Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Spiritual Exegesis as Spiritual Rape 

Pontifications links a post by Theology Mom, in which the latter complains about the 'losing battle' which she wages in teaching her Sunday School class, in "break[ing] down people's misinformed ideas about how to interpret the Bible." Theology Mom traces these misinformed ideas back to "American worldview assumptions," which constitute a precious 'baby' which must be 'ripped away'. Even more, they are 'lies', a 'violation' of the sacred text, and constitute an act of 'spiritual rape'.

And what crime have Theology Mom's underlings committed? They have the audacity to suggest that "the way to apply the story about Jesus calming the storm is to assert that 'Jesus will help me calm the storms in my life too'". "No matter how many times I tried to tell [them]," complains Theology Mom, "'that's not how the ancient audience would have understood this' or 'Only an American would think that way', it just wasn't getting through." Thus, mutiny ensues.

I don't pretend to be anything resembling a modern biblical scholar, nor do I know enough about Theology Mom's background or viewpoints to pass any sort of judgment on her own position. Yet, if I understand this position at all, it seems to me quite representative. Theology Mom sincerely seems to believe she is defending the ancient and authentic methodology of biblical exegesis against modernist incursions. I hold that the exact opposite is the case.

It is an open question whether the 'ancient audience', if this be taken to refer to the community contemporaneous with the Gospel writer to which the work was presumably addressed, would have understood the Gospel in a literal, historical sense. If my meager studies in biblical genre have taught me anything, however, it is that the Gospel writers themselves seem to have intended their narratives to be understood through various layers of meaning, including layers which run far deeper than the literal. Try to convince any biblical scholar that the 'Bread of Life' Johannine discourse was intended as nothing more than a historical account of a conversation about culinary preference, or that the Last Supper narratives were intended to convey nothing more than random snatches of table talk. Without a doubt, the sacred writers intended these narratives to be understood on a much more profound and mystical level, inasmuch as their subject, the Word-made-flesh, is understood to be more than a mere man among men.

If the question of the directly intended audience of the Gospel writers remains an open question, the methodology of the early Church does not. Did the Church Fathers read the Gospels as mere historical accounts, and sternly warn their audiences against facile attempts at applying them to their own life situations? Let us simply take the passage in question:

Christ arose, laid His commands on the winds and waves, and there ensued a great calm. So also with thee; the winds enter thy heart, that is, where thou sailest, where thou passest along this life as a stormy and dangerous sea; the winds enter, the billows rise and toss thy vessel. What are the winds? Thou hast received some insult, and art wroth: that insult is the wind; that anger, the waves. Thou art in danger, thou preparest to reply, to render cursing for cursing, and thy vessel is already nigh to shipwreck. Awake the Christ who is sleeping. For thou art in commotion, and making ready to render evil for evil, because Christ is sleeping in thy vessel. For the sleep of Christ in thy heart is the forgetfulness of faith. But if thou arousest Christ, that is, recallest thy faith, what dost thou hear said to thee by Christ, when now awake in thy heart? . . . When thy faith so speaks to thee, command is exercised, as it were, over the winds and waves, and there is a great calm. As, then, to awaken Christ in the vessel is just to awaken faith. (St. Augustine, Tractates on John, XLIX, 19).

I could quote more abundantly. In another place, St. Augustine compares the winds and waves to the prevalence of iniquity and sin, the ship's progress to the soul's ascent to heaven, and as to Jesus' walking upon the waves:

"[T]herefore, Jesus comes. And how does He come? Walking upon the waves, keeping all the swellings of the world under His feet, pressing down all its heights. Thus it goes on, so long as time endures, so long as the ages roll. Tribulations increase, calamities increase, sorrows increase, all these swell and mount up: Jesus passeth on treading upon the waves."

For St. Augustine the primary purpose of the inclusion of this narrative in the Gospel is not simply to recount its historical occurrence, but rather to provide comfort to the troubled believer in the present time:
"[A]s Christians, though having hope in the world to come, are frequently disquieted at the crash of human affairs, when they see the loftiness of this world trampled down. They open the Gospel, they open the Scriptures, and they find all these things there foretold; that this is the Lord's doing. He tramples down the heights of the world [i.e., walks upon the waves], that He may be glorified by the humble" (Ibid., XXV, 6,6-7).
Other Fathers could be quoted. Tertullian notes that many in his day see this narrative as a signification of the sacrament of baptism (though he disagrees). Clement sees it as a symbol of creation's subservience to its Creator, Archelaus as a prophetical type of the Old Covenant, and the Acts of Andrew sees it, along with Augustine, as intended to comfort believes in the present. No patristic writer, that I can find, simply relates the historical event and leaves it at that. Perhaps only because that would be too boring for them (and for me).

Maybe it's true that the sacred writer himself only intended this or that narrative to be understood in a purely literal, historical sense. But if, as Christians have always held, every Scriptural book has in fact two authors, one of whom is eternal and hence not limited by time or space, we can hardly restrict the meanings of the text to that intended by the human author (even if, of course, all meanings must in fact be rooted in the latter meaning). This conviction is at the heart of the allegorical exegesis of the Fathers, or, as Henri de Lubac prefers, 'spiritual exegesis'. Of course, few modern theologians or biblical scholars have much sympathy for this ancient method, fearing that the literal-historical meaning of the text will become obscured. But I insist that, so long as spiritual exegesis is carried out in its authentic and originally-intended manner, this is not to be feared; or, rather, if it is, it is a fear worth living with, considering the alternative. I covered this issue at length in a treatment of St. Augustine's allegorical exegesis some months ago, and I repeat myself here:

Now, the casual reader will initially, no doubt, suspect some contrivance here, and the work of more than a little fanciful imagination - though even the harshest critic is bound to be impressed with both the inner coherence and theological depth of St. Augustine's exegesis, which is developed enough to challenge even Origen, the master of such methods.

St. Augustine, however, was far from giving free reign to exegetical fancy. His allegorical method is rooted soundly in the concrete text and its historical context, from which he never departs. A close reading of his
De doctrina Christiana will leave the reader deeply impressed with the scholarly demands he makes of exegetes - attention to punctuation and pronunciation, regard for literary expression and genre, the interpretation of more obscure passages by those less obscure, wariness of synonyms and multiple meanings, a demand for fidelity to the original texts, etc.

Yet for St. Augustine, a blind allegiance to the literal 'word' of the text represents the bondage under which the Jews labor, and from which Christians are freed by the Spirit of Christ. Those who possess the Spirit which inspired the Scriptures are thus enabled to look beyond the signs (i.e., 'words') to the realities signified by them: "Accordingly the liberty that comes by Christ took those whom it found under bondage to useful signs, and who were (so to speak) near to it, and, interpreting the signs to which they were in bondage, set them free by raising them to the realities of which these were signs" (8, 12).

The ultimate standard for such interpretation, for St. Augustine, is once again the law of charity. An interpretation is useful (n.b. he does not say 'correct,' but 'useful') inasmuch as it inclines the reader to the love of God and neighbor. "The tyranny of lust being thus over-thrown, charity reigns through its supremely just laws of love to God for His own sake, and love to one's self and one's neighbor for God's sake. Accordingly, in regard to figurative expressions, a rule such as the following will be observed, to carefully turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love" (15, 32).

J. J. O'Donnell notes, "In the practical order, what matters is the effect of exegesis. If an interpretation of scripture builds up caritas or (what amounts to the same thing) attacks its opposite, cupiditas (selfish desire), then it is, absolutely speaking, a good interpretation. (3.10.15) As long as it is in accord with the rule of faith . . . conformity to some external, but purely human standard, of correctness is immaterial . . . What counts above all is the life of the believer who reads the scriptural text in the light of the interpretation."

What is at stake here, as de Lubac details in his excellent tome Scripture in the Tradition, is not only a curious and archaic exegetical method, but rather the very possibility of reading Scripture as the eternal Word of God addressed to man in the present. The tendency of many pious believers to apply biblical texts to their own life situations, too often dismissed as puerile by elitists, many times represents a genuine insight into the transcendent nature of the Holy Scriptures, an insight which is often missed, or perhaps simply ignored, by modern biblical scholarship today. If Scripture cannot speak to us in the present, except as a historical record of the past, then it is not the eternal Word of God.

# posted by Jamie : 9:04 AM


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