Tripping on Scripture

Humans are amazing pattern finders. We detect patterns everywhere in the world around us: contorted faces in the wood grain, mythical creatures in the clouds, phantom ailments in our aches and pains--there's no end to the patterns our vibrant and active minds discover in the world around us.

Detecting and Projecting Patterns

The curious thing is that many of those patterns are not really there, not in the things themselves in the same way that the pattern or form (in philosophical jargon) tree is in the massive pine specimen in my front yard or even the way the moonlit sky is in Van Gogh's The Starry Night. This is because the face in the wood grain and griffin in the clouds is a projection of our mind--something we impose on the raw material of reality.

The grain in the wood is certainly there and is given to the mind in all its particularity. That particularity is telling too. A dendrologist can discern not only what kind of tree it came from but how old it was, which way it faced, how many fires or hurricanes it endured, and so on. There is much for science to ponder and sort out in the wood's grain.

That same particularity, however, becomes the imagination's fertile field as our pattern-detecting minds turn to it. If the grain of the wood were not just as it is, and if the plank had not been cut and planed and erected just as it is, then our minds would never see that eerily drawn out Munchian face. The wooden plank is not an empty canvas and the face we see in the grain is both there--ready for us to see; seemingly impossible to un-see--and yet it is not really there at all. There is nothing for dendrology in that face; there is a great deal for the artistry of our pattern-projecting imaginations, however, and perhaps also for psychology's interest in this imaginative knack we have.

The Problem with Projecting

If we swap out the wood grain for the text of Scripture the exegetical problem becomes clear. Responsible exegetes and biblical theologians devote significant energy to justifying the patterns they detect in the pages of the canon. They aim to demonstrate that their interpretations are actually there in the text like the moonlit sky is in The Starry Night--as an intentional creation of its author rather than the mere projection of their active imagination on the grain of the text.

It is not enough to demonstrate the possibility of seeing this or that supposed pattern of meaning in the text. We are capable of seeing all sorts of things in a text. Just because we see it, and see it so vividly we find it nearly impossible to un-see it, does not mean it is actually there by authorial intent. It really could be nothing more than a face in the grain.

What we want to expound is just what is there to be known and understood by science, if you will.

Not Just a Postmodern Problem

This is what divides Augustinian exegesis, which aims at the divine author's intended meaning, from that family of postmodern approaches that locate meaning in the interplay between the raw material of the text and the reader's pattern-detecting and often pattern-projecting imagination. Though we can never eliminate our subjectivity in the act of reading--ought not even to try to do so if we would read the Bible as God intends--we can certainly do better than reduce Scripture to a Rorschach ink blot or muse for pious psychedelics to trip on.

But this is not just a postmodern problem; we are all inclined to project our own meaning onto the grain of the text. Augustine understood this and warns us about it:

"Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture...For if he takes up rashly a meaning which the author whom he is reading did not intend, he often falls in with other statements which he cannot harmonize with this meaning. And if he admits that these statements are true and certain, then it follows that the meaning he had put upon the former passage cannot be the true one: and so it comes to pass, one can hardly tell how, that, out of love for his own opinion, he begins to feel more angry with Scripture than he is with himself. And if he should once permit that evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him" (De Doctrina, 1.36-37).

Destroyed, that is, by the meaning we "put upon Scripture" that is not actually there-not there by authorial intent--however much the grain of the text might suggest it to our pattern-projecting minds. Destroyed, we might say, by loving the meaning we supply, with all its false intricacy and novel insight, more than the meaning God intends.

Dr. Bruce P. Baugus is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. He is the editor of China's Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom