Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Mere Christianity and the interpretation of Scripture

Today I want to offer a think piece about the problems of reclaiming Scripture for Catholics.

few weeks ago I highlighted some comments by Fr Aidan Nichols on the disastrous effects of historical-critical methods of exegesis which have effectively rendered exegesis irrelevant to the practice of the faith, and contributed to the reluctance of Catholics to actually read the Bible in a systematic way.

Today I want to focus on the impact of ecumenical approaches to interpreting Scripture, and the way in which I think they serve to undermine our faith.

Drawing on the insights of non-Catholics

One of the ongoing problems of Catholic scriptural exegesis over the last century has been the desire to adopt an ecumenical approach; to draw on the insights offered by protestant (and other) scholars.  There is obvious value in the quest to use the best insights whatever their source: the problem is to avoid the errors that accompany them.

For most of the first half of the twentieth century the Pontifical Bible Commission put severe limits on the extent that this could occur, serving to protect the Church to some degree from modernism.  But as with so many other things, the controls were lifted, a free for all resulted, and today my diocese like many others, likes to put out ecumenically-based bible studies for Advent and Lent.  Yet I would argue that this deprives Catholics of the riches of tradition and serves to undermine our understanding of the faith.

I'm rereading CS Lewis' book on the psalms at the moment, prompted by someone's recommendation for it, and I have to admit I've been reminded why I struggled with the book last time I read it (notwithstanding the clarity and attractiveness of Lewis's style).

CS Lewis' Mere Christianity

There is something of a debate going on at the moment on CS Lewis: on the one had are those ecumenists who even go so far as to advocate his recognition as a saint by the Church (which I'd have to say seems impossible given that he adhered to a heretical ecclesial community); on the other those who wonder why CS Lewis should be considered relevant for Catholics at all.

I have to admit I've always struggled with the concept of mere Christianity: Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli use the concept as the basis of their 'Handbook of Christian Apologietics', for example.  But how can Catholics legitimately write a book on apologetics and completely omit the concept of the Church?!

Scriptural exegesis and ecumenism

And when one comes to Scriptural exegesis, focusing of commentary down to the things we can agree on across the range of Christian beliefs means omitting a lot and adopting a particular mindset.  Generally we can agree on things like aspects of the historical, literary and cultural context in which the text was originally composed, and our emotional reaction to the text.  Lewis, for example, devotes a lot of effort to explaining what he sees as contrasting Jewish and Christian concepts of justice, judgment and so forth.

Yet one of the important interpretation principles for Scripture from a Catholic perspective is the unity of the Old and New Testaments: the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.  The Old Testament prepares for the New, "deliberately so oriented that it should prepare for and declare in prophecy the coming of the Christ".

St Jerome contrasts the ways the Jews read Scripture, as grasping only the words: reading it merely as history will certainly profit the soul, but the Christian reads Scripture with the aid of the Holy Ghost, and thus saves his soul.

In particular the allegorical meaning of a text is as important as its literal meaning and often gives it a genuine intellectual content.  Yet it is that allegorical meaning that tends to mark where ecumenism falls apart.

Tradition

The bottom line is that the witness of tradition is crucial for interpreting Scripture.  Anglicans like Lewis were certainly open to the Patristic tradition, and indeed some of the most useful patristic work in recent years, such as the Ancient Christian Commentaries series, has been undertaken as ecumenical projects.

But for a Catholic, the witness of tradition means more than the Fathers.  First there are the great commentaries of the doctors of the Church - on the psalms, the commentaries by St Thomas Aquinas (on Psalms 1 to 50), St Robert Bellarmine and St Alphonsus Liguorni for example. 

But even more important I think is the witness and implicit interpretations afforded by the liturgy, which for obvious reasons commentators such as Lewis avoid altogether. 

Of course, these days the traditional linkages of texts have been largely unravelled for most Catholics by the effects of the Novus Ordo lectionary.  Yet the fact that a particular psalm is assigned for the Office or Mass of a Christological feast or type of saint for example, is an important indication of how the Church has always interpreted that psalm.  And the Gregorian chant setting of particular psalm verses can often add a layer to the interpretation of a text in its particular liturgical context.

The dangers of political correctness - the Ecole Jerusalem project

The pervasive influence of 'mere Christianity' means that even where the importance of the Tradition is taken into account, it is often relativised as just one more example of how the text has been received, of no greater or lesser import than any other.

Consider for example the Ecole Jerusalem's BEST project, The Bible in its Traditions, which looks set to fill a real gap in Catholic resources on the net and in print, by bringing together textual aids, contextual material and the tradition of the Church.  The sample webpage they've put up has some fabulous material on it.

 But unfortunately the project appears to be trying to be ultra-PC, and thus fails in my opinion, in its demonstration volume (only in French at this stage) to differentiate adequately, and give appropriate status to the tradition of the Church as opposed to the general 'reception of the text'. 

Having information about the use of Scripture in music and art, for example, is a nice additional extra - by no means essential, and you have to wonder if it is really a priority to have, but potentially interesting.  Certainly material on the Jewish context of Scripture can be helpful.  But do we really need to know how, for example, Islam has distorted the meanings of Scripture?  Not just mere Christianity, but mere religion!

Reducing Catholicism to just one more tradition to be taken into account - rather than the Tradition - effectively eliminates Catholicism altogether.  It is a direction that should be resisted.

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