I have cringed every time—during 45 years of studying and teaching Scripture in Catholic universities and dioceses—I heard Scripture being quoted out of context and used in support of any number of opposing positions. The Bible has been dragged into arguments to justify war and to argue for pacifism, to support slavery and to oppose it, to keep women “in their place” and to insist on their liberation, and most recently to support government programs subsidizing the poor and to eliminate such programs. Is it possible to use the Bible sensibly or must it continue to be a weapon of division in a community whose founder prayed that “they may all be one” (Jn 17:21)? To address this question we must step back to consider what constitutes a sensible use of the Bible; to do that, we must enter the murky and confusing world of biblical interpretation.
Even a precursory look at the history of biblical interpretation reveals a morass of complementary and conflicting approaches to the biblical text. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are those methods focused on discovering the literal sense of the text and those that delve beneath the surface of the text to discover a spiritual sense, a meaning relevant to the people for whom the Bible is sacred text. The literal or plain sense refers to what the text actually says as this can best be determined. The spiritual sense refers to a “deeper” meaning of the text. Though at times there were as many as seven spiritual senses, these eventually coalesced into three: the allegorical sense, which included what is now called typology; the moral sense; and the anagogic sense.
The anagogic sense, which focuses on what the biblical text has to tell us about heaven, has not been prominent in the history of interpretation, possibly because there is so little about the afterlife in the Bible. The moral sense is alive and well. Preachers seeking to make the biblical text relevant to the people in the pews often draw out the moral sense of the text to endorse certain attitudes and behaviors. The allegorical/typological sense involves a search for hidden meanings. It enabled the early church to connect the Old Testament and the New Testament, finding within the Old Testament the foreshadowing of events and persons of the New Testament (typology); it enabled the early church to “redeem” offensive and obscure texts by looking for meaning not in the “letter” of the text but in its “spirit” (allegory).
In the long history of Christian interpretation of the Bible, most theologians were comfortable accepting both literal and spiritual interpretations of the biblical text, even if an individual theologian had a preference for one side or the other, but matters began to change with the Reformation and later the Enlightenment. The Reformers, following in the steps of Martin Luther, who had an aversion to allegorical interpretation, stressed the literal sense of the text, but it was a “literal sense” determined in accordance with Protestant theology. Later theologians, influenced by the Enlightenment, were also concerned with the literal sense, but it was the literal sense as it could be determined from within the historical and literary contexts of the text under consideration. The exaltation of reason over faith, the discoveries resulting from improved methods of archaeology, advances in the studies of ancient languages and manuscripts, the increasing rigor of scientific inquiry—all had a part to play in the emergence of the historical critical method, which is not one method but a collection of methods that seek to interpret a text from within its historical, social and literary contexts. Its concern is the literal sense of the text, but the literal sense as understood against the backdrop of the age and author who produced the text.
The Catholic Church, in response to the Protestant Reformation, continued to endorse the multiple senses of Scripture and insisted upon magisterial oversight with respect to issues of interpretation. But even in the Catholic Church a concern for the literal sense began to dominate. St. Thomas Aquinas already had given considerable weight to the literal sense, stating that “all the senses are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory” (Summa Theologiae I, 1, 10, ad. 1). Nearly seven centuries later in 1943, in the encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu,” Pope Pius XII sided with Aquinas on the importance of the literal sense in his exhortation: “Let the Catholic exegete undertake the task, of all those imposed on him the greatest, that namely of discovering and expounding the genuine meaning of the sacred books. In the performance of this task let the interpreters bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal” (No. 23). The encouragement to Catholic biblical scholars to use historical critical method to determine the literal sense of the text was confirmed by the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” of the Second Vatican Council (No. 12). The spiritual sense of Scripture, though of historic, theological and liturgical importance, had been set aside: “The allegorical interpretation of Scripture so characteristic of patristic exegesis runs the risk of being something of an embarrassment to people today” (“The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” 1993, No. 173).
Interpreting the Bible Today
In some ways the present situation with respect to the interpretation of biblical texts still seesaws between those who prefer the literal sense and those who prefer the spiritual sense, but the situation is more complicated and more polarized today. It is complicated in two ways: by the rise of fundamentalism and by a more nuanced understanding of the role of the reader in the process of interpretation. Fundamentalism arose as a response to historical critical method which called into question the historicity of many of the biblical stories and also challenged some doctrines of the Christian church. Fundamentalism makes claims to be a “literal” interpretation of the biblical text, but it owes more to the ideology of the 19th century than to the biblical text itself. The literal sense from a fundamentalist perspective becomes an insistence on the factual accuracy of the Bible, which it takes to be inerrant in all its claims.
Historical critical biblical scholars insist that they are also concerned with a literal interpretation of the biblical text, but they insist that the meaning of text can best be determined by understanding that text from within its historical and literary context. If they focus on a text by Isaiah, for example, they seek to understand what the author intended and how the audience of the time would have heard Isaiah. They are also sensitive to whether the text is prose or poetry, whether it is history or story or essay, whether the author is using metaphors and speaking figuratively. They recognize that the biblical text contains historical, scientific and even theological errors, for it reflects the knowledge of the people responsible for its production and transmission; the biblical text is from a people who had a different world view and limited historical and scientific knowledge. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile these two different ways of understanding the literal sense of a text.
The second complication emerges from a more nuanced understanding of the role of the reader in the process of interpretation. Concern with the spiritual sense of the biblical text arose because this ancient text was believed to be relevant to believers who lived centuries later and for whom that text was now considered sacred text. The gap between the ancient world of the text and the contemporary world of its readers needed to be bridged, and a search for the spiritual sense of the text filled in that gap. Today, instead of speaking of a “spiritual” sense, we recognize that readers bring to bear upon a text under examination their own issues and concerns, their own worldview, and these have an impact on even the most objectively guided search for meaning.
The emphasis on the role of the reader has led to the proliferation of new “isms” in the field of biblical interpretation: liberation criticism, feminist criticism, post-colonialism, the new historicism. These various approaches to the biblical text take into account the role of class, culture, ethnicity and race, gender or politics in the formation of texts and in their interpretation. Many of the practitioners of these “isms” employ historical critical or literary critical methods, but what makes them distinctive is that the text is explicitly read through a particular lens that shapes the meaning “found” in a text. I include here also readers who insist on the importance of a “faith hermeneutics” or theological approach to the interpretation of the Bible, a position best represented by Pope Benedict XVI. This approach privileges faith or theological doctrine as the lens through which to interpret the biblical text. Though these interpretive stances are not the same as the spiritual interpretation of the patristic period, they share with the patristic period a search for meaning that is relevant to the “people in the pew.” The opposition here is between what the text meant (the historical critical meaning) and what the text means (the concern of the people in the pew).
Two questions emerge from this historical summary: How do fundamentalists talk to historical critical interpreters, and how do we negotiate between what the text meant and what the text means? I doubt that fundamentalists and historical critical interpreters will ever agree, for their basic presuppositions stand in opposition; but instead of arguing about whether the creation stories of Genesis are scientific accounts or myths, can we agree that we are creatures dependent upon a Creator and explore what that means? Instead of getting bogged down by debates regarding the historical accuracy of the patriarchal narratives, of the Exodus with its plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, of the conquest and subsequent history of Israel, can we focus rather on what it means to be called, to be saved, to be a covenanted people (Genesis through Kings)? Can we learn from the prophets the importance of loyalty to God (Hosea, Jeremiah) and of living in justice (Amos, Isaiah, Micah)? Can we learn from Israel how to pray in joy and sorrow, in need and in thanksgiving (Psalms), and how to find God reflected in the world (Israel’s wisdom traditions)? Can we move beyond the simplistic notions of suffering and sin as the author of Job did and as Jesus did in the New Testament? Instead of being bogged down by “Did it happen this way?” can we explore, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the Gospels, what it means to be human? Can we agree that it means to live in obedience to God and to “lose oneself” in the love of the other as Jesus did? Can we explore what it means that we have been reconciled, that we have been be forgiven, that we have access to God in Christ? Can we talk about what it means to say that “God is love” and what love means and how we as a community of believers mediate God’s self-giving love to this world? Can we explore what resurrection means and its implications for our lives as Christians? As a biblical scholar I find the historical questions of great interest and of great importance, but in the interest of dialogue can we agree to disagree on the contentious issues and focus on what unites us as believers who seek to love God and love our neighbor?
This brings me to my second question: how do we negotiate between what the text meant and what the text means? I find it problematic to draw a dichotomy between what a text meant and what it means. If what a text means is not integrally connected to what a text meant, then we can say anything we want about the meaning of any text. If this is the case, why read one text as opposed to another? We must also recognize that not every text will have meaning for us today because our world is too different. We need to recognize that the Bible speaks with many voices representing various responses to changing historical situations. It says many things about who God is and what God is about. There is no one image of God and no one response on God’s part in the Bible. The Bible says many things about what it is to be human, and it is not always consistent in what it prescribes in the laws and in its wisdom writing. It all too often reflects the limited understanding of its own time and place. We live in a very different time and place. We need to enter into dialogue with these voices of the past, but at the same time we need to take our experiences into account and bring that to bear upon the biblical text as we address the issues of war, patriarchal systems, the economy, social roles, etc. We hear the many voices in the Bible, but as believers our voices also need to be heard. We learn from the Bible what it means to be the people of God, but as believers our experience is also of values to today’s community of believers. We find in the Bible the revelation of God’s love expressed in the Old Testament and most fully in the gift of his Son in the New, but God’s love is also expressed in our world. It is expressed through us as we live in God’s love.