The End of Interpretation: Reclaiming the Priority of Ecclesial Exegesis

The End of Interpretation: Reclaiming the Priority of Ecclesial Exegesis by R.R. Reno. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022, 170 pages. $22.99.

“What the Bible says accords with what the church proclaims” (7). This conviction, reiterated and explored in various ways, forms the main thread of R. R. Reno’s lucid and invigorating book on scriptural interpretation, The End of Interpretation.[1] Taken as a whole, the volume stands as a justification for what today is called (and what Reno himself calls) “theological exegesis” or “theological interpretation of Scripture.” The volume functions as a spare and attractive invitation to understanding Scripture as primarily the Church’s book. Reno also provides one of the finest and most accessible modern apologies for traditional Christian reading of the Bible in the face of its contemporary detractors, an apology that is intellectually substantive and religiously appealing. Christians of every stripe and background have much to learn from this superb distillation of scriptural wisdom from one of our culture’s sharpest minds and most probing hearts.

Reno, Editor of First Things, trained as a moral theologian at Yale and here revises a number of earlier essays in the rhetorical register of his now well-honed journalistic style. The essays fall into three categories. There are opening discussions of biblical interpretation more broadly, dealing with modern questions, practical quandaries, and what one might call “theory.” These lay out the broad outlines of Reno’s defense of a “doctrinal” or “theological” approach to grasping the Bible’s “true” meaning. Several essays then look at historical examples of the kind of scriptural reading Reno advocates—Origen; the writer of the late medieval classic poem Piers Plowman; Reformation era readings of the Epistle of James; and the contemporary effort to do “theological exegesis” of Scripture in the Brazos series of biblical commentaries, of which Reno has been the chief editor. Finally, Reno provides two examples of his own theological reading of Scripture, involving the opening of Genesis and John 17.

A central question for the book is “how do we square doctrine with Scripture?” (xiv). This question arises in response to the more personal question, “how should I interpret so that I remain true to what Scripture says?” (xv). Reno answers: “When it is in accord with what the church teaches.” This could seem, immediately, to indicate a view of scriptural interpretation that must be expressive of and even bound to institutional formulae. One would be forgiven for assuming so, given that Reno, a Roman Catholic, puts himself under the authority of the Roman magisterium. Yet Reno provides various definitions of “doctrine” or “what the church teaches.” He will write of articulated and authorized dogmas of both Catholic and Protestant churches. He will also stretch this to “explicit” and “implicit” “belief” (27). Or he will point to a broader “Nicene horizon” shared by most Christians (27), or even of the “unruly” traditions (23) that have tugged at the Church’s varied life. He is in fact wary of what he calls “doctrinal supersessionism” with respect to reading the Bible—an attitude that basically approaches Scripture as a store of proof texts for ecclesial claims of one kind or another. Near the end of his first programmatic essay on interpretation, he provides what seems to be the definition most reflective of his sense of “doctrine”: “not only official teachings but also the church’s liturgical practice, moral formation, and spiritual discipline”; in short (borrowing from the Old Testament scholar Walter Moberly) “patterns of living” (34).

This is a “thick description” of doctrine, in line with George Lindbeck’s more anthropological way (via Clifford Geertz) of putting it. Reno repeats himself often in the book, but this is salutary: a sense of how doctrine “accords” with Scripture can only come through the long experience of living with the church’s scripturally formed existence. Any “true” reading of Scripture requires “repeated” practice and encounter within the Church’s ongoing engagement with Scripture. Reno’s volume of explication reflects this, as an immersive primer in this life. And the final essay, on the Brazos series and its reception, amounts to a celebration, not of a scholarly enterprise (which, as he explains, had only limited publishing success), but of a certain way of reading that is in fact a way of living the Christian life in the church—scripturally saturated, delighted, and ensnared.

I want to stress Reno’s existential posture, over and against the more purely cognitive attitude that tends to dominate discussion of “biblical hermeneutics.” The posture reflects much of Reno’s larger outlook on the theological responsibilities of the intellectual class who write books and dictate programs of learning. There has been a real continuity, I would argue, in Reno’s writing over the decades, despite some seemingly radical changes in its location. Reno is best known today as First Things’ Editor, and as someone committed to a range of radically conservative political and cultural projects, championing revived notions of social solidarity and populist policies. He is frequently put on lists of writers on the political right. But he began his career as a moral theologian, examining ideas of the self and of salvation in very traditional ways. He was properly sensitive to social realities, however, and became increasingly concerned about the weakness of contemporary corporate integrities–including the Church–in whose dissolution many individuals have floundered. But Reno never viewed the character of corporate existence as self-sustaining or simply a matter of policy: rather, it was God-shaped. Scripture, then, inevitably loomed ever larger in his interests, as one can see in his writing in the 1990s and early 2000s. Though he became a Catholic in 2004, his was a Word-oriented ecclesialism from the start. And its Word-orientation was aimed, in part, at human flourishing within a polity. The close link Reno draws between Scripture’s right interpretation and the life of the Church is utterly consistent with his evolving concerns, but so is his sense that Scripture’s must be rightly apprehended in enjoyment by individuals who live in community.

Reno’s vision might seem ecclesiocentric and, in fact, brazenly “Catholic” in its presuppositions: “read Scripture in a way that discovers and articulates its coherence with church teaching.” He has no apologies for his own ecclesial commitments and his sense that Scripture coheres with them. But the whole tenor and practice of his exegesis and reflection is more humanistic (in a Christian sense) than institutional. Scripture and doctrine cohere in the sense that it is persons in the first place, not institutions, let alone social causes or forces, that are touched by God in revelation and interpretive grace. The little skirmishes with historical criticisms Reno engages throughout the book have this as one of their motives: Scripture is given to actual people, who actually live and pray together, and face actual life together over time; Scripture is not an artifact of rational analysis handed over to timeless formulations, let alone to the formulating experts. This is why, in my opinion, Reno’s book is a “warm” book, not a polemical one (despite its sometimes biting critiques). As such, it is a wonderful invitation and apologetic, as well as a witness to the healing gifts of Scripture.

It is also why I think, in a volume of consistently splendid quality, the essay on Origen is the best: it is about a person who reads the Bible in such a way that its words are experienced as engendering the life of the Church’s people. The essay is a wonderfully succinct presentation of some of Origen’s arguments about Scripture and the early church more broadly. There is a little philosophy here, a little intellectual history there, but the essay’s theological persuasiveness comes from Reno’s description of how Origen’s creative figural exegesis worked to embody the Word’s own liveliness in the world, and in Origen’s own discipleship. Strings of verbal and thematic association unfurl in Origen’s readings, wrapping themselves around the realities of the Christian life in a way that furthers the conformity of the Christian to the life and truth of Jesus.

Modern readers often do not quite know what to make of this approach. It seems fluid, often open-ended, unmoored from the “pithy” abstractions of predetermined dogmatic formulae. But the approach is not less bound to the Church and her life for all that; it is the more so, in its constant return to a common life that is lived under Christ Jesus. There is something charismatic about Origen’s way of reading Scripture, but the charisms in question are always enacted within and for the Church. Origen remains probably the most influential single scriptural commentator in the church’s history—not because of some “method,” but because of a certain kind of scripturally enmeshed life of intellect and moral thirst that he offered up to the church.

Reno rightly stresses the liveliness that Origen’s exegesis entails, in part because it is faithful to the liveliness of the biblical words themselves. One of Reno’s consistent and most persuasive critiques of contemporary approaches to exegesis is the way they require the excision of texts that don’t fit the given perspective’s criteria of truth. Historical criticism, for example, despite its benefits, usually ends up “flattening” and “silencing” large swathes of Scripture rather than illuminating them. But because Scripture is “thickly forested” (28), and in this is reflective of the abundance of its divine source, a truly theological interpretation will seek to take in more and more of the Scripture, not less and less.

This ravished imbibing of Scripture’s divine meanings does not come across nearly as clearly in Reno’s discussion of various Reformation approaches to the Epistle of James. The chapter is meant to show how Catholic and Protestant doctrinal commitments regarding grace and righteousness–in this case, “doctrine” is used in a more formal and narrow sense–shape, for all their divergence, a shared vigor in appropriating James’ letter as a revelatory scriptural text. The “presumption of accordance” was held by all parties–Luther, Chemitz, Calvin, Trent, Lapide–and that presumption gave rise, in Reno’s vision of the feedback loop between Scripture and doctrine, to richly effective exegesis. Reno’s concise arguments are intriguing, but by definition “after-the-fact”: very little Origenistic jouissance is on display among these sixteenth-century actors, and they themselves rarely viewed their efforts in such terms. The doctrinally pressed exegesis of James in this period of Christian conflict was, rather, mostly seen as part of a struggle often waged in physical as much as in intellectual terms.

Likewise, Reno would be the first to admit that his own contemporary efforts at scriptural exegesis pale in comparison with masters like Origen. Nonetheless, Reno provides his readers with some scintillating scriptural reading. He insists throughout the book that “theological interpretation” of the Bible is not a “method,” but an ongoing practice of having Bible and doctrine or Bible and Church mutually shape our understanding of Scripture itself. And thus his personal discussions of biblical texts or books do not exemplify an applied set of analytic steps, but range about with the kind of space and freedom that the common Christian life must necessarily afford. This is most evident in his essay on the opening verses of Genesis, which picks up details from his full commentary on the book in the Brazos series. Here, Reno takes up basic metaphysical logic (causes, creation, matter, time), common sense (if sharp) personal ponderings, comparisons with other scriptural texts, and associated traditional Christian assertions. He then lets these elements move along in a kind of feedback loop. The formulated “doctrine” of creatio ex nihilo (God’s creation “out of nothing”), he shows us, is not an abstract notion imposed by later Christian philosophers on the Genesis text, but one that both emerges from the text and its reflection, and that also, once apprehended, clarifies and fructifies the text. In the course of his reading of Genesis, Reno makes use of other interpreters, like Augustine and the Jewish commentator Rashi, trying on and finally commending an interpretation of the book’s opening verses in terms, not of simple “temporal,” but of “absolute beginning.” The claim, as he points out, radically affects one’s view of the world as a whole.

Reno’s exegesis of Genesis is illuminating. Yet although taken up several times in other essays, and wide-ranging in its own small scope, it is also dense, sometimes tough to chew on, and certainly lacking the excited vigor of Origen’s fluid range of motion. Reno’s reading of John 17, in the other strictly exegetical essay, while filled with flashes of insight that press against standard platitudes about church unity, is less expansive still. Its undeniable “truths” too often verge on the truistic, not because of superficiality, but for reasons of the arguments’ diminished scale. As “examples” of biblical reading, these chapters can seem only to scratch the surface, and withdraw a bit into the shadows of Reno’s more lengthy and programmatic essays. One wonders if the criticism aimed at so much writing on “theological interpretation”–that it majors in discussion “about” interpretation, rather than in actual reading of Scripture–may in fact be true. It is a critique Reno himself acknowledges.

But in this case, I don’t think the criticism is fair. To see why not, we should consider the other outstanding essay in the collection, on Piers Plowman. Reno’s discussion of Langland’s fourteenth-century poem is a fascinating amalgamation, carefully pursued, of Scripture, theological reflection, social consideration, and political counsel, all rooted in a Christian faith. The whole reflection, seemingly in the mode of literary criticism, is in a fact a sterling example of the reach and richness of Scripture’s theological interpretation, which is not simply a textual exercise, but a way of placing Scripture within the world (or the converse) and quite directly of opening up a space in which God’s life looms up with fearsome yet inviting power and personal grasp. Most importantly for this discussion, only in this essay does Reno engage the question, not only of “what is doctrine?”, but “what is the Church?”. Piers Plowman’s assessment of the Church’s failures is central to its story, but in a way that digs into Scripture’s own Christological claims about the Christian life in community. As Reno follows Langland’s lead, he also delves into the biblical material itself, uncovering some of the implications of taking seriously–morally and spiritually–the Church as Christ’s own body. This identification is mentioned only in passing by Reno in his opening programmatic essays. But here, in confronting Langland’s late medieval struggles and questions, the scripturally rooted corporeal character of the Church is faced head-on, and in a way that deepens and complexifies any notion of “doctrine” as an easily extractable entity from Christian life and its challenges.

The question of whether Reno’s actual “theological exegesis” is less engaging than his talk about such exegesis turns out to be misleading precisely because a discussion of the Church’s life, tethered to her scriptural character, is itself a kind of biblical exegesis. The history of Scripture’s interpretation, understood as a tracing of the Church’s own life with the Word, is itself a form of theological exegesis. If Scripture’s nature as God’s Word is to order the life of the Church as her tangible articulation–a life lived in the rich contexts of the world’s precincts–then a properly theological interpretation cannot be reduced to merely reading the text. It must involve the gathering up of the world’s things into Scripture’s hand: persons, places, contexts, struggles, encounters, and events. It must involve pouring through the Church Fathers, sixteenth-century polemicists, medieval poets and social critics, contemporary university professors and church members, citizens and their drifting progeny. All are part of the “living patterns” of the Word’s referentiality, which are granted observable contours in the form of the Body. Reno, then, is a certain kind of theological exegete, the scope of whose commentary is deliberately wider than a literary discourse.

My main question about Reno’s volume is why he chose to mute the implications of this reality of the Church’s bodily relation to Scripture, at least in his extended discussions. There is, as I just noted, the conclusion to his Piers Plowman essay; there are comments on Origen’s sense of bodily suffering as a divine gift, linked intimately to the often self-denying practice of scriptural reading. But more often, Reno seems to hold back from this reality—one that coheres better with his larger claims regarding God’s status as absolute creator and ours as trembling creatures invited into His vast and mysterious being. These are, after all, claims that properly lie behind Reno’s critique of modern (and some pre-modern) domestications of Scripture by self-protecting human prejudices. Reno’s winsome humanism can seem too willing to let ecclesial life stand unjudged, and the body of Christ therefore lies before us as the invulnerable manufacturer of doctrinal wares. The scriptural consequence risks offering a Bible more gently prodding and less drastically creative and recreative than, as I believe, is the case. If “ecclesial exegesis” of Scripture is a “priority,” as the subtitle to The End of Interpretation has it, then much depends on how one construes the Church’s own character.

It is telling that Reno (though qualifying his certainty on the matter) believes that “the term ‘theological exegesis’ emerged during the final decades of the twentieth century” (4), linking this emergence to George Lindbeck and the “Yale School” that loosely included scholars like Brevard Childs, and later David Yeago. Reno will speak of this late modern, though somewhat short-lived, context as one of “ecumenical optimism” (164), and, though his comments on John 17 might somewhat belie such positivity, he seems willing to let this gentler scholarly moment inform his outlook: theological exegesis seems to be expressive of a confidence in the Church herself, however broadly or narrowly conceived (Reno will sometimes allude, in his own Catholic voice, to “Holy Mother Church”).

But, in fact, the category of “theological exegesis” seems to be a relatively early product of ecclesial conflict. In 1613, an Augustinian priest, Henrik Lancelotz, wrote a “theological exegesis” of the Epistle of Jude, of over 500 pages, using the letter among other things, to trace the contours of heresy (including Protestant heresy) more broadly. Lancelotz and others of the period, including Protestants, wrote what they explicitly called “theological exegeses” of the Psalms, of Daniel’s prophecies, and of Romans. Much of this material was deliberately designed to confute religious opponents. In the eighteenth century, German and French (and later English) writers associated “theological exegesis” with “spiritual” reading of Scripture, employed by pneumatic Christians, suspect for their idiosyncrasies or celebrated for resisting the desiccated religion of the world. “Theological exegesis” could take on a technical sense as an interpretive focus (versus philosophical or historical exegesis) upon scriptural terms that had dogmatic purchase: grace, election, vocation, liturgy. And by the mid-nineteenth century, “theological exegesis” was also explained as a way of reading Scripture “whole” according to “the analogy of faith”—a definition perhaps more in line with Reno’s Yale School usage. Still, through the early twentieth century, the phrase continued to indicate, sometimes quite negatively, a more “spiritual” or “pneumatic” way of reading Scripture, embraced against opponents, or used as a smear.

Theological exegesis, historically at least, is as often a posture of dispute as it is an invitation to scriptural wonder. As such, it has reflected the character of those who have read the Bible, and not necessarily in a flattering way. And if one adopts, as Reno does, a view of doctrine that verges on conflating it with the Church’s life itself, one also opens up the Church to a difficult promise. The Church, after all, both receives the Word and enacts it somehow. But the Church also is judged by the Word and reformed by it. Yet the interpretation of Scripture within such a Church judged and reformed–ever reformed in my view, as bound to the one who is “in agony even until the end of the world” (Pascal)–is neither pure jouissance, nor confidently reliant on doctrinal articulation.

Reno knows all this; he hints at it and sometimes openly admits it. Dogmatic decrees (as well as liturgies and other embedded ecclesial practices) have a way of shifting their weight and attraction over eras and places, sometimes to the point of simply being let go of quietly, if not formally. The most egregious examples concern longstanding and often dogmatically stated evaluations of Jewish perfidy and reprobation. But so too matters involving the status of this or that other “Christian”–heretical or schismatic–corporate body or individual. Even less personally-oriented dogmatic judgments involving theological formulations regarding not only the nature of faith itself but also the nature of God have had their quite formal “anathemas” removed from objectors, as with the recently agreed statements on Christology between Catholics and Copts, citing 1500 years of “misunderstanding.”

All the same, “misunderstanding” is not ruled out of truly authoritative ecclesial doctrine, and I would indeed uphold Reno’s call for interpretive integration of Scripture and doctrine understood as an ongoing task of doctrinal self-reiteration in light of Scripture. That is, most ecclesial doctrines–I would include here even less “historic” bodies like Quakerism and Pentecostalism (objects of the more pejorative application of those doing “theological exegesis”)–are in fact scripturally founded, to whatever extent. But that argues for a wider, nimbler, more nuanced and more humble dogmatic treasury than most ecclesial traditions themselves allow. The challenge cuts in all directions.

In short, I am less sanguine than is Reno about the clear-cut dogmatic framework offered by “the Church” to which our scriptural interpretation should “accord”—less sanguine about identifying it at all in a simple, coherent and integrated way; but also less sanguine about trusting its directive authority. That said, Reno seasons his notions of “ecclesial priority” with numerous qualifications and, more importantly, with a consistent commendation of the openness and breadth of theological exegesis. In doing so, he makes a good case (though perhaps not one shared by all of his ecclesial confreres) for the capacious character of his own Catholic commitments.

In the interest of full disclosure, as well as of articulated gratitude, I must note that Reno and I have been good friends and happily cooperative colleagues for several decades. I am mentioned in the book a few times (happily, not many). As my remarks above indicate, however, we do not share quite the same views about everything. But Reno’s way of outlining the generous, creative, and vivifying space that a properly theological reading of Scripture provides Christians has been proven and embodied in our friendship. A Catholic and a sola Scriptura Anglican, two persons of distinct, if overlapping, ideological commitments and intellectual habits, can be spiritually challenged and divinely nurtured in a mutually supportive way—not by ignoring our distinctive habits, deeply as they may be rooted, but by engaging in a common ordering of our hearts and minds through the impress of Scripture’s wider divine power. This is a power that grants both freedom and guiding imperative, not in some abstract way, but through the willingness to live together in Christ’s body, the one space in which the Word has chosen to demonstrate its universal sway in an open manner, however disturbing to our complacencies and self-certainties.

Ephraim Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College.

  1. R.R. Reno, The End of Interpretation: Reclaiming the Priority of Ecclesial Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022, 170 pages. $22.99.


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