Thursday, 9 June 2011

Once was Octave Day of the Ascension...

I've been arguing, over the last few days, that rather than rushing to the latest protestant and/or modernist take on Scripture, we should start by thoroughly grounding ourselves in the Catholic Tradition.

I think this is especially important for those charged with catechesis, but also essential for would-be Catholic theologians.

Overcoming confusion and error

We live in an age of extremely poor catechesis.  When most Catholics, even bishops and theologians, seem confused about the very nature of dogma, let alone its actual content. 

The result being, as I've suggested in an earlier post, that even parish bulletin reflections and priestly sermons on the Ascension now often serve to subvert the Creed's assertion that the Ascension was a real historical event rather than teach it!

In an age where few Catholics are even all that familiar with Scripture, let alone the Catholic interpretation of it.

Particularly in those circumstances it is important to go back to basics - to walk before you run; to know your own tradition thoroughly before you look to someone else's. 

Highly expert and orthodox theologians might be able to read heterodox works and pull the useful material out of it for us to draw on - but most of us, it seems to me, should focus first on acquiring a thoroughly catholic perspective on Scripture!  To my mind that means reading the commentaries of the Fathers and Theologians, as well as the more modern commentaries that are firmly based on them and preferably have an imprimateur.

Playing in academia

The problem, in my view, is that Catholic exegetes have, for too long, allowed the agenda to be set by their protestant colleagues in the academy. 

In the twentieth century, instead of rejecting modernism and rationalism for what it was, and pursuing the revival of patristics and setting their own agenda, they mostly sulked instead.  Many went to teach at non-Catholic Universities to avoid the restrictions the Church placed on them. 

And even now, bad theories (such as the theoretical 'Q'  Gospel) are arguably advocated, as some have pointed out, not because of their plausibility or any evidence for them, but because they provide markers of being properly academic, a way to show you are part of the club! As a result, as some of its proponents have actually admitted and even advocated, modernism has become mainstream.

The problem is, that as the Holy Father and other theologians such as Fr Aidan Nichols have argued, this whole direction has proved to be pretty much a dead-end.  Many of the older theories about the development of Biblical texts have been outright disproved by the Dead Sea Scrolls (not that that has stopped anyone, simply invent a new and just as implausible hypothesis!).  And the whole direction of the academy has driven a deep and unhealthy chasm between 'exegesis' on the one hand and 'theology' on the other hand, with the former doing little to aid the exposition of the faith.

Orthodoxy is not the same as agreement!

That is not to say that one must agree with every word the more traditionally oriented commentaries say, far from it.

Personally, I've been doing a lot of work on the psalms over the last several months.  I enjoy the takes of the Tradition - especially the major commentaries by writers such as St John Chrysostom, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, St Robert Bellarmine and more.  But they frequently don't agree with each other, and there are plenty of new insights to be gained by considering the psalms in the context of the challenges of our own time and problems, and adopting newer methods.

Of course there are some few useful insights to be gained from new methods of exegesis and more particularly, research on the historical and cultural context of Scripture, and the insights gained from the study of the Dead Seas Scrolls.  So I've read some of the orthodox twentieth century and more recent Catholic commentaries that attempt to incorporate these, such as the Navarre Bible.  I do think there is something of a lacuna in the literature for Catholics in this area, though some are working to address this.

All the same, my own view is that it is only once you have done the hard yards of looking at the entirely orthodox material that one should venture into the wider, more heterodox world of exegesis.  I'll admit to having some of these works on my bookshelf, and to having consulted them in the library.

But what I've almost invariably found is that if you do the exercise as I've suggested of starting with the Tradition, when you do look at the latest protestant and other offerings, despite the vast volume of material on the market, most of it simply doesn't up to the great Catholic works of the past.

So my recommendation is to use resources like Bibliaclerus, the Congregation for the Clergy's links between bible texts and Magisterial teaching and the traditional commentaries on Scripture.  Use resources like New Advent Fathers, or the CCEL collection of pre and post-Nicene Fathers.  Buy a copy of some of the excellent new translations coming out of key Patristic commentaries.

In short, learn the Catholic faith first!

St Augustine on the Ascension

And so, to continue my series of Patristic readings relating to the Ascension at Matins, St Augustine's sermon that used to be set for today, the Octave Day of Ascension in the pre-1962 calendar.

"Dearly beloved, all the wonderful works which our Lord Jesus Christ did in this world, under the weakness of our nature, are most certainly profitable for us. When he exalted his Manhood above the stars, he shewed to believers that heaven could be set open to them. When, as the Conqueror of death, he entered into the heavenly mansions, he shewed to anyone that overcomes whither he also may follow. Therefore, the Ascension of the Lord is the seal of the Catholic Faith, which assure in us the hope of the gift which is yet to come to us, from a wonder whereof we already feel the fruits. Thus let every one that is faithful, having already received so much, learn to hope for that which is promised, on account of that which he knows to have been already given. And thus he will hold the goodness of God in times which have been, and times which now are, as a sure pledge of the same in times to come.

That earthly body, then, is set on high, above the heights of heaven; those bones, which but a little while before had lain within the narrow walls of the grave, have made their entry among the angelic hosts; human nature has been given a place in the lap of immortality; and therefore the Apostle whose account we have heard read, saith : When he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up. When you hear that he was thus taken up, know that this taking was the ministry of the angelic army; whose subservience to him revealed to us in this festival the mystery of him who is both God and Man. United in one and the same Person, ye should contemplate two things: in him that lifted up, the power of the divínity; but in him who was up-lifted, the substance of humánity.

Therefore we should thoroughly abhor those pestiferous teachings of Eastern falsehood, those brand-new inventions of ungodliness which dare to assert that he (who in one Person is both Son of God and Son of Man), hath but one nature. On the one hand, if a man say that Christ is not partaker of the divine nature, he hath denied the glory of his Maker; on the other, he who says that the Manhood is not the nature of man, has denied the mercy of his Saviour. On these points, it is well nigh impossible for an Arian to believe that the Gospel-writers are any better than liars, since the Evangelists distinctly assert in some places that the Son of God is equal, and in others, that he is ínferior, to the Father. Further, if a man be given over to this soul-slaying delusion of believing that our Saviour hath only one nature, he must of necessity profess, either that it was only God, or that it was only man, who was crucified. But such is not the truth. If he had been of no nature but the divine, he could not have suffered death ; and if he had been of no nature but the human, he could not have conquered death.


Stella Orientis said...

Thank you for this, Kate. As a student of Theology I've just finished my first Biblical Studies subject, and it's about everything you've described. The first half was "learning exegesis", then when we got to the Gospels we were all over the "Q, L and M sources".

If possible, could you provide a list of reliable Catholic exegetes for the confused student to consult? Then perhaps a second of non-Catholics worth considering, and even a third of exegetes (Catholic or otherwise) to be avoided?

I understand this is a lot of work, but when our own Catholic teacher of Biblical Studies freely draws from the latest Protestant scholarship we have nowhere else to turn...

Kate said...

Yes, I was speaking from experience! My own masters courses in this area were shall we say a very mixed bag!

Hmm, ok I do have a few authors I can recommend, so I'll do a post on how I think you can tackle the subject and some useful authors, but it depends a little on what part of Scripture you are looking at (feel free to email me).

Also note that this is just my own opinion - there are certainly some people out there in academia who agree with me (or really more a case of I agree with them!) but they are relatively few and far between. And how well it will go down with your professor depends on how open to the tradition they are.

My strong advice though is to start by looking at the magisterial and patristic commentaries on any text you are doing exegesis on accessible via Bibliaclerus, plus do a wider search to find out what commentaries by the Fathers and Theologians on it are available in translation (or original language if you are up to it!). If you are looking at the Gospels, the Catena Aurea put together by St Thomas Aquinas (available online) is a great starting point.

Another extremely helpful starting point is to consider how a text has been used liturgically by the Church (and here you have to ignore the new lectionary since it discards many of the traditional connections between psalms and Gospels and feasts!) as a witness to the tradition. The website of Felix Just SJ has some extremely useful resources on it, including a listing of Sunday readings in the EF.

Another excellent piece of preliminary reading is the chapter in Fr Aidan Nicols' book Criticising the Critics - he also provides a few useful some good references to point you in the right direction.

Schütz said...

Highly expert and orthodox theologians might be able to read heterodox works and pull the useful material out of it for us to draw on

That would be me too, then, eh, Kate? ;-)

Seriously, I think you are totally misreading the Holy Father's attitude toward modern scriptural studies. I took the time to re-examine the bibliography in "jesus of Nazareth Vol II". He certainly restates the care that must be taken with the historical-critical studies. But in fact, much of modern biblical scholarship - especially protestant biblical scholarship - has moved on from the classical skepticism of such methodology in any case. I think you fail to understand exactly how conservative many of the conclusions of these scholars are. For instance, I know a few Catholic Scripture professors, and most of them dismiss Wright (for eg.) and another of my favourite protestant scholars, Ben Witherington III, as hopelessly conservative. Wright, for instance, is scathing about those who dismiss certain of the Pauline Canon as "deutero-Pauline" and hence less authoratitative than those they like to see as "genuine Paul".

In any case, back to that bibliography of JON Vol. II: it contains a very wide range of scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, and many if not most of them are practitioners of the various modern critical exegetical methodologies. Funny that the Holy Father should give these in a list recommended for further reading and study if they are too dangerous for us mere mortals to be exposed to!

If you read the Holy Father's interventions at the Synod of the Word back in 2008, you will see that what he was really arguing for was a reconciliation of two disciplines that had previously been divorced: scriptural studies and dogmatic theology. Of course, in JON vols I & II, he demonstrates how one can do authentic exegesis in this day and age with the full benefit of the scripture scholarship (which is vast) both protestant and Catholic, and yet do so from the Heart of the Church, ex Corde Ecclesiae, so to speak.

Do not be afraid!, the old Blessed Pontiff would have said. Just as a historical scholar need not fear what the scientific study of history may through up (for the Church's faith is based on the truth of history), nor need we fear genuine discoveries about the Scriptures - for the Catholic faith is surely not in any way opposed to the authentic message of Scripture.

Kate said...

Nothing I'm saying in these posts is anything new David, it is all stuff I've said before many times on this blog, and in fact reflects my ongoing reflection on the theology courses, the Popes continuing comments, and some of the books and journal articles I'm reading at the moment.

In fact I'm mostly reacting (still) to the prevalance of erroneous material being disseminated to priests for parish bulletins and reports to me (and one or two I've heard myself) of erroneous sermons drawing on them.

That said David if the cap fits...and as a matter of fact I have seen you get mirred from time to time, on your blog, on some of the classic questions raised by modernist commentators worrying about the historicity of events that really either would never have come up, or would be solved if you had started from patristics! Now to your credit, you do seek to hunt down the material to find the right answers, but my argument is about starting points.

The fact that the liberals don't like Wright (and others) doesn't necessarily make him right on everything that counts! They object to his conservatism on issues like homosexuality. And I think I noted that his views on some topcis were orthodox. My point is that on many others they aren't!

We might have to agree to disagree on the Holy Father's approach - I haven't read V.II as yet, but V.I (and more importantly Verbum Dei) read to me as a long critique of the whole approach and laying the groundwork for an alternative one. He reads these people in order to counter their erroneous and questionable ideas, unsurprisign given his background in CDF (though I admit he has a few 'interesting' views of his own; he is an academic theologian after all!). That he is polite about it is his style - but his basic line is that there ain't much more to learn from this direction, raising the implicit question of whether there ever was!

The problem is, as he points out, that the historico-critical method by its very nature makes exegesis irrelevant to theology, thus undermining its whole raison d'etre! There are several good articles on his views, and the broader problems inherent in hist-crit around (have your read Aidan Nicol's Criticising the Critics, it really is very good?), but one very moderate one pitched at conservatives rather than traditonalists and available online is this:

The Pope has proposed one possible direction for a solution; I think there are others.

From a traditionalist point of view, the opening up of exegesis to protestant perspectives has not bought the fruits that advocates of this hoped for, rather it has served to undermine the faith. In my view, what hasn't worked should be abandoned in favour of approaches which do work!

But of course paradigm changes are very hard to effect - many people have made a huge intellectual investment they don't want to see wasted, academic recognition and promotion are at stake, not to mention the fate of all those books on the market...