Monday, 23 April 2012

Reading Scripture with the saints....

The best compliments are those where someone tells you you've inspired them to do some more reading in an area, and I received that from a reader of my Lenten series on Psalm 118. 

Apologies to the requester for taking a while to get to it, but here is my response to the first part of that request, namely suggestions on where to start in tackling reading Scripture - the Old Testament in particular - with the aid of the insights of the Fathers,Theologians and saints.

Why you should read the Old Testament

The core of our faith is the Gospel, and the most central written source for that the four Gospels of the New Testament.  That's why a reading from them features at every Mass.

But to fully understand what they mean, you really do need the context of the Old Testament.

When St Luke tells us that in the period after the Resurrection, Our Lord opened the understanding of the apostles, that they might understand the scriptures (Luke 24:45), he isn't talking about the New Testament for it hadn't been written yet.

Rather, he is talking about all the things written in 'the law of Moses [ie the first five books of the Bible], and in the prophets, and in the psalms' (Luke 23:44).

Similarly, when St Peter talks to the growing crowds after the Ascension, he grounds what he has to say in the Old Testament, that foreshadows the New.

In fact, all of the New Testament books constantly quote and interpret the Old Testament, and assume it as contextual knowledge. 

When Our Lord says for example that the only sign he will give is 'the sign of Jonah' (Matthew 12:38-45) he is using what some today might no doubt dismiss as 'bizarre allegory'.  But of course those early Christians understood (at least in retrospect) exactly what he meant, and the Fathers of the Church committed those understandings to paper, as well as adding their own reflections on the texts with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We would be foolish indeed to reject  the gift of those insights, which retain a privileged status in the Church's Tradition.

Avoiding modernist errors

Indeed, a good case can be made that many of the errors propagated by the progressives reflect a failure to take note of the constant use of allegory, the references to Old Testament prophecies and foreshadowing of events; a failure to appreciate the continuity of the Old and New Testaments.

Vatican II's Dei Verbum actually devoted an entire chapter to the importance of the Old Testament, noting that it is divinely inspired, has lasting value, and attests to God's providential guidance of history.

It reminds us that:

"God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.  For, though Christ established the new covenant in His blood (see Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25), still the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel,  acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament (see Matt. 5:17; Luke 24:27; Rom. 16:25-26; 2 Cor. 14:16) and in turn shed light on it and explain it."

 Similarly, Pope Benedict's Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, in paragraphs 41-43, emphasises the continuing validity of the Old Testament, and the importance of reading the New in the light of the Old.  It particularly points to the importance of 'typology', people and things which foreshadow aspects of what is to come; as well as the way God gradually reveals the fullness of his message to his people.

Pope Benedict XVI does also note however that some of the Old Testament in particular can seem difficult and obscure.  Rather than ignoring them, however, he proposes that we acknowledge that their interpretation requires a degree of expertise, and seek appropriate guidance.

Where then to start?

The first thing to say is that reading Scripture is the work of a lifetime!  Don't expect to understand the significance of it all instantly, but rather start with more straight forward commentaries, and gradually build up.

Rather than starting with the commentaries of the Fathers, or an anthology of them, I'd actually suggest a first run through a good simple commentary that distills that knowledge and explains how to go about interpreting Scripture, and the significance of key events and how they relate to what Catholics believe.

And by far the best introductory book in this regard that I've come across is an oldie but a goodie, namely A Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture by Bishop Frederick Justus Knecht, published by Tan Books.  It looks deceptively straightforward.  But when you start reading, you will find it contains a lot of depth. 

I would suggest reading that in conjunction with something that summarises some of the newer research on Scripture and provides a bit of an introduction to each book of the Bible.  Kenneth Baker's Inside the Bible, published by Ignatius Press, would be a good choice.  Ignatius also publish a not dissimilar style of book by Peter Kreeft which also offers useful insights and suggestions on how to approach each book of the Bible.  Alternatively, if you google individual books of the bible in conjunction with this blog (or look back through posts under the Scripture label) you can also find introductions to a fair number of books of the Bible.

And that should keep you going for a while, because if you can make your way through the entire Old Testament in the course of a year, let alone the New Testament as well, you are doing pretty well indeed!

The Father, Theologians and Saints: anthologies

Nonetheless, once you have made your way through it once, you will want, I think, to go back and read certain books again in more depth, with the aid of the reflections of the saints down the centuries.

For the Gospels, a really excellent starting point is the Catena Aurea, an anthology of commentaries from the Father compiled by St Thomas Aquinas.  Blessed Cardinal Newman translated it into English in the alas unrealised hope that every Catholic family would own a copy!  There are online versions, as well as editions published by Baronius Press and others.

The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers (4 volumes) is another good starting point, keyed to the EF lectionary.

I'd also highly recommend the commentaries of Cornelius de Lapide.  Again not exactly recent work (!), but draws heavily on the Fathers and saints to produce a text that is still robust and insightful, and readily accessible for free online.

There are a number of more recent anthologies of the saints commentaries on Scripture though. 

In terms of online sources the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy's Biblia Clerus site is well worth a look.  It is a bit clunky, but links verses to Magisterial teaching, as well as the Fathers and other selected commentaries.

And of course in terms of books, it is hard to go past the Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture series.  This is the fruit of an ecumenical project, and the selection of commentaries sometimes reflects that.  Nonetheless, it is a fabulous resource (albeit an expensive one if you wanted to acquire every volume in the series!).

Individual commentaries

I have to admit that none of the resources I've pointed to above are particularly comprehensive, but rather reflect copyright constraints and what is available in translation.   In the cases of the psalms (the most quoted Old Testament book in the New), I've resorted to compiling my own anthology - but it is a massive task and I'm only part way through it even restricting myself to sources available in translation!

Still, if you find yourself particularly liking the insights of one author features in one of the anthologies, you can follow that up by looking at the many fine editions of commentaries by the saints appearing now in translation both online (look at the New Advent site as a good starting point) and/or in print.

That other stuff...

I should also note that there is a vast modern literature on how the various books of the Bible have been constructed, the historical context for the Old Testament books, the archaeological evidence and much more. 

Some of it can be very interesting and helpful. 

But ultimately you have to ask yourself: what's more important, understanding the significance of an event for our faith, or knowing how it came to be recorded/the evidence for it really happening etc?

My advice would be to ground yourself in its importance for the Tradition first, and read up on modern takes on it later!

Bible reading plan

Finally, it is worth noting that the Gospels aside, there is a logical time of year to read each of the books of the Bible, namely loosely following the cycle of the liturgical seasons and readings used at Mass and the Divine Office.

You can find a helpful formulation of a 'bible in a year' reading plan keyed to the EF lectionary here.  But note that it requires you to maintain a very ambitious reading plan indeed, of two plus chapters a day.  Happy reading!

And if others have their own suggestions for good starting points, or comments to add on those made above, do toss them in...

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Christ was a Jew of the First Century, and well-steeped in the Torah, so it makes sense to know where we've come from, as it were. I've always been particularly struck by His instruction to Peter to forgive sins seven times seven....because Seven times was what was prescribed in Mosaic Law.
I will follow up some of the links you gave, since it is an area which interests me greatly - thank you.