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John W. MartensJune 06, 2011

At  The End of the Modern World, etc., Joe Trabbic, a philosopher at Ave Maria University,  posted on “Aquinas and Modern Biblical Exegesis”  on May 25, 2011. It has generated no comments on the site, which is odd, since it is a lively and helpful piece. Thomas on Scripture has become a new interest of mine, as I noted recently at The Pope and Inspiration of Scripture, especially since I completed teaching a course, with Dr. Christopher Thompson, on the Prima Secundaethis past semester. I will excerpt the post and offer a few comments and questions, but do read his post in its entirety, as it offers keen insight into Thomas Aquinas and biblical studies.  This is not to say that I agree with Trabbic on every score, but I find his post compelling and helpful.

Trabbic writes that

Aquinas has a remarkable discussion of biblical hermeneutics. Actually, it may only be “remarkable” for us, that is, we moderns who prize the historico-critical approach to Sacred Scripture and thus tend to focus on the meaning that the human author of the text could have intended and aim at narrowing that meaning down as precisely as possible, hoping to find, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, “the single beatific interpretation.” I suppose our ideal would be: one Scriptural proposition/one meaning, something not dissimilar to the ideal language that the early Wittgenstein seems to dream of at times in the Tractatus.

I do think it is correct that the trained exegete or historical-critical scholar, but even the ordinary reader of Scripture, does try to find out the meaning of a scriptural text and to interpret it and analyze it as carefully as proper.  We can do nothing more as interpreters than understand the text to the best of our abilities. It is inevitable that in considering interpretive options we would propose one best reading, whether this is best called “the single beatific interpretation," I doubt. It seems to me that the next step is the consideration of other interpretations: what the best interpreters do, from Augustine, to Aquinas, to the present day, is keep themselves open to other possible readings, especially if those readings have some strong precedent in the Church. What I have found currently is not that professional interpreters are unwilling to consider other possible readings, but that biblical apologists in the Church are offering “one size fits all” readings of the Scripture and ignoring the depth of Scriptural interpretation, which is the heritage and tradition of the Church.  So when Trabbic suggests that “Aquinas, like the Fathers, was quite comfortable with permitting the text of Holy Writ an indefinite variety of meanings, within certain parameters of course,” I find this quite true of Thomas, but probably more amenable to many current interpreters than he might allow. It is the case, though, that most interpreters will remain focused on the literal meaning of the text not spiritual interpretations, which is often a nod and a bow to these “certain parameters.”

This is somewhat of a concern to Trabbic:  

The other “remarkable” thing (for us) about this passage is that although Aquinas acknowledges that the human author’s intention has a role to play in interpretive decisions, he is not at all scrupulous about limiting the text’s meaning(s) to what the human author might have understood because, in his view, what is essential is that the meaning(s) be what the Holy Spirit understood ‘since he is the principal author of the Divine Scriptures.’

Not every biblical interpreter, it is true and strangely so, acknowledges divine authorship of Scripture, but for someone like myself who does, it is hard to see how this acceptance ought to change the concrete practice of interpretation. Thomas might not be “at all scrupulous about limiting the text’s meaning(s) to what the human author might have understood,” but what impact does this have, or ought it to have, on an interpreter, even one who acknowledges the divine authorship? The interpreter is bound to understand the text or passage as fully as he or she can and it is difficult for me to know how one can determine what is limited to the human author or the divine author. If the meaning is embedded in the text, how does one distinguish amongst levels of authorship, attributing one meaning to the human author, who was nevertheless inspired, and one (or more) to the divine author, the source of inspiration? All meaning in the text must go back to the same locus: the text which was written by an inspired human author.

Thomas attributes the literal sense to God, and Trabbic asks if this definition of literal sense is shared by Raymond Brown.

Raymond Brown, writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, which has become one of the standard reference works for Catholic biblical hermeneutics, defines the "literal sense" as "[t]he sense which the human author directly intended and which his words convey." Brown is well aware of the traditional understanding of the literal sense of the medievals, like Aquinas, and the Fathers. But in his piece in the JBC that understanding only seems to have the status of an historical curiosity. (Am I being unfair to Brown?)

In answer to Trabbic’s question, I do think he might be a bit unfair to Brown, though I would not choose to define the literal sense “as that which the human author directly intended and which his words convey.” I would define the literal sense as that which is conveyed by the text, for it is impossible to know which was intended by the human author and which by the divine author. What we have is the text. Still, I do not see how reading the text in historical context, dependent upon a human author, renders the medieval understanding of the literal sense “the status of an historical curiosity.” I cannot speak for Brown, but I would suspect that he sees this as the essential building block for all of the other senses of Scripture, including the Sensus Plenior, which he did so much to define. He also, quite definitely, understood the Bible to be inspired. I would also think that it would be worthwhile to read later writings of Brown, from the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC) in particular, which revised his earlier writing in the JBC, to give the best assessment of his thought on this matter.

Yet, there is a literal sense upon which the other senses rest, so it is important that readings remain within certain parameters if they are not to devolve to a sort of “anything goes” interpretive ethic. There must be tools, history is one of them, with which one can define what are “valid” or “good” readings, even if there might be a level of contingency, such as openness to other readings and a willingness to consider other data, that attends to anyone’s interpretation. The literal sense is the building block, as Thomas says, upon which all other senses rest, so it is important to use historical, literary, and philological tools, to define this as best as possible, acknowledging that more than one reading might be valid.

How will this take shape in the Church amongst the lay faithful? Trabbic wishes, rightly, that we read with the Church:

There is a movement in the Church today -- not really a coordinated one but significant nonetheless -- to get Catholics to become biblically literate. All well and good. St. Jerome says, as we are often reminded, that "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." But in our haste to promote Bible study groups, let’s not forget that it’s not the bare biblical text that we need to be familiar with but the text as Christ teaches it through his Church: “he who hears you hears me.” Reading Scripture in isolation from the Church is another typically modern -- and dare I say Protestant -- exegetical mistake.

Yet, I would want to ask, as right as he is, how does this square with Thomas' notion that the literal sense might have more than one meaning? How does this accord with Dei Verbum 8 which states that “this tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit”? The passage in Dei Verbum 8 continues, “for there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.” To read with the Church means paying attention to the sensus fidelium, the work of theologians and the Magisterium. This, it seems to me, accords more with the interpretive possibilities of which Thomas speaks.

Trabbic ends by discussing biblical studies in parishes, warning that

as Aquinas understands things, God is sovereign over the Church and Scripture and both proceed from him but the latter two do not have equal status in this economy. Faith is not determined by mere appeal to the Scriptures but to the Church’s reading of them.

Surely, though, the Church is also the people of God engaged in this reading of Scripture and, it is fair to say, that the Church has defined very few passages which must be interpreted in a particular manner, which accords again with Thomas’ notion that a passage might have more than one possible meaning. Apart from this Dei Verbum 10 specifically speaks of the role of the Magisterium as not above that of Scripture: “this teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”

On Trabbic’s final issue, then, that of biblical studies in parishes, I do think Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine for that matter, would be welcome additions to teaching Scripture to the faithful, as they offer Catholic notions and practices in Scriptural interpretation, a generosity of spirit in considering other interpretations, a sense of the Scripture as God’s word,  and careful readings of Scripture which do not limit the passage’s meaning to just one, but open the door to deeper, spiritual readings. This would be  particularly welcome when the issue of “one reading only” teaching is so often the norm in Bible studies.

 John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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Edward Stansfield
12 years 11 months ago

If you're aware of an occasion when a priest (or even a protestant minister) used the NJBC to craft a really great, inspiring homily, such an example would be greatly appreciated.

Incidently, I should remind you that you're the one who tried (unsuccessfully) to wield Dei Verbum against ME.

The NJBC treatment of cononicity is probably informative, but (as we have discussed before) its interpretation of scripture tends to be a bit narrow. While the Brown's essay on inspration provides several explanations of what divine inspiration of scripture IS NOT, I don't recall that it gives a clear explanation of what inspiration IS.

Considering the recent surveys that indicate that Catholics are less likley to read the bible than protestants, atheists and people of non-christian religions, I would think the scholars responsible for teaching us about it would be more inclined to do the mature thing and take responsibility for the failure. People who presume to be "scholars" should learn from their past mistakes and determine a better course of action in the future. Producing better reference books and textbooks is what the scholars should do when those used in the past have failed to teach the students successfully.
Chris Sullivan
12 years 11 months ago
<i>the Church has defined very few passages which must be interpreted in a particular manner</i>

Granted that the Church has given a definitive interpretation to some passages, but has she ever defined that any passage must be interpreted in ONLY a particular manner ?

God Bless
Martha Smith
12 years 11 months ago
I found this post of particular interest because I am currently reading Avigdor Bonchek on reading the Torah for its plain meaning. He notes the variations in plain meaning as offered by thr classical commentaries and suggests rules for preferring one plain meanng over another. But he shows Judaism reflecting much the same attitude towards mulitple meanings as Aquinas.
Leo Zanchettin
12 years 11 months ago

A very insightful post. I wondered, as I read Trabbic, whether he wasn't setting his own limits on biblical interpretation, perhaps inadvertently. For instance: The "literal sense" is the sense that God wanted to get across in a given passage, not necessarily what the human author intended-a shaky dichotomy as you pointed out. But, of course, that literal sense can be discerned only by the church (read "Magisterium"), to which all biblicists should adhere. And so, alternative interpretations-interpretations that have yet to receive official Imprimaturs-are to be excluded.

Such an approach risks reducing Scripture to an apologetical and catechetical tool. There seems, for instance, to be very little room for lectio divina. The Bible becomes something to be decoded-ironically a more Protestant than Catholic approach-not a cherished way of encountering the Lord.

Or am I being too limiting in my reading?

By the way: I appreciated your point that the human and divine authorship really can't be teased apart. It reminded me of our classic definition of the hypostatic union-two natures, but only one Person. Mightn't we say something similar about the Bible as well? Just a thought.

Edward Stansfield
12 years 11 months ago
The NJBC & Aquinas
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary is a classic example of a bible study aid that is widely used in the church, widely available in rectories, parish libraries and academic libraries and frequently cited in scholarly discussions even though it has been a complete failure for educational and homiletic purposes. The usage and widespread availability of the text (for many years and decades now) has not helped priests preach better homilies on the scriptures and has not helped Catholics understand the bible better.
As Martens and Trabbic mentioned, the NJBC tends to define the intended meaning of the scriptures in a restrictively narrow way, often assuming that the authors of the bible could only have intended one possible meaning for each statement they asserted. However, Church tradition (represented in the column by Aquinas) advocates four possible “senses” or layers of meaning that scripture can convey simultaneously. This tradition has become an official teaching now that the Catechism has advocated reading the bible according to the four senses (although in Brown’s defense he couldn’t be relied upon to know that since the NJBC came out before the Catechism did). Not only are there multiple meanings the divine author could intend to convey, but the human authors of the scriptures could also intend more than one meaning as well.
In response to a previous column I mentioned that four distinct changes needed to be made in the biblical scholarship in order for it to reach a popular audience. All four of those could be applied to the NJBC. It should be replaced with something better that has a clearer emphasis on theology and fewer skeptical biases and preconceptions. Both Aquinas and Augustine would back me up on this because they (and all the other doctors and fathers of the church) believed the same things. At one point Martens entertained the notion of “refuting” my suggestion by mentioning the Vatican II constitution Dei Verbum. Apparently Professor Martens didn’t anticipate that I would cite 7 (SEVEN!) quotations from Dei Verbum to justify my position.
Martens, what on earth made you think you could use Dei Verbum against me after I had already quoted it to you once before?
Leo Zanchettin
12 years 11 months ago

I think I see where you're going, but I hesitate to go that far. For one thing, Professor Tabbic is not a member of the hierarchy, so he doesn't have the kind of "skin in the game" that you ascribe to church leaders.

I am happy to count among my friends and acquaintances biblical scholars who feel very comfortable with Tabbic's approach, and I would find it hard to ascribe to them the kind of underhanded motives you describe above. I may not agree with them, but I don't doubt their sincerity.

I do, however, find it ironic that for many of these folks, the primary goal is to challenge the supposed chokehold that liberal academia has on biblical interpretation . . . and then set themselves up as the arbiters of true interpretation.

This is nothing new, either. In the Middle Ages, we saw rival theological schools as well-the Dominicans vs. the Franciscans come to mind. And even as far back as the first century, we had Paul and Peter disagreeing on the proper way to include Gentiles into Jewish Christianity. It will be ever thus. The painful thing about divisions that we are seeing today is the vitriol and polarization that tends to come with them. Words like "dissenters" and "conservatives," or "cafeteria Catholics" and "ultra-orthodox" are hurled back and forth. On that count, I found Professor Trabbic's post refreshingly open-minded, even to the point of asking if he was being fair to Raymond Brown. A glint of hope, indeed!

Mechthild Berchtold
12 years 11 months ago
Fr, do you know about the new approaches to biblical exegesis like in the Brazos Commentary series.? I am reading Pelikan on Acts there and especially Griffiths on the Song of Songs. Griffiths does a tremendous job of identifying the ''voices'' in this text: the lover, the Israel connection, the Church, the Marian interpretation, the present reader. Do you think it can and should be done this way today (again?) Would appreciate an assessment....

bill van ornum
12 years 11 months ago
re: Ray Brown

My copy of NJBC was once new and now is so used it would be hard to sell; I studied "Death of the Messiah" and read many other writings by Fr. Brown. Each time I go over his words, my own faith is refreshed.

Additionally, it occurs to me that the educational training for scriptural scholars probably exceeds that of any other profession including advanced medical specialities: while we have hundreds of thousands of doctors and lawyers, very few individuals have the intelligence and talent to master the languages, history, theology, etc. that go into being a scipture scholar.

So I have immense respect for Father Raymond Brown-sadly he never got to write "The Resurrection of the Messiah," but let us echo his own hope that right now he is seeing his Lord "face to face."
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