Thinking Clearly, Choosing Wisely: Reading the Bible

In two previous essays (here and here), I noted that I was inspired (in part) to analyze the topics discussed therein by a discussion with a friend and a fellow practicing Roman Catholic.  My friend had revealed to me that in her quest to further her knowledge of God, she has concluded (at least provisionally) that some of the most basic of Christian teachings are mistaken.

For instance, the Old Testament, she’s judged from her reading, is self-contradictory in many places.  And there are even parts of the New Testament, she added, that she feels certain are “not from God.”

Doubtless, there are many people, including many Christians, who think as my friend thinks. There are two things, however, that they must bear in mind.

First, just because there are passages that appear to them to be mutually contradictory does not make it so.  Apparent contradictions are not necessarily real contradictions.  Humility requires that they consider whether there are alternative explanations for the evident contradictions that they think they’ve discerned.  How the Catholic Churc... Thomas E. Woods Best Price: $8.00 Buy New $9.06 (as of 05:30 UTC - Details)

And considering that the Bible is the most famous and, at least historically speaking, most important book on Earth, it should come as no surprise that there exists countless numbers of commentaries on it (It’s been estimated that there are approximately over 100,000 books on Christ alone).  Many of these commentaries are authored by scholars who, having devoted their lives to the study of the Bible, have the authority, the expertise, to substantiate their insistence that these apparent contradictions that my friend and others purport to have discovered are just that, apparent.

Second, whether my friend thinks this, I can’t say, but many of our contemporaries who blast the Bible for its alleged contradictions presume that previous generations were somehow less “enlightened,” and, thus, more gullible, than the present one.

The truth of the matter is that from very early on in Christian history some of the brightest human beings who have ever lived recognized that the Bible lends itself to being read in multiple senses.

Clement of Alexandria, in the early third century, distinguished four senses in which Scripture can be interpreted: the literal sense and three “spiritual” senses.  In addition to the literal sense, the “meaning of the law,” Clement wrote, is known by its spiritual senses, “as displaying a sign, as establishing a command for right conduct, or as making known a prophecy.”

This four-fold interpretative schema, which informed the Catholic consciousness throughout the Patristic and Medieval eras, was known as the Quadriga. In other words, it became accepted that there are four senses of Scriptural interpretation: (1) the literal; (2) the allegorical; (3) the tropological, or the moral; and (4) the anagogical or spiritual.

The allegorical sense of reading Scripture occurs when characters or events are presented for the sake of drawing the reader’s attention to a larger theme or issue.

Essential to the tropological sense of reading Scripture is the use of moral metaphor.  It consists in reading, not literally, but figuratively.

To read Scripture anagogically is to read it in its spiritual sense.  “Anagoge” is a Greek word implying an ascension on the part of a person, a “climb” upward.

Yet even the literal sense of interpretation is more nuanced than it appears.  Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, for example, distinguished two literal senses, what the theologian Alister E. McGrath aptly summarizes as the “literal-historical” and “literal-prophetic.” The latter sense “coincides with the spirit,” Lefevre d’Etaples says, while the former does not. Those who view the literal without any mindfulness of the spiritual dimensions of actors and events are those whose “eyes are darkened.”

The author gives an example of this twofold sense, the one literal understanding “proper,” the other “improper.” Alluding to the second chapter of the Psalms, he writes: “For the Jews, the literal sense of this passage is that the people of Palestine rose up against David, the Messiah of the Lord.  But the true literal sense, according to Paul and the other Apostles, refers to Christ the Lord, the true Messiah and true Son of God [.]”

The bottom line is this: Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is not enough for an individual to read the Bible.  All of us must first be taught, not what to read, but how to read lest we lead ourselves astray.  We must be aware of the plurality of interpretative modes that the Bible demands, as well as draw upon the wisdom of men and women, both our contemporaries and our ancestors, who have labored indefatigably to sort through the very issues that some of us are just now encountering.

Catholics particularly have always appreciated that the reading of the Bible is, ultimately, a communal enterprise, and the community within which it needs to be read, insofar as it spans centuries and millennia and encompasses numerous countries and cultures, transcends both time and space.  It is called the Church.

That misinterpretations and abuses have occurred does not change the fact that, since no reader is an island, to paraphrase John Donne, when reading the Bible people must “avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages,” as Burke referred to tradition, the wisdom of the species. Only here, the nations and ages constitute the Church.

In summary, in order to determine whether the Bible contradicts itself in places, as it may appear to do, we must take pains to make sure that we are reading the Bible as it is meant to be read.

It has been the verdict of many of Christianity’s greatest theological and philosophical minds that once this is done, such apparent contradictions will be seen for the fake contradictions that they are.