Monday, May 02, 2011

Senses of Scripture

Lately it seems that one of the more common searches that leads people to my website concerns whether Catholics take the Bible literally. I have written on this before, most notably this post from January of last year. 

If I have learned anything from teaching, it is that repetition is the master teacher. So, too, is introducing new material gradually. Today, let me just advert attention to the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it notes that, 

According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church. (115) 
So does this mean that Catholics think that every word in the Bible needs to be taken literally?

Not quite.

The Catechism goes on to note

The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal." (116)
So here's the thing: when we read Sacred Scripture, we have to put our thinking caps on and do some investigation. We recognize in our day-to-day lives how important figures of speech, metaphors, allusions, and those manners of speaking that give our language such texture and meaning. Why, then, would someone suppose that the Bible - the Word of God in the words of humans - not call for some interpretation, some investigation? 

Caravaggio's "Saint Jerome"
Imagine that I am a foreigner who visits the USA. I have learned English by reading a textbook and I'm not really up on idioms in the English language.  In the train station, I hear someone remark, "Boy, it's raining cats and dogs today." As a foreigner, I am confused: how is it possible that canines and felines are falling freely from the sky? Unless things really are very different in America, I quickly realize that I have to try to figure out what the speaker means by what he says. This is what we call exegesis: the systematic and careful reflection on a text or speech that tries to account for culture, time, place, worldview, history, theology, etc., in order to reach a clearer sense of the text's meaning.

So, yes, Catholics do take the Bible literally. That is, of course, if you mean that literally entails a bit of heavy-lifting that demands that we actually think about what we are reading. A good literal interpretation of Scripture, as indicated in #116, provides us with the foundation for probing the Spiritual Sense of Scripture (allegorical, moral, and anagogical...we'll talk about those another time).

Paraphrasing the Jesuit theologian Michael Buckley, "Bad theism is the root cause of atheism." It always amazes me that Saint Augustine (d. ~430 AD) understood that Creation contained two books: The Book of Revelation (Scripture) and the Book of Nature (Science). Written by the same author (God), these two books do not contradict each other; where the Book of Nature offers us new insights and data, we must take this into account in the Scriptures. How a 5th century bishop could understand this when many 21st century Americans who are happy to utilize all sorts of technological wonders still believe in talking snakes is utterly beyond me. Snakes don't talk, evolution is a pretty good theory, and there is nothing that says that we can't interpret the Scriptures in light of the Book of Nature. As a man with an enduring interest in the natural sciences, it is the wonders of creation that serve to reinforce, rather than take away from, my belief in God.
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