PC: Biblical Scholarship, Patristic Reading, Scriptural Imagining

This is the second part of the discussion raised in the previous post


Here’s the problem: because there is a disconnect in the questions being asked, there’s going to be a disconnect in the answers that will be received. Modern communities of faith and people of faith are asking something like this: “How does this text reveal God to me?” or “What does God want me to do as a result of my reading of this text?” or “What is God’s claim on my life—beliefs, actions, thoughts and feelings—because of what I read in this verse or passage or book?”

Those are not the questions that modern biblical scholarship are asking. Rather, modern biblical scholarship asks something more like: “what did the authors and editors of this book or passage or verse think about God (or humanity or their environment, cultural or otherwise) and how did they communicate these thoughts through their writing and editing?”

I fully believe that the scientific study of the Scriptures can and should inform our understanding of the faith and how we practice it. We must listen to scholarship, even when it challenges treasured beliefs. But—we must use what scholarship tells us sensibly; we have to recognize that many of the questions we are asking as faithful believers are not going to be answered—at least not directly—in the discussions occurring within the guild of biblical scholarship. If we want to get the most out of it, we must ask modern scholarship the kinds of questions that it is designed to answer.

Cassiodorus, Benedict, and the Church Fathers are, in many ways, on our wavelength because they are asking the same kinds of questions that we are. They want to know what God is saying to them through this text.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, has compared the interpretive techniques and experiences of  patristic readers and modern biblical scholars as the difference between people who exist with in a lively city and archaeologists who excavate a dead one.

The problem with the patristic authors is that, while fully immersed in the lived experience, they failed to notice that changes caused by the shifts in time, culture, and accidents of translation had altered how the texts were read and understood. Elements from the readers’ everyday experience were too easily read back into the text: it’s not uncommon to see medieval depictions of the Last Supper as the First Eucharist where Jesus is wearing contemporary mass vestments, elevating a host over a chalice, or communing kneeling disciples just like a medieval parish priest.[1] A need to see all four gospels as non-contradictory narratives lead to some fancy contortions of the timeline for the sake of harmonization, requiring Jesus to cleanse the Temple twice—once at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13-17) and at the end (Matthew 21:12-13|Mark 11:15-17|Luke 19:45-46). Equally problematic are the attempts to reconcile the two different genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-28).[2] Too, literary conventions and genre markers were lost in translation and over time; Jonah, a folktale-style short story with a theological point, and Daniel, an apocalyptic work of encouragement, were shelved as straight-forward prophetic history. In short, these readers lost the sense that there was a cultural and temporal gap between themselves and the text.

The problem with modern biblical scholars is that the engagement with the text because an investigation in an overly distant and dispassionate past. The gulf between the scholarly present and the biblical past becomes so great that only rigorous historical methodology can certify the accuracy of anything—and only things capable of historical certification are worth knowing. The search for seams in the text, layers of literary production, and establishing direct source materials can lead to the dissection of a text that, once opened and disembowled, has a difficult time functioning again as a living being.

What to do, then? What is the best direction in which to proceed?

Johnson recommends not the stark “either/or” that accepts patristic readings and rejects modern scholarly ones nor vice-versa. Instead, he recommends a “both/and” that functions by starting with a base question that both patristic piety and academic curiosity are eager to answer: “What is the world that Scripture imagines?” If the Scriptures are the written body of God’s self-revelation, what is the kind of world that Scriptures present before us—and invite us into?

Academic scholarship can help answer this question by filling in the ideas and intentions of the ancient authors. That is, scholarship can help us better understand the world that the biblical authors thought that they were communicating. With a better understanding of the religious traditions of the neighboring cultures and ancient literary conceits and signals, details that we either overlook or would normally misinterpret can pop into sudden focus and help us understanding how the biblical authors were trying to envision God, humanity, the world, and the relationship between them all.

Patristic readers can help us delve into the possibilities and potentials within the text when it is read in relation to the full arc of the Christian story. Too, they alert us to the ways that Christian habits, practices, and rituals have been seen within and influenced by readers of the biblical texts. The patristic authors—and especially the monastic authors—are focused not only on describing the world that Scripture imagines, but explaining how we can put it into action and participate within that world. Because that’s their true goal: not just imagining or comprehending a world that God desires, but inhabiting that world—acting and living and behaving within that world. This, after all, is the concept at the heart of the the fourth chapter of Benedict’s rule: The “tools of the spiritual craft” (RB 4.75) are a compilation of 74 injunctions, most taken directly from Scripture, about habits of body and mind that Benedict’s monks are expected to use “without ceasing day and night” as they toil in the workshop that is the monastery (RB 4.76,78). The goal is not just imagining what God hopes and dreams, but putting it into practice in order to draw our world closer to God’s fullest loving intentions for it.

 

[1] The 12th century French manuscript New York, Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 6v, the 15th century Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS DB 65, fol. 189v, and Fra Anglica’s “Instituion of the Eucharist” all depict these elements. For a more detailed study of these and more images see Margaret Duffy, “Corpus Christi—Last Supper vs. Institution of the Eucharist” online: http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2011/06/corpus-christi-last-supper-vs.html.

[2] Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels is one of the most comprehensive and influential attempts to explain the many differences between the four gospels without overt contradiction.

One Reply to “PC: Biblical Scholarship, Patristic Reading, Scriptural Imagining”

  1. I think that we as Anglicans have a special contribution to make to all this. Because we adopted the notion of Scripture and the Fathers, with the original sense of Scripture being paramount, then we can bring these two perspectives together without compromising the validity of either. Thus we can say that Scripture has more than one sense, and insofar as the one’s approach to the secondary senses do not negate or contradict the primary, we can hold to both, and affirm both as being necessary.

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