Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How This Catholic Hacks Bible Study - Suggestions Welcome

When I finished my last post I realized as I was writing that I didn't have a good answer for the natural follow-up questions. "What 'hermeneutics' and framework do I use for understanding the Bible now?" At first I had to start thinking because I don't use anything consciously which is probably very similar to most Protestants. We are seldom as conscious as we should be about what we are bringing into the experience ourselves.

One official source you might find helpful that I haven't read yet "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993.

I haven't adopted or bought into any particular formal or rigid methodology or system. I have developed a 'critical-mass' of knowledge about basic history, types of literature, Jewish customs etc. and that helps. I have also become used to thinking about the four 'senses' of scripture that the Catholic Church has traditionally used From the CCC:Part I, Chapter I, Section 2, Article 3 Sacred Scripture
The senses of Scripture
115 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.

116 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."83

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.
  • 1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.84
  • 2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".85
  • 3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86
118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.87
I sometimes formally think about a particular Hermeneutic - particularly Typology as practiced by Scott Hahn (although he didn't invent it) which falls I think under the allegorical sense category. I won't pretend to be able to use it well, much less teach about it, but the essential idea is to use 'type' to relate events. So taking from St. Paul's example in Romans you could say he was using typology when comparing Jesus to Adam. It is a traditional Catholic application of typology that calls Christ the New Adam. Adam the first Man was directly created and put into the world by God, Jesus was the Son of God and his human nature was directly created by God. They are of the same 'type.'

Just doing a little internet research for this post and I am well reminded of my amateur status.  It is readily apparent that one could spend several years seriously studying just the topic of hermeneutics.

A few things that evolved for me over time.  The Catechism came out, so for the first time in my lifetime I had a easy place to go to get a firm answer rather than someone's opinion or misinformation about what the Church teaches.  Before that I had discovered the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Fathers of the Church all of these resources are now available online at New Advent.  I learned about concordances (huge indexes of every word in the Bible and every verse they occur in) and topical concordances, and scripture commentaries.  Now, these resources are available online.  Key points in my approach and my advice:
  • Know you Catholic Faith - Until I had read the CCC and had that available as a reference it was much more frustrating, especially when Protestant commentaries are so much more readily available and Catholic commentaries are too often not very Catholic.  If I know my Faith well, I can recognize when an interpretation is justifying a false doctrine.  If I want to investigate it and evaluate the merits for myself I feel free to do so, but I keep in mind what the Church teaches.  I am willing to seriously question the Church and my Faith - but I'm going to do it fully understanding the Church's position and giving it a fair hearing.
  • Read the Black Parts First - I look at what the words actually say, I'm not a 'literalist' but I don't want to discount what the text actually says!  If I'm going to 'interpret' or ignore what the words actually say, I want to acknowledge why I am doing that and I want to be doing it because it gets to the larger and more central meaning that the text is pointing towards.
  • Context - I always read in context when trying to understand  a passage.  I definitely don't try to understand just one or two verses in isolation.  I look at that passage in context of at least the immediate Chapters, if not the whole book.  The Bible isn't written as PowerPoint slides, very, very few verses are 'stand alone' bullet points.
  • Connections - What is the place of that book in history, whats going on and how does this text connect to the History  What is the culture and the audience.  Then use that information judiciously to deepen my understanding what I'm reading.  I don't agree with the taking an "Historical-Critical" method that starts at the same place I do, but then uses the 'connections' in a relativist approach to convince myself that what the author is writing about no longer applies to our culture.
  • Reason -  I try to think about what the author or text is trying to accomplish.  What is the main message.  Particularly in the Gospels and the NT in general.  I consider that the NT was not written as a Catechism.  Every book was written for a reason.  Also, they didn't have word processor, photocopies or typesetting - every word and verse is important.  And, they didn't include redundant information - things that everyone already new were not spelled out, that would have been a waste of papyrus.  (BTW - just going through the Chronology - Paul spent 18 months his first visit to Corinth!  We can assume he explained a lot of things much more fully in that time that what got written in two short letters.)
  • Compare - I compare the meaning I'm deriving with other parts of the Bible.  So what I'm getting out of 1 Corinthians gets compared to the other Pauline Epistles, and the Gospel.  
  • Hermeneutic of Fulfillment - I read with the idea in mind that the OT and NT are not 'discontinuous'  but integral - The OT is fulfilled in the NT and the NT completes the OT.  Particularly for St. Paul I consciously try to read the NT in light of the OT.  St. Paul constantly refers back to the OT.
  • Fancy Stuff - Allegorical, Anagogical (I think of that as mystical) and Moral senses.  I'm no expert here, and whether I'm actually reading a commentary or not, I'm probably copying or rethinking something I've heard or read before.  In particular these would apply more to books I've been avoiding more or less, Danial, Amos, Revelation for example.
  • Greek / Hebrew - Lately I've been doing a little research on key verses looking up the original Greek and Hebrew.  What I've been finding is more a tendency to want to move away from tying to make meaning precise and more a desire to realize that God is bigger than any word or sentence - whether in Greed, Hebrew, Latin or English.  So I guess I'm reacting against the Protestant methodology there.
  • Consult References - I'm a learn by doing guy.  For the past few years I've been trying to apply what I already know until I get bored with that and then going to commentaries and other outside sources.  I have a strong preference for the Fathers of the Church.
Just to be clear, this isn't a pattern I had worked out in advance, it is how I meta-cognate on what I have actually been doing.  I've been working my way through the Pauline Epistles for some time and I'll write about how I've been approaching that and what I think I'm learning.   I also think I'll do a separate post about my favorite Bible research resources on the Internet and the books I've either used and want to buy.

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