Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reading in the Spirit: A Reply to John Martens

Several days ago John Martens, a theologian at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a columnist for America Magazine, the national Jesuit weekly, made some lengthy comments at the America site on a May 25 post of mine entitled "Aquinas and Modern Biblical Exegesis." I would like to respond to his comments here. If you have not done so already, I would encourage you to read the original posts in their entirety.

Let me begin by saying that I am a philosopher by profession and not a theologian, much less a biblical scholar, but as a good deal of my research, teaching, and publication are on Aquinas and as I have a general familiarity with biblical exegesis, I feel there is some justification (but probably not much) for my taking the risk of entering into a discussion that seeks to relate the two. I am grateful to Prof. Martens for dignifying my earlier remarks with his penetrating comments. I will turn to my reply to those comments now.

I had suggested at the beginning of my original post that the modern historico-critical approach to Sacred Scripture tends "to focus on the meaning that the human author of the text could have intended and aims at narrowing that meaning down as precisely as possible" and, borrowing a phrase from Nietzsche, added, with some measure of comic hyperbole, that the hope of these exegetes is to find “the single beatific interpretation.” I contrasted this with the approach of Aquinas and the Fathers, who I said "were quite comfortable with permitting the text of Holy Writ an indefinite variety of meanings, within certain parameters of course." Martens offers a gentle correction:

I do think it is correct that the trained exegete or historical-critical scholar, but even the ordinary reader of Scripture, does try to find out the meaning of a scriptural text and to interpret it and analyze it as carefully as proper.  We can do nothing more as interpreters than understand the text to the best of our abilities. It is inevitable that in considering interpretive options we would propose one best reading, whether this is best called “the single beatific interpretation," I doubt. It seems to me that the next step is the consideration of other interpretations: what the best interpreters do, from Augustine, to Aquinas, to the present day, is keep themselves open to other possible readings, especially if those readings have some strong precedent in the Church. What I have found currently is not that professional interpreters are unwilling to consider other possible readings, but that biblical apologists in the Church are offering “one size fits all” readings of the Scripture and ignoring the depth of Scriptural interpretation, which is the heritage and tradition of the Church.
Certainly my portrayal of modern historico-critical biblical exegetes was a bit of a caricature and Martens is right to show that they are probably more open to alternative interpretations than the caricature seemed to allow.

Still, I would query Martens about his observation in the above passage that “[i]t is inevitable that in considering interpretive options we would propose one best reading.” How does he mean this? I (and I believe this is Aquinas’s approach too) would be hesitant even to propose a “best reading” and acknowledge rather that there is a range, perhaps quite wide, of plausible readings. This would not mean, of course, that just any reading would do. It goes without saying that whatever readings are allowed as plausible will logically exclude their contraries and contradictories. Given that I take this view, I agree with Martens in deploring “one size fits all” readings of the Scripture that ignore “the depth of Scriptural interpretation.” Neither is this way of handling Scripture in tune with the traditional Catholic approach.

In my post I further contrasted the historico-critical approach with Aquinas’s by arguing that the modern approach is interested in the meaning intended by the human author while Aquinas is interested in the meaning(s) intended by the Holy Spirit. Martens agrees with the importance of recognizing the divine inspiration of the Scriptures but wonders what difference this makes to the way we go about the task of interpretation:

Not every biblical interpreter, it is true and strangely so, acknowledges divine authorship of Scripture, but for someone like myself who does, it is hard to see how this acceptance ought to change the concrete practice of interpretation. Thomas might not be “at all scrupulous about limiting the text’s meaning(s) to what the human author might have understood,” but what impact does this have, or ought it to have, on an interpreter, even one who acknowledges the divine authorship? The interpreter is bound to understand the text or passage as fully as he or she can and it is difficult for me to know how one can determine what is limited to the human author or the divine author. If the meaning is embedded in the text, how does one distinguish amongst levels of authorship, attributing one meaning to the human author, who was nevertheless inspired, and one (or more) to the divine author, the source of inspiration? All meaning in the text must go back to the same locus: the text which was written by an inspired human author.
There is a lot that I would like to respond to here but will have to limit myself to a couple of issues. First, I think Martens makes a good point about not forcing too strict of a dichotomy between the intention of the human author and the intention of the divine author. And perhaps I was tending in that direction. I will definitely reflect on this further.

Second, I would like to ask Martens for clarification on what he means when he says that it is hard to see how the acceptance of the divine authorship of Scripture ought to change the concrete practice of interpretation. I would have to know what he thinks should go into this practice before I would be prepared to agree or disagree. If a professional exegete takes Scripture to be inspired, then he/she will not only make use of the tools of the historian (which I do believe are important despite the criticism I have made of some who employ them), but will also, as Dei Verbum 12 says (citing Benedict XV and St. Jerome), “read it in the same Spirit in which it was written.” This Spirit is encountered not only in Sacred Scripture but in the Sacred Tradition (DV 8), in the Sacraments, in our fellows, in prayer, in the teaching of the Church. I think one can only “read in the Spirit” and so read Scripture rightly, when one recognizes and deeply values all of these places where the Spirit dwells. Only then will one’s “hermeneutic situation” be in order.

If ever, then, a particular reading of Scripture strikes us as historically plausible but, to the best of our knowledge, seems incompatible with the Tradition or with the clear teaching of the Church, we will question the genuine plausibility of the interpretation. But, again, we should not imagine that this will mean that there will be only one way to interpret a scriptural passage. There will undoubtedly be a range of plausible readings of a passage that will be in harmony with the Tradition and the Church’s teaching. Recognizing the normativity of these guides simply does not entail the straightjacket approach to exegesis that I (claiming to follow Aquinas) want to eschew.

But mere intellectual acquaintance with the Tradition and Church teaching will not suffice for reading in the Spirit. As I have already said, it also requires living a Christian life (prayer, reception of the Sacraments, good relationships with others). St. Athanasius has some edifying thoughts on the importance of an authentic Christian life for understanding Scripture. I posted them back in December ("Reading Scripture Rightly: Athanasius on the Hermeneutic Necessity of Holiness").

Judging from what he said in his comments, I would guess that Martens would agree with most of what I say about reading in the Spirit, although it is possible that he would want to add more to what I have proposed. But I don't want to anticipate his response too much!

Moving on, we come to the question about what is meant by the “literal sense” of Scripture. In my post I had said that it appears that for Aquinas the literal sense is the meaning intended by God. I quoted ST, I, q. 1, a. 10: “Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of sacred Scripture is God, who by one act comprehends all things by his intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in sacred Scripture should have several senses.” This struck me as different from the way that Raymond Brown once defined “literal sense” in the Jerome Biblical Commentary. This is what I said:

[Aquinas’s] understanding of the literal sense of Scripture is quite different from the dominant understanding of this term in contemporary biblical hermeneutics. Raymond Brown, writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, which has become one of the standard reference works for Catholic biblical hermeneutics, defines the "literal sense" as "[t]he sense which the human author directly intended and which his words convey." Brown is well aware of the traditional understanding of the literal sense of the medievals, like Aquinas, and the Fathers. But in his piece in the JBC that understanding only seems to have the status of an historical curiosity. (Am I being unfair to Brown?)
Here is Martens’s response:

In answer to Trabbic’s question, I do think he might be a bit unfair to Brown, though I would not choose to define the literal sense “as that which the human author directly intended and which his words convey.” I would define the literal sense as that which is conveyed by the text, for it is impossible to know which was intended by the human author and which by the divine author. What we have is the text. Still, I do not see how reading the text in historical context, dependent upon a human author, renders the medieval understanding of the literal sense “the status of an historical curiosity.” I cannot speak for Brown, but I would suspect that he sees this as the essential building block for all of the other senses of Scripture, including the Sensus Plenior, which he did so much to define. He also, quite definitely, understood the Bible to be inspired. I would also think that it would be worthwhile to read later writings of Brown, from the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC) in particular, which revised his earlier writing in the JBC, to give the best assessment of his thought on this matter.
I did not mean to imply that Brown might have doubts about Scripture’s divine authorship. This is nothing that I would ever suspect of Brown as he has always appeared to have the intention of orthodoxy. I still do think, however, that in the JBC he treats the medieval understanding of “literal sense” as a mere historical curiosity because while he registers it as a past point of view, he does not present it as a live option for current biblical exegesis, seeming only to regard his own concept of “literal sense” as viable today. But if someone can show me that he does in fact think that the medieval concept remains a legitimate option, I will happily concede this point.

Martens continues on this theme:

Yet, there is a literal sense upon which the other senses rest, so it is important that readings remain within certain parameters if they are not to devolve to a sort of “anything goes” interpretive ethic. There must be tools, history is one of them, with which one can define what are “valid” or “good” readings, even if there might be a level of contingency, such as openness to other readings and a willingness to consider other data, that attends to anyone’s interpretation. The literal sense is the building block, as Thomas says, upon which all other senses rest, so it is important to use historical, literary, and philological tools, to define this as best as possible, acknowledging that more than one reading might be valid.
But if, following Aquinas, we say that the literal sense is the one intended by God, historical, literary, and philological tools are important to be sure, but so too is “reading in the Spirit,” as I sketched this above.

Finally, in my original post I stressed the importance of “reading with the Church.” In the present post I have spelled out what I mean by this further in what I have been saying about reading in the Spirit. In the original post I wrote:

There is a movement in the Church today -- not really a coordinated one but significant nonetheless -- to get Catholics to become biblically literate. All well and good. St. Jerome says, as we are often reminded, that "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." But in our haste to promote Bible study groups, let’s not forget that it’s not the bare biblical text that we need to be familiar with but the text as Christ teaches it through his Church: “he who hears you hears me.” Reading Scripture in isolation from the Church is another typically modern -- and dare I say Protestant -- exegetical mistake.
Martens wonders how these words square with (a) what I have said about Aquinas’s view that the literal sense has multiple meanings and (b) with the teaching of Dei Verbum:

Yet I would want to ask, as right as he is, how does this square with Thomas' notion that the literal sense might have more than one meaning? How does this accord with Dei Verbum 8 which states that “this tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit”? The passage in Dei Verbum 8 continues, “for there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.”
As I hope I have made evident in the present post, I don’t believe that my understanding of what it means to read with the Church is at odds with the notion that any given passage of Scripture can be subject to multiple legitimate interpretations. And I don’t believe that I said anything in the original post to the contrary.

Immediately following the above remarks, Martens presents his own notion of what it means to read with the Church: “To read with the Church means paying attention to the sensus fidelium, the work of theologians and the Magisterium. This, it seems to me, accords more with the interpretive possibilities of which Thomas speaks.”

I quite agree. I have not yet spoken of the sensus fidelium in this post but I concur with Martens about its importance. Without a doubt, as Cardinal Newman has reminded us, part of the shaping of Catholic doctrine involves a complex, fruitful dialectic between the sensus fidelium and the magisterium. The details of this relationship would make a good topic for a future post. But in the meantime I can say that any adequate concept of reading with the Church (i.e., reading in the Spirit) would have to incorporate an attentiveness to the sensus fidelium.

Continuing on this same topic, Martens has some reservations about my suggestion that “as Aquinas understands things, God is sovereign over the Church and Scripture and both proceed from him but the latter two do not have equal status in this economy. Faith is not determined by mere appeal to the Scriptures but to the Church’s reading of them.”

In response Martens writes:

Surely, though, the Church is also the people of God engaged in this reading of Scripture and, it is fair to say, that the Church has defined very few passages which must be interpreted in a particular manner, which accords again with Thomas’ notion that a passage might have more than one possible meaning. Apart from this Dei Verbum 10 specifically speaks of the role of the Magisterium as not above that of Scripture: “this teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”
The one quibble I might have with these thoughts is Martens’s reading of DV 10. I mentioned this to him in an email. Here is what I said:

You say that [in DV 10] the Council "specifically speaks of the role of the Magisterium as not above that of Scripture." In a sense that is true. The magisterium serves the word of God in Scripture and in tradition as the passage says. But I had the interpretation of Scripture specifically in view and in that regard it seems that the magisterium, concretely speaking, is the final arbiter (unless Scripture needs no interpretation). This doesn't put the magisterium above Scripture. The magisterium serves Scripture by safeguarding its proper interpretation (as DV 10 appears to suggest). And I would say that it is helped in this by using the tradition (the other normative source of the word of God according to DV 10) as a hermeneutic key.
The only thing that I would wish to add to this statement at the moment is that the magisterium cannot properly fulfill its duties unless it is appropriately influenced in its thinking by the sensus fidelium and the Tradition (not to mention Scripture itself).

Well, I have gone on much longer than I had expected to. I hope that this post will serve to clarify my position and I look forward to Prof. Martens’s further comments. I have already learned much from what he has had to say. I understand that there are many issues here that are far from settled and I expect that I may be persuaded by Prof. Martens to change my mind on some and helped by him to explain better my position on others.

[Addendum: I take this discussion to be specifically about professional biblical exegesis and not about other contexts of scriptural reading, say, lectio divina. The latter is a distinct context and would call for some of the same considerations but also some new ones. I assume, however, that Catholic exegetes will always approach Scripture in a spirit of prayer, even when they are dealing with it in their professional capacity. This is an integral part of the "reading in the Spirit" that I proposed above.]

1 comment:

  1. I posted the following on America Magazine, regarding John Martens' article:


    I took a pass through Trabbic's response. In addition to finding it very interesting, and learning a lot (even on the first pass,) Trabbic is quite generous. Looking forward to John's response response.

    Here is a thought, really a question.

    If one approaches the study, scholarship, research, and exegesis of Judeo-Christian sacred literature from a foundation of faith, can it be considered scholarly research as understood in the university?

    Is there an inconsistency, incompatibility perhaps, between researching ancient literature, on the one hand, and finding meaning that is rooted in faith that goes far beyond the words, history, and context of the text?

    This brings me back to a faith founded study becoming an exercise in apologetics. What is wrong with a faith-first research approach to interpretation and meaning? Nothing. What is wrong with a faith neutral approach? Nothing. However, there is going to be a big problem in trying to reconcile the two approaches and determining what should inform the view of the other approach.

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