Biblical Interpretation: Some Thoughts on Benedict de Spinoza

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

spinozaBenedict de Spinoza was a 17th century philosopher, ethicist, and political theorist. He is most renowned for two of his major works, Ethics and Theological-Political Treatise. While Ethics is no doubt fascinating, I am currently reading portion of Theological-Political Treatise. In terms of biblical interpretation, Benedict de Spinoza is an important figure in the history of biblical criticism.

At first glance, he seems to have an effective approach to reading the bible critical. That is, reading it in a manner which he attempts to set aside all presupposed notions and read it as a historical text with an autonomous voice. He rights concerning the words of the bible:

Words acquire a particular meaning simply from their usage. Words deployed in accordance with this usage in such a way that, on reading them, people are moved to devotion will be sacred words, and any book written with words so used will also be sacred. But if that usage later dies out so that the words lose their earlier meaning, or if the book becomes wholly neglected, whether from wickedness or because people no longer need it, then both words and book will then likewise have neither use nor sanctity. Lastly, if the same words are differently deployed or it becomes accepted usage to construe the [same] words in the contrary sense, then both words and book which were formerly sacred will become profane and impure. From this it follows that nothing is sacred, profane, or impure, absolutely and independently of the mind but only in relation to the mind. [1]

What Spinoza argues, in other words, in that holy objects are only holy so long as they are so in the eye of the beholder. In religious community, for example, the water in holy water is exactly as its attributive adjective (holy) describes it. If, however, the same religious community decides holy water is no longer sacred, it becomes meaningless in term of sacred versus profane. For, meaning only occurs in relation to the mind.

While brief reading of this passage may indicate that Spinoza knows how to escape the bias of reading literature by bracketing all meaning as something only relation to the mind, a closer look reveals that even Spinoza’s critical stance is rooted in an approach to biblical criticism. Jonathan Israel, in his introduction to Theological-Political Treatise, notes an important detail of Spinoza’s rejection of presuppositions and prejudgements of the biblical text:

While his emphatic rejection of all a priori assumptions about its revealed status and his rigorous lingusitic and historical empiricism are undoubtedly key features of Spinoza’s Bible criticism, it is nevertheless incorrect to infer fromt his that… Spinoza wants to start not with general presuppositions, whether theological or philosophical dogma, but with particular and facts…  [2]

Israel continues, noting that “Spinoza’s philosophical naturalism insists rests intellectually on a reworking of the Cartesian conception of nature and a drastic reformulation of Descartes’ idea of substance. In other words, he begins with lots of prejudgements about the real meaning of texts” [3].

Regardless of the details of the Cartesian conception of nature and Descartes’ idea of substance, it is important for our sake to recognize that even Spinoza, who some claim to have laid the groundwork for biblical criticism, superimposed his own traditions into his approach to and interpretation of the bible. If Spinoza, a famed figure of the enlightenment, did so, I wonder how much we do so, as both scholars and laymen?

What will people see in our work, writings, and thoughts 400 years in the future? How many of our own presuppositions will people observe in our ideas, presuppositions which we didn’t even know we held?

[1] Benedict de Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, ed. Jonathan Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 9th printing, 2014), 165.

[2] Ibid., xv.

[3] Ibid., xv.


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