SCHNEIDERS, Sandra M., The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 2nd. Edition 1999. 206 pp. including rich notes and index, $21.95 US.

by Robert Brow   (

This book was well received in its first edition. But I will limit myself to the brief twelve page Introduction to the second edition.

The original name, The Revelatory Text, has not proved useful. If Sandra Schneiders were renaming the book now she says she would call it The Text of Meeting: "The biblical text is, potentially, and through the process of interpretation, a place of meeting, the locus of encounter and conversation between God and humanity" (xix).

The second edition comes after "both scholars and laity, including the press, have weighed in for or against the (in)famous 'Jesus Seminar' and competent biblical scholars have written wonderfully popular and impressively massive tomes on the subject" (xix). And she wants to argue that "Christian faith bears upon Jesus as presented in the New Testament and proclaimed by the Church, not on some figure from the past presumed to 'lie behind' that text". (xx).

In the previous edition Schneiders distinguished "the actual Jesus, the historical Jesus, the proclaimed Jesus, and the textual Jesus." (xx-xxi). She now wants to clarify what she means in the light of the eight years of Jesus of History discussions between 1991 and her 1999 preface.

A. The Actual Jesus who existed in the first century no longer exists this way. "The real Jesus is not the pre-Easter or 'earthly' Jesus as if he never died and rose." (xxii). The Actual Jesus "is existing now in glory and active in this world in and through his Spirit animating his body which is the Church" (xxiv). I like that word Actual. He is acting right now.

B. The Historical Jesus is a term loaded with positivist distortions. "History is not a record of  what actually happened. It is a written re-presentation or construction of that part of what happened to which the historian has access" (xxv). "The historian deals only with 'historical material', i.e. events that take place within the framework of time and space and causality. Much about the Jesus story exceeds these coordinates" (xxv). This means that the historian who tries to establish, or disprove, the incarnation, the redemption, or the resurrection is outside his or her field (xxv). Schneiders therefore wants to limit the term to those non-scriptural constructions of the Jesus figure created by scholars (xxvii). The term "non-scriptural" would not be what some would accept. I think she means "New Testament constructions that exclude the miraculous elements."

C. The Proclaimed Jesus is "the Jesus who exists today as he is witnessed to by the Church and believed in by Christians" (xxviii). It includes some historical data such as he was born between 4 BCE and 2 CE, and executed by crucifixion. But it also includes "transhistorical dimensions" such that he is the incarnate Word of God, and rose from the dead (xxviii). The proclaimed Jesus has changed over the centuries, but its subject mater has always been "the New Testament text as that text has functioned in the Church" (xxviii).

D. The Textual Jesus is "the proclaimed Jesus of the first Christian communities" as canonized in certain texts, especially the gospels "(xxviii). And Schneiders will argue that "the Proclaimed Jesus" of any age must be measured against this norm. This enables us to see for example that "the full inclusion of women in the sacramental life of the Church" has been misunderstood and misused "for the power agenda of an elite" (xxix).

I liked the idea of clarifying what we are talking about when we talk about Jesus of Nazareth. But I did run into problems with her next move.

Authorial Intention to Ideal Meaning

She says that in the heyday of historical critical studies "the author's intention" was the goal towards which all critics agreed they were striving (xxxi). That was the real meaning. But historians are now aware that it is impossible to establish what say Matthew or John intended (and I would add there is even less possibility of knowing the intention of the sources they used).

This then raises the question, "How does one arrive at valid 'real meaning(s)' of the text?" Deconstructionists answer by saying there is no real meaning of a text. Any interpretation for which anyone can supply good reasons is as good as any other. "This effectively reduces the text to pure indeterminacy." On that view "reading it is an encounter with one's own subjectivity" (xxxii).

In the earlier 1991 edition Schneiders developed the notion of "Ideal Meaning" (suggested y Paul Ricoeur's Theory of Interpretation). But this was easily misunderstood to mean the "optimal or best or ultimately desirable" meaning, which was not at all her intention (xxxii).

So to explain herself she says there is a freedom to interpret Beethoven's fifth symphony in many ways, but it cannot be made to sound like "Yankee Doodle." Similarly the parable of the Good Samaritan has many possible applications, but we would rule out the idea it was a condemnation of Samaritans, or an example of "a fool is soon parted with his money," or a political protest against inadequate police protection (xxxiii). There is therefore an"objective pole"constituted by the text and a "subjective pole" constituted by the reader, and "the interaction between them is the emergence of meaning through interpretation" (xxxiv).

What she is looking for is a way to prove that the way Cardinal Ratzinger does his exegesis of the role of women in the Church is wrong, and her feminist method of exegesis is the right (ideal) meaning. (see her Beyond Patching: Faith and Feminism in the Catholic Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1991).

So she uses the game analogy. The game of tennis can be played in hundreds of ways, but there is an "Ideal Meaning" or structure without which it is not tennis. There must be "a family resemblance" based on the literary "genes" of the text (xxxiv). But how do we know the literary "genes" of the text? How do we settle between the pacifist exegesis of the Quakers and Mennonites and the military stance of the Church of England? Or between Calvinists and Methodists, Wee Frees and Charismatics.

That is why I don't think Sandra Schneiders' category of "The Ideal Meaning" helps us forward. It does not give her what she needs to prove that Roman Catholic Feminism is right (Ideal Meaning) and Ratzinger Traditionalists are wrong.

Schneiders' analogy of a game sounds as if it originated from Wittgenstein's Language Games (Philosophical Investigations, 1967, 31, 54, 66, 67). And Wittgenstein dealt with precisely the question Schneiders is trying to answer. He used the analogy of games for the way we can understand each other's language. And the same principle applies in doing theology.

The number of games that can be invented is infinite. And there are no "correct" (ideal) rules for any game. But if two or more people want to play a game together they must agree to the rules for that occasion. You could make rules for playing tennis on a beach without a net. Ordinary tennis players know when there is a foul, and you lose the point. For a tennis tournament you need an umpire to adjudicate the agreed rules.

That is why each group of Christians (Baptists, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Charismatics, etc.) has rules of biblical interpretation that they consciously or unconsciously agree to follow. And they appoint official or unofficial theological "umpires" to cry "foul," and as in hockey assign penalties.

The rules of interpretation can be changed slowly by mutual agreement, but if you want to play with that group, better stick to their rules. Denominations (and web sites) that abandon all rules of biblical interpretation soon find no one wants to play with them anymore (Guess who?).

When people begin to read and accept the joy of playing by New Testament rules they soon discover there are "ideal" (correct) ways of interpreting the Gospels in their circle of Christians.

After a bit they may find that there are some rules by which they no longer wish to play, such as exterminating Jews, Witches, Protestants, keeping slaves, excluding tipplers, the immoral, and other varieties of sinners, and barring women from priesthood.

At that point they may choose to quit playing with other Christians altogether. Or they may move to another circle of Christians with rules that suit them better. A third option is to decide (like Sandra Schneiders, and your humble servant) to stay in their denomination, and slowly try to change the rules of exegesis.

That does not allow me to claim that others are denying the "Ideal Meaning" of the New Testament, but it still allows me to avoid aligning myself with those who want to play by quite different rules of interpretation. I do not damn those who deny the miraculous, or those who assume Jesus had no past before he was born and no future after his resurrection, but I certainly don't intend to join with a group or congregation or internet list based on such rules.

The plain fact is there are many ways of living by the New Testament and loving "The Actual Jesus." There are Charismatics, Puritans, Monastics, Baptists, Anglicans, Promise Keepers, Salvation Army Soldiers, the Greek Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic members of the Opus Dei, Knights of Columbus, Feminist Groups, etc. At their best each has its peculiar appeal. Each of them claim to know and love the Person that Schneiders calls "the Actual Jesus" (I would prefer to use the term "Trinitarian Jesus"). And they all want to use the New Testament to settle the rules they want to play by. But their method of interpretation varies.

Could it be that the "Actual Jesus" who is building his Church delights in a rich variety of flowers in his garden. And it is not by unanswerable logic, or fear, or shame (or even some "Ideal Meaning") that beautiful flowers are forced. It is just the freedom and joy of doing it well.

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