The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Back in 2003, two scriptural scholars, Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, edited a most interesting book entitled, The Art of Reading Scripture (Eerdmans). The book was the product of 15 scholars who contributed to what was called The Scripture Project, an attempt to restore and renew a theological approach to scriptural exegesis. One result of the project were these nine theses:
  1. Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.
  2. Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.
  3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.
  4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.
  5. The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.
  6. Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action–the church.
  7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.
  8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.
  9. We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.
As you can see by the above, these scholars are by no means slaves to the historical-critical method that has almost monopolized scriptural scholarship since the 19th century. Interestingly, these scholars, who come from a variety of Evangelical backgrounds, seem to reflect the teachings we encounter in Dei Verbum, Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. The Council Fathers, while affirming the value of historical-critical interpretation, also realized that, by itself, such an approach often leads to serious error. Pope Benedict XVI has addressed this dangerous tendency on numerous occasions; for example...
"...Scripture has become a word from the past that each person tries in his own way to bring into the present day; without being altogether able to trust the raft he is using for the purpose. Faith declines into a kind of philosophy of life, which each individual attempts to distill for himself from the Bible as well as he is able. Dogma, from which the ground of Scripture has been pulled away, no longer stands. The Bible that has freed itself from dogma has become a document about the past and, thereby, itself belongs to the past." [Joseph Ratzinger, God's Word: Scripture - Tradition - Office (2005), p. 98-99]
And so, for too many today, total reliance on this approach has turned the Bible almost into an historical artifact, no different from any other ancient document. Recognizing this danger the Council Fathers insisted that scriptural interpretation must also be theological if we are to understand the text as God's people. Once again, Pope Benedict XVI offers a clear solution:
"Perhaps the problems of current attempts can help us to understand again that faith is in fact the spirit from which the Scriptures were born and, hence, the only door by which we may enter into them." [Joseph Ratzinger, God's Word: Scripture - Tradition - Office (2005), p.126]
What a novel concept! Approaching Scripture theologically, from faith! And, apparently, it's a concept that thankfully seems to be catching on. A few months ago I devoted a brief post to some of my favorite scriptural commentaries. Among them was R. R. Reno's wonderful commentary on Genesis published by Brazos Press. Professor Reno's volume is just one in a still incomplete series that offers a theological, rather than a purely historical-critical, commentary on scripture. I can't recommend this series highly enough. 

And then there's a book that I am currently reading: Holy People, Holy Land. Also published by Brazos Press, its authors are Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering, two theologians who teach at Ave Maria University right here in Florida. The book provides a well-written and compact theological introduction to Scripture. Indeed, it's subtitle is just that: "A Theological Introduction to the Bible." I'm about half-way through and already intend to recommend it to those who participate in my two parish Bible Study groups.

Reading and understanding Scripture isn't easy; rather, for most Christians it becomes the work of a lifetime. But it's a task that can be eased considerably by good commentaries that help us understand, experience, and live the holiness and joy that God wants for us. 

God's peace...

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