Saturday, March 06, 2010

Reading the Bible:
Some Preliminary Thoughts and Considerations

As noted previously, I am helping to prepare a group presentation on the Ten Plagues of Egypt for my Master Catechist Certification Class. What we hope to do is first have a section on reading, interpretation, and understanding of scripture generally. That general section is not yet in final form, but here are a few basic concepts.

Types of Scriptural Reading:
The purposes of reading scripture are many, but they include personal growth, growing closer to God, and personal understanding, so as to increase one's one faith and to be able to better defend and explain the faith to nonbelievers. The various types of scriptural reading include, but are not necessarily limited to --

(1) Individual reading.

(2) Group bible study.

(3) Scholarly exegesis. This might include not only believing theologians, but non-believing academics.

(4) Lectio divina - "divine reading"
    (a) individual - reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation
    (b) group - reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation, discussion, and action

(5) Liturgical reading.

(6) The Magisterium. The Church has definitively interpreted some of scripture, but not the entirety of the Bible. There are many passages on which the Magisterium has not spoken on authoritatively. Thus, personal individual interpretation of scripture is inevitable.

Various Methods and Approaches for Exegesis (Interpretation).

There are some basic principles one needs to keep in mind if one wants to properly understand a given passage from scripture. You cannot read the passage in isolation, but must read it in context and with certain premises in mind. Accordingly, one must:

(1) Read scripture in a manner consistent with the truth of God, in the light of the fullness of Revelation, Jesus Christ, and consistent with the purposes of revelation. (CCC 203-21) That is, for example, in a manner consistent with the truths that God is One and a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that God is Love and Truth. (This is something one must especially keep in mind when reading those scriptural passages which suggest a "harsh," "angry," "jealous," "wrathful," and "vengeful" God.) But note that this immediately raises the issue of how to remain faithful to those truths of God generally and Jesus Christ specifically. To do that, one must build his interpretation on rock, not sand, that is:

    (a) Read scripture together with Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium, which are guided by and protected from error by the Holy Spirit. (CCC 95, 113)
    (b) Read scriptural passages in the context of the whole Bible. (CCC 112) For example, one must read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. (CCC 128-30)
    (c) Read scripture in a manner consistent with the truths of the faith (analogy of faith). (CCC 114)
    (d) Fit your interpretation to God and the Faith, not vice versa. If your personal interpretation and conclusions are contrary to the truths of God and the Faith, it is wrong.
    (e) Read scripture with humility, understanding that you are not the Magisterium, so your interpretation cannot be definitive. And when you are done reading and done interpreting, take a step back and go and make sure that your understanding is consistent with the Magisterium.
    (f) Make your personal reading of scripture prayerful. In reading and reflecting on the text, open yourself to the grace of understanding from the Holy Spirit. Do not read scripture merely as an academic exercise, rather, have a living relationship with the Word of God.

(2) Read scriptural passages in the historical context of the time and place in which they were written, including both extra-biblical history and Salvation History. (CCC 110)

    (a) Having a basic understanding of outside history is very helpful and sometimes crucial to a proper understanding of the text. The Bible does not pretend to be a repository of all human knowledge, and it presupposes a knowledge of various non-biblical events. (For example, in understanding why God would give to Abraham and his descendants a far away land, it is helpful to know that, in the polytheistic beliefs of the time, a "god" was limited to a particular place or realm, such that, by giving Abraham a land far away, God was demonstrating that He is not limited, rather, He is the One God of everywhere.)
    (b) Understand that the purpose of the Old Testament, the events which make up Salvation History, was to lead to Jesus Christ. And this Salvation History was necessarily a gradual process, given that humanity had lost almost all understanding of God after the Fall, such that mankind believed all sorts of false ideas about God and had adopted all sorts of evil ways. Thus, we see the text moving from the more vague and ambiguous (as viewed from a modern perspective) to the more specific as it draws closer to the time of Jesus. Also, in leading mankind back to the truth of Himself, God necessarily dealt with mankind as it was at that particular time, in the fallen, ignorant, and evil state of that era, using terms and images and concepts that such a harsh and blood-thirsty humanity would understand.

(3) One must take into account the problem of translation into other languages.

    (a) The Bible was not written in 21st century English. It was written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and that was often only after a long period of orally teaching what was later written down.
    (b) The English translations often vary and some are better than others. And if we are using a translation that itself uses archaic English, as in the King James version, then one has the problem of translating that archaic English into understandable modern English.
    (c) Most importantly, perhaps, is the need to properly take into account the problem of describing the indescribable, e.g. describing God in human terms. A writer can know only what he knows, such that he can write only in terms that he knows, and likewise a reader can understand only in terms that he already knows and understands. Hence, the human writers, not being able to fully comprehend the mystery of God, often use human attributes to describe Him.

(4) To properly interpret and understand a given passage, one must discern what it is that the human author, as inspired by God, intended to convey and how he intended it to be read. (CCC 109-10, 115-19) For example --

    (a) literal history, taking the words at face value
    (b) allegory or metaphor
    (c) hyperbole
    (d) moral
    (e) prophetic or anagogical

(5) Engage the text. Ask questions of it. Do not be afraid of inconsistencies, and do not merely ignore them. The Catholic Faith is a faith of reason, and your own personal faith should seek understanding.

    (a) Scripture can actually be an obstacle to true understanding and can even mislead when it stems from either an superficial or erroneous interpretation or when one avoids confronting it, such that one necessarily adopts someone else's wrong interpretation. It may at times be challenging, but it is crucial, if we are to have a proper understanding of the Lord, and especially if we are to fulfill our calling to be a witness of Jesus Christ to the world, that we confront and clear away distorted images of God that might arise from a faulty reading of the text.
    (b) To be a faithful witness, we must clear away obstacles and stumbling blocks to our knowing that God is Love and God is Truth. Scripture is intended to lead toward God, it is intended to lead us toward Love and Truth, so we must not shy away from the challenging parts or otherwise allow ourselves or others to have an understanding that leads us away from Him, even if we think that our false understanding is the correct one.
    (c) To avoid such faulty understanding of scripture and to avoid being led away from God, rather than toward Him, we should not be afraid to engage the text and confront the "hard questions." In so engaging it, we should keep in mind the above principles, reading the scriptures prayerfully and deferring to any authoritative and definitive interpretation by the Magisterium, with the understanding that the Magisterium does not arrive at its interpretation arbitrarily, but only by itself reading the scriptures prayerfully, open to the Holy Spirit, consistent with reason and the truths of the Faith.


No comments: