Reading with the Spirit II: A Response to Joseph Trabbic

I am honored by Professor Joseph Trabbic’s generous response to me, Reading with the Spirit: A Response to John Martens, and I am in agreement with almost all that he writes. I sometimes wonder if a part of the problem under which I labor in discussions on biblical interpretation is that I had teachers who actually understood Scripture as the Word of God and did not see this stance as antithetical to historical-critical study of the Bible. It might be that my training inoculated me against the pathogens borne by some historical-critical readings and allowed me to see only the many positive uses to which historical study could be used and by which it could enlighten Scripture. Nevertheless, there are some excellent questions Trabbic has asked and clarifications which he has requested and I would like to respond to these. On some of these issues it may be that I have not been clear, though, it is possible that we might, ultimately, find that we disagree on a point or two. I do not wish to minimize the points on which there might be disagreement, but I do want to begin by stressing the points on which I think we have fundamental agreement. We both agree that the Bible is the Word of God and that it is the Church’s Scripture, which means not only that this revelation emerges from the midst of the Church, but that where there are fundamental disagreements regarding the meaning or purpose of Scripture, as a whole or in part, it is a part of the Church’s teaching office to define this authoritatively for the faithful. In terms of this particular discussion of Scripture, I agree with Trabbic when he says that this “discussion is specifically about professional biblical exegesis and not about other contexts of scriptural reading, say, lectiodivina. The latter is a distinct context and would call for some of the same considerations but also some new ones. I assume, however, that Catholic exegetes will always approach Scripture in a spirit of prayer, even when they are dealing with it in their professional capacity.” This prayerful openness to Scripture on the part of the interpreter is, indeed, a key element which sets a secular interpreter apart from an ecclesial interpreter of Scripture.

Even accounting for these general agreements, there are still questions that remain regarding the purpose of interpretation and the role of the interpreter. Trabbic asks concerning my notion of the interpreter seeking and offering the "best reading":


Still, I would query Martens about his observation in the above passage that “[i]t is inevitable that in considering interpretive options we would propose one best reading.” How does he mean this? I (and I believe this is Aquinas’s approach too) would be hesitant even to propose a “best reading” and acknowledge rather that there is a range, perhaps quite wide, of plausible readings. This would not mean, of course, that just any reading would do. It goes without saying that whatever readings are allowed as plausible will logically exclude their contraries and contradictories. Given that I take this view, I agree with Martens in deploring “one size fits all” readings of the Scripture that ignore “the depth of Scriptural interpretation.” Neither is this way of handling Scripture in tune with the traditional Catholic approach.

I suppose we might differ on an answer to this question, at least in part. I do think that for most passages there are a number of plausible readings, it is just that when an interpreter has finished the task of wondering and thinking (and praying) with a passage, it is the “best reading” that an individual interpreter proposes, at least from the interpreter’s point of view, or else he or she would not offer it. Interpreters offer the best possible explanation of a passage which they are able: their task is to understand, as it is for every reader.

A good interpreter should be open and humble enough to recognize that the “best reading” is not the only possible reading and that it is possible that in light of other evidence that one might have to change one’s mind, that he or she has been wrong on some matter or, if not wrong, that some better data or information has come to light which allows one a better reading. For me the issue is the stance that one takes to Scripture which allows one to listen and hear it. There is a line that Rabbi Ishmael was purported to have said to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, “Behold, you say to Scripture: ‘be still while I interpret you’” (Sifra, Tazria Negaim, 13.2, W.68b). Rabbi Ishmael, to my mind, is criticizing Rabbi Eliezer for not listening to Scripture, but attempting to make it say what he wants. The interpreter, however, must measure up to and be formed by Scripture and not attempt to “control” Scripture and make it say what one wants. An interpreter should be alive and awake to the possibility that Scripture might be speaking in numerous ways and that in light of other interpretations and other evidence, they might have to revise their own reading or account for other data not previously considered.

I should add, as well, a couple of further clarifications. I am thinking of this “best reading” at the literal sense. I do not deny that a passage might have, though it does not necessarily have to have, spiritual senses that “co-exist” with the literal sense. A “best reading” would not deny the spiritual senses because spiritual senses are based upon the literal sense. This is another reason why it is important to get to the “best reading” possible, namely, so that the spiritual senses are grounded in the best understanding of a text possible.

The final clarification is necessary because it is possible that my focus on the “best reading” puts me perilously close to a “one size fits all” reading and not Professor Trabbic. Does my attention to the “best reading” reduce Scripture to “one meaning,” not multivalent possibilities? This is not my desire. I stress the interpreter’s need to focus on the best possible reading, based upon all of the data, as a response to postmodernist readings which would reduce interpretation to a strictly subjectivist enterprise. I want to stress that the interpreter must enter into a relationship with the object, the text, and that in that relationship not “anything goes.” I want, that is, to stress that there are possible valid readings, plural, but that these must be based upon the text and not the subject’s fancy or flights of fancy. These readings must be guided by the text, the Tradition and the unity of Scripture.

Professor Trabbic also asks for a clarification on the practice of interpretation. He says,

I would like to ask Martens for clarification on what he means when he says that it is hard to see how the acceptance of the divine authorship of Scripture ought to change the concrete practice of interpretation. I would have to know what he thinks should go into this practice before I would be prepared to agree or disagree. If a professional exegete takes Scripture to be inspired, then he/she will not only make use of the tools of the historian (which I do believe are important despite the criticism I have made of some who employ them), but will also, as DeiVerbum 12 says (citing Benedict XV and St. Jerome), “read it in the same Spirit in which it was written.” This Spirit is encountered not only in Sacred Scripture but in the Sacred Tradition (DV 8), in the Sacraments, in our fellows, in prayer, in the teaching of the Church. I think one can only “read in the Spirit” and so read Scripture rightly, when one recognizes and deeply values all of these places where the Spirit dwells. Only then will one’s “hermeneutic situation” be in order.

There are a number of other relevant selections from his article which state much the same thing and I did not reproduce all of them here because, simply, I do think he is correct  when he says that more than historical (or literary) tools are necessary for the interpreter. I had in mind the simple, concrete tools of interpretation – philological, literary, historical, etc. – that might be used with skill by anyone, whether Christian, Jewish or otherwise. Yet, his clarification is an important reminder that the interpretation of Scripture is a spiritual and ecclesial practice if we want to move beyond history or sociology. The Apostle Paul speaks of the role of the Spirit in his first letter to the Corinthians 2:9-16 (NRSV), which I cite at length for context:

But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him"— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God's except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny. "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.

It is precisely because of the Spirit that we interpret “spiritual things to those who are spiritual” and why “those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit.” Because of this, certain interpretations of Scripture might fall on deaf ears. Ben F. Meyer argued that there was much in contemporary biblical scholarship which constituted a “flight from meaning” that could only be cured by intellectual, moral and spiritual conversion not better tools in the toolbox. So, yes, I agree with Trabbic that spiritual preparedness is the backbone of the excellent interpreter; the tools do not change, but the ability to hear the Spirit sets the ecclesially-guided interpreter apart from other interpreters.  Though in many concrete practices the ecclesial and secular interpreter will be identical in the tools they use and even the conclusions they reach, only those in tune with the Word of God are open to the guidance of the Spirit.

Finally, I want to respond to issues of reading with the whole Church and what I believe this means in practice. In response to my earlier comments on the sensus fidelium, Professor Trabbic said,

Immediately following the above remarks, Martens presents his own notion of what it means to read with the Church: “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.”

I quite agree. I have not yet spoken of the sensus fidelium in this post but I concur with Martens about its importance. Without a doubt, as Cardinal Newman has reminded us, part of the shaping of Catholic doctrine involves a complex, fruitful dialectic between the sensus fidelium and the magisterium. The details of this relationship would make a good topic for a future post. But in the meantime I can say that any adequate concept of reading with the Church (i.e., reading in the Spirit) would have to incorporate attentiveness to the sensus fidelium.

He later added,

The only thing that I would wish to add to this statement at the moment is that the magisterium cannot properly fulfill its duties unless it is appropriately influenced in its thinking by the sensus fidelium and the Tradition (not to mention Scripture itself).

I do not know that I find much with which to disagree with here at all and it might be that there is nothing with which I disagree. I wanted to raise an issue of interpretation, though, which could be related to the “complex, fruitful dialectic between the sensus fidelium and the Magisterium” of which Trabbic speaks, at least in part. He writes elsewhere that “if ever, then, a particular reading of Scripture strikes us as historically plausible but, to the best of our knowledge, seems incompatible with the Tradition or with the clear teaching of the Church, we will question the genuine plausibility of the interpretation.”

I do not want to argue for a scholarship at odds with the Church's teaching, or intent on picking fights with the Tradition; interpreters in tune with the word of God desire not dissension but the truth. But what ought to occur when there is tension between received interpretation and the Tradition on the one hand and the results of biblical scholarship on the other? Pope Benedict XVI speaks of it in his 2003 address on Relationship between Magisterium and Exegetes, in which he details the travails of Friedrich Wilhelm Maier who “sustained the so-called two-source theory, accepted today by almost everyone.” This NT Professor in Germany was made to leave his post because he taught the Two-Source Hypothesis. Benedict rues that this event occurred and he notes the hope that this professor had that there could be complete freedom of exegesis. Such a hope, though in many ways it has come true, cannot lead to true freedom when unmoored from the Church, Benedict says, but simply different masters, in which the individual is judged by the guild of biblical scholars or by another scholar. 

Yet one issue remains unanswered and it is this issue with which I am struggling. How does one deal with newness in scholarship and teaching? How does one have both a proper attitude of obedience to the Church and allow for new insights in seeking the truth? The Church has a proper right to discipline theologians, but when is it the right time to act to squelch a new theory, interpretation or hypothesis? Benedict discusses examples in which, it seems, the magisterium has acted too quickly to censure scholars, but he does not seem to propose a way forward in the future when such tensions will again occur. Certainly, the relationship between magisterium and exegetes will sometimes exist in dynamic tension, and dialogue will be essential between theologians and the Church hierarchy, and the lay faithful and the Church hierarchy. This is what I was getting at by citing Dei Verbum8:

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. 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.

A “growth in understanding” and a “tradition which…develops” happen through listening to each other, that is, theologians, lay faithful and the magisterium listening to each other, and all of us listening to the Holy Spirit.

I do thank Professor Trabbic for listening so carefully to me - he is a model interlocutor - and I hope I have showed the same care in listening to him. And if he wishes to continue this conversation, even in the midst of summer, I would be happy to continue listening (and responding). 

John W Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens 



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