Why there's no such thing as non-anachronistic interpretation, and it's a good thing too: reflections occasioned by Wesley Hill's Paul and the Trinity

For some time now I have been convinced that the issue at the root of all conversation and controversy regarding historical criticism and theological interpretation of the Bible is anachronism. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to write an article on the topic in the next year or two; I've touched on the theme in a paragraph or two in a couple of articles already, but it deserves a treatment unto itself. Until then, let me use Wesley Hill's wonderful book Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters as an occasion to discuss what's at play here.

Programmatically: The fundamental hermeneutical first principle of self-consciously historical-critical study of the Bible is that such study must avoid anachronism. Two hermeneutical values underlie or spin off this principle: on the one hand, what makes any reading good is whether it is properly historical; therefore, on the other hand, all reading of the Bible ought to avoid anachronism—or to say the same thing negatively, anachronistic readings of biblical texts are by definition bad.

Enter scholars like Hill: supple interpreters, subtle thinkers, careful writers, sophisticated theologians. What Hill aims to show in his book is that the conceptual resources of trinitarian theology may be used in the reading of biblical texts like Paul's letters as a hermeneutical lens that enables, rather than obstructs, understanding. More to the point, such understanding does not stray from the canons of historical criticism, which is to say, it does not fall prey to anachronism. Thus, his project "plays by the rules" while bringing to bear doctrinal resources otherwise considered anathema by historical critics (both Christian and otherwise).

Consider his language:

"I need to clarify in what ways the grammar of trinitarian theology will and will not be invoked, and to specify the methodological safeguards that will protect my exegesis from devolving into an exercise in imaginative theologizing." (31)

"The methodological danger that lurks here is one that may be described as a certain kind of 'projection'... To avoid this pitfall, I will adopt a twofold approach: First, the readings of Paul I will offer ... will be self-consciously historical readings, guided by the canons of 'critical' modes of exegesis. At no point will a trinitarian conclusion be allowed to 'trump' what Paul's texts may be plausibly shown to have communicated within his own context. Second, trinitarian theologies will be employed as hermeneutical resources and, thus, mined for conceptualities which may better enable a genuinely historical exegesis to articulate what other equally 'historical' approaches may have (unwittingly or not) obscured." (45)

"[Paul's theology's] patterns and dynamics may be newly illumined and realized within new contexts and by means of later conceptualities, which are to some degree 'foreign' to the texts themselves." (46)

"...the use of trinitarian theology in the task of reading Paul in an authentically historical mode..." (46)

"my goal is not to 'find' trinitarian theology 'in' Paul so much as to use the conceptual resources of trinitarian doctrine as hermeneutical aids for reading Paul afresh. [This book addresses the] question of whether those trinitarian resources may actualize certain trajectories from Paul's letters that he would have expressed in a different idiom." (104-105)

"[Recent] studies are rightly concerned to respect the linear unfolding of historical development, rather than anachronistically imposing later theologies back onto Paul's letters. But my thesis ... has been mostly taken up with demonstrating the converse: that trinitarian doctrine may be used retrospectively to shed light on and enable a deeper penetration of the Pauline texts in their own historical milieu, and that it is not necessarily anachronistic to allow later Christian categories to be the lens through which one reads Paul. ... I have tried ... to show that the conceptual categories of 'persons in relation' developed so richly in the fourth century and in the following theological era, may enable those who live with them to live more deeply and fruitfully with the first century apostle himself." (171)

"Is it possible ... that a kind of broad, pluriform trinitarian perspective, far from being an anachronistic imposition on the texts of Paul, may instead prove genuinely insightful in a fresh look at Paul?" (169)

Let me be clear: Hill masterfully demonstrates his thesis. Anyone who knows my theological interests knows that Hill is preaching to the choir. The concepts, categories, and modes of reading developed in the 4th and 5th centuries by the church fathers constitute a hermeneutic nonpareil for faithful interpretation of the Christian Bible, the epistles of Paul included. And Hill shows us why: positively, because that hermeneutic was constructed precisely in response to the kinds of challenge for talk about God, Christ, and Spirit found in Paul's letters and elsewhere; negatively, because contemporary historical critics have not learned the exegetical-theological lessons of trinitarian doctrine, and thus largely replay the terminological debates from the side of opposition to Nicaea (e.g., distinction obviates unity, derivation implies subordination, etc.).

But when I say that Hill demonstrates his thesis, I do not mean that he succeeds in offering a reading that avoids anachronism. He does not. But the fault is not with him. The fault is with the criterion itself. His only fault—and it is a minor one, but an instructive one nonetheless—is to play by the rules set for him by biblical criticism. Because the truth is that avoiding anachronism is impossible. The act of reading is itself irreducibly, unavoidably, essentially anachronistic. In particular, reading any text from the past, indeed a religious text from the ancient past, just is to engage in anachronism.

So the issue is not that Hill's trinitarian hermeneutic for Paul is anachronistic. It's that the non-trinitarian hermeneutics of every one of his peers—Dunn, Hurtado, McGrath, Bauckham, whomever—are equally anachronistic.

Hill gestures toward this fact in his critique of the use of "monotheism" as a category applied to Paul, as well as the language of a vertical axis on which to plot the relative divinity of God and Jesus. But the critique goes all the way down. And this cannot be said forcefully enough, given the depths of historical criticism's rejection of anachronism, both for its own exegesis and that of anyone else, and given the extent of its influence not only over the academy but over the church. In a word:

Historical-critical exegesis is fundamentally, inescapably anachronistic.

What do I mean by this, and on what grounds do I say it?

First, and most basically, because historical criticism is itself a contingent, lately constructed mode of reading not universally found among all communities of reading. Put differently: the attempt to read without anachronism is a parochial idea—created at a certain time and place, and therefore present in some cultures and not others. So that the suggestion that non-anachronistic reading is what it means to read well is self-refuting, if reading was ever a successful practice outside of Western culture in the last few centuries.

Second, because all reading is anachronistic, as I said above. Let's limit that claim to the readings of texts not written in one's own immediate time and place and/or addressed to oneself (i.e., not emails received moments after sending). To read a text outside of its original context and audience means to read that text in a new, different context, by or with a new, different audience—in this case, you, the reader. That means that the language, customs, assumptions, beliefs, practices, background knowledge, relationships, intentions, and so on, that pertained to the original setting of the text are no longer present, or present in the same way, and that you bring to the text entirely different customs, knowledge, experience, etc. To read a text in such a setting invariably changes how the text is read. And however much one tries to mitigate such contextual factors, resistance is futile; indeed, resistance is itself a sign of doing something different—engaging in a different practice, through different means, with a different end—than the original audience in its original context.

Now, third, the objection might arise: Does that mean we simply cannot arrive at historical understanding? Not at all. My point is the opposite: True historical understanding is always anachronistic. Because historical self-understanding, historical consciousness, is itself a historical achievement, a contingent event. The way that we late moderns "think" history is not native to history's actors; "putting ourselves in their shoes," trying to think their thoughts after them, in just the way they thought them, ruthlessly identifying and trying to eliminate any stray intrusions of modern thoughts and even modern applications—that is, strictly speaking, something our forebears did not do. We can do it, we can play the game, but it's a game we're playing (just like chess or basketball, which are real games with real rules we can really play in the present, but which have not always existed, even if analogous games existed in other cultures, past or present); it's not a sort of time machine of the mind. Even that metaphor fails, since the trouble with time machines, as with observation of nature, is that they don't leave the past untouched. The same goes for historical investigation. You bring the future with you.

Fourth, the insight of Gadamer is key here: Historical understanding is a possibility, but lack of anachronism is neither possible nor desirable. That would entail leaping over the history in between the text in question and the present. But that history has, quite literally, made the reading of that text now, in this setting, possible; furthermore, texts bring with them the histories of their reception that have attended them ever since their inception. Those histories not only inform our interpretations in the present, however historically rigorous: they set the conditions for them. To make the claim, "Paul's conception of God and Christ is binitarian," is to locate oneself on a timeline; it is not a claim that was made, because it could not have been made, prior to a certain moment in our history. And, as a claim, it would be no more intelligible to Paul than to Anselm. That is what makes it anachronistic.

Fifth, the most important reason why historical-critical reading is essentially anachronistic is the way that it uses—quite explicitly and without apology—resources outside the text, resources foreign to the text's original audience, as a means of interpreting the text. Examples are obvious: monographs and articles, concepts created long after the text's composition, archeological findings, data regarding life and neighboring cultures prior to and contemporaneous with the text's original setting. Historical-critical exegesis often proposes readings of ancient religious texts (say, Genesis 1) that would have been impossible in the original context, because no one at the time had, or could have had, the kind of comprehensive knowledge about their own time and place that we have since amassed. (It is worth noting that this exegetical procedure is not different in kind than reading Genesis 1 in light of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, or scientific theories about the origins of the universe.) In a manner of speaking, the best historical-critical interpretations are self-consciously maximalist in just this way: they are so exhaustive in searching out every possible detail, contour, allusion, and influence that such an interpretation in the text's original setting would have been unthinkable—indeed, no such interpretation would have been possible until now, this very moment in time. Undertaken in that sort of self-conscious way, anachronism would be welcomed and readily admitted as the very occasion and goal of historical reading.

Much more could be said; Lord willing, I'll say it in print here in a few years. For now, recall Hill's rhetorical question in the book's conclusion: "Is it possible ... that a kind of broad, pluriform trinitarian perspective, far from being an anachronistic imposition on the texts of Paul, may instead prove genuinely insightful in a fresh look at Paul?" (169). Let me take a lesson from Hill and apply it to his own work: these are not competing claims; it is not an either/or situation. Bringing trinitarian doctrine to bear on the letters of Paul is both anachronistic and richly insightful. Whether or not it is more insightful than non-trinitarian readings, whether or not it does greater justice to the texts considered as a whole and in all their literary-theological diversity, is a separate question, one not governed exclusively by historical concerns. I happen to side with Hill's answer. But even if we were wrong in our judgment, it would not be because our reading was anachronistic. An ostensibly superior reading would be, too.

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