At The End of the Modern World, etc., Joe Trabbic, a philosopher at Ave Maria University, posted on “Aquinas and Modern Biblical Exegesis” on May 25, 2011. It has generated no comments on the site, which is odd, since it is a lively and helpful piece. Thomas on Scripture has become a new interest of mine, as I noted recently at The Pope and Inspiration of Scripture, especially since I completed teaching a course, with Dr. Christopher Thompson, on the Prima Secundae this past semester. I will excerpt the post and offer a few comments and questions, but do read his post in its entirety, as it offers keen insight into Thomas Aquinas and biblical studies. This is not to say that I agree with Trabbic on every score, but I find his post compelling and helpful.
Trabbic writes that
Aquinas has a remarkable discussion of biblical hermeneutics. Actually, it may only be “remarkable” for us, that is, we moderns who prize the historico-critical approach to Sacred Scripture and thus tend to focus on the meaning that the human author of the text could have intended and aim at narrowing that meaning down as precisely as possible, hoping to find, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, “the single beatific interpretation.” I suppose our ideal would be: one Scriptural proposition/one meaning, something not dissimilar to the ideal language that the early Wittgenstein seems to dream of at times in the Tractatus.
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. So when Trabbic suggests that “Aquinas, like the Fathers, was quite comfortable with permitting the text of Holy Writ an indefinite variety of meanings, within certain parameters of course,” I find this quite true of Thomas, but probably more amenable to many current interpreters than he might allow. It is the case, though, that most interpreters will remain focused on the literal meaning of the text not spiritual interpretations, which is often a nod and a bow to these “certain parameters.”
This is somewhat of a concern to Trabbic:
The other “remarkable” thing (for us) about this passage is that although Aquinas acknowledges that the human author’s intention has a role to play in interpretive decisions, he is not at all scrupulous about limiting the text’s meaning(s) to what the human author might have understood because, in his view, what is essential is that the meaning(s) be what the Holy Spirit understood ‘since he is the principal author of the Divine Scriptures.’
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.
Thomas attributes the literal sense to God, and Trabbic asks if this definition of literal sense is shared by Raymond Brown.
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?)
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.
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.
How will this take shape in the Church amongst the lay faithful? Trabbic wishes, rightly, that we read with the Church:
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.
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.” 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.
Trabbic ends by discussing biblical studies in parishes, warning 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.
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.”
On Trabbic’s final issue, then, that of biblical studies in parishes, I do think Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine for that matter, would be welcome additions to teaching Scripture to the faithful, as they offer Catholic notions and practices in Scriptural interpretation, a generosity of spirit in considering other interpretations, a sense of the Scripture as God’s word, and careful readings of Scripture which do not limit the passage’s meaning to just one, but open the door to deeper, spiritual readings. This would be particularly welcome when the issue of “one reading only” teaching is so often the norm in Bible studies.
John W. Martens
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