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The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology
October 4, 2008 - 8:17 AM EDT
"Did not our hearts burn within he opened up to us the Scriptures?"
—Luke 24:32
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On The Task of Interpreting the Bible

Our approach to scriptural exegesis or interpretation is literal and historical, first and foremost. As Hugh of St. Victor says: “Historia fundamentum est.” History is fundamental. It is the foundation of our approach to Scripture.

But you do not have access to the truth about biblical history without the words of the Scripture. Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s constitution on divine revelation, refers to “the inner unity of words and deeds in history.” That is so important: God speaks and then God acts. God’s speech interprets what he has done so that we understand the meaning of what he has done.

Why has God done the things that he has done in history? One word: Love. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses summarized the whole history of God’s dealings with mankind and with Israel, in particular, by saying that everything was done, “because he loved your fathers and chose their descendants after them.”

God does what he does and says what he says in history, because he loves. It is more than words and propositions. Love requires that inner unity of word and deed. It is the integrity of the divine self-gift that really validates the truth of his love as he has expressed it in history.

This is an understanding that we take into exegesis even when we begin with the seemingly mundane action of trying to understand the literal meaning of a text.

We have to remember, first and foremost, that the Bible is, as Dei Verbum tells us, the product of both God and the human authors. This is a point that fundamentalists miss: God is the principal author of scripture but the human authors are no less authors. This is a mystery, the mystery of divine inspiration. The mystery of the divine inspiration does not dispense with human authorship, so we cannot dispense with hard literary analysis. We have to go back and see that these human writers are, themselves, true authors.

We apply the classical literary tools, analyzing how the human authors of Scripture used grammar, logic and rhetoric. Grammar looks at the meaning of words and combinations of words. Logic looks at the truth that is conveyed by those words when they are combined in sentences. Rhetoric looks at how the persuasive power is effected so that the meaning of words and their truth is delivered in a way that is convincing and persuasive.

In doing this, we avoid “literalism.” Because while we analyze grammar, logic and rhetoric, we also look for the figurative; we identify figures of speech, literary devices, metaphors, simile, synechdoche — all the techniques that really enhance human speech and make communication something that is wholly humanistic. We’re never in a rush to get beyond the literal. We really spend time in the literary to see how the words of the text signify things at many, many different levels.

But we also recognize that the litera is a signum — that the letter, the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the book, is itself a set of signs and that the signatum, the thing signified, is a truth of history. Not all “truths” are historical events, of course. The ethical realities conveyed in the Book of Proverbs are not “events,” because the Proverbs as wisdom literature do not aim to give us an historical narrative. Nevertheless, to understand the ethical truths that the Proverbs convey requires us to understand the historical context of the Davidic covenant and the Solomonic tradition in order to really understand their literary sense and grasp their historical truth.

We have to do the same kind of historical analysis whenever we try to identify literary forms, such as parable, song or poetry, or when we try to identify literary figures and devices. Ultimately, we want to see how the literary sense of the text conveys historical truth — either the truth of an event, such as the crucifixion, or the truth of a created reality such as water, light, mountains, trees, or the way the text conveys ethical and other truths about human nature.

So we always situate the literary sense within a historical context. And, just as we have to understand the literary in terms of the grammatical, the logical and the rhetorical, so we have to understand the historical in terms of time, culture and religion.

In terms of time, we have to understand the period and the events that took place within that period. We have to look at the culture in order to capture the historical background, the customs and so forth. But with the Bible, you cannot stop at the historical and the cultural as you can in reading other books. Because to really understand the literal words of the texts in their historical and cultural context, we have to attend to the religious understanding — what the authors of the Bible and their audience brought to the text.

In other words: Whether you believe that God is speaking in Scripture or not, you are not going to understand fully what the human writers intended to convey unless you read their writings on their own terms — and their own terms are inescapably religious.

An example: When you see the word “temple” in Scripture, you cannot simply think of a large building with a dome where people go to pray. The literary sign, “temple,” for the biblical writer, conveys far more than the historical reality of a sacred architecture. The Temple for ancient Israel was the central bank as well as the central sanctuary; it was the place of divine government as well as the place of divine worship. It was the place where you got credit as well as where you received the creed. It was Wall Street, the White House, Oxford and the Vatican all rolled into one. To understand the literal meaning of the word “temple” in the Scripture, then, you have to understand the wealth of figurative. emotional and religious meaning that term carried for the readers and the writers of the texts.

And this is true for countless terms and passages. If you stop at the historical and the literary reading of the text, and do not attend to the religious meaning, you will miss the basic literal meaning of all sorts of scripture passages. So, we study the literary sense, which gives us the historical truth of events, ideas and concepts, and the integral meaning of these events, ideas and concepts is religious.

To read the Bible in the terms in which it is written, we have to debunk the modern notion that religion is something individualized, private. For the writers of the Bible, as for much of the classical world: life was essentially religious. Cicero understood this in ancient Rome. For him, religio, religion, was a natural virtue, the virtus virtutum, the “virtue of virtues,” the only virtue that would unite and integrate all of human life —the interior, the exterior, the personal and the social, the private and the public.

In ancient Israel, too, you had this understanding of the essentially religious meaning of life. When we read the Bible, then, we are reading the words of people who were trying to convey, through literary means, historical truths that the impart religious meaning of human life. History, for the writers of the Bible, men like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, makes no sense apart from God.

The “literal” meaning of their prophetic books, then, is that Israel’s victories and successes, its defeats and exile, its captivity and deliverance — its entire history — has a religious meaning. But this religious meaning was not something that the biblical writers “read into” the history of Israel. Understanding the biblical writers on their own terms, we have to acknowledge that they believed that God was both the beginning and the end of all history and that without reference to God’s words and deeds you cannot really understand the integral meaning of what has happened or is happening, and you cannot understand the teleological goal, the purpose toward which all of these historical events and processes are directed.

We think about the mystery of the inspiration of Scripture in similar terms. In the same way that the divine and the human interpenetrate in history without detracting from or diminishing the freedom and powers of the human agents of history, the written Word of God has both divine and human authors but this does not in any way diminish the human dimension of the Word.

This way of thinking flows directly from the mystery of the incarnation. The mystery of the Word incarnate is the fact that Christ is fully human, body and soul, that he experienced human bodily life at every level — the five senses, the human emotions, and all the rest. At the same time he experienced human life at the psychological level of the soul, the intellect and the will. This truly human experience was not diminished by his divinity, but was enhanced. Being divine did not make him less human, it made him capable of experiencing the human more fully.

In the same way, the human writers are enhanced by the charism that they received from the Holy Spirit, even though they might not be conscious of it. And as there is nothing human that is alien to Christ except sin, there is nothing human that is alien to Scripture except error.

In the inspiration of Scripture, we see grace building upon nature. More than that, we see the deepest desires of human nature being fulfilled by grace in a way that surpasses the limits of all natural human longing. That is something beautiful: Grace not only satisfies and fulfills our longings, it transcends them to an infinite extent. In a certain sense, we can say that grace gives us what “eye hath not seen nor ear heard nor has it ever entered into the heart of man.”

We have to respect the mystery of inspiration when we go about the task of exegesis or interpretation. We have to have faith in what the writers themselves say: that they wish to convey to us, not their own agendas or personal take on matters, but the divine perspective.

For the exegete, faith does not abolish reason or replace it. Faith builds upon reason as grace builds upon nature. Faith presupposes reason and builds upon it for the purpose of healing the defects of sin and error, of perfecting it so that it can reason most reasonably — so that we can actually reason about things that reason could never know or demonstrate on its own.

At this level, the task of interpretation is taken up and enveloped in a spiritual grace, a charism of inspiration. Divine inspiration does not simply terminate with the death of the last biblical author. True, inspiration qua inspiration is a property that is only attributed to the authors of scripture. But inasmuch as the Church is animated by the same Spirit who was the inspirator of the biblical writers, in the Church’s liturgy and in its dogmas and doctrines we find the literary sense and historical truths of the scripture are unfolded in such a way as to reveal that the religious meaning of salvation history, which is ongoing.

When we read the Scriptures “in the Spirit in which they were written,” as Dei Verbum tells us we must, their religious meaning deepens and enlarges it so that it is as if we ourselves are standing in the middle of a stream of salvation history, as Ezekiel was in Ezekiel 47: the water starts at ankle-deep, then rises to knee-deep and then waist-deep. Eventually, it is too deep to sound the depths. That is what the exegete finds when he or she is exegeting the literal sense and the historical truth of the text, seeking the religious and theological meaning.

When we read with this faith, the religious meaning of history is picked up and elevated through the Holy Spirit. We see that the human writers of Scripture used words to convey the truth of what God is doing in history. We see that, as the Catechism says, the words of Scripture are signs and that the events and realities signified by those words, are themselves signs and mysteries.

What the Church calls the “spiritual senses” of Scripture, builds upon the literal and historical senses. Not like oil upon water, but like water becoming wine. A transformative process takes place. The spiritual sense transforms the literary and historical meaning of the text. Wine retains certain common elements and characteristics with water, but it is something greater than water. In the same way, the spiritual senses give us a metaphysical realism, a realism that embraces the historical but rises above it, giving us a much greater meaning.

So when John 2 tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament promised the Temple to be, we understand that Jesus is something infinitely greater than the Temple. And we understand that Christ’s fulfillment of the Temple does not terminate with him or his body. Christ extends his fulfillment of the Temple — through the Church — to each Christian. So, the Church is the Temple, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, and each one of us is a temple, as he says in 1 Corinthians 6.

And the spiritual reading of Scripture enables us to understand that what is true in the state of grace on earth is amplified and infinitely fulfilled in the state of glory in heaven, In Revelation, the New Jerusalem is shaped like the Holy of Holies in the original Temple at Jerusalem. The Holy of Holies on earth was unapproachable and yet it is what all of us will possess forever in the perfect Temple of the celestial Jerusalem.

So, for us, the exegetical process is rooted in an epistemological optimism that would be impossible apart from the incarnation. The incarnational principle also gives us the sacramental principle. This in turn, underwrites a sacramental hermeneutic through which we learn that the Word of God is not only the Word incarnate. The eternally generated speech act of God, the eternal Word, becomes incarnate: time and eternity intersect, God and man are married, heaven and earth are united fruitfully. The mystery of the Word incarnate gives us the mystery of the Word inspired — the mystery of the Word eternally generated is actualized and made hermeneutically fruitful in a way that exceeds all natural imaginings and desirings.

Ultimately, the exegete is not only one who must master grammar, logic and rhetoric. He must master all of the relevant events of history, the cultural background through geography, archeology and extra-biblical sources. He must master religion as well, studying what Mircea Eliade saw as all of the inescapably religious dimensions of human existence and socio-political life in antiquity.

Ultimately, however, the exegete must become a mystic, must become what he reads, in communion with the divine in his midst, aware of and a part of the divine economy that envelopes each one of us and is unfolded in the Scripture. The exegete has to be like Ezekiel and John in Revelation. He has to “eat” the sacred texts. He has to assimilate the Word as food. He has to find the bread of life in Scripture just as he finds it in the Eucharist.

Dr. Scott Hahn
Founder of the St. Paul Center

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