The local diocesan newspaper here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, The Catholic Spirit, has a short piece on some comments the Pope sent to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, whose members were meeting from May2-6 to discuss Inspiration and Truth in the Bible. The Pope, according to this report, said,
"It is possible to perceive the Sacred Scriptures as the word of God" only by looking at the Bible as a whole, "a totality in which the individual elements enlighten each other and open the way to understanding," the pope wrote in a message to the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
"It is not possible to apply the criterion of inspiration or of absolute truth in a mechanical way, extrapolating a single phrase or expression," the pope wrote in the message released May 5 at the Vatican.
The commission of biblical scholars, an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, met at the Vatican May 2-6 to continue discussions about "Inspiration and Truth in the Bible."
In his message, the pope said clearer explanations about the Catholic position on the divine inspiration and truth of the Bible were important because some people seem to treat the Scriptures simply as literature while others believe that each line was dictated by the Holy Spirit and is literally true.
There are a few significant issues raised even in this short report:
1) The Catholic position on Scripture is to see the Bible as a "whole," to read the texts in light of all of Scripture;
2) The criterion of inspiration should not be applied in a "mechanical way, a way I believe is becoming fashionable amongst some Catholic interpreters as issues of fundamentalism in biblical reading become more common in the Church;
3) The Catholic position neither denies the revealed nature of Scripture nor does it promote a simplistic sense of inspiration by dictation.
These are important issues, some of which I have been trying to get at in recent posts (here, here and here), but also in the earlier posts on Verbum Domini. The Catholic approach to Scripture is multivalent. This goes back to Bible itself, I would argue, but profoundly to the Church fathers, who were influenced by Jewish allegorical readings of Scripture in their own spiritual readings, and who did not maintain that only one reading was possible or that a good reading of a biblical text shut down discussion and exegesis. This continued on into the medieval period, where a scholar such as St. Thomas Aquinas was attuned to the many spirtual or figurative readings of Scripture, but whose understanding of the richness of the literal interpretation remains a model for readers today. Dr. John Boyle writes of Thomas' reading of the literal sense of Scripture:
The literal sense is the meaning or signification of the words themselves. In this, Scripture is like any other literary work and can be studied accordingly. While Thomas' linguistic and literary skills were modest by modern standards, he would no doubt delight in the deepened modern understanding of the linguistic and literary contexts of Scripture. Likewise with history, Thomas' tools were few, but here again, he would appreciate our deepened understanding of the historical context of Scripture. Nonetheless, these studies are not ends in themselves. What interests Thomas in considering the literal sense of Scripture is what do the words mean? In presenting the literal sense of Scripture, Thomas speaks, by way of a kind of formula, of "words signifying things." His own understanding of human intelligence is that words as sounds are signs of mental words -- what we might call concepts and ideas -- which themselves have some referent in reality. To know the literal sense is to know the reality intended by the author and signified by those words.
Within this understanding of the literal sense, Thomas includes metaphor. Indeed, any literary device used in Scripture, in so far as it is common to other literary texts, is a matter of the literal sense. So, for example, Thomas notes that Christ's sitting on the right hand of God is to be understood metaphorically, since God has no right hand, but that the metaphorical meaning (the power of God) is the literal meaning as it is the thing, the reality, ultimately signified by the words.
This is not to suggest that Thomas naively thinks the literal sense is obvious or self-evident. Thomas is well aware of the manifold possibilities presented by the letter. We catch a telling glimpse of this in one of the disputed questions when Thomas asks whether the creation of unformed matter precedes in duration the creation of things.
The question is not only a metaphysical one; much of the debate is about interpreting the opening lines of Genesis. In this lengthy question, Thomas considers the interpretations of Augustine, Gregory the Great, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, and Moses Maimonides, as well as a host of presumably more contemporary "others." We need not rehearse the multiple and complex arguments of this question. Of interest to us are Thomas' general comments at the beginning of his response to the question.
Leaning on Augustine, Thomas says that with questions such as this one there is a twofold debate, namely, concerning the truth of the matter, and concerning the sense of the letter. In disputing the truth of the matter, one should neither assert something false, especially what would contradict the truth of faith, nor assert that what one believes to be true is a truth of faith. Thomas is particularly concerned that one might tie some personal belief to the truth of faith, which if shown to be false, would hold the faith up to the ridicule of non-believers. Those who maintained the ptolemaic universe to be a truth of faith may provide a good, albeit subsequent, example of what concerns Thomas here.
Concerning the sense of the letter, Thomas again notes two extremes to be avoided. One should neither assert that something false is in Scripture, nor should one insist upon a particular meaning to the exclusion of others that contain the truth and that fit the circumstances of the letter. The first seems clear enough: one ought not maintain something known to be false as scriptural since Scripture is the revelation of God who is truth.The second is of particular interest for Thomas notes in passing the grounds for entertaining competing literal interpretations. They must not claim anything known to be false, and they must fit the text or, to quote more precisely, "the circumstances of the letter must be preserved." Thomas does not explain what he means here. He does provide an example a bit later in the question when he considers how to understand the firmament that divides the waters. He explains that some (including Maimonides) hold that this refers to the air or that part of the atmosphere between the rain clouds and the water on the earth. Thomas argues that this interpretation does not seem to fit the circumstances of the letter since the text also says that God placed the two great lights and the stars in that firmament. Thus minimally, Thomas appeals to context and a contextual coherence.
Let us note the implications of these cautions for the literal interpretation of Scripture as understood by Thomas. Thomas grants that one may be confronted with competing literal interpretations each of which is true with regard to the nature of things and each of which fits the "circumstances of the letter." In these cases one is not to insist on one's own interpretation to the exclusion of the others. Thomas even goes so far as to suggest that these all may have been the author's intention, and if they were not, they nonetheless could be the intention of the divine author and thus all acceptable.
It is the final paragraph here that is telling for how we ought to do biblical interpretation and understand competing interpretations: acknowledging the inspired character of Scripture, we nevertheless must be open to a broadness of interpretation and not insist on our own interpretation to the exclusion of others. We must also not let Scripture interpretation or our understanding of Scripture devolve into a mechanical exercise. Let the whole of it speak and let us listen carefully to others.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens