King's Evangelical Divinity School

14 September 2009

Review of "The Language of Symbolism"

Here is the second of two promised reviews of books exploring biblical theology (this review also originally appeared in Evangelical Quarterly - 80.1, 2008, 74-6).

Language of Symbolism: Biblical Theology, Semantics, and Exegesis
by Pierre Grelot (translated by Christopher R. Smith)
Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2006. x+238pp. pb. $19.99, £11.99. ISBN 1565639898. ISBN-13: 9781565639898

Originally published in French, this book explores the Bible’s use of symbolic language. The author asks how we might describe our relationship with an indefinable God `in intelligible language so that we can evoke the “presence” of the one who is an absolute “Thou” to us, but is invisible’ (1). Philosophical language, which is stripped of emotional content, is unsuitable for the task. So is scientific language. After all, the natural world and God are on two different planes, so how can the language of the former describe the latter? Thus, Grelot moves firmly beyond historical questions like authorship, dates, and place of writing. Hermeneutically such issues, while valid, are only a starting point. That God has chosen to reveal himself requires the interpreter to move beyond a purely historical approach. Central to this task is exploring the symbolic language employed by the Bible authors to evoke God and describe our relationship with him. This language is essential in providing people with `a glimpse into the mystery of God and the salvation that is theirs in Jesus Christ’ (8). Especially important for Grelot is how both Testaments employ such language in light of Christ. This focus on metanarrative anchors the book within the field of biblical theology.

Grelot offers a fourfold categorisation of the Bible’s symbolism. Analogical symbols include anthropomorphic and corporeal representations of God (e.g. the face of God, God’s outstretched arm), family life (e.g. marriage cf. God and Israel in Hosea), and symbols drawn from society. Mythical symbols are traditional stories from surrounding cultures that evoke concepts outside of space and time, which the Bible authors drew on and exploited. For Grelot this is unproblematic, provided such myths are `radically purified’ (68). For example, consider the question `where is God?’ Although God is everywhere, the Bible authors locate him above, in the heavens, as a device to denote something of God’s majesty. Figurative symbols draw on historical events and imbue them with theological meaning. This symbolism is especially important when interpreting Bible history, so central to Israel’s religious experience. As such, Israel’s history is a defining and central core of its national and religious self-consciousness, and the symbolism employed therein deserves particular attention. Finally, Grelot explores what he calls relational, or existential symbols, which echo our relationship with God.

The author makes clear the need to differentiate between establishing the meaning of the texts and the meaning of Scripture (i.e. moving beyond an historical-critical approach to focus on theology and matters of faith). A literal and historical interpretation can only go so far. `Thus we do not abandon the “literal sense” of the texts, but we do accept a testimony to a deeper level of their meaning, giving it a fullness that the First Testament authors would not have suspected in advance, even if their witness to the divine plan as it unfolded remained open to further developments in the future’ (204). Thus Grelot does not limit interpretation to authorial intention.

This focus on a sensus plenior means Old Testament themes such as Covenant, King David, the priesthood, the Temple, and Christological titles such as the Son of David, Messiah, Lord, Lamb of God, Suffering Servant, and Son of Man, all take on added depth in light of the New Testament. But the process is not limited to a re-reading of the Old Testament in light of the New. The Bible’s symbolism is further enriched when projected into the eschatological future. A case in point is a war motif developed across both Testaments and reaching an eschatological climax in the final conflict which determines eternity for the whole of humanity. Whatever one’s theology, surely eschatology represents an essential aspect of biblical theology. After all, if the Church has no overriding eschatological hope to draw upon, what is the point?

For Grelot, this eschatological theme is wrapped up with the fortunes and history of Israel. He highlights not only the importance of understanding Jewish culture, history and language (a vehicle through which God reveals himself), but also believes Israel cannot so easily be pushed to one side as no longer God’s chosen people. Apostles sent to both Jews and Gentiles in the book of Acts indicates Israel has not been dispossessed of her heritage, while Hitler’s attempts to destroy the Jews symbolises the continued historical battle against God’s chosen people. Whatever one’s views concerning Israel, his discussion is an important one for biblical theology. Israel (whether defined as a concept, a people, or a geographical entity), by virtue of the sheer space devoted to it across both Testaments, must surely represent a central theme in any biblical theology. That several recent treatments have downplayed Israel demonstrates a problem with doing biblical theology, namely, an at-times arbitrary approach to determining the Bible’s themes based on doctrinal presuppositionalism.

Grelot’s approach to Israel is surprising, given he is a Catholic priest. Other statements also defy stereotypes and demonstrate original thought. For example, his call to move beyond literalism in search of a sensus plenior inevitably sets alarm bells ringing, considering how allegorical interpretation helped define medieval Catholicism. But in discussing pre-Reformation (he instead refers to pre-Thomist) biblical interpretation, Grelot observes how `Christian doctrine often is projected onto texts rather than deduced from them’ (203). Moreover, he focuses strongly on the text, rather than the Church’s interpretation of it. This focus on hermeneutics over historical and ecclesiastical theology was refreshing, bearing in mind the author’s background.

To be sure, not all Grelot’s theological tradition is similarly downplayed (a notable example being his view of communion which, while not overtly transubstantionist nonetheless echoes the concept of somehow ingesting the divine, 219-220). Some Evangelicals may also find his discussion of mythical symbols at times problematic. For example, he is not convinced Jesus was tempted as the Evangelists describe, but rather that these narratives evoke something of the very real temptation Jesus encountered throughout his life. Moreover, when discussing how the Bible writers sought to evoke something of God who is wholly other, Grelot states, `In the Christian faith Jesus is the one who revealed this word definitely, by his own words, by his actions, by his life and even his death… but did he ever define God?’ (15). The question arguably misses the revelatory point of the Incarnation.

Nonetheless, this was a satisfying read. Grelot demonstrates an excellent knowledge and understanding of the Bible and its complexities. Moreover, his focus on the unity of the Bible (which inevitably demands an a priori acceptance of inspiration and revelation), as well as his concentration on the actual text rather than how it was produced, can only be a good thing from an Evangelical perspective. Neither is he alone. Scholarly works similarly recognising the central role of biblical theology in hermeneutics are on the increase. For too long, modernist academic theology has set about fragmenting the Bible and limiting interpretation to historical questions. Ironically, it is the advent of postmodernism’s relativist marketplace of ideas which makes way for biblical theology as a valid approach within academic theology. Furthermore, Grelot does not limit himself merely to interpreting the language of symbolism in the Bible. He clearly sees the need to move beyond interpretation to proclamation and application. For Grelot, then, hermeneutics and biblical theology are not ends in themselves, but rather a means to an end.

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