In the past few days we have reviewed how a humanist group has misused Scripture in an Ad campaign designed to ridicule faith in God. In their human kindness they have chosen the Christmas season to do this. Their misuse of Scripture centers on pulling individual verses from the Bible and posting them out of context and apart from the wider Biblical tradition that often clarifies, balances or distinguishes them.
Pope Benedict recently spoke to this very problem in his Post Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini. His main point is that individual verses of Scripture must be understood in relation to the whole of scripture, not isolated from it. I’d like to quote a couple sections of the exhortation so we can learn from the Pope an important lesson about Scriptural interpretation.
From letter to the deeper spirit and meaning of the text – In this first quote the Pope makes reference to the literal sense or meaning of a text. Literal here signifies what a text is saying in the literary sense, not necessarily that it should be understood without any symbolic or figurative meaning, not that it cannot have an analogical, allegorical, or spiritual meaning. The “literal” sense emphasizes what the text is saying, its sentence structure, its grammar, its basic message. However, understanding what the text is merely saying is not enough. We must move on to understand what the text means at a deeper and wider level than its mere literary meaning. The letter must give way to the deeper spiritual meaning. And here is where the Pope picks up:
In rediscovering the interplay between the different senses of Scripture it thus becomes essential to grasp the passage from letter to spirit…..This progression cannot take place with regard to an individual literary fragment unless it is seen in relation to the whole of Scripture. Indeed, the goal to which we are necessarily progressing is the one Word. There is an inner drama in this process…. Saint Paul lived this passage to the full in his own life. In his words: “ the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life ” (2 Cor 3:6), he expressed in radical terms the significance of this process of transcending the letter and coming to understand it only in terms of the whole…… We know that for Saint Augustine too this passage was at once dramatic and liberating; he came to believe the Scriptures – which at first sight struck him as so disjointed in themselves and in places so coarse – through the very process of transcending the letter which he learned from Saint Ambrose in typological interpretation, wherein the entire Old Testament is a path to Jesus Christ. For Saint Augustine, transcending the literal sense made the letter itself credible, and enabled him to find at last the answer to his deep inner restlessness and his thirst for truth. (Verbum Domini, 38)
Hence, to grasp the letter of a text (i.e., what is this text saying) is important because it lays out the data before us. But the next necessary step is to move from letter to spirit so that, by God’s grace and the instruction of the Church we are able to increasingly grasp what the text really means, not merely what it is saying. The Pope is clear to point out that movement from letter to spirit cannot happen if a text is isolated from the whole of Scripture.
But Scripture is not considered only in terms of the whole, but also in terms of its direction or goal. And this goal is Christ. Hence as St. Ambrose taught Augustine and we are reminded by Pope Benedict: the entire Old Testament is a path to Jesus Christ. Thus we look back to and interpret the Old Testament in the light of Christ. God dealt with ancient Israel in stages where he increasingly led them away from barbarity and incivility by the Law and prophets. In these Last Days he speaks to us through his Son and seeks to perfect us even further through his grace. So, each passage or verse of Scripture must be understood in relation to not only the whole of scripture but also its place in the “trajectory” of Scripture.
Thus, what our humanist friends did in the Ads we have discussed was an inauthentic use of scripture. It is not possible to simply yank a verse out of thin air then say, “See here! Look at what they believe.” Or “Look at what their holy book says!” For example, in quoting from 1 Samuel as they did wherein God seems to command genocide, or to quote Leviticus, that those guilty of homosexual acts are to be stoned to death, in doing this our humanist critics fail to see where these texts are on the trajectory of Scripture or how they relate to the whole of it. We have come a long way as God’s people from the time of such cruelties. God has led us in this manner. The committing of genocide is unthinkable today given where God has led us. And, although homosexual acts are still spoken of as sinful at every stage of revelation, the death penalty for sexual sins has been set aside by Jesus own example (e.g. John 8).
In this next passage the Pope emphasizes the ultimate unity of all Scripture in the Person of Jesus Christ. All the Scriptures find their ultimate unity and meaning in him. This is done is at least three ways. Continuity, wherein Jesus affirms and brings forward Old Testament teachings and understandings, deepening them and fulfilling their meaning in a fairly straight-forward way. Discontinuity, wherein Jesus fulfills Old Testament texts in a paradoxical way (especially by suffering and dying) and sets aside certain or replaces certain Old Testament practices or understandings (e.g. the antitheses of Matt 5, the canceling of dietary laws in Mk 7:19). And Fulfillment wherein he transposes ancient texts and practices to a higher thing (e.g. the passover meal now becomes the Eucharistic Banquet). The Pope writes:
In the passage from letter to spirit, we also learn, within the Church’s great tradition, to see the unity of all Scripture, grounded in the unity of God’s word, which challenges our life and constantly calls us to conversion. Here the words of Hugh of Saint Victor remain a sure guide: “ All divine Scripture is one book, and this one book is Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfillment in Christ ”. Viewed in purely historical or literary terms, of course, the Bible is not a single book, but a collection of literary texts composed over the course of a thousand years or more, and its individual books are not easily seen to possess an interior unity; instead, we see clear inconsistencies between them…..which nonetheless are seen in their entirety as the one word of God addressed to us. This makes it clear that the person of Christ gives unity to all the “ Scriptures ” in relation to the one “ Word”….(Verbum Domini, 39).
Moreover, the New Testament itself claims to be consistent with the Old and proclaims that in the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Christ the sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people have found their perfect fulfillment. It must be observed, however, that the concept of the fulfillment of the Scriptures is a complex one, since it has three dimensions: a basic aspect of continuity with the Old Testament revelation, an aspect of discontinuity and an aspect of fulfillment and transcendence. The mystery of Christ stands in continuity of intent with the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament, but it came to pass in a very different way, corresponding to a number of prophetic statements and thus reaching a perfection never previously obtained. …The paschal mystery of Christ is in complete conformity – albeit in a way that could not have been anticipated – with the prophecies and the foreshadowings of the Scriptures; yet it presents clear aspects of discontinuity with regard to the institutions of the Old Testament.Verbum Domini, 40).
Three essential keys to interpretation – Thus Scriptural interpretation for a Catholic must admit of a careful sophistication wherein an individual passage is seen in its relationship to three things:
- The whole of Scripture
- Its place on the overall trajectory of Scripture
- Its relationship to the Person and Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.
Surely too an appreciation of the genre and basic literary devices like hyperbole, metaphor, simile, analogy and so forth is also essential. Since the Scriptures are a Church Book, one would also never presume to read them apart from the beliving community or in opposition to the magisterium.
If we fail to do this we risk not only misinterpreting Scripture but also of getting stuck in some of the difficult or problematic texts of the Old Testament especially. We have seen in the first quote above how St. Augustine overcame his own difficulties in the regard by focusing on Christ and seeing everything in relation to him.
Help for the Dark Passages of Scripture – In the last two days one of the conversation threads has focused on the problematic texts of the Old Testament wherein God called for a “Ban” wherein every living human being, and every animal in a given town was to be killed. Texts like these shock us, and they should. But we must also remember they are very early in the trajectory of Sacred Scripture and such practices were discontinued by God as he led his people away from brutality and instructed them through the prophets to act with justice and learn of mercy. Here too the Pope comments on this “Dark Passages:”
In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback….In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “ the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery ”. (Verbum Domini 42)
Conclusion – And thus the Pope instructs us on the careful, nuanced and sophisticated care that Catholics must bring to Scriptural reading and understanding. Simple proof texting can have a place in setting forth teachings. But generally we ought to be careful of pulling out “one-liners” to illustrate complex theological teachings. The use of Scripture as a foundation of doctrinal teaching is proper and essential but we must be careful to be sure the passages are used authentically, in proper relation to the whole of scripture, its trajectory and ultimate relationship to Christ. Scripture has a sacred synergy which is not usually well served by a simplistic singling out of the Sacred text.