Revisiting how we approach Sacred Scripture
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?