Testament in relation to the New (e.g., Christocen– trically, eschatologically) and holding together God the Creator with God the Father of Jesus Christ. In short, a plain sense reading arises from two factors: the verbal sense and the prior understanding of the subject matter of the text. The implication is that the plain sense is the unified sense-unified formally in the Christian canon and materially in Jesus Christ-and that the principle of unification is not textual so much as traditional.

In a way that recalls David Kelsey’s The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia, 1975), Greene-McCreight’s Ad Litteram manages to deduce norms for theological interpretation from descriptive analyses of interpretative practice. Whereas Kelsey wanted to show that decisions about biblical authority are “pre-text” (i.e., the results not of exegesis but of prior theological considerations), Greene-McCreight displays how one’s theological “pre-understanding” impacts decisions about the literal sense itself. Decisions about what constitutes the “plain sense” are less textual and exegetical than they are traditional and theological. The bulk of the book-three chapters totaling some two hundred pages-is a detailed and fascinating account of how Augustine, Calvin and Barth read the plain or literal sense of Genesis 1-3. The goal is to discover just what these theologians take to be the plain sense and how they have arrived at their understandings of it.

The study itself is clearly and competently laid out, though some will wonder about the extent to which the author’s own ruled reading of the data in light of her thesis has at points affected her exegesis of the three theologians. She tends to underestimate the centrality of authorial intention, for example, despite all three theologians’ explicit statements concerning its centrality. Moreover, her drawing of the basic distinction in terms of verbal meaning versus ruled reading is itself problematic inasmuch as it excludes what was of paramount concern for all three theologians, namely, the author’s intended sense. The author’s intended sense is identical neither with the verbal sense as such nor with ruled reading. Surprisingly, Ad Litteram never discusses the difference between literal interpretation (reading for the author’s intended sense, whether this be ostensive or metaphorical) and literalistic interpretation (reading for the ostensive definition of terms even where authors intend to be figurative).

Greene-McCreight takes up seminal suggestions by Hans Frei, Kathryn Tanner and others and seeks to support them by adducing historical documentation. What is lacking, however, is sustained attention to the conceptual problems raised by Frei’s claim that the “plain sense” of the biblical text might have been different had the believing community fallen into a different habit of reading. There is no critical examination of the Yale school’s fateful application of Wittgenstein’s dictum that “meaning is use” to readers rather than to speakers or authors. Calvin (and probably Barth too) would be horrified at the suggestion that the literal sense really amounts to “how I and my community have decided to use/read the biblical text.” This is not to say that there is no such thing as “Ruled reading.” Augustine, Calvin and Barth definitely believed that there was, and should be. The question is, however, what kind of rule is the Rule of Faith? Where does it come from, and whence its authority?

Is theological exegesis ruled reading-community interpretation-all the way down? When Jesus rebuked his Jewish listeners because they did not realize their sacred text spoke of him (Jn. 5:39), surely he was appealing to more than the way he happened to read the Scriptures? The plain or proper sense is more than a sociological phenomenon, more than an individual’s willto-power. The question is: whose use counts, and why? It is therefore somewhat disappointing that the author fails to address head-on the question of whether literal meaning is a matter of community use.

Theologically, what is most interesting and surprising in the book’s argument is its emphasis, found for the most part in the later section on Barth and in the conclusion, on the importance of divine authorship (e.g., pp. 209, 244). For Barth, the plain sense lies in the text’s witness to Jesus Christ, and this witness is ingredient in the verbal sense because the Bible is God’s own witness to himself (p. 175). Whose use thus determines the plain sense of the text? God’s! Yet this insight also calls the author’s theses into question. For it would now appear that the plain sense might better be construed in terms of the authors’-human and divine-intention than in a community Rule.

Greene-McCreight comes close to such a conclusion herself when she advocates seeing Ruled reading as an “intra-biblical” rather than extratextual phenomenon. In short: the pre-understanding that rules one’s reading of the plain sense is itself taken from Scripture. “Ruled reading thus allows scripture to interpret itself” (p. 248). The Rule is not a community rule, therefore, so much as a canonical one. While such an emphasis may be welcome, it does appear to be somewhat at odds with the author’s initial claim that the plain sense should not be seen as a property of the text. This final ambiguity notwithstanding, Ad Litteram makes a stimulating contribution to the increasingly important discussion concerning the theological interpretation of scripture.


The Divinity School, Trinity International University Deerfield, Illinois

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 2000

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