Monday, March 21, 2011

Mondays with Verbum Domini

We will skip ahead this week to the important section concerning the Literal and Spiritual Senses of Scripture. You can find this in paragraph 37:

Literal sense and spiritual sense

A significant contribution to the recovery of an adequate scriptural hermeneutic, as the synodal assembly stated, can also come from renewed attention to the Fathers of the Church and their exegetical approach. The Church Fathers present a theology that still has great value today because at its heart is the study of sacred Scripture as a whole. Indeed, the Fathers are primarily and essentially “commentators on sacred Scripture”. Their example can “teach modern exegetes a truly religious approach to sacred Scripture, and likewise an interpretation that is constantly attuned to the criterion of communion with the experience of the Church, which journeys through history under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”.

While obviously lacking the philological and historical resources at the disposal of modern exegesis, the patristic and mediaeval tradition could recognize the different senses of Scripture, beginning with the literal sense, namely, “the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation”. Saint Thomas of Aquinas, for example, states that “all the senses of sacred Scripture are based on the literal sense”. It is necessary, however, to remember that in patristic and medieval times every form of exegesis, including the literal form, was carried out on the basis of faith, without there necessarily being any distinction between the literal sense and the spiritual sense. One may mention in this regard the medieval couplet which expresses the relationship between the different senses of Scripture:

“Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia. The letter speaks of deeds; allegory about the faith;The moral about our actions; anagogy about our destiny”.

Here we can note the unity and interrelation between the literal sense and the spiritual sense, which for its part is subdivided into three senses which deal with the contents of the faith, with the moral life and with our eschatological aspiration.

In a word, while acknowledging the validity and necessity, as well as the limits, of the historical-critical method, we learn from the Fathers that exegesis “is truly faithful to the proper intention of biblical texts when it goes not only to the heart of their formulation to find the reality of faith there expressed, but also seeks to link this reality to the experience of faith in our present world”. Only against this horizon can we recognize that the word of God is living and addressed to each of us in the here and now of our lives. In this sense, the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s definition of the spiritual sense, as understood by Christian faith, remains fully valid: it is “the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ and of the new life which flows from it. This context truly exists. In it the New Testament recognizes the fulfilment of the Scriptures. It is therefore quite acceptable to re-read the Scriptures in the light of this new context, which is that of life in the Spirit”.


Theophrastus said...

Compare with Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth volume 1, p. xx:

"At this point we get a glimmer, even on the historical level, of what inspiration means: The author does not speak as a private, self-contained subject. He speaks in a living community, that is to say, in a living historical movement not created by him, nor even by the collective, but which is led forward by a greater power that is at work. There are dimensions of the word that the old doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture pinpointed with remarkable accuracy. The four senses of Scripture are not individual meanings arrayed side by side, but dimensions of the one word that reaches beyond the movement."

This is also a chance for me to plug the amazing work by Dr. Henri (Cardinal) de Lubac, Exégèse Médiévale, of which the first three (of four) volumes have been translated into English to date (volume 1, volume 2, volume 3). Dr. de Lubac is one of my three favorite 20th century Catholic theologians (another is de Lubac's student Hans Urs von Balthasar.)

(Incidentally, de Lubac and von Balthasar collaborated with Joseph Ratzinger and other luminaries in founded the journals Communio).

Timothy said...

The good fruits of the Catholic Ressourcement movement, which obviously had an impact on Benedict/Ratzinger.