The Gospels Manifest a Poetic Christ

Olivier-Thomas Venard, O.P. is a professor of the New Testament at the École Biblique in Jerusalem. The Dominican scholar integrates his training in post-structuralism, linguistics, and literary criticism into a “Thomasian” framework enriched by his Dominican vocation. Described as a “Toulouse Dominican with a différance,” Venard’s inquiry into the original meaning of Aquinas’s theology incorporates the best insights from a wide array of scholarly discourses (biblical studies, historical and systematic theology, philosophy and literary studies) as a means for both retrieving Aquinas’s thought and enabling it to unveil the unity of these discourses in the Word.

We had the privilege of participating in a reading group dedicated to the recently translated anthology of Olivier-Thomas Venard, O.P.’s work entitled, A Poetic Christ: Thomist Reflections on Scripture, Language, and Reality (T&T Clark, 2019). A Poetic Christ was edited and translated by Notre Dame’s Francesca A. Murphy and Kenneth Oakes, drawing texts from across Venard’s vast theological trilogy: Littérature et théologie: Une saison en enfer (2002), La langue de l’ineffable: Essai sur le fondement théologique de la métaphysique (2004), and Pagina sacra: le passage de l’Écriture sainte à l’écriture théologique (2009). Murphy and Oakes selected roughly one-third from each volume for inclusion in A Poetic Christ in order to showcase the breadth and the richness of Venard’s thought on Scripture, literature, and language, as well as Venard’s focused theological reflections on the Word, Cross, and Eucharist.

His theological project and the excellent translation found in Murphy and Oakes’s anthology has provided the occasion for the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s “Word and Wisdom Conference” next week at the University of Notre Dame (April 1-3, 2019). Subtitled, “Exploring the Future of Biblical Studies,” the conference intends to follow Venard’s lead in exploring how to reclaim the learned study of “biblical texts” as the learned study of inspired Scripture, of the Word that expresses the Wisdom of God. In addition to Venard, an array of renowned theologians, including Gary A. Anderson, Edward Greenstein, John Cavadini, and the Very Rev. John Behr will present papers on topics aimed at deepening our understanding of God’s Word, in both its human and divine aspects.

We want to highlight some of the more poignant insights from Part I of A Poetic Christ, which treats the “poetics” of the Gospel (and by extension, one that Origen would certainly acknowledge, the Scriptures in general) on the way towards developing a “poetic” Christology. These lengthy chapters are both derived from the final volume of Venard’s trilogy, Sacra Pagina (2009), which Cyril O’Regan considers both “the goal of the trilogy and the crown of Venard’s achievement” (Foreword, xiii).

The first chapter of A Poetic Christ is framed as an inquiry into the possibility of a “poetic Gospel.” Venard offers an early clarification of gospel “poetics:”

The reader should not be misled by [the phrase a “poetic gospel”]: in this chapter we do not intend to describe the literary or prosodic beauties of the Gospels (their “poetry”). Rather, we intend to sketch a poetics of the Gospel: we want to envisage the word of the Gospel as the result of an art of using words and phrases within a conception of language, the world, and their relationship which is quite different from ours. Individual human “authors” in the modern sense of the word are only partly responsible for this poetics. Even though John eventually captured it in a unique way, it results mostly from the pragmatics of tradition: the interplay of witnesses, traditioners, compilers and redactors, triggered by the words uttered by the Word come into flesh. (21)

To read the Gospels “poetically” is to see in them “a kerygmatic announcement,” a series of “performances” in language constructed to “trigger” an event of meaning—namely, “an encounter with the resurrected one” (21, 61, 17). This encounter, along with the rhetorical and perlocutionary forms which provoke it, is the “meta-literary” center around which the Gospels turn, and in which they find their “deepest theological . . . unity” (17). That New Testament faith “comes from hearing” (and reading) is not incidental, but intrinsic (see Rom. 10:17).

The experience of reading and hearing (the “performativity” of the text) as intrinsic to what it is to know the risen Jesus, a reality which cannot be otherwise represented. To know Jesus is not ocular, but is hearing and understanding. The Gospels perform at the meta-literary level what Jesus performs in the tense moment of reading the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4, “while ‘all had their eyes fixed on him’ in astonishment:” “Jesus sends them back to their ears . . . Jesus proposes to those whom he encounters a journey from the eyes to the ears: he demands understanding. He makes the people move from what is seen to what is understood and thought (Latin theology would later say from the material and natural to the spiritual and supernatural)” (43).

Venard’s reading of the Gospels, then, is decidedly historical: it assumes that the canonical forms of the texts are the result of the imperatives and material conditions of handing-on. But it assumes in addition that the more decisive imperatives in the formation of the texts were not the social and material, but the linguistic and semiological imperatives of mediating a lived experience of Christ in the reading and hearing of the Gospels. In Venard’s account, “what is actually privileged . . . is the pragmatics of witness” (24). The earlier, shorter version of Mark, for example, which is usually taken as one of the more embarrassing facts of New Testament historical criticism, becomes for Venard compelling evidence for seeing poetics as the central determiner even at very early stages of the Gospel text’s formation.

By refusing to narrate the resurrection appearances, the shorter version of Mark makes of “the sheer fact” of the text’s existence a witness to the resurrection, as evidence for the women having seen something, and a great many people having believed their word (19-20). For an early audience, “The very fact that one could see a preacher speaking to crowds about the resurrection was no doubt the most wondrous proof of it” (20). Likewise, the “Messianic secret” of Mark’s Gospel emphasizes that the good news of Jesus is not an assemblage of facts that can be reported and represented, and just as easily understood and affirmed.

One only comes to know the “secret” of the Gospel by undergoing, in the rhetorical unfolding of the Gospel, the incomprehension of the disciples, the pedagogical repetitions of episodes and even Jesus’s recounting of the repetitions (“Do you still not perceive or understand? . . . Do you not yet understand?” [Mk. 8:17, 21]), the shock of the cross, and the empty tomb. All of this falls under the proviso that the meaning of the secret cannot be told (“‘Do not even go into the village’ . . . And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” [Mk. 8:26, 30]), but only uncovered for oneself. In both cases, rhetorical strategies of “reticence,” “opacity,” and “irony” make clear that the Gospel’s characteristic mode of signifying is meta-literary.

The Gospels, then, do not simply report the words attributed to Jesus, but mediate “the efficacious reality of his word,” that character of the Word’s words as not merely past or future but “actualized” now “in the perpetual presence that the writing of ‘this disciple’ [here, John] makes available to whoever will take up and read” (31). Venard’s gospel is like Ignatius of Antioch’s gospel in the Letter the the Smyrnians: “the gospel, in which the passion is shown to us and the resurrection was accomplished [kai he anastasis teteleiotai].” “Why not,” Venard asks, “grant this final expression a much stronger meaning than simply the fulfillment of the Scriptures through the resurrection?” (21n66). Johannine utterances like “The hour is coming, indeed it has come,” have, in this same sense, “substantive meta-literary meaning:”

One could gloss this statement in this way: the hour is coming and it has come solely from the fact that you come to hear me (and to understand me) or to read of me (by hearing). Very concretely presented . . . the utterances of Jesus such as “that they may have my joy complete in themselves,” “so that you all may,” “so that you may have my life in you,” “for you believe,” are self-realizing prophecies. They point to a coincidence of the act of reading and the realization of the words read . . . In a sublime moment, the reality of reading comes to surpass the text as a kind of fiction and at the same time the reader finds herself within the text she is attempting to understand (58).

This experience of “faith by hearing” (or reading) is sublime, Venard says, “in an ‘Isidorian’ etymology,” where “the aesthetic category of the sublime is defined as the approach to the limit (sub-limes), to the threshold between two orders of allegedly incommensurable realities,” that is, orders such as eschaton and the now, subjective reading and objective past events, and even words and the Word (35 n.123). “The hour” of Jesus’s words is “the now” of the text’s performance.

The New Testament, then, presumes and pervasively thematizes sublime reading and a “theology of language” unbothered by modern dilemmas (25): “We can see how foreign the idealist oppositions between the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective,’ the real and language, are to the New Testament, which is faithful to the Jewish Scriptures in the ontological weight it gives to speech” (31). The real is what is given in speech, and speech gives the real. This is an affirmation grounded in the prior Johannine affirmation that “in the beginning there was language [d’abord il y avait le langage]” (26).[1] From this perspective, the “new allegorism” of reductively historical-critical readings of the New Testament lose sight even of the literary profile of the gospels. Historical reading of this reductive kind sometimes presumes, “naively,” that scholars can read social context or historical fact off of ancient texts, and so “move from the signifier on the page to the referent in history” (7).

In this sort of reading “the question of meaning is ignored;” it is assumed that the real will be something primitively “there” for inspection as a brute fact outside of language (198). Venard will develop at length in part II of A Poetic Christ the “third way of symbolic experience” which “the theology of the Word open[s] up” between “linguistic idealism and materialism (both purveyors of hermetism),” evasions of language which in one way or another fail to see that the real is meaning: the real is what is mediated by thought and language, not an occult primitive sealed off from mind and speech (147).

The reality mediated by the Gospels, then, is an event in the reading and hearing of them, in the language. This is what it means that Scripture is a revealed, and continuously revealing, text:

In the Christian Bible, no less than the Tanakh, the relationship between words and things is irreducible to a simple bijection of the signifier to signified or sign to referent, for creation and language are homogenous in the Word, and the “things” aimed at by the sacred writer (God, supernatural realities) are not entirely captured by natural human language: unable to say them, it must manifest them (63).

This view of language as the site where the real is manifested is central to the notion of a revealed text:[2]

The New Testament seems to offer a proleptic acknowledgment of the interweaving of thought and language, which renders the possibility of “revelation” so difficult for modern minds. The New Testament offers the only possible continuation of this interweaving: not as a philosophical theory (as any type of logic would simply necessitate the cessation of speaking), but as a theological reworking enacted at the very heart of language by the visitation of the One who is its source (29).

That is, by the Word’s life in the flesh, and the “vocal imprint” left behind him (13).

If what takes place in the New Testament is a “reworking” of language enacted by its source, then its “literary awareness” of itself as a performance in writing, hearing, reading, and authoring is already a theological awareness. There is, as the tradition has often noted, more than a passing fittingness between “the fleshly body of Christ” and “the textual body of the New Testament,” as there is between sublime reading (and hearing) and faith in what cannot be represented (45).[3]

The theological affirmation of the Word’s incarnation is not merely urged by the New Testament at the level of content; it is the theological fulfillment of the gospel's rhetorical interest in words and what it is really to hear them, and to hear in them their source: “The incarnation crosses and fills in the abyss between Word (verbum) and words (verba),” an abyss relentlessly opened in John’s Gospel by the incomprehension of Jesus’s listeners, and their repeating his words back to him (63; 54). By this rhetorical form (“Johannine irony”), as Jesus’s words are iterated and reiterated, we readers are “force[d] . . . to enter into the pedagogy Jesus commanded: to remain in his word” (54; see Jn. 7:33-6). The final result of obeying the rhetorical directives of the text is that “Christ’s words in the gospels become the paradigm” for understanding them; attending faithfully even to these literary directives is to be enlisted as a listening disciple (63). Venard’s, then, is a historical (“pragmatics of witness”) and literary reading of the New Testament that urges theological reading as the natural fulfillment precisely of historical and literary attentiveness.

If Venard’s inquiry into the poetics of the gospel deals with “the aesthetics of encountering Christ and of reading the text in the experience of the New Testament faith” (64), then his movement towards a poetic Christology frames this encounter in terms of the incarnational analogy deployed in Dei Verbum: “For the words of God expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when he took to himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (§13). Venard argues that after the “linguistic turn,” we tone down such a programmatic claim at our peril, for example, when we limit “the scope of the word ‘gospel’ only to the content of the message,” as if biblical faith were merely illustrated, rather than inaugurated, by Jesus (see: 64).[4]

The first movement of Venard’s “Poetic Christology” offers an analysis of “enunciation (énonciation),” which refers to the whole context and action of an “utterance (énoncé),” or a segment of discourse. “Every text,” Venard writes, “is the visible result of an act of utterance which was necessary to its creation and yet which does not necessarily remain visible on the surface of what is uttered” (66). In any act of reading, the recipient of the utterance (the enonciataire) figures out who the speaker is (the enonciateur) in the course of a dialectical exchange between the reader-recipient and text-speaker. Gradually, through repeated readings, the recipient both interprets the text (and, by extension, the speaker who issues it) and is interpreted by the text, which gradually transforms his or her understanding of the world. This, of course, is perfectly consonant with the early Christian approach to Scripture: “The Bible and the reader create a dialectical relationship, just like a mirror in which one sees oneself, such that Scripture is endlessly enriched by the new readings which are made of it” (66).

Rejecting the view that signification is reducible to the reproduction of states of things or of ideas of the world, Venard maintains (following François Martin) that “it is the very act of enunciation, or the act of discourse, that creates a definitive group of semantic representations” (68).[5] Thus, one act (that of utterance) calls forth another act (that of reading), which reactivates the initial act of utterance. Appreciating enunciation, Venard thinks, requires acknowledging that it can never be the work of an isolated individual, but requires a tradition. In the case of Scripture in general, and the Gospels in particular, this tradition cannot be construed merely as “a posthumous appendix to Jesus’ life,” but as something that “arose from the impact of Jesus’ words during his time on earth” (68). “The Gospel works,” he writes, “to guarantee a twofold equivalence: (1) between the ineffable Word of God and the human language of Jesus; and (2) between the words of Jesus and the words of the disciples, and those of the evangelist in particular” (73).

Grasping this first equivalence is “an affair of faith,” but the second pertains not only to faith, but also to “human art,” insofar as “the gospels display a very specific set of literary conditions which are necessary for the discourse of the evangelists to coincide with that of the Word” (74). One aspect of this human art Venard highlights as he moves towards the conclusion of this argument is John’s mode of presenting his Gospel as “a progressively deepening remembering” (78). For John, this remembrance participates in reality’s existence, which is especially pertinent insofar as the text mediates the memory of someone who spent his life “passing on words” (82), someone who was in fact the Word.

Venard sketches the lineaments of a “Christological linguistics,” which flows from the confession that Jesus is the eternal Word of God who uses finite human language to draw us to himself. He writes: “[The] incarnation teaches us something about language inasmuch as language prefigures the mystery of the incarnation” (106). In order to articulate how language might be thought to participate in the Word, Venard draws upon the thought of Thomas Aquinas, primarily in the Tertia Pars of the Summa Theologiae. When Aquinas appeals to humanity’s perfection as one reason for the fittingness of the incarnation of the Word (rather than the Father, or the Spirit), for example, he acknowledges that it is precisely “by participation that one hears the Word through the exercise of the intellect and will: Humana natura . . . nata est contingere aliqualiter ipsum Verbum” (109).[6]

For Aquinas (and Venard, who follows him closely), intellectual creatures are moved towards union with God precisely as intellectual, a movement that is at once epistemological and ontological. Venard writes: “The acts of the intellect and will performed by the incarnate spirit are thus real, they can transform those who perform them, and we cannot reduce them to abstract epistemic operations” (109).[7] Christ’s speech convinces, therefore, because “the one who speaks to the sensible ears is the same one who has created the ear of the heart, the intellect, and who gives it a share of his light. As the Word, [Christ] transcends the distinction between internal and external which is inherent in the physical world and assumed by the signifier” (110). For Venard, Christ is the cornerstone of all semiology, the one who grounds all significance:

Theology presents the person of Jesus as the ultimate and definitive sign through which humanity can come to know God. Jesus speaks the word of God in the expressivity of human language, imprinting it with a force which remains throughout time (113).[8]

[1] Venard cites Jean Grosjean, L’Ironie christique: commentair de l’Êvangile selon Jean (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), 11.

[2] It is characteristic, in fact, of modernist literature and criticism to have betrayed this view of language precisely because of jettisoning its belief in a revealed text. This account of modernist poetry and structuralist and post-structuralist literary criticism is the focus of Part II of A Poetic Christ.

[3] What Venard calls “the ontology of the book” is in this sense a parable both of the incarnation, and of what it is to hear the Word. The real that is known by understanding and mediated by language (heard and read in words) is not something “there” to be inspected, even if it is mediated by a certain kind of “seeing:” “Halfway between what is seen (letters of black ink on the skin of beasts) and what is not seen (the world of grace, the wholly spiritual world of God to which it gives access), there is the hearing of the divine Word in the contingency of human reading which is first of all a seeing, which both creates and presupposes faith, and which thereby enables mixed creatures such as human beings, who are half-flesh and half-spirit, to enter into the world of grace” (45).

[4] Venard explicitly connects this movement of his thought with that of Hans Frei, who criticized “reductions of Scripture to ‘cognitive-propositionalist’ facts by earlier dogmaticians, or to ‘experiential-expressivist’ theories associated with liberal hermeneutics in his essay “The Literal Reading of the Biblical Narrative in the Christian Tradition: Does it Stretch or Will it Break?” in Frank D. McConnell (ed.), The Bible and the Narrative Tradition (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 36-77, especially 46. In his Foreword to A Poetic Christ, Cyril O’Regan notes that in spite of the nod given to Frei’s Yale School, Venard “rejects Frei’s fictive or history-like account of the narrative becoming of Jesus Christ. He insists on what might be called the Catholic difference, that is, the ontological vehemence of the biblical text that insists both on the real history and the metaphysical reality of the subject of action and passion of the Word made flesh” (xiii).

[5] Venard refers the reader to François Martin’s Pour une théologie de la lettre: l’inspiration des Écritures (Paris: Cerf, 1996), 336

[6] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 3a.4.1: "because human nature, as being rational and intellectual, was made for attaining to the Word to some extent by its operation, viz. by knowing and loving him.”

[7] Venard notes that analogical discourse cannot be “a purely linguistic process,” insofar as it concerns “the judgment of a soul participating in the divine spirit.” He refers the reader to John Milbank’s The Suspended Middle (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 31, 27.

[8] Here, Venard adopts the ' language of Rino Fisichella’s La revelation et sa crédibilité: Essai de théologie fondamentale (Paris-Montréal: Bellarmin, Cerf, 1989), 199.

Featured Image: Cecco del Caravaggio, Resurrection, c. 1620; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.  


J. Columcille Dever and Matthew Vale

J. Columcille Dever (History of Christianity) and Matthew Vale (Systematic Theology) are University of Notre Dame doctoral students.

Read more by J. Columcille Dever and Matthew Vale