As one concerned with right practice as well as right doctrine, I was reading through a work by Douglas Burton-Christie and came across a couple of paragraphs (one partial and one full), which has to do with hermeneutics among the Desert Fathers and Mothers (and is somewhat related to Brian’s post on meaning here). Burton-Christie opens with the theory of interpretation, described in this way:

The author’s intention and meaning of the text cease to coincide, and “[t]he text’s career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text means now matters more than what the author meant when he wrote it.”57 Thus a text, especially a powerfully evocative text, has the capacity continually to mean more, to overflow in an excess or surplus of meaning. A text never simply “means” one thing but continues to unfold new possibilities of meaning. (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism [New York: Oxford University Press, 1993], 20)

In other words, a written text can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and the meaning can go beyond the author’s intended meaning—although I would argue that it does not conflict with what the author intended but that is another discussion. For the Desert Fathers and Mothers, their hermeneutic results in a specific outcome, namely right living:

How and where these possibilities of meaning endured is one of the most interesting facets of the desert hermeneutic. Because there was so much emphasis in the desert on practice, on living with integrity, the monks interpreted Scripture primarily by putting it into practice. In the desert, Scripture’s surplus of meaning endured not in the form of commentaries or homilies but in acts and gestures, in the lives of holiness transformed by dialogue with Scripture. The sacred texts continued to mean more not only to those who read or encountered the texts but also to those encountering the holy ones who had come to embody the texts. The holy person became a new text and a new object of interpretation.58 (Ibid.)

One cannot neglect the ability of Scripture to transform the reader and hearer as Scripture continues to speak to people across all times and of all ethnicities.

[To read a little bit about one of the most prominent Desert Fathers, go here.]


57 Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory, 30.[Back]

58 . . . (“The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text,” in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, 207-8).[Back]