Retrospect and Prospect

I’m determined to do absolutely nothing productive today. I’m sitting in the dining room, blogging on my battery-impaired iBook, sipping coffee from my Baker Academic travel mug, wearing my Fortress Press 2005 World Tour t-shirt, and re-gathering my energies after an intense four-day Society of Biblical Literature meeting.

Incidentally, the conference totaled 10,002 registrants at last count, of which nearly half were members of the Society of Biblical Literature, the slightly larger half being members of the American Academy of Religion. The two societies will no longer meet in conjunction as of 2007, but for now we can expect five-digit attendance totals. After the Great Divorce, Margaret and I will have to decide which meetings who will attend, since she’s in systematic theology and I’m in biblical studies — though a number of Christian-theologically-identified scholars will likely be meeting in cooperation with the SBL. I’ve been enlisted to join a parallel body, and that probably won’t be the only one.

Placed In Signs

Anyway, it’s time to begin reworking the paper I read at Monday morning’s session of the “Christian Theology and the Bible” section. I’ll post its current state below; over the next few weeks, I’ll flesh out the bit about Johannine theology (left inchoate to keep the paper within time limits) and liturgy as signifying practice (left undeveloped because I didn’t have time to write out carefully what I wanted to say on the subject). When the paper is fully revised, I’ll submit it to journals for publication.

But wherever it ends up in periodical print, it will inevitably end up in print somewhere else, since one reason I’m wearing a Fortress Press t-shirt is that about this time last week, I received a contract from Fortress. They’re going to publish a collection of my essays, edited for continuity, sometimes next year. We’re haggling over the title. Fortress suggested “Faithful Subversion,” a phrase they say I used in one of the constituent essays; I prefer “Walk This Way,” which I use as the title of another of the essays (cast your vote below). Start saving your nickels now, and next year buy a couple of copies of a vital contribution to the debates over theology and biblical interpretation. . . .

I’ll try to get back to clean up the links and note styles later in the day; for now, I’m off to run errands with Pippa.

“He Placed Himself In the Order of Signs”
Exegesis Signifying Theology

A. K. M. Adam

Seabury-Western Theological Seminary

No one has ever seen God; God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known.
Jn 1:18

A great preponderance of the literature concerning exegesis and theology begins from the premise that these two endeavors differ in such important, constitutive ways that they require a special discourse dedicated to explaining and remedying their divergence. I will not try to convince this audience that this premise has not always seemed self-evident to the most sophisticated exegetes and theologians (who until recent years have frequently turned out to be the same people). Nor will I suggest we can simply pretend that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries never happened, and return ourselves intellectually and spiritually to a fantasy of what an exegete-theologian of bygone years must have thought like. Rather, I will point to elements of these separated-sibling discourses that provide the possibility of finding a renewed convergence, and will sketch a way of imagining exegesis and theology in an integrated discourse.

In a series of recent lectures, I’ve argued that theologians and biblical interpreters who care about a clearer connection between exegesis and theology ought to consider their theological reading as a signifying practice, a deliberate intervention in the economy of signification, toward the end of articulating an understanding of the gospel in a lived expression.*1* The key-concept of “signifying practice” offers a number of advantages to the theological interpreter, but for the purposes of this morning’s session, the greatest of these is that it affords a multifaceted way to envision exegesis and theology as complementary aspects of an integrated pursuit.

I will take as my texts for this meditation the phrase Maurice de la Taille applied to God’s initiative in the Incarnation – “he placed himself in the order of signs”*2* – in apposite conjunction with John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God; God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known.” Students of the Greek text of John will immediately recall that John writes that the incarnate Word ἐξηγήσατο the Father, “exegeted” God. I hasten to repudiate the temptation to torture the sense of ἐξηγήσατο to equal the “exegesis” after which the papers in this session seek; our exegesis is more technical and narrow than the activity John ascribes to the Word. If, however, we read the verb in question with greater lexicographic precision – whether as “expound” or “interpret,” “narrate” or “describe”*3* – it fits aptly our work of expounding, interpreting, narrating, describing the character of God via the complementary exercise of textual exegesis and reflective theology. Moreover, especially, by imagining God’s incarnational intervention in the economy of signification as a model and vehicle for our own exposition of the Truth,*4* we can more soundly coordinate our study of Scripture and our reflection on doctrine to strengthen one another.

This suggestion depends first of all on the presumption that theology and exegesis do indeed somehow hang together. Certainly many contemporary practitioners of theology and exegesis dissent from that presumption, and their grounds have been made clear often enough. At the same time, we have historic reasons for supposing that this need not be the case, and I doubt that we will come to understand the convergence of exegesis and theology if we begin from their disjunction. If we can attain such a convergence during the next twenty minutes, though, it will be by envisioning the complementarity of these two distinct discourses and exploring how we might make that possibility real.

The case for convergence will not carry conviction, however, if we neglect the causes that have provoked so persistent an investment in the separation of discursive powers. The two academic discourses have developed defensive antipathies against one another on the basis of real experiences of disruptive intervention. Biblical scholars learn from their disciplinary history that theologians are likely to demand that the Bible be forced to yield only those interpretations that meet dogmatic criteria of legitimacy, or to affirm a greater degree of positivity than the conventions of technical interpretive analysis permit. Theologians (and here I’m partly guessing) learn that biblical scholars devote endless attention to minutiae, or that they insist theologians rely on “assured results” whose half-lives compare unfavorably to the durations of popular television series, or sports dynasties. The particular complaints each party might bring against the other matter less than the actuality of the impulse to protect each’s autonomous disciplinary authority; in order persuasively to induce any exegetes or theologians to participate in a coordinated interpretive endeavor, the basis for that participation should draw all concerned toward a telos more convincing than disciplinary autonomy. Neither discipline produces the results that the other would find compelling on its own terms*5*; so long as their interaction is constituted as a tug-of-war for authority or priority, we can hardly expect to see productive cooperation.

We won’t alleviate the disciplinary stresses by constructing a new, improved Überdiskurs (whose specialists would, of course, claim authority over those of the constituent fields). Rather, we need to devise a way of thinking about the interoperation of exegesis and theology (“theology” in all its specializations and subfields, and ethics, church history, liturgics, and pastoralia as well) that permits us to construe each of these discourses as a salutary critical interrogation of one aspect of the integrated whole. I suggest that we can gain considerable yardage toward that goal by treating these adversarial siblings as elements in the signifying practice of Christian discipleship.

The term “signifying practice” came into currency through the work of Julia Kristeva, who deployed it in the context of analyzing two ways that language functions in a text. In the first function, language cooperates with the rules, conventions, expectations, that constitute conventional usage (the “phenotext”), the structural elements that make satisfactory communication possible. The second function (the “genotext”) involves the ways that communication operates beyond or athwart rule-governed patterns of expression.*6* Aural elements (timbre, sonority, speed, pitch), phonetic elements (rhyme, accent, alliteration), physiological elements (stammer, dental geography), visual elements (the speaker’s appearance, attractive scenery) all inescapably affect the auditor’s uptake of meaning. In written or printed words, phenomena such as a typeface’s characteristics or handwriting style, color, quality of reproduction, and page layout influence our sense of the meaning of a text. Kristeva analyzed the convergence of phenotextual and genotextual functions as the locus for all signifying takes place (even, as she allows, apart from linguistic expressions).*7*

Subsequently, the Birmingham School of cultural criticism (particularly Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige) took up the term “signifying practice” to apply it not simply to the tension between linguistic system and specific utterances, but to the multifarious embodied ways that people express themselves. In Hall’s account, we participate in reciprocal social activities (including, but not limited to, speech and writing) in ways that affirm, amplify, and perpetuate meanings for our behavior; a particular integrated set of these words and actions constitutes a signifying practice, a complex tapestry of expression by which we assert the sorts of meaning by which we and the culture around us define our identities.*8* Hebdige applies this cultural semiotics to the ways that non-dominant social groups define themselves over against the networks of meaning that prevail in the dominant social groups.*9* Thus gangstas, punks, goths, and various subcultures use their appearance, the sounds with which they make their presence audible, their distinct vernacular, the gestures by which they interact with one another and with outsiders – making meaning by the ways that they signify, in dress and music and speech and action.

The language of “signifying practices” offers numerous benefits for our inquiry. First, the range of signifying practices extends far beyond the conventional verbal arguments with which exegetes and theologians conduct their daily business. Paintings, musical compositions, drama, textiles, gesture, and countless other expressive practices contribute to the semiotic economy; they communicate not as diluted approximations of verbal communication, but intensely and coherently in their own idioms. Second, “signifying practices” directs our attention to the fact that all our interpretive discourses involve matters of practice, however powerfully or feebly. In this frame of reference, we do not simply “apply” our interpretive conclusions as a belated postscript to the cognitive work of textual scholarship and dogmatic reasoning, but (in a manner reminiscent of the Aristotelian practical syllogism) our interpretations are fulfilled in the way that our lives express our claims. Third, this frame helps us explain how exegesis in its strictly academic, technical sense differs from the theological interpretation of Scripture, and how the conceptual work of systematic theology differs from the pastoral implementation of theological teachings. Fourth, the terminology of “signifying practices” embraces not only the credentialed authority figures who speak from academic or ecclesiastical offices, but also the enacted exegesis and theology manifest among those saints who manage without degrees and titles. Fifth, when we consider exegesis and theology within the domain of signifying practices, we can better recognize the inevitable fluidity and ambiguity that attend our efforts to express the truth to which we bear witness. Where a strictly verbal account of these disciplines nurtures the illusion that we may control and police a propositionally-correct definitive version of the faith, our signifying practices never attain finality, always turn us back to discernment and judgment. We learn about exegesis and theology not solely from studying ancient languages and conciliar decrees, but from feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, sheltering the beleaguered – and this is not simply a liberal escape hatch by which to bootleg fuzzy “experience” into disciplined reasoning, but the recollection of the unanimous teaching of Scripture, the saints, and reason itself that the Truth transforms lives that acknowledge its truth. Finally, the signifying practice to which exegesis and theology lend complementary energies may, arguably, point to a consummation in the church’s signifying practice par excellence, the eucharist – “an essential action,” not “an isolated presence or merely illustrative symbol.”*10*

The eucharistic consummation of theological exegesis returns us to my conjoined epigraphs. The first – de la Taille’s characterization of the Incarnate word having set himself in the order of signs, which my title quotes – serves in its original context as part of an extensive argument relative to the integrity of the Last Supper, the Passion and Crucifixion, and the Mass. In the context of this essay, however, it further highlights God’s eternal decision to communicate with humanity by way of embodied action, not solely by way of revealed linguistic expressions. In many and various ways God spoke of old to Israel by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, choosing to communicate not by word alone but by body language. As de la Taille says,

When God willed to create the world, he created it by his Word, by his eternal locution per quem omnia facta sunt, as we sing in our ancient Credo. And when God willed to raise the world up from its ruins, he did so once more by his Word, but by his Word made flesh. . . in his eucharistic flesh, I say, turning himself into something like a word uttered in figure by the