Tuesday, 15 November 2011

How to read the Bible

As longs the deer for running streams,
So longs my soul for Christ, the Well:
From him, the living waters flow
Through wastes where withered spirits dwell.

These lines from a popular hymn evoke the picture in the title of this blog, which is a detail from the ceiling above the shrine of Our Lady of Oxford. They express the yearning for living waters that we feel as we approach Sacred Scripture. A rich discussion by Adrian Walker of Scripture as "living water" especially in the thought of Benedict XVI was published in Second Spring and Communio and may be found online here.

In All Things Made New I provide a summary of the current state of Biblical scholarship, which is in the process of outgrowing an obsession with historical-critical interpretation. In the Middle Ages it was commonplace to speak of the four
"senses" of Scripture: the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. According to the medieval rhyme: "The letter teaches what took place, the allegory what to believe, the moral what to do, the anagogy what goal to strive for." In Theological Fragments (Ignatius Press, 1989, 109-127), Henri de Lubac comments that the "allegorical" approach reads the narrative in relation to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, or the Old Testament as pointing to the New; the "moral" (or tropological) involves the grasp of the “interior drama”, understanding the Bible as a mirror of the soul and its struggle with sin; while the “anagogical” pertains to the divine realities themselves, the highest mystical doctrines, and the end of the world.

Modern scholars, influenced by Enlightenment thinking for better or worse, tended to reject allegorical and other kinds of spiritual interpretation in order to concentrate on the "literal", now reduced to meaning merely what the original (human) author was intending to say. In this way the spiritual usefulness of Scripture for the devout reader was diminished. Much was discovered about the historical process that led to the formation of the canon and the redaction of texts, but what was lost was an ability to read those texts as living waters flowing from God, in the Holy Spirit who guides the Church through historical time and beyond. More recent biblical exegesis have taken other directions: "canonical criticism" in particular enables us to recover a sense of the Bible as a living whole. But we need also to become more sensitive to the language of symbolism and its importance for the biblical authors if we are to understand their true intentions. (See Jason Byassee on the "return to allegory" movement in Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine.)

I would almost say that we should once more take as primary the fact that every word of sacred scripture is true in an exact symbolic or spiritual sense, and as secondary the fact that some of it may be true also in a literal, historical-realist sense. The Bible is written in the language of the spirit and the imagination. Poets tend to understand this quite well. The Victorian convert Coventry Patmore, in an essay called "The Language of Religion", once said that "neither in ancient nor in modern times has there been a poet, worthy of that sacred name, who would not have been horrified had he fancied that the full meaning of some of his sayings could be discerned by more than ten in ten thousand of his readers." How much more is this true of Scripture, a document crafted by the genius of God working with man, to speak to each of us in the present moment of our soul and its journey back to God.

Then will I dwell forevermore
Where crystal rivers run like fire
From Christ whose presence fills my heart
And satisfies my life's desire.

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