Reading Scripture: Nuts and Bolts

I received an e-mail the other day from a seminarian who requested some follow-up on what I had discussed earlier as neo-patristic biblical interpretation for the church. He’s quite right – this is a topic I have wanted to talk about, but have neglected for far too long. In particular, he asks what sort of resources or authors he should be reading in order to gain a sense of this approach.

Let me start by saying that the first step is to get the purpose right. Entirely apart from other modes of reading, the church has one particular question that should drive and focus all of our interactions with Scripture: how does this passage reveal God’s desire for the church to be built up in love for service and reconciliation? There are other approaches to Scripture. There are other questions that interpreters ask Scripture. Academic and theological study will suggest different concerns and focuses. But at the heart of the Christian community remains this question: how does this passage help the Body of Christ grow into the mind of Christ? (I see these not as two different questions, but as two ways of framing the same intention.)

Once this seeking for God’s desire concerning our maturity and edification has been centrally seated, then other tools and resources can be allied in sympathy with it.

A book that I am returning to right now as I prepare my presentation for the Society of Catholic Priests is The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation by Johnson and Kurz. The first section, written by Luke Johnson, speaks specifically to rejoining the long conversation of the church about the Scriptures and offers as a dominant practice imagining the world that Scripture imagines. Johnson compares the historical critical paradigm to excavating a city whereas the church’s paradigm is living within the city. This sense of reading Scripture in order to learn how to live is thoroughly patristic: as Cassian’s Abba Nesteros reminds us, “receive the institutes and words of all the elders, preserve them carefully in your breast, and strive to fulfill them rather than to teach them.” Too often we skip the fulfilling part…

In terms of other works, I think Christopher Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers is helpful especially for those who have not read widely in the Fathers. Looking to the fathers themselves, Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine is essential, particularly books 2 and3, and the whole of Cassian’s 14th conference. The one resource above all others to which Augustine and Cassian will both direct you, however, is Scripture itself. I cannot over emphasize what Augustine says, the best way to learn to interpret Scripture is to read more Scripture.

The difference between the perspective that I’m driving at and what is commonly taught in academic and seminary circles is less a matter of content and more a matter of purpose and direction. The Spirit guides our reading of the inspired word for the sake of building up our communities in love. Other tools and techniques are useful for our spiritual lives and the spiritual lives of the people we touch to the degree that they enable us to understand and embody how God’s action in Christ frees us for love and service. Sometimes we may find this at the basic literal level of the text. Sometimes we may find this in one of Gregory’s allegorical explanations. Sometimes we may find this in one of Aquinas’s doctrinal points. Or we might find it in a historical critical nuancing of what a particular phrase meant in its ancient near Eastern context. We can and should learn from all of these, attending most particularly to those that we find aiding us in our central goal.

We do need to be reading more of the fathers. But we also need to be reading them in the right way. I put Paul and the fathers in the same category in terms of how they need to be read. Sometimes they teach us by what they say in the decisions they come to. But other times they teach us because of the ways that they show us to think. Paul has given us a treasure in First Corinthians; while it may not wrestle with justification like Romans or present a grand vision of the church like Ephesians, First Corinthians shows us a master edifier working through the practical problems of the local church in light of the resurrection and the Scriptures. We need to learn from his example, not just his conclusions. The same is true of the fathers – we need to learn from their examples, not just their conclusions.

So—reading in a neo-patristic fashion is about reading from a particular perspective for a particular purpose. Another piece of this is that our reading context also directs what we read and what we find because our reading occurs within the context of our fundamental practices: the Mass and the Office. These practices themselves give us texts and sensibilities and experiences that further guide our interpretation. Constant repetition of the Creeds, the Gloria, the Magnificat, the psalms direct what we see and find. The experience of encountering Christ in the Eucharist gives us a fuller understanding of the person and personality seen within the text.

Much more remains to be said about this, but I hope this at least gives some further pointers down the path.

11 thoughts on “Reading Scripture: Nuts and Bolts

  1. Kevin LaGree

    I hope you continue with this project, Derek, and continue to share it as well. One practice of “living in the city” (to borrow Luke Johnson’s apt description) which has helped me is lectio divina. As you know, like the daily office, it emerged from monastic practice, especially among those following St. Benedict’s rule since he proscribes it daily for those abiding by his rule. The best overview on lectio divina I have read is Michael Casey’s SACRED READING: THE ANCIENT ART OF LECTIO DIVINA. I will be teaching a short adult class on lectio divina based on Casey’s book in Advent at my church. I found it historically and theologically sound and clear and quite helpful in one’s beginning the practice. Like riding a bicycle, one has to take up the practice to understand fully its benefits. Once the four-fold, interconnected movements of lectio divina become a regularized practice in one’s devotional rule, however, the wisdom of St. Augustine you mention becomes even more obvious, we learn to interpret Scripture by reading more Scripture.

  2. bls

    Entirely apart from other modes of reading, the church has one particular question that should drive and focus all of our interactions with Scripture: how does this passage reveal God’s desire for the church to be built up in love for service and reconciliation? There are other approaches to Scripture. There are other questions that interpreters ask Scripture. Academic and theological study will suggest different concerns and focuses. But at the heart of the Christian community remains this question: how does this passage help the Body of Christ grow into the mind of Christ?

    I think this is really crucially (so to speak) important. I know you’ve been saying this all along, but if it’s at the heart of things – I think it is – then it always bears repeating!

    Again I think in terms of A.A. – and what you’re saying here is, to me, exactly what A.A.’s stated “primary purpose” (i.e., “to stay sober, and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety”) is meant to achieve, too. That is, to enunciate clearly what, exactly, is the Pearl of Great Price – the One True Thing – at the heart of everything else, and from which everything else follows and flows.

    And so it is with “growing into the mind of Christ” – also stated, as you note: “building up [the church] in love for service and reconciliation.” (I think I might say these things differently, and I’ll maybe come back and say how, because at the moment I’m not sure! Something having to do with “giving up one’s own self-limiting ideas, and allowing oneself to be re-fashioned,” I think; something along those lines.)

    If the church could only look through that lens continually, it might have a chance to really mean something to people. It’s important to have a “primary purpose” – as an anchor and a way to be drawn back to first principles, when we get off track (as we very, very often do). It’s much easier to stop and ask the question, at that point: “What happens if we do this? Will it help or hinder us in our primary purpose?” This simplifies where there is complexity, and clarifies where there is obscurity – and, by the way, refreshes the mind and heart, too.

    And you really can’t go wrong with “growing into the mind of Christ”….

  3. rick allen

    A few years back Slate ran a series of articles called “Blogging the Bible.” I think it’s still up if you google it. It was a running commentary on the Bible, pretty much book by book, by a man raised in a secular home, who became curious about the Bible and began to read it. He largely found it bizarre, inconsistent, immoral, and silly. So at first I thought, well, it’s a typical hatchet job; he wants to mock the scriptures and find nonsense there, and it’s not hard to ridicule anything if that’s your aim.

    But I was re-reading St. Augustine’s Confessions a year or two back, and came to see how the saint, at first, did the very same thing. At a certain point in his life he picked up the scriptures, but, after reading Cicero, he found them childish, strange, and unhelpful. And it wasn’t until he heard St. Ambrose expound the scriptures that he saw them for what they were, precisely because he began to read them within the tradition. The second chapter of Genesis, yes, has a talking snake in it, but that’s hardly the point. Man is estranged from God and from nature and from his fellow man due to pride, and disobedience. That point wouldn’t necessarily jump out at anyone in a first reading.

    That’s why I think you’re right that the Christian tradition–and the Fathers form a quite fundamental starting point–is needed to understand the scriptures, as a Christian.

    I would add, I think, that it’s rather unrealistic to imagine that any number of Christians of any stripe will be willing or able to study the Fathers, or the Councils, or the great theologians, or the writings of the saints. So I think it does come down to the clergy being most familiar with that material, in expounding the scriptures on Sunday. I certainly wouldn’t discourage such study on the part of the laity. I try to cover much of it, as best I can, and I rather enjoy it, but I had the advantage of a good education and encouraging parents, and have a steady job and a little leisure (a least this month). But it’s kind of like what Dr. Johnson said about Latin–every man (or woman) gets as much as he (or she) can. I think you are right to encourage familiarity with the tradition as necessary to understanding the scriptures as a Christian. I simply note that Plan B has to include knowledge of the tradition by the clergy and teachers, and its use in preaching and Christian education to those whose personal circumstances make even the occasional private reading of scripture a chore or a luxury.

  4. The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler

    This is off-topic but back in 2008-2009, you were writing a series on “7 dates and why they are important for the Anglican faith.” I have found links to articles 1-6 (587 BC; and 70, 325, 525, 597, and 1054 AD/CE) on your blog, but I have not found the 7th. Did you ever write it? If yes, could you provide a link? Many, many thanks! I am hoping to adapt the material for my Christian Ed class later this fall. (And that raises the question, of course, about copyright – whether I may copy and distribute and give you credit, or no…). Many thanks!

  5. Derek Olsen

    Lectio is quite valuable, and I’d agree—Casey’s book is a great introduction to the practice. My first direction on how to do it was from a book that still remains in my top 5 spiritual books of all times, Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings, OSCO.

  6. Derek Olsen

    I would definitely agree: laity should read some of the Fathers when they have the chance but clergy really must. I know how little time there can be in clergy schedules but, behind prayer and Scripture, the Fathers need to have an important place.

  7. Derek Olsen

    Yikes! No, I don’t think I ever got around to finishing that. I may have some notes somewhere… The final date is 1549 and the issuance of the first Book of Common Prayer. I will try and get to this.

    Adaptations are perfectly fine on two conditions: 1) you credit me as the original inspiration, and 2) you let me know how it worked out—I’d love to hear how it goes! If there’s some part of it that really works or really doesn’t, it’d be good to know for next time.

  8. The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler

    I am amazed in general at the depth and prolific-ness (yes, I know that’s not a word, but when your mind begins to go, you’re grateful if it goes at all) of your blog, and enjoy it very much. Thank you for writing it! And thank you for your response. I figured it was probably the first Prayer Book — although those were certainly interesting years, including the first vernacular English Bible; once that started happening, it was all over! And I’ll let you know how the classes go — we’re not there yet (in fact we won’t even start until this Sunday) but I am looking down the line for later this fall/winter. Evelyn+

  9. Kevin LaGree

    I have heard of Cummings’ book but never read it. I have ordered it to rectify that. Thanks, Derek!

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