Friday, 10 June 2011

The traddies guide to studying Scripture...Part I

Commenter Stella Orientis asked in relation to a previous post if I would suggest some orthodox writers on Scripture for someone studying theology, so here is a first installment on that front.

He rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven...

We live in times when Scriptural exegesis serves just as often to undermine the faith as to support it.

I've been responding this week mostly to those who claim that we shouldn't take the Ascension literally.  But today's news story on this front is of a plucky US High School student fighting against teachers insisting that one shouldn't take the Resurrection too literally either!

This distorted view of Scripture flows directly from erroneous biblical exegeiss as the Pope pointed out in his speech to the Synod on Scripture:

"...interpretations are proposed that deny the historicity of the divine elements. Today the so-called "mainstream" of exegesis in Germany denies, for example, that the Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist, and says that the body of Jesus remained in the tomb. The Resurrection is no longer seen as an historical event, but as a theological view. This takes place because of hermeneutics of faith is missing: a profane, philosophical hermeneutics is therefore asserted, denying the possibility of the entry and real presence of the Divine within history. "

Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ!

Catholics are notoriously ignorant of Scripture, and this is not a good thing.

Unfortunately, enrolling in a theology course won't necessarily help, as the story I've pointed to above suggests.  Indeed, theology graduates seem as likely to be taught erroneous views as not, and attempt to pass them on to their students in turn!

So I thought today I'd just point to a few key resources that I think all Catholic families should have in their house, and then in the next part I'll move on to materials for the more advanced student.  Theology students though, should start with the basics too!

Some disclaimers...

By way of disclaimer, this is just my own opinion.  Though I've studied the subject, I'm not ready to claim expert status.  So corrections and suggestions from others are welcome.

I'd also add that although I'm broadly a traditionalist I'm not (contrary to the perceptions of some!) at all a hardline one, so if you are, you won't like what I have to say.  Some traditionalists will suggest that one simply ignore pretty much anything written since Vatican II.  While that is certainly a safer approach, I don't think that is a tenable position.  The challenge is to develop the critical skills to work out for yourself what is and isn't orthodox, or to find authors or priests who will do this for you. 

Things every Catholic should know about Scripture

So the starting point for anyone, whether or not they are actually studying Scripture, is to actually read the Bible in the light of the Tradition. 

Everyone, in my view (yes, even Catholics!), should have read the whole Bible at least once, everyone should keep rereading at least key parts of it and be pretty familiar with which books are where in the Bible, and what they are basically about.  And everyone should have at least some understanding to how to approach the text -  an idea of the concept of typology, reading the Old Testament figures and stories as foreshadowing the New for example, and of how to look for the spiritual senses of the text.

Introductory material

So start by reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church section on the subject, which I think is really quite good in this area.

A very good, sound, introduction to each book of the Bible is Fr Kenneth Baker SJ's Inside the Bible (1998). 

Peter Kreeft has published a similar book, You can understand the Bible (2005) which is an entertaining read, but while very helpful in places needs to be read with more caution than Baker's in my view (Kreeft is a little too ready, in my view, to accept modern takes on when books were written and so forth).  Still, if you are a student at least, both are worth a look as their insights complement each other.

But to actually understand the significance of key events and be introduced in a very straightforward way to typological readings and other key basics, I would highly recommend an oldie but goodie (the first English edition was in 1894), Bishop Knecht's A Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture.  It is one of those books that looks very deceptively simple on the surface, but actually has quite a lot of depth when you sit down and read it.  It fits well with the summation of how to approach Scripture in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and I'd strongly recommend reading it before you try and tackle the full text of the Bible yourself.

Reading the Bible with the Fathers and Theologians

The second essential starting point, in my view, is to read the Bible with the guidance of the Fathers.

For the Gospels, St Thomas Aquinas' Catena Aurea, an anthology of patristic readings arranged around groups of verses is I think a really excellent way of getting started.  There are several new editions and reprints of it available, including the set put out by Baronius Press.

Another good approach is to start from the readings of the (EF) Mass, and read the sermons on them that are used in the Divine Office at Matins.  You can also find more extensive collections of the key patristic sermons keyed to the (EF) Mass texts for Sundays and major feasts.

The cultural and historical context

Ideally, the third basic would be a good guide to the cultural and historical context of Scripture, that digested the best archeological and other research out there, and combined that with things like information on the biblical imagery in a particular text.  Unfortunately, if such a thing does exist, I haven't found it!

There are lots of books that purport to do this, and do do some of it.  But nothing I've found that is thorough, comprehensive and orthodox in one book. 

The closest to what I'm talking about is probably the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible which does contain some helpful material.  But I have to say I find it a fairly annoying style and the content a very mixed bag indeed.  Plus the individual books are very very expensive for what you get!  Another possibility is the Navarre Bible series, but I personally find this series fairly turgid and boring and not that comprehensive.  Plus the lack of references to sources for follow-up is annoying if you are a serious student.

Eventually, the Bible in its Traditions project will hopefully go a long way to filling this gap, and providing a really comprehensive Bible resource for Catholics.  In the meantime, however, google searches will generally throw up useful books to answer particular questions.  The dictionaries, maps, concordances and other material available through sites such as Bible Gateway, Blueletter Bible and similar (non-Catholic) sites are also pretty helpful.

More soon...

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