Adam Y. Wells (Ed.): Phenomenologies of Scripture

Phenomenologies of Scripture Book Cover Phenomenologies of Scripture
Wells, Adam Y., editor
Fordham University Press
Paperback $32.00

Reviewed by: Douglas Giles (University of Essex)

To consider the phenomenology of scripture is a challenging task, not only because it wades into religion, a subject area preloaded with emotions and identities, but because it wades into the tension between theological readings and scientific/historical readings of scriptural texts. The essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, edited by Adam Y. Wells, seek to apply the unofficial model of phenomenology, “back to the things themselves,” to the study of scripture. Specifically, the application of phenomenology in this collection of essays aims “to shift the center of biblical studies from science to scripture itself.” (1) Wells states that “the phenomenology of scripture must begin with a radical openness to scripture, rigorously avoiding the temptation to declare at the outset what scripture can or must mean.” (7)

At first appearance, this sounds simple enough. Rather than prejudge what a scriptural passage means, we are open to the passage showing its meaning to us. However, a phenomenological openness to scripture is complicated—particularly the question of what we are bracketing off in our epoché. There are two challenges facing the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture. One, how can any text, especially religious scripture, be understood apart from its social-historical context. Two, how can scripture be read without preconceptions about the truth of the religion itself? On the first challenge, to consider the text itself outside of its social context is artificial and perhaps prejudicial. There is a temptation within religion to consider scripture as having arrived inspired, if not dictated, by a divine source rather than from a social-historical context. It would be hypocritical to bracket off the social-historical context without also bracketing off the assumption that the text is the “Word of God” and thus outside of any worldly context. Scripture, even if divinely inspired, is a set of particular words in particular languages written down at particular times and places. To make sense of the gospel and epistles requires that we not bracket off consideration of ancient Greek language and Hellenistic cultural understandings if we are to make sense of the frequent allegories and word usages.

On the second, more profound challenge, a phenomenology of scripture must be open to the text itself without preconceived notions about the truth claims of the religion to which it belongs. Phenomenology does mean going back to the text itself, but one’s worldview cannot help but inform interpretation of the text’s meaning. There is frequently a prejudgment either for or against religion in the reading of any scriptural passage. The authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture are justifiably cautious about a scientific/historical approach to scripture because that methodology has at times been accompanied by prejudgments that religious beliefs are false. Unfortunately, several of these authors fail to apply the epoché equally, and accompanying their approach to scripture is a prejudgment that religious belief is true. Whether one has the belief that a religion is true or the belief that it is false, either belief will restrict one’s interpretation of what a scriptural passage can mean. A phenomenology of scripture must first and foremost cast off any prejudgments in favor of or against religion. A good phenomenologist considering a religious text would read a passage without requisitioning it to serve a premeditated agenda. He or she would openly consider both the text of the passage and the religious claims that inform the passage and the religious claims that are informed by the passage. Plus, the phenomenologist would offer insights to the text that are not restricted to those who already believe or already disbelieve. It is self-evident that hostility toward religion prejudices one’s reading of scripture, but it seems at cross-purposes with a phenomenology of scripture to declare at the outset that the bible fits within the doctrine of the church. Despite this, several authors in this book do just that.

Several of the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture interpret the book’s task differently than how I have and are carving out a distinctly Christian phenomenology. Several of them make a solid case for such a methodology. Robyn Horner says, “A phenomenological reading is an attempt to bring to light; it should only bring a light to bear on a text in order to show what is given there.” (115) What is given in scripture is a message to the Christian community, so she also says, “I read here, as one who listens to the text in the context of the Christian community.” (115) Whether or not one agrees with that combination, Horner is phenomenologically consistent within her prejudgment of Christian truth by bracketing off prejudgments about the text’s meaning after accepting its Christian context. In her analysis of the gospel story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, Horner talks about the experience of Jesus within herself during reading the passage. There is a connection between reading of scripture and religious experience, and Horner is correct that religious phenomena are not to be a priori excluded as a possibility. (119) Her position is that religious phenomena described in scripture ultimately are to be explained theologically but that this still requires discrimination and discernment. (119-120)

Horner’s essay raises the question of whether, if we are to get the meaning out of the text, the reading of scripture is necessarily a religious or devotional act. It is legitimate to ask whether a purely neutral and objective reading of a scriptural text possible or even desirable. Jean-Louis Chrétien thinks not. (140-141) He argues that we are touched by certain passages in a characteristic way when they are powerful enough to speak to us, explaining that “The failures of a weak man before miniscule difficulties of everyday life do not move me in the same way as the shipwrecks of a strong man in great trials.” (128) Chrétien likens Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as a drama of “the manifestation and the revelation of evil as evil by means of the interdict pronounced by the law.” (131) The law in question is the Jewish Torah, and its role in the emerging Christian faith is a thorny theological issue for Paul. Any reading of Paul’s words in Romans must acknowledge that Paul’s words are an expression of one side within a theological dispute. The drama of the dispute can touch us either as neutral onlookers or as people invested in the outcome of the dispute, but these are decidedly different dramas. Chrétien states that the passage he analyzes in Romans is heavy with stakes of great consequence for the comprehension of Christian existence and that this is why he believes a purely neutral and objective approach is insufficient. This is true if we are invested in the dispute, not simply as Christians, but as Christians who believe that Paul’s position on the issue of Jewish law is relevant to our Christian existence. This certainly describes Chrétien’s position, and it informs his reading of Paul.

Horner and Chrétien apply phenomenology within the sphere of Christian hermeneutics with the aim of deepening the understanding of the meaning of Christianity. There is nothing wrong with such legitimate applications of the phenomenological method as long as the parameters are made clear. Phenomenologies of Scripture could be clearer on this point—that the essays are Christian phenomenology of Christian scripture. No viewpoints of phenomenologies of, for example, Buddhist or Islamic scriptures are offered, and Jewish scriptures are discussed only in terms of their inclusion in and relevance to the Christian faith. Also, what the book and its essays do not adequately address is the difference between a phenomenology of text and a phenomenology of God. This problem is seen clearly in Emmanuel Housset’s essay on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (159-178) in which he focuses on the religious experience of God, and his phenomenological openness to the text is in service of that aim. He is completely honest about that, opening his essay with the following: “As a matter of methodological principle, an authentic phenomenology of religious experience should not place conditions on the manifestation of God, but should understand him only from his Word.” (159) One could take umbrage at these assumptions of God and scripture as violating phenomenology, but Housset correctly discerns that the common ground between phenomenology and scriptural study is humility: “phenomenology requires humble submission to the phenomena as they give themselves, endeavoring with the most possible rigor to avoid all theoretical or speculative bias.” (160) Like Chrétien, Housset stresses the importance of letting a passage affect you. For Housset, this affect is achieved through confrontation; but for Housset, the confrontation of one’s will is less with the text than it is with God. Housset’s position makes sense in that knowing someone, god or human, requires a confrontation that cannot be achieved through a detached viewpoint. This leads to the question of whether, in approaching any text, our confrontation is with the text or with its author. If one prejudges Christian scripture as being delivered by God, then it is easy to understand that ultimately the confrontation is with God and the aim is to be transfigured by the encounter. (161) Outside of this assumption and aim, it is less clear, and it remains an important question for the phenomenology of any text. Housset’s interesting mention of Heidegger’s idea of attunement to a text deserved a wider discussion.

That we are dealing with a specifically Christian phenomenology can be seen in Kevin Hart’s close analysis of the text Luke 15:11-32, which is commonly known as the story of the prodigal son. Hart’s phenomenological analysis of the parable is extensive and detailed but is largely a legal analysis of inheritance relations between the father and his sons. Hart is aware that the parable in Luke is not intended to be history—it is a story intended to teach a moral lesson—and the analysis of the parable needs to reflect that. Along that line of inquiry, Hart makes the good point that the narratives for both sons are unfinished because the story is a “parable of decision, one that offers eidetic possibilities that, structured according to a narrative, indicate that we should be more like the father than like either son.” (99) Hart has an agenda in his analysis, because he believes the parable shows that it has an agenda, which is to get readers to move from a worldly way of thinking to a divine one. He is honest about that agenda, acknowledging that Luke 15:11-32 has no revelatory claim on the nonbeliever, but for the believer, the Holy Spirit speaks through the text. (102) In this distinction, Hart confirms the concern I expressed earlier that a phenomenology of scripture offer insights into the text that are not restricted to those who already believe. For Hart, that means that the parable can be read strictly as a historical text by the nonbeliever, but although believers can learn a great deal from what the historians say about the text, historical reason is not sufficient in telling them what the text means. Hart argues that phenomenology makes no judgment about the rights and wrongs of belief or nonbelief and is neutral with respect to an individual’s choice to pass from nonbelief to belief in reading a scriptural text. (102-103) This seems an appropriate stance for phenomenology in general. Hart’s next step is to delineate what a Christian phenomenology could look like, using Jesus as an example. Jesus performs a phenomenological reduction in his telling of parables, Hart says, bracketing off everyday life and its worldly logic in order to lead the listener to a deeper place of divine logic. This “parable as the reduction from ‘world’ to ‘kingdom,’” strips the listener of worldly humanness and by means of this reduction tells us something of God who is pure love outside of all categories and rules. (103-105) This formula may not convince the nonbeliever, but, as Hart points out, phenomenology is neutral to each individual’s decision. I take this to be the boundary between a general phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology—that the latter can carve out this interpretive space with an additional reduction that brackets off the scientific/historical stance toward scripture. As Hart observes: “Where the historical-critical method forbids any passage from scripture to creed, phenomenology allows us to recognize that one vital element of the creed, the incarnation of God, is transcendentally supposed by Jesus’s relating of a parable of the kingdom.” (108)

Jeffrey Bloechel makes a similar distinction between a general scientific/historical phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology. His approach is to respond to Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou’s analysis of Paul’s epistles. Bloechel argues that neither Agamben nor Badiou addresses Paul as a theologian but instead as a source for conceptions of human freedom from containment within the political order. (144) Agamben and Badiou take into account only the structure, not the content, which leaves them with a reading devoid of everything Paul the author cares about and wants to communicate. In particular, Agamben and Badiou ignore Paul’s desire for there to be a community of faith united in the life of the spirit. (148) Because Agamben and Badiou conscript passages of Paul’s epistles in service of their own hermeneutical agenda, they miss the author Paul’s clear purpose in writing what he did. Bloechel argues that Paul’s central interest in his writings can emerge when we avoid the temptation to think of them first of all as political texts and attend instead to the imagery he uses of the community as a body, imagery that calls us to a conversion of our basic attitudes about and orientation to the world. (151) As nonbelievers, Bloechel says, Agamben and Badiou reduce the Christian message of Jesus to “only a single, momentous event, and not necessarily a unique one.” (156) What this shows, I think, is that regardless of whether Christianity is true, the Christian believer desevers the event of Jesus from the historical background and gives it significance in history, morality, and personal eschatology. Therefore, the meaning of Christian scripture has to be understood from within that mood of belief. Otherwise, our analysis discounts both the authors and the audience of scripture, without whom the enterprise of writing and reading have no meaning.

Jean-Yves Lacoste’s analysis of Matthew 5:38-48, the Sermon on the Mount, is a theological exegesis. Lacoste seeks to understand what Jesus’s words in the sermon show us about Jesus’s place in Judaism given his claims about Jewish law. (66) Lacoste applies the phenomenological method by bracketing off the assumption of Jesus as Messiah in reading the pericope. It is naively tempting, Lacoste says, to assume Jesus’s authoritative teaching on the Jewish law in the sermon is an assertion of messianic fulfillment, but Jesus never refers to himself as Messiah. (68) With this epoché, we can try better to understand Jesus’s commands to love our enemies and to be perfect as God is perfect. Lacoste’s Christian phenomenology informs his analysis of the “difficult logic” of the sermon. (86) His analysis comes full circle in leading him back to the conclusion that “the horizon opened by the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are perceptible only by the one who sees those commandments fulfilled in the person of the man who comes from God— the Son— and probably in him.” (84)

The remaining two essays lacked critical force. Robert Sokolowski does not focus on a particular passage but on the general importance of words. Words spoken about something introduce the thing to us, he says; they bring it to mind. (22) Writing differs from speech in that the speaker can be absent. (24) But there is a tangible speaker of the scriptures, and that is the Church. The Church as the speaker of the scriptures means the scriptures are not detached and isolated but are epitomized in the Church. (26-27) This need to understand the Church’s place as speaker of scripture is why Sokolowski rejects purely historical approaches to scripture, which incline one “to think, first, that scripture trumps tradition and, second, that history trumps scripture.” (37) Sokolowski does not give us a phenomenology, even a Christian one, but a doctrinal lesson about the importance of scripture as God’s Word. The contribution by Jean-Luc Marion is a lecture that discusses the nature of the gift. This lecture is not as lucid and insightful as Marion’s other papers on the phenomenology of the gift and givenness, and I was disappointed given his other excellent work on this subject. His essay’s connection with the book’s theme is the discussion of the story of Abraham’s confirmation (Genesis 22). Marion’s interpretation of the story is strained in his attempt to fit it into his larger philosophical concerns and is not as compelling as Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story in Fear and Trembling.

Having discussed the essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, I now turn to the two responses to those essays in the book. One is by Dale B. Martin, whose main issue with the essays is the authors’ lack of acknowledgment of interpretive agency. The reader is the interpreter of the text, and Martin takes Marion and Sokolowski to task for eclipsing the agency of the interpreter with their predetermined “this is the way things are” arguments. (191-192) I agree with Martin that most of the essays in this book hold that it is the words that do the work. This sounds good at first until you realize that it leaves out both the authors and the readers. It is a mistake if phenomenology assumes that “phenomena and words and texts simply have their meaning in themselves and just present that to us [and that] readers are passive receptors, not agents in meaning-making.” (192) Martin argues that just as objects are for us as they are interpreted by us and other human beings (emphasis his), texts cannot speak for themselves; they must be interpreted by us. Rather than putting the agency in scripture, Martin says, we need to put the agency where it belongs—with us human beings. (194) Martin praises Horner and Chrétien for giving appropriate attention to the agency of the reader as interpreter and maker of meaning and including in their phenomenology that the meaning of a text arrives only from the interpretive activities of the readers. (195-196) This is important, Martin says, because “we can have different meanings of the text, and many of them, all at the same time, interpreting differently for different ends and needs.” (196) Again, I heartily agree. If a text is designated as an object that tells us what it means, then it is not alive for readers and is more useful for the suppression of ideas than for generating and communicating them.

The other response is by Walter Brueggemann who proposes the approach to scripture of probing the thickness of the text to go beyond the obvious meaning. (180) In seeking to understand a text, he says, we are seeking to understand the culture that surrounded it and gave birth to it. To be open to this understanding, we must avoid what Brueggemann calls “totalism.” Brueggemann rebukes three types of totalism: church doctrine that occupied scripture to its own advantage and reduced biblical narrative to propositions that could become a test of membership; enlightenment rationality that has “largely explained away what is interesting, compelling, and embarrassing in the text”; and late capitalism’s reduction of narrative to medical prescriptions promising quick technical fixes to all human problems. (182) Brueggemann’s prescription to cure totalism is not to read scripture from the place of religious orthodoxy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of ecclesiastical certitude or from the place of the modernist academy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of reducing religion to a human sociopsychological projection. (186) When we move beyond the thinness of the conventional expectations of totalism, we dwell in thickness—the deeply coded cultural articulations and performances that are understood only by insiders. The reader must take up residence in the text and wait there, listening beyond what is given in the letter of the text. In thickness we can consider and accept interpretations of text that are clearly not acceptable in the surface observations of totalisms. For example, Brueggemann mentions the current interest, by both church and modern interpreters, to explain away the violence in the Bible, but the violence clearly belongs in the narrative because it is part of the cultural understanding of the culture from which the Bible emerged. We need to follow the story, not explain it away. Another example is being able to recognize messianic time in texts, meaning that the reading of the text is not settled in the present tense that is authorized by totalism but is instead always open to new possibilities. Being open to the possibilities in thickness are, Brueggemann says, a courageous response to today’s hurried productive society that does not want to dwell in any way that requires waiting because all meanings are known ahead of time. (181)

Maybe not all phenomenologies are courageous countercultural acts, as Brueggemann implies, but Phenomenologies of Scripture is going against the grain. The essays in the book are of more value to scholars of biblical interpretation than to those outside that discipline, but both biblical scholars and phenomenologists will find valuable approaches and ideas in these essays.


Wells, Adam Y., ed. 2017. Phenomenologies of Scripture. New York: Fordham University Press.


Suzi Adams (Ed.): Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion, Rowman & Littfield International, 2017

Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary Book Cover Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary
Social Imaginaries
Suzi Adams (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £24.95