Interpreting the Bible:
(c) 1994 First Things 45 (August/September 1994)
Late last year the Vatican released the report of
the Pontifical Biblical Commission on "The Interpretation of the Bible
in the Church." The editors of First Things commissioned the
following responses to this important document.
Paul M. Blowers
Jon D. Levenson
Robert L. Wilken
Paul M. Blowers
The second-century Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyons once described
the interpretation of the Bible as being like placing together a grand
mosaic, or like assembling Homeric verses into their correct and coherent
plot structure. Gnostic allegorizers, Irenaeus argued, had scattered the
gems of the scriptural mosaic and configured them again to form an alien
portrait. In rereading the Bible, moreover, they had come up with the wrong
story line, one foreign to the Church's Rule of Faith, the central dramatic
narrative of salvation history that was the very substance of the biblical
revelation. What made the Gnostics' exegesis so damaging was not that it
was subjective as such, but that its subjectivity was not grounded in the
Church's perspective. Gnostics were thus fated to telling the world a wholly
different story of creation and redemption. For all their hermeneutical
sophistication, they had missed the very mystery of divine revelation that
permeated the scriptural witness of prophets and apostles, a mystery that
could be fathomed only within the context of the Church's Christocentric
experience and life.
Irenaeus, for all his troubles with the Gnostics, could hardly have
imagined the changes in the landscape of biblical interpretation eighteen
centuries later. No longer, since the Enlightenment, is it virtually universally
presupposed that the Church or the Synagogue is the primary matrix and
context for expounding and appropriating Scripture. Today there are many
and diverse claimants to the Book of Books, many and diverse interpretative
cultures. Historicism may have taken some knocks of late but, as Jon Levenson
reminded First Things readers in February of last year ("The
Bible: Unexamined Commitments of Criticism"), there are not a few
apologists of biblical- critical studies who still, in the name of value-neutral
objectivity and good scholarly citizenship, insist that Bible stories are
honestly comprehensible only to that academy or guild where they are rendered
transparent to the time- and culture-bound ideologies that underlie the
On the other side of the spectrum are literary critics who aspire instead
to liberate human subjectivity in reading scriptural texts. Scripture still
has a story to tell, but it comes to life, they say, only as individual
readers or communities put their own questions to the Bible and, spurning
the superficialities of "authorial" or "original" meaning
as well as "traditional" interpretations, construct ever new
semantic possibilities out of the linguistic stuff of the texts. A good
novelist may then be a better judge of biblical truth than a philologist,
a historian, or a theologian.
Meanwhile, what words of comfort can be spoken to all those postmodern
people (churched and unchurched) who, in the absence of a compelling rendition
of the biblical narrative, as Robert Jenson writes, "simply do not
apprehend or inhabit a narratable world"? Who will make sense of their
lives and their world in the light of the biblical drama of creation and
The Pontifical Biblical Commission's (PBC) recently published report
on "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" could not
be more timely. Though it is formulated mainly as a statement on the resources,
challenges, and "mission of exegesis" within the Catholic Church,
the report also sends unmistakable signals to the broader cultures of biblical
hermeneutics in "postmodernity." One signal is thoroughly clear:
the Church is still the foundational context for expounding Scripture and
the only promising medium for actualizing the Word of God through new "retellings"
(relectures) of the biblical story.
The early sections of the report set out a strategy for accommodating
a variety of hermeneutical methodologies without paying exclusive homage
to any one. The PBC remains realistically committed to the classic resources
of historical-critical interpretation insofar as they can open windows
to the ancient communities of faith that both produced Scripture and were
shaped by Scripture. "Diachronic" interpretation, the treatment
of texts from the standpoint of their formation and redaction in changing
circumstances over time, continues to provide important insights into the
historical constraints on the original intentionality and "literal"
sense of the Scriptures.
Yet the Bible is still live communication. The more recent "synchronic"
approaches (literary and rhetorical analysis, narrative criticism, semiotics,
etc.), which look at scriptural texts primarily as finished units or structures
of discourse, can thus be of great assistance in bringing out the language
of persuasion, the storied character, and the symbolic richness of the
Bible so as to realize genuine interaction between the ancient text and
modern readerships. Narrative analysis, in particular, has not only helped
to rescue the Bible from historicism but inhibited the reduction of the
Bible to a transparent body of propositional truths (contra fundamentalism).
It has recovered the imperative, intrinsic to Scripture itself, "both
to tell the story of salvation (the informative aspect) and to tell the
story in view of salvation (the performative aspect)."
The PBC report projects a constructive collaboration of "diachronic"
and "synchronic" interpretation. In the best of all possible
exegetical worlds this is the model. Many scholars will nevertheless see
this goal as highly optimistic in the "real world" of biblical
interpretation where exegetical battles are waged amid the complex networks
of academic guilds, well-defined hermeneutical schools of thought, and
other channels of scholarly influence in which loyalties are strong, and
in which committed Christian and Jewish exegetes must still practice their
craft. A case in point is the interpretation of the Pentateuch according
to the Four-Source Theory (Documentary Hypothesis), which was for years
largely unchallenged in the academy until more recent literary-critical
analysis began to stake its claim. Many interpreters are insisting now
that the textual dissonance and tensions within the Pentateuch (the dual
creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 are a salient example, but there are many
more) need not be explained, diachronically, in terms of multiple editorial
sources, but synchronically, by the artistry of authors who, in shaping
the narratives, retained the tensions as integral to the discourse. There
is no consensus that diachronic and synchronic interpretations can coexist;
some biblical critics say they are downright incompatible.
The academy, though, can absorb seemingly countless exegetical differences
and the impasses to which they may lead. In the Church, where the reading
of Scripture for the life-giving Word makes the stakes of interpretation
prohibitively higher, plurality and diversity of perspectives-among exegetes,
between exegetes and theologians, etc.-can bring progress in understanding
only because of a shared rule of faith, a common interpretative lens, operative
in the ecclesial community. The Church, the PBC points out, has the advantage
of a pre-understanding which holds together modern scientific culture and
the religious tradition emanating from ancient Israel and from the early
Christian community. [Catholic exegetes'] interpretations stand thereby
in continuity with a dynamic pattern of interpretation that is found within
the Bible itself and continues in the life of the Church. This dynamic
pattern corresponds to the requirement that there be a lived affinity between
the interpreter and the object, an affinity which constitutes, in fact,
one of the conditions that make the entire exegetical enterprise possible.In
its later chapters, the PBC report thus draws upon and further articulates
a foundational axiom of Catholic hermeneutics, the presupposed organic
interrelation between Scripture and the Church's interpretative tradition.
That relation began within the New Testament itself, as the early Christians
"discerned" their own identity by interpreting the paschal mystery
of Jesus Christ in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. It continued in
the Church's "discernment" of a full Christian biblical canon.
And it continues now in the Church's ongoing commitment to "discerning"
the fullness of the biblical revelation in new historical contexts by availing
itself of intertextual exegesis, canon criticism, and the history of biblical
interpretation (especially the theologically rich patristic exegetical
The theme of "discernment" is an important current running
through this entire document. Revelation is discerned, not apprehended
directly or mechanically. And the authoritative claims of the Bible on
the Church are not primarily those of law or of dogma. As Sean McEvenue
has argued, the Bible's authority is most basically a spiritual authority,
effective and convertive. Transformation is concomitant with understanding.
The PBC report thus recognizes that biblical study and interpretation are
completed only in conjunction with "spiritual experience and the discernment
of the Church." "Exegesis produces its best results when it is
carried out in the context of the living faith of the Christian community,
which is directed toward the salvation of the entire world." The closing
sections of the report set forth the mission of actualizing, inculturating,
and contextualizing the biblical message in the modern world. This missionary
focus, however, must be rooted in the continuing consumption of Scripture
within the Church itself-through the reading of the Bible in the liturgy,
through the practices of spiritual meditation on Scripture, through its
use in pastoral ministry, and through the study of the Bible in ecumenical
Given the landscape of contemporary biblical studies, Protestants should
identify profoundly with the appeal of the PBC boldly to reaffirm the Church's
hermeneutical prerogatives. H. Richard Niebuhr spoke for many of us when
he wrote in his The Meaning of Revelation (1941) that
in Protestantism we have long attempted to say what we mean by revelation
by pointing to the Scriptures, but we have found that we cannot do so save
as we interpret them in a community in which men listen for the word of
God in the reading of the Scriptures, or in which men participate in the
same spiritual history out of which the record came.
The PBC report may serve notice across the ecumenical board that the
"discernment" of the mystery of biblical revelation, the unfolding
of the full implications of the biblical story of salvation for the Church
and for the world, will demand hermeneutical courage, theological depth,
ecclesial and pastoral commitment, and a spirituality rooted both in the
Bible and the Christian tradition.
Paul M. Blowers is Associate Professor of Church History
at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Jon D. Levenson
Carl E. Braaten has suggested that the foundational assumption of the
report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, "The Interpretation
of the Bible in the Church," is the hermeneutical equivalent of the
Definition of Chalcedon (451 c.e.). Whatever the limitations of the analogy,
it is surely the case that just as that ancient conciliar statement affirmed
the indivisibility and inseparability of the humanity of Christ from his
divinity, so does the Commission's report reaffirm that Scripture is the
"word of God in human language," repeatedly insisting that the
two natures of the text can never be altogether decoupled.
This, in turn, accounts for a certain two-sidedness in the document
itself, which continually embraces modern methods of biblical study but
then warns of their limitations. "Psychology and psychoanalysis,"
for example, "lead to a multidimensional understanding of Scripture
and help decode the human language of revelation," but they "should
not serve to eliminate the reality of sin and of salvation." Modern
methods, including even those that originate in secular sciences, can illuminate
the sacred text in important, even essential ways, but as the report says
of cultural anthropology, they are powerless "to determine what is
specifically the content of revelation." The resulting report is thus
generally one of admirable balance and thoughtfulness. It is also wonderfully
comprehensive and concise, a document of great value to both Catholic and
non-Catholic interpreters of the Bible.
The divine nature of the text comes from its ultimate author, or, as
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger puts it in his preface, its "genuine author,
God." It is this dimension that recedes or disappears when the historical-critical
method of modern academic biblical scholarship is, in the words of the
report, granted "sole validity." As Ratzinger correctly and astutely
observes, this can result in "putting the [biblical] word back into
the past completely so that it is no longer taken in its actuality"
and "only [its] human dimension appears as real." This is precisely
the effect (and often also the intention) of many programs in biblical
studies in universities and even seminaries today. How this desacralization
can be avoided in academic communities that are not religiously homogeneous
is a pressing issue to many of us, but not one addressed in the report,
which is, as its title indicates, interested only in "The Interpretation
of the Bible in the [Roman Catholic] Church." Instead, the Commission
seems to believe that the divine dimension of Scripture will be protected
if only there is "full participation on the part of exegetes in the
life and faith of the believing community of their own time," if "church
authority [sees] to it that . . . interpretation remains faithful to the
great tradition which has produced the texts," and so on.
The fact remains, however, that unless the Catholic Church (re)ghettoizes
itself, as I think to be logistically impossible, its exegetes will continue
to be integral members of communities of interpretation that are religiously
diverse and whose lingua franca has long been historicism and naturalism-that
is, philosophical positions averse to the monotheistic traditions and biased
toward secularity. If the transcendent dimension of the text is to be upheld
without suppressing the human, historical dimension, means will have to
be found to prosecute biblical scholarship on genuinely public grounds-that
is, on grounds that are pluralistic, and not simply historicistic and naturalistic.
How this can be done is an issue as vexing as it is pressing and one on
which the Commission offers no help. A schizoid solution-the Catholic exegete
as Catholic in church but historicist in the academy-will not effectively
redress the recession of the divine dimension of the text that Ratzinger
It is the frank recognition of the human dimension of the Scripture
that accounts for the report's stern and repeated denunciations of fundamentalism,
which "fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated
in language and expression conditioned by various periods" and thus
"considers historical everything that is reported or recounted with
verbs in the past tense." As a result "[i]t injects into life
a false certitude" and even "invites people to a kind of intellectual
suicide." Nothing else that this remarkably open and learned report
addresses-not even feminist exegesis (which "has brought many benefits")
or Marxist liberationism-comes in for so much censure as fundamentalism.
This may partially reflect the gains that various Protestant fundamentalist
groups have made in historically Catholic countries in recent years, while
Marxism, for example (which has committed literal suicide repeatedly of
late, not to mention mass murder earlier), has dramatically lost credibility
(except among professors, especially of theology) along with the ability
to threaten Rome. But the Commission's eagerness to distance itself from
fundamentalism also reflects its conviction that "the historical-critical
method . . . when used in an objective manner, implies of itself no a priori"
and therefore cannot threaten Catholic doctrine.
The notion of a method without a priori suppositions is philosophically
naive and easily falsified in the case at hand. One a priori of historical
critics, for example, is the absence of clairvoyance. Since the Book of
Isaiah (who lived in the eighth century b.c.e.) speaks of Cyrus (who lived
in the sixth), they therefore must conclude, as did some medieval Jewish
commentators as well, that the chapters that do so were added later as
a vaticinium ex eventu. Without the a priori naturalism, one could
instead argue that Isaiah had a gift of foreknowledge, as befits a prophet
(though this would, of course, still not explain the stylistic differences
between the various sections of the book that now goes by his name). While
I quite agree with the commission about the historically conditioned character
of all texts and the corollary inadequacy of fundamentalism, it seems to
me to be evading the tensions (if not outright contradictions) between
the divine and the human dimensions that its own a priori suppositions
ascribe to the Bible.
It also evades the possibility that the "more precise understanding
of the truth of sacred Scripture" that the historical-critical method
yields can lead to the denial of magisterial teaching. I think, for example,
of Father John P. Meier's courageous presidential address at the general
meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association in 1991, entitled, "The
Brothers and Sisters of Jesus in Ecumenical Perspective." The ecumenical
issue is simple: whereas the Roman Catholic Church teaches the perpetual
virginity of Mary, some communions, following references in the New Testament
to Jesus' siblings, do not affirm her virginity to have continued beyond
the time of his birth. An extremely learned and meticulous historical-critical
analysis compelled Fr. Meier to conclude that "if-prescinding from
faith and later Church teaching- the historian or exegete is asked to render
a judgment on the New Testament and patristic texts we have examined, viewed
simply as historical sources, the most probable opinion is that the brothers
and sisters of Jesus were true siblings," and not cousins (or half-siblings
by some hypothetical previous marriage of Joseph) as some post-canonical
traditions came to assert. The question remains, however, whether the "later
Church teaching" (from which the responsible historical-critical scholar
will necessarily prescind) can be valid when it contradicts the New Testament
itself. Could Mary have been a perpetual virgin when the evangelists (not
to mention Josephus) not only did not know this but thought otherwise?
The same sort of issue arises not only in regard to divisive ecumenical
issues such as the interpretation of Mary or Peter. It also affects basic
issues of Christology, which the Commission takes as settled. For one of
the consequences of historical-critical study is to cast doubt on the assumption
that the Bible is, as the report puts it, "a gathering together of
a whole array of witnesses from one great tradition." On the contrary,
this kind of study shows that there never was "one great tradition"
and that the organic unfolding of each stage of tradition from the one
that preceded, without jarring disjunctions and flimsy harmonizations,
is a chimera. This is a painful thought for any traditionalist (including
a traditional Jew like myself), but intellectual honesty requires that
it be faced.
Lest the Protestant reader be tempted to feel triumphalistic at this
point, it must be noted that those jarring disjunctions occur not only
between Scripture and tradition but also within each. Indeed, the biblical
idea of the Virgin Birth itself, known from Matthew and Luke, is completely
unattested in Mark, John, and Paul. The Apostle to the Gentiles, in fact,
described Jesus as "born of a woman" (Galations 4:4) where an
adherent of pious harmonization would surely have expected to read "born
of a virgin."
When the members of the Commission tell us that "the interpretation
of one particular text has to avoid seeking to dominate at the expense
of others," they are thus conceding more of their own tradition than
they realize. Without such domination, orthodoxy deconstructs. The Church
can, of course, affirm the fuller traditions of Matthew and Luke to be
normative (as it has), but it cannot expect historical criticism to ratify
that choice or even to support it. The historical study of the development
of texts in the environments that produced the Bible often suggests quite
the opposite-that the fuller text has undergone midrashic embellishment
and is therefore less reliable historically (whatever its literary
or theological value). However deep the personal piety and ecclesial
obedience of a historical critic may be, his method compels him to cast
doubt on historical claims based on traditions at a significant remove
from the events in question. The affirmation of ongoing tradition and the
critical study of history are willy-nilly often at cross purposes.
Another difficulty is that the Commission's report handles the Old
Testament considerably more critically than the New, on which it tends
to fall back into fuzzy mystical language. For example, its affirmation
that the "hyperbole" of "the royal psalms and messianic
prophecies . . . had to be taken literally" after the unexpected death
and resurrection of Jesus is more pious than critical. Supposedly, the
psalmist's extravagant affirmation that the king's rule will be everlasting
(Psalm 45:7) can now be seen to refer to Jesus' endless reign. The problem
is this: at the level of literal reality, Jesus' kingship, which
died aborning, is more of a hyperbole than that to which the psalmist
referred, not less. A more historically defensible claim is that some early
Christians used the mythological language of the old Judahite royal theology
to conceptualize their experience of Jesus. The failure of Jesus to return
and fulfill the old messianic expectations (despite reports of his resurrection)
only heightened the eschatological understanding of the royal theology,
already attested in Judaism. The extravagant promises would become reality
at the end of time, but not before. On this reading, Judaism and Christianity,
despite their irreconcilable difference on the identity of the messianic
king, agree on a point that the Commission seems to have missed: the hyperbole
of the royal psalms and the messianic prophecies will remain just that
until kingdom come.
The treatment of Jesus himself in the report of the Commission exhibits
scant influence from the historical-critical method, though the report
elsewhere (and, in my judgment, correctly) pronounces it to be "indispensable."
"Right from the start of his public ministry," we are told, "Jesus
adopted a personal and original stance different from the accepted interpretation
of his age, that 'of the scribes and Pharisees,'" citing "his
sovereign freedom with respect to Sabbath observance" and "his
way of relativizing the precepts of ritual purity," among other instances.
Those intellectually suicidal fundamentalists would have no objection to
this formulation, but some historical critics, Christian as well as Jewish,
would suggest that since the observance of Jewish law was a hotly disputed
issue among Jesus' disciples after his death, it is unlikely that he pronounced
definitively against it during his lifetime, and that the passages in which
he does so have been put into his mouth by later Christians for polemical
purposes. A prime target of the polemic was Judaism. The problem with the
report's brief formulation of these issues is thus not only the fundamentalistic
assumption that Jesus said what the gospels attribute to him; it is also
that Jesus' continuity with the Judaism of his time (including the Judaism
of those patently ridiculous New Testament Pharisees) has been grossly
minimized. You would almost think he was Catholic.
Thus, though the report condemns anti-Semitic interpretations of the
Christian Bible, it seems unaware of the extent to which such interpretations
continue certain polemical tendencies within the Scripture itself, tendencies
that have influenced the portrayal of Jesus. So long as the figure of Jesus
is protected from rigorous historical-critical analysis, the danger of
anti-Semitic interpretation will survive, and precious opportunities for
deepening the Church's understanding of its Scripture will be lost. There
is no substitute for the cauterization through historical criticism of
the virulent anti- Semitic statements that have been put in the mouth of
Jesus. Without this, the Church's denunciations of anti-Semitism ring hollow.
When the historical-critical method has been applied to the
figure of Jesus, however, it has historically, to one degree or another,
driven a wedge between the historical person and the composite literary
figure of the New Testament text-that is, between two venerable items in
Christian theology, the word of God in human incarnation and the word of
God in human language. Perhaps the Chalcedonian hermeneu tic is less durable
than first seems the case.
Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish
Studies at Harvard University and the author of The Hebrew Bible, the
Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (Westminster/John Knox)
and The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (Yale).
Robert L. Wilken
When Origen of Alexandria was preaching on Joshua 7, the account of
the capture of the Canaanite city of Ai by the Israelites, his hearers
asked him: What does this have to do with us? What value is it to know
that the inhabitants of Ai were vanquished, as though this battle was more
significant than others? Why does the Holy Spirit include this event and
ignore the fall of other, more famous cities? It is a question that is
inevitable in a sermon. When the Bible is read by the faithful, especially
in Christian worship, the preacher must ask of the text not simply, "What
does the text mean?" but "What does the text mean for us?"
The new document issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission entitled
"The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" addresses this
problem. Within the last several decades the historical study of the Bible
(in its many contemporary forms) has gained widespread acceptance in the
Church. So great is its hold on biblical scholarship today that its methods
are widely assumed to be normative for all interpretation of the Bible.
Biblical exegesis is conceived of as a historical and scholarly enterprise
carried on by specialists in ancient languages and literature and, more
recently, by scholars of social and cultural history.
Yet, argues the Commission, the seeming hegemony of historical criticism
is deceptive. "At the very time when the most prevalent scientific
method-the 'historical-critical method'-is freely practiced in exegesis,
including Catholic exegesis, it is itself brought into question."
Even within scholarly circles one can detect mounting criticism of the
present direction of biblical studies. But this report is not directed
at debates within the guild; it has in mind a deeper and more troubling
problem: "Many of the faithful judge the method deficient from the
point of view of faith." For some, the Commission asserts, biblical
criticism has made the Bible a "closed book," to which the words
of the gospel seem applicable: "You have taken away the key of knowledge;
you have not entered in yourselves and you have hindered those who sought
to enter." (Luke 11:52)
Strong words these, and they do not come from fundamentalists. These
are the judgments of biblical scholars as well as bishops. What is more,
the authors of this document are ardent defenders of the legitimacy and
necessity of biblical criticism: "The historical-critical method is
the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient
texts." Without the use of historical criticism, argues the Commission,
there can be no serious study of the Bible. Its methods have "made
it possible to understand far more accurately the intention of the authors
and editors of the Bible as well as the message which they addressed to
their first readers. The achievement of these results has lent the historical-critical
method an importance of the highest order."
Fully one-third of the report is devoted to a sympathetic (though not
uncritical) presentation of the most widespread "methods" now
in use in the scholarly community: historical criticism; literary analysis
(including rhetorical, narrative, semiotic analysis); tradition history;
use of human sciences (sociology, anthropology); contextual approaches
(lib erationist, feminist), et al. The report can and should be read, as
Cardinal Ratzinger suggests in his preface, as a confirmation of the "largely
positive" evaluation of historical-critical scholarship found in earlier
ecclesiastical documents, e.g., Divino Afflante Spiritu of Pius
XII (1943), Sancta Mater Ecclesia of the Pontifical Biblical Commission
(1964), and the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican
But the significance of this report is not that it defends the legitimacy
of historical criticism. Its timeliness is that it reflects a thoughtful
turning away from the easy acceptance of the methods of biblical criticism
and offers an argument on behalf of a more theological, spiritual, Christological
interpretation of the Bible. The report does not claim that historical
criticism is illegitimate. It recognizes that the Bible is a book of the
past and that it is a fit subject of historical inquiry. What the Commission
claims is that a solely historical approach to the Bible has limited usefulness
for the Church. The Bible speaks not only about the past but also about
the present and the future. The question "What does the text mean
for us?" can never be peripheral to the work of biblical interpretation.
Biblical scholarship, however, has largely become a world to itself,
divorced from the church's theological and spiritual traditions. For most
of the Church's history, theology and scriptural interpretation were one.
Theology was called sacra pagina, and the task of interpreting the
Bible was a theological enterprise. The Church's faith and life was seen
as continuous with the Bible. Even the Reformation appeal to "sola
scriptura" assumed that the Bible was the book of the Church and its
interpretation was to be shaped by the creeds and councils, the liturgy,
the theological tradition. For the reformers the Christological interpretation
of the prophets was the literal meaning of the text. In short, the
Bible was read within the framework of the Church's teaching and practice.
With the emergence of new historical disciplines in the eighteenth
century and the application of these disciplines to the Scriptures, scholars
began, unwittingly at first, to construct a new context to take the place
of the Church. The aim was to break free of the patterns that had shaped
Christian interpretation for centuries. The Bible came to be seen more
and more as a book of the ancient world; hence its interpretation was primarily
a historical enterprise.
The more the Bible was studied historically and philologically, the
more it came to appear foreign to Christian faith and life. It was taken
as axiomatic that the scholarly study of the Bible had to exclude references
to Christian teaching. The notion that the Nicene Creed might play a role
in understanding the biblical conception of God appeared ludicrous. As
a consequence biblical scholarship acquired a life of its own as a historical
enterprise independent of the Church (and of the Synagogue). Today its
home is the university.
The other Bible, the Bible of the Church, however, lives, and, one
might add, people live (and die) by it. Scholars will continue to write
books about the original setting of Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53, but the Christian
interpretation of these texts is fixed in the minds of the faithful and
it is not going to go away. The Church's interpretation is embedded in
the liturgy, in hymns, in the catechetical tradition, and-let us not forget-in
the Bible itself. The Christian interpretation of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53
begins in the New Testament. If one has a quarrel with the Church's interpretation
of the Bible the debate is not with Origen or St. Augustine or St. Bernard,
it is with St. Paul and St. Matthew.
It is one thing, however, to recount the limitations of biblical scholarship,
quite another to propose a way beyond the present difficulties. The value
of the report of the Commission is that it offers a constructive response,
one that is firmly rooted in the classical exegetical tradition of the
Church, yet at the same time attentive to the intellectual developments
of the last two centuries. What the Commission offers is a defense of the
"spiritual interpretation" of the Bible. Its arguments are informed,
nuanced, and sophisticated, but the very use of the term "spiritual"
will provoke controversy. "Spiritual interpretation" seems to
suggest that the way forward is to go backward, to abandon the accomplishments
of the last two hundred years and to return to a precritical reading of
the Bible. From "spiritual interpretation," some will say, it
is only a tiny step to medieval allegory and all its evil works.
The Commission is aware of the risks in reintroducing the term "spiritual."
For this reason it addresses the most obvious criticism of the "spiritual"
sense, namely, that it ignores the historical meaning. Its argument is
elegantly simple: spiritual exegesis means interpreting the Bible in light
of history, the history of God's revelation in Christ. That is, "spiritual"
means "historical," reading the Scriptures through the prism
of Christ's death and Resurrection: "The spiritual sense," the
Commission writes, "results from setting the text in relation to real
facts which are not foreign to it; the paschal event [the death
and Resurrection of Christ], in all its inexhaustible richness, which constitutes
the summit of the divine intervention in the history of Israel, to the
benefit of all mankind."
In its zeal to understand the Bible historically, biblical scholarship
has ignored the history that is at the center of the Christian Bible, the
Incarnation of the divine Logos, the passion and death of Christ, the sending
of the Holy Spirit to create the Church. Within Christian tradition, historical
means Christological and ecclesiological. If the Bible is interpreted in
this way, it must be read as a book that speaks not only of the past but
of life in Christ within the Church. The Christian exegetical tradition
assumes that what happened historically finds its fulfillment in the present.
The writer to Hebrews takes the word "today" in Psalm 95, "Today
if you do not harden your hearts," to refer to the present, when "we
become partners of Christ." (Hebrews 3:7-14) In his great work on
the Christian exegetical tradition, Exegese Medievale, Henri DeLubac,
the French Jesuit, entitled one chapter Quotidie, "today." According
to the spiritual interpretation, that which happened once in the past is
made present "today" in the Church's sacramental life and in
the lives of the faithful.
At the beginning of his "literal" commentary on Genesis,
St. Augustine wrote: "No Christian will dare say that the [biblical]
narrative must not be taken in a spiritual sense." In support of this
he cites the familiar words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, "Now all these
things that happened to them were symbolic." But then he gives an
example of how St. Paul actually interpreted the Bible. In Ephesians 5,
for example, Paul quotes the words from Genesis 2: "For this reason
a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the
two will become one flesh." Paul, observes Augustine, gives the text
a "spiritual meaning" by referring it to the Church. "This
is a great mystery," he writes, "and I am applying it to Christ
and the Church."
For Augustine the spiritual interpretation is built on the historical
meaning. In the case of 1 Corinthians, Paul was referring to actual events
that had taken place in the desert during the Exodus from Egypt. The "symbolic"
meaning does not displace the reality of the events of which they are a
symbol. Likewise, Paul assumes that Genesis 2 is speaking about the physical
coming together of a man and a woman in marriage. "One flesh"
refers to a carnal action. Yet St. Paul says that this coming together
also has a spiritual meaning referring to the mystery of the union between
Christ and his Church.
Following Paul and Augustine, indeed the Church's unanimous tradition,
the Commission insists that the spiritual meaning depends on the historical
or literal meaning: "While there is a distinction between the two
senses, the spiritual sense can never be stripped of its connection with
the literal sense." Without the prior literal sense the spiritual
meaning-or, as some prefer, the mystical meaning-is evanescent. Spiritual
interpretation, then, does not mean the imposition of esoteric meanings
on the text, but the discernment of the sense that is unveiled by the Incarnation
of the divine Word and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Three things, according
to the Commission, converge in a spiritual interpretation of the Bible:
the biblical text, the paschal mystery, and the present circumstances of
life in the Spirit.
The medieval church expressed its understanding of the spiritual sense
in the following distich: Littera gesta docet; quod credas allegoria; quid
agas moralia; quo tendas anagogia. "The letter teaches us what happened;
what you are to believe is called allegory; what you are to do is called
the moral sense; the anagogical sense has to do with the final end of your
life." By dismissing the spiritual sense as a pious fantasy, modern
critics have missed the profundity of this verse, and hence of the tradition
of spiritual exegesis. For this ancient distich expresses what the Church
has always believed about the Bible. The Bible records God's action in
history (the letter), and it is the task of the interpreter to discern
the relation between what is written there and what has come about (and
will come about) because of what happened. The three latter senses show
how this is best done, by relating the text to what we believe (allegory),
to how we are to live (the moral sense), and to what we hope for (the anagogical
sense). The God who was is also the God who is and is to come.
The spiritual understanding of the Bible is not a relic from the middle
ages, a precritical expedient to make do until the advent of historical
science. It is the distinctively Christian way of interpreting the Bible.
John Henry Newman wrote: "In all ages of the Church, her teachers
have shown a disinclination to confine themselves to the mere literal interpretation
of Scripture. . . . It may almost be laid down as an historical fact that
the mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together."
Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan,
Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia
and author of The Land Called Holy.
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