Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, September 09, 2004

On Scripture and Signs 

Steven Riddle at Flos Carmeli asks,

"If I am such an inveterate reader, why do I not read scripture with the avidity with which I approach Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and others? The Gospels are far shorter than the novels we read. They are, in fact, easily read in one sitting, were we so inclined. So why is it that we seem to be so little inclined?"

Tom at Disputations responds,

"Based on my own failed attempts to put the Bible on my to-be-read list, I think an important part of the answer is that reading the Bible is not like reading any other book. The Bible is not 'like any great work of literature,' at least not from the perspective of a Christian who wants to read it to become a better disciple of Christ. In fact, reading the Bible to become a better disciple of Christ is significantly unlike anything else we might do. It's a unique combination of prayer and study, of reading and contemplation, of asking and listening."

My own two cents:

Tom is right to highlight the 'environmental' factor of exegesis. That is, reading Scripture never takes place in a vacuum, but always in a context of prayer, liturgy, catechesis, moral life, etc. This doesn't mean that we can only crack our Bibles open in church; it only means that wherever we do crack open our Bibles, we always do so within the contextual reading environment generated by these factors. Not only the intellect but the will, memory and imagination are engaged in the exegetical act; it is never, then, an isolated event. And generating an environment appropriate to the task is no easy task.

One will rightly respond, of course, that this is true not only of Scripture but also of Percy or Dostoevsky (whom I'm working on right now). All good literature puts intense demands upon the intellect, will, and memory, and that's what makes it good literature. Reading is meant to be enjoyable, even pleasurable. It is not meant to be 'fun.' If reading is fun, you're reading the wrong books. It is work, and it is precisely the work involved in good literature that makes it pleasurable. Our minds and wills enjoy the exercise, the stretching and expanding that necessarily accompany a good reading experience.

But why must reading involve so much work, so much intellectual and moral labor? Why can't reading be an effortless activity, by means of which we could absorb written material with a simple gesture of the will, a momentary assent of the intellect? Because reading grants the soul a privileged access to Truth, and, in the well-known words of Jack Nicholson, 'You can't handle the truth!' We find ourselves crippled through the fall of our first parents, stumbling through life with darkened intellects and weakened wills. Whereas in Paradise the well-orchestrated unity of our intellectual faculty was constantly flooded with the direct light of eternal Wisdom, now our intellects are estranged and fragmented, and can only attain to Wisdom through veiled and indirect 'shadows,' suggestive images and pointers by means of which we piece together our impartial mosaics of dimly-grasped truths.

This is where the category of 'signs' (signa) come in; divinely-given 'pointers' by means of which we can awkwardly and slowly struggle our way forward towards the light of Wisdom. Sometimes these are bestowed across created nature (e.g., smoke indicates fire), others arise through cultural convention (e.g., a word indicates an object), others are given directly through divine Revelation (e.g., the texts of Scripture). All are divinely-bestowed gifts, accommodations to our weakened intellects, which would never otherwise be capable of recognizing the all-encompassing unity standing behind creation, but would only see disconnected fragments of reality, never able to piece them together into a coherent vision of the whole.

And this is what makes Scripture different from any other book (although it is, I suppose, more or less like various books, depending on the quality of the book): It is chock full of the most profound signs available to mortal man, signa whose depth is so limitless and unfathomable that they can be exhausted by no created intellect. Scripture does not reveal divine Truth directly, for then man's fragmented intellect would be unable to read it. Accommodated to man's fallen position, Scripture is (to the untrained eye) an intricate maze of codes and symbols, allegories and types. But to the mind which is both raised up by grace and willing to submit to the tireless regimen of exegetical study and training, these signa can be decoded, little by little, and the first rays of Wisdom can be made to shine through. But for the proud, the slothful, and those who refuse to submit themselves to grace, this will be an impossibility.
Says St. Augustine,

"But hasty and careless readers are led astray by many and manifold obscurities and ambiguities, substituting one meaning for another; and in some places they cannot hit upon even a fair interpretation. Some of the expressions are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness. And I do not doubt that all this was divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil, and of preventing a feeling of satiety [i.e., sloth] in the intellect, which generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty."

"Accordingly the Holy Spirit has, with admirable wisdom and care for our welfare, so arranged the Holy Scriptures as by the plainer passages to satisfy our hunger, and by the more obscure to stimulate our appetite" (De Doctrina Christiana II.6.7-8).

This is, I think, why we find reading Scripture so difficult. Our minds and wills are simply not trained to carry out the work involved, the intellectual and moral labor of interpreting these divinely-given signa in a way that will reveal to us eternal Wisdom.

# posted by Jamie : 3:06 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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