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Revisiting how we approach Sacred Scripture

October 14, 2009

In his On Christian Teaching, Saint Augustine intends to share knowledge with his reader — knowledge which he hopes will enable them to interpret Sacred Scripture for themselves so as to lead them to union with God and to enable them to share that knowledge via proclamation. He offers a grammar or rule to aid in the process of illumination and ascent. He explains that in order to understand scripture properly, we must be aware of it in its entirety, we must be aware of the way in which the tradition interprets it, and we must understand everything according to the rule of love and the rule of faith. In other words, if my perception of any “ambiguous” text favors a depiction of God which is unloving or contrary to the deposit of faith, then I am interpreting a figurative passage too literally, a literal passage too figuratively, or I just don’t get it. The problem is with my comprehension, not with the text.

Augustine’s approach is one firmly grounded in faith, but he demands that his reader attain a liberal knowledge of the secular sciences to aid in his understanding scripture, which is to say that his position is not fideism at the expense of reason, but a heavy use of reason which is purified from false conceptions by faith.

I am no Biblical scholar, but it is interesting to note the contrast between Augustine’s rules and the standard approach which most modern biblical scholars seem to take. Their use of the historical-critical method often seems to me to rely on reason and the secular sciences too heavily, to dissect the text sometime for great insight, but also often at the expense of the faith. When a problematic text arises, many times all interpretations offered by tradition are cast aside to root out the problem. The problem is not presumed to be in our comprehension, but in the inspired text itself.

I do not mean to say that the historical-critical method is necessarily or intrinsically a bad method, but often it is used on the literal sense to the neglect (and implicit derision?) of the other sense of scriptural interpretation.

Should not our approach to God’s self-revelation be less scientific, more prayerful, more humble? Would not such an approach as Augustine recommends better aid those attempting to ascend to God in holiness?

  1. October 16, 2009 4:56 am

    This goes with one of my problems with modern biblical studies — really, it follows the same problem with the search for the historical Jesus. What you get out of it is your expectations. If you assume “x could not happen” then you prejudge the text and must answer for why it is in the text, creating your “history.”

    Of course, I think there is much which has come out of modern biblical research which is of value, but as long as it does not come in with faith, I think you are right.

  2. Kyle R. Cupp permalink
    October 16, 2009 9:03 am

    Perhaps the best approaches to reading scripture would depend on what reasons scripture is being read. If the immediate goal is to grow closer to God, then a humble, prayerful reading relying less on “a heavy use of reason” might make sense. If the goal is more academic or more scholarly, then perhaps methods that emphasize scientific methodology are of better use. In the end, no interpretation or interpretive approach captures the fullness of the text.

  3. October 21, 2009 1:26 pm

    Thanks for reading and commenting guys.

    Henry, I agree completely. There is certainly value in modern research, but I feel it is give too high a priority.

    Kyle, I agree. I thought part of this post is arising out of my realization that (a) – I don’t read/pray the Bible as often as I should and (b) Because of my biblical “training” when I do read it as prayer, I have trouble blocking out some of the “extra” modern research and focusing on spiritual ascent.

  4. Ronald King permalink
    December 1, 2009 9:26 am

    Joshua, I am happy that you wrote this. In 2005 I returned to Catholicism after a 40 year absence only through God’s gift of Love and the realization that He is Love. I started reading the Bible and could not get past the idea that interpretation of the Bible can only be through God’s Love. Then when reading the catechism I came upon many contradictions in which God is depicted as loving but interpretation of the scripture is unloving. This begins with Genesis 3 and as such it forms the foundation in which our faith views human beings as first wilfull sinful creatures who oppose God. This appears to me the result of tradition that was based on fear and shame as opposed to love.
    This appears to be an underlying influence that has not been addressed deeply enough because of the mistaken belief that all tradition is infallible. The more we learn about neurobiology and human development the more we understand humanity through a compassionate viewpoint. In applying what I have learned about the developing human and the developing identity of the human being to scripture I have been given a different understanding about the original interpretation of the first human beings. This understanding was not something that I had prior to reading the text. It was immediately developed upon reading the text when everything I had learned and experienced up to that point had been organized into a more complete picture through the emergence of awareness that God is Love.
    There is too much to write in a comment box. I hope you read this.

  5. December 3, 2009 10:24 pm


    I’m reading and interested, just often lacking the time to respond in length. The price of working towards a doctorate while raising a child I suppose.

    I’d love to hear more of what you have to say. Can you be more specific about your understanding of Gen 3?

  6. Fr. J. Patrick Mullen permalink
    January 11, 2010 8:30 pm

    Allow me to suggest that we don’t need an either/or reading of Scripture — that we either read it from a scientific and critical approach or we read it spiritually, with a view to hear the voice of God. Dei Verbum does more than invite us to view the Sacred Scriptures from the mind set and world view of the original writers and their audience, and the way the would have understood the text, at least as our starting point, it demands it.

    There is no doubt that the jointly studied and faith-filled reading requires effort, but the payoffs are huge when both the socio-historical methods and real faith intersect. Cultural anthropology is my own methodology of choice. Through that lens I have discovered one keen insight after another that has lead me into a profound awareness of the presence of God.

    We need to do the hard work of shifting from research to meaning, from meaning into encounter, and in the midst of encounter into prayer, lest we become like the proverbial husband who hears his wife’s voice, but isn’t really listening, or worse yet, presumes he understands what his wife is saying when he hasn’t truly paid attention.


  7. Ronald King permalink
    January 11, 2010 10:08 pm

    Fr. Mullen, My perspective comes from the perspective of interpersonal neurobiology, attachment theory and research, identity formation, quantum physics and awakening to the Love of God. I would be very interested in your understanding of Genesis 3.
    Joshua, I haven’t forgotten to comment. My time has been pressed with responsibilities also.
    It is also extremely difficult to be concise with my thoughts because it is an extremely complex puzzle that is being given to me for consideration.

  8. June 15, 2010 5:56 pm

    This is a most serious site, worthy of admiration and deep praise. I am a Catholic Systematic Theologian, I began blogging one month ago at the request of a friend.
    Your web page topics are formidable in their catholicity; an eclectic approach is most fitting given the theological range of your writers.
    I’ll be back for more.

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