Late last year the Vatican released the report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." The editors of First Things commissioned the following responses to this important document.
Paul M. Blowers
Jon D. Levenson
Robert L. Wilken
The second-century Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyons once described the interpretation of the Bible as being like placing together a grand mosaic, or like assembling Homeric verses into their correct and coherent plot structure. Gnostic allegorizers, Irenaeus argued, had scattered the gems of the scriptural mosaic and configured them again to form an alien portrait. In rereading the Bible, moreover, they had come up with the wrong story line, one foreign to the Church’s Rule of Faith, the central dramatic narrative of salvation history that was the very substance of the biblical revelation. What made the Gnostics’ exegesis so damaging was not that it was subjective as such, but that its subjectivity was not grounded in the Church’s perspective. Gnostics were thus fated to telling the world a wholly different story of creation and redemption. For all their hermeneutical sophistication, they had missed the very mystery of divine revelation that permeated the scriptural witness of prophets and apostles, a mystery that could be fathomed only within the context of the Church’s Christocentric experience and life.
Irenaeus, for all his troubles with the Gnostics, could hardly have imagined the changes in the landscape of biblical interpretation eighteen centuries later. No longer, since the Enlightenment, is it virtually universally presupposed that the Church or the Synagogue is the primary matrix and context for expounding and appropriating Scripture. Today there are many and diverse claimants to the Book of Books, many and diverse interpretative cultures. Historicism may have taken some knocks of late but, as Jon Levenson reminded First Things readers in February of last year ("The Bible: Unexamined Commitments of Criticism"), there are not a few apologists of biblical- critical studies who still, in the name of value-neutral objectivity and good scholarly citizenship, insist that Bible stories are honestly comprehensible only to that academy or guild where they are rendered transparent to the time- and culture-bound ideologies that underlie the texts.
On the other side of the spectrum are literary critics who aspire instead to liberate human subjectivity in reading scriptural texts. Scripture still has a story to tell, but it comes to life, they say, only as individual readers or communities put their own questions to the Bible and, spurning the superficialities of "authorial" or "original" meaning as well as "traditional" interpretations, construct ever new semantic possibilities out of the linguistic stuff of the texts. A good novelist may then be a better judge of biblical truth than a philologist, a historian, or a theologian.
Meanwhile, what words of comfort can be spoken to all those postmodern people (churched and unchurched) who, in the absence of a compelling rendition of the biblical narrative, as Robert Jenson writes, "simply do not apprehend or inhabit a narratable world"? Who will make sense of their lives and their world in the light of the biblical drama of creation and redemption?
The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s (PBC) recently published report on "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" could not be more timely. Though it is formulated mainly as a statement on the resources, challenges, and "mission of exegesis" within the Catholic Church, the report also sends unmistakable signals to the broader cultures of biblical hermeneutics in "postmodernity." One signal is thoroughly clear: the Church is still the foundational context for expounding Scripture and the only promising medium for actualizing the Word of God through new "retellings" ( relectures ) of the biblical story.
The early sections of the report set out a strategy for accommodating a variety of hermeneutical methodologies without paying exclusive homage to any one. The PBC remains realistically committed to the classic resources of historical-critical interpretation insofar as they can open windows to the ancient communities of faith that both produced Scripture and were shaped by Scripture. "Diachronic" interpretation, the treatment of texts from the standpoint of their formation and redaction in changing circumstances over time, continues to provide important insights into the historical constraints on the original intentionality and "literal" sense of the Scriptures.
Yet the Bible is still live communication. The more recent "synchronic" approaches (literary and rhetorical analysis, narrative criticism, semiotics, etc.), which look at scriptural texts primarily as finished units or structures of discourse, can thus be of great assistance in bringing out the language of persuasion, the storied character, and the symbolic richness of the Bible so as to realize genuine interaction between the ancient text and modern readerships. Narrative analysis, in particular, has not only helped to rescue the Bible from historicism but inhibited the reduction of the Bible to a transparent body of propositional truths (contra fundamentalism). It has recovered the imperative, intrinsic to Scripture itself, "both to tell the story of salvation (the informative aspect) and to tell the story in view of salvation (the performative aspect)."
The PBC report projects a constructive collaboration of "diachronic" and "synchronic" interpretation. In the best of all possible exegetical worlds this is the model. Many scholars will nevertheless see this goal as highly optimistic in the "real world" of biblical interpretation where exegetical battles are waged amid the complex networks of academic guilds, well-defined hermeneutical schools of thought, and other channels of scholarly influence in which loyalties are strong, and in which committed Christian and Jewish exegetes must still practice their craft. A case in point is the interpretation of the Pentateuch according to the Four-Source Theory (Documentary Hypothesis), which was for years largely unchallenged in the academy until more recent literary-critical analysis began to stake its claim. Many interpreters are insisting now that the textual dissonance and tensions within the Pentateuch (the dual creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 are a salient example, but there are many more) need not be explained, diachronically, in terms of multiple editorial sources, but synchronically, by the artistry of authors who, in shaping the narratives, retained the tensions as integral to the discourse. There is no consensus that diachronic and synchronic interpretations can coexist; some biblical critics say they are downright incompatible.
The academy, though, can absorb seemingly countless exegetical differences and the impasses to which they may lead. In the Church, where the reading of Scripture for the life-giving Word makes the stakes of interpretation prohibitively higher, plurality and diversity of perspectives-among exegetes, between exegetes and theologians, etc.-can bring progress in understanding only because of a shared rule of faith, a common interpretative lens, operative in the ecclesial community. The Church, the PBC points out, has the advantage of a pre-understanding which holds together modern scientific culture and the religious tradition emanating from ancient Israel and from the early Christian community. [Catholic exegetes’] interpretations stand thereby in continuity with a dynamic pattern of interpretation that is found within the Bible itself and continues in the life of the Church. This dynamic pattern corresponds to the requirement that there be a lived affinity between the interpreter and the object, an affinity which constitutes, in fact, one of the conditions that make the entire exegetical enterprise possible.In its later chapters, the PBC report thus draws upon and further articulates a foundational axiom of Catholic hermeneutics, the presupposed organic interrelation between Scripture and the Church’s interpretative tradition. That relation began within the New Testament itself, as the early Christians "discerned" their own identity by interpreting the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. It continued in the Church’s "discernment" of a full Christian biblical canon. And it continues now in the Church’s ongoing commitment to "discerning" the fullness of the biblical revelation in new historical contexts by availing itself of intertextual exegesis, canon criticism, and the history of biblical interpretation (especially the theologically rich patristic exegetical tradition).
The theme of "discernment" is an important current running through this entire document. Revelation is discerned, not apprehended directly or mechanically. And the authoritative claims of the Bible on the Church are not primarily those of law or of dogma. As Sean McEvenue has argued, the Bible’s authority is most basically a spiritual authority , effective and convertive. Transformation is concomitant with understanding. The PBC report thus recognizes that biblical study and interpretation are completed only in conjunction with "spiritual experience and the discernment of the Church." "Exegesis produces its best results when it is carried out in the context of the living faith of the Christian community, which is directed toward the salvation of the entire world." The closing sections of the report set forth the mission of actualizing, inculturating, and contextualizing the biblical message in the modern world. This missionary focus, however, must be rooted in the continuing consumption of Scripture within the Church itself-through the reading of the Bible in the liturgy, through the practices of spiritual meditation on Scripture, through its use in pastoral ministry, and through the study of the Bible in ecumenical exchanges.
Given the landscape of contemporary biblical studies, Protestants should identify profoundly with the appeal of the PBC boldly to reaffirm the Church’s hermeneutical prerogatives. H. Richard Niebuhr spoke for many of us when he wrote in his The Meaning of Revelation (1941) that
in Protestantism we have long attempted to say what we mean by revelation by pointing to the Scriptures, but we have found that we cannot do so save as we interpret them in a community in which men listen for the word of God in the reading of the Scriptures, or in which men participate in the same spiritual history out of which the record came.
The PBC report may serve notice across the ecumenical board that the "discernment" of the mystery of biblical revelation, the unfolding of the full implications of the biblical story of salvation for the Church and for the world, will demand hermeneutical courage, theological depth, ecclesial and pastoral commitment, and a spirituality rooted both in the Bible and the Christian tradition.
Paul M. Blowers is Associate Professor of Church History at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Carl E. Braaten has suggested that the foundational assumption of the report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," is the hermeneutical equivalent of the Definition of Chalcedon (451 c.e.). Whatever the limitations of the analogy, it is surely the case that just as that ancient conciliar statement affirmed the indivisibility and inseparability of the humanity of Christ from his divinity, so does the Commission’s report reaffirm that Scripture is the "word of God in human language," repeatedly insisting that the two natures of the text can never be altogether decoupled.
This, in turn, accounts for a certain two-sidedness in the document itself, which continually embraces modern methods of biblical study but then warns of their limitations. "Psychology and psychoanalysis," for example, "lead to a multidimensional understanding of Scripture and help decode the human language of revelation," but they "should not serve to eliminate the reality of sin and of salvation." Modern methods, including even those that originate in secular sciences, can illuminate the sacred text in important, even essential ways, but as the report says of cultural anthropology, they are powerless "to determine what is specifically the content of revelation." The resulting report is thus generally one of admirable balance and thoughtfulness. It is also wonderfully comprehensive and concise, a document of great value to both Catholic and non-Catholic interpreters of the Bible.
The divine nature of the text comes from its ultimate author, or, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger puts it in his preface, its "genuine author, God." It is this dimension that recedes or disappears when the historical-critical method of modern academic biblical scholarship is, in the words of the report, granted "sole validity." As Ratzinger correctly and astutely observes, this can result in "putting the [biblical] word back into the past completely so that it is no longer taken in its actuality" and "only [its] human dimension appears as real." This is precisely the effect (and often also the intention) of many programs in biblical studies in universities and even seminaries today. How this desacralization can be avoided in academic communities that are not religiously homogeneous is a pressing issue to many of us, but not one addressed in the report, which is, as its title indicates, interested only in "The Interpretation of the Bible in the [Roman Catholic] Church." Instead, the Commission seems to believe that the divine dimension of Scripture will be protected if only there is "full participation on the part of exegetes in the life and faith of the believing community of their own time," if "church authority [sees] to it that . . . interpretation remains faithful to the great tradition which has produced the texts," and so on.
The fact remains, however, that unless the Catholic Church (re)ghettoizes itself, as I think to be logistically impossible, its exegetes will continue to be integral members of communities of interpretation that are religiously diverse and whose lingua franca has long been historicism and naturalism-that is, philosophical positions averse to the monotheistic traditions and biased toward secularity. If the transcendent dimension of the text is to be upheld without suppressing the human, historical dimension, means will have to be found to prosecute biblical scholarship on genuinely public grounds-that is, on grounds that are pluralistic, and not simply historicistic and naturalistic. How this can be done is an issue as vexing as it is pressing and one on which the Commission offers no help. A schizoid solution-the Catholic exegete as Catholic in church but historicist in the academy-will not effectively redress the recession of the divine dimension of the text that Ratzinger opposes.
It is the frank recognition of the human dimension of the Scripture that accounts for the report’s stern and repeated denunciations of fundamentalism, which "fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods" and thus "considers historical everything that is reported or recounted with verbs in the past tense." As a result "[i]t injects into life a false certitude" and even "invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide." Nothing else that this remarkably open and learned report addresses-not even feminist exegesis (which "has brought many benefits") or Marxist liberationism-comes in for so much censure as fundamentalism. This may partially reflect the gains that various Protestant fundamentalist groups have made in historically Catholic countries in recent years, while Marxism, for example (which has committed literal suicide repeatedly of late, not to mention mass murder earlier), has dramatically lost credibility (except among professors, especially of theology) along with the ability to threaten Rome. But the Commission’s eagerness to distance itself from fundamentalism also reflects its conviction that "the historical-critical method . . . when used in an objective manner, implies of itself no a priori" and therefore cannot threaten Catholic doctrine.
The notion of a method without a priori suppositions is philosophically naive and easily falsified in the case at hand. One a priori of historical critics, for example, is the absence of clairvoyance. Since the Book of Isaiah (who lived in the eighth century b.c.e.) speaks of Cyrus (who lived in the sixth), they therefore must conclude, as did some medieval Jewish commentators as well, that the chapters that do so were added later as a vaticinium ex eventu . Without the a priori naturalism, one could instead argue that Isaiah had a gift of foreknowledge, as befits a prophet (though this would, of course, still not explain the stylistic differences between the various sections of the book that now goes by his name). While I quite agree with the commission about the historically conditioned character of all texts and the corollary inadequacy of fundamentalism, it seems to me to be evading the tensions (if not outright contradictions) between the divine and the human dimensions that its own a priori suppositions ascribe to the Bible.
It also evades the possibility that the "more precise understanding of the truth of sacred Scripture" that the historical-critical method yields can lead to the denial of magisterial teaching. I think, for example, of Father John P. Meier’s courageous presidential address at the general meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association in 1991, entitled, "The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus in Ecumenical Perspective." The ecumenical issue is simple: whereas the Roman Catholic Church teaches the perpetual virginity of Mary, some communions, following references in the New Testament to Jesus’ siblings, do not affirm her virginity to have continued beyond the time of his birth. An extremely learned and meticulous historical-critical analysis compelled Fr. Meier to conclude that "if-prescinding from faith and later Church teaching- the historian or exegete is asked to render a judgment on the New Testament and patristic texts we have examined, viewed simply as historical sources, the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings," and not cousins (or half-siblings by some hypothetical previous marriage of Joseph) as some post-canonical traditions came to assert. The question remains, however, whether the "later Church teaching" (from which the responsible historical-critical scholar will necessarily prescind) can be valid when it contradicts the New Testament itself. Could Mary have been a perpetual virgin when the evangelists (not to mention Josephus) not only did not know this but thought otherwise?
The same sort of issue arises not only in regard to divisive ecumenical issues such as the interpretation of Mary or Peter. It also affects basic issues of Christology, which the Commission takes as settled. For one of the consequences of historical-critical study is to cast doubt on the assumption that the Bible is, as the report puts it, "a gathering together of a whole array of witnesses from one great tradition." On the contrary, this kind of study shows that there never was "one great tradition" and that the organic unfolding of each stage of tradition from the one that preceded, without jarring disjunctions and flimsy harmonizations, is a chimera. This is a painful thought for any traditionalist (including a traditional Jew like myself), but intellectual honesty requires that it be faced.
Lest the Protestant reader be tempted to feel triumphalistic at this point, it must be noted that those jarring disjunctions occur not only between Scripture and tradition but also within each. Indeed, the biblical idea of the Virgin Birth itself, known from Matthew and Luke, is completely unattested in Mark, John, and Paul. The Apostle to the Gentiles, in fact, described Jesus as "born of a woman" (Galations 4:4) where an adherent of pious harmonization would surely have expected to read "born of a virgin."
When the members of the Commission tell us that "the interpretation of one particular text has to avoid seeking to dominate at the expense of others," they are thus conceding more of their own tradition than they realize. Without such domination, orthodoxy deconstructs. The Church can, of course, affirm the fuller traditions of Matthew and Luke to be normative (as it has), but it cannot expect historical criticism to ratify that choice or even to support it. The historical study of the development of texts in the environments that produced the Bible often suggests quite the opposite-that the fuller text has undergone midrashic embellishment and is therefore less reliable historically (whatever its literary or theological value). However deep the personal piety and ecclesial obedience of a historical critic may be, his method compels him to cast doubt on historical claims based on traditions at a significant remove from the events in question. The affirmation of ongoing tradition and the critical study of history are willy-nilly often at cross purposes.
Another difficulty is that the Commission’s report handles the Old Testament considerably more critically than the New, on which it tends to fall back into fuzzy mystical language. For example, its affirmation that the "hyperbole" of "the royal psalms and messianic prophecies . . . had to be taken literally" after the unexpected death and resurrection of Jesus is more pious than critical. Supposedly, the psalmist’s extravagant affirmation that the king’s rule will be everlasting (Psalm 45:7) can now be seen to refer to Jesus’ endless reign. The problem is this: at the level of literal reality, Jesus’ kingship, which died aborning, is more of a hyperbole than that to which the psalmist referred, not less. A more historically defensible claim is that some early Christians used the mythological language of the old Judahite royal theology to conceptualize their experience of Jesus. The failure of Jesus to return and fulfill the old messianic expectations (despite reports of his resurrection) only heightened the eschatological understanding of the royal theology, already attested in Judaism. The extravagant promises would become reality at the end of time, but not before. On this reading, Judaism and Christianity, despite their irreconcilable difference on the identity of the messianic king, agree on a point that the Commission seems to have missed: the hyperbole of the royal psalms and the messianic prophecies will remain just that until kingdom come.
The treatment of Jesus himself in the report of the Commission exhibits scant influence from the historical-critical method, though the report elsewhere (and, in my judgment, correctly) pronounces it to be "indispensable." "Right from the start of his public ministry," we are told, "Jesus adopted a personal and original stance different from the accepted interpretation of his age, that ‘of the scribes and Pharisees,’" citing "his sovereign freedom with respect to Sabbath observance" and "his way of relativizing the precepts of ritual purity," among other instances. Those intellectually suicidal fundamentalists would have no objection to this formulation, but some historical critics, Christian as well as Jewish, would suggest that since the observance of Jewish law was a hotly disputed issue among Jesus’ disciples after his death, it is unlikely that he pronounced definitively against it during his lifetime, and that the passages in which he does so have been put into his mouth by later Christians for polemical purposes. A prime target of the polemic was Judaism. The problem with the report’s brief formulation of these issues is thus not only the fundamentalistic assumption that Jesus said what the gospels attribute to him; it is also that Jesus’ continuity with the Judaism of his time (including the Judaism of those patently ridiculous New Testament Pharisees) has been grossly minimized. You would almost think he was Catholic.
Thus, though the report condemns anti-Semitic interpretations of the Christian Bible, it seems unaware of the extent to which such interpretations continue certain polemical tendencies within the Scripture itself, tendencies that have influenced the portrayal of Jesus. So long as the figure of Jesus is protected from rigorous historical-critical analysis, the danger of anti-Semitic interpretation will survive, and precious opportunities for deepening the Church’s understanding of its Scripture will be lost. There is no substitute for the cauterization through historical criticism of the virulent anti- Semitic statements that have been put in the mouth of Jesus. Without this, the Church’s denunciations of anti-Semitism ring hollow.
When the historical-critical method has been applied to the figure of Jesus, however, it has historically, to one degree or another, driven a wedge between the historical person and the composite literary figure of the New Testament text-that is, between two venerable items in Christian theology, the word of God in human incarnation and the word of God in human language. Perhaps the Chalcedonian hermeneu tic is less durable than first seems the case.
Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author of The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (Westminster/John Knox) and The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (Yale).
When Origen of Alexandria was preaching on Joshua 7, the account of the capture of the Canaanite city of Ai by the Israelites, his hearers asked him: What does this have to do with us? What value is it to know that the inhabitants of Ai were vanquished, as though this battle was more significant than others? Why does the Holy Spirit include this event and ignore the fall of other, more famous cities? It is a question that is inevitable in a sermon. When the Bible is read by the faithful, especially in Christian worship, the preacher must ask of the text not simply, "What does the text mean?" but "What does the text mean for us?"
The new document issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission entitled "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" addresses this problem. Within the last several decades the historical study of the Bible (in its many contemporary forms) has gained widespread acceptance in the Church. So great is its hold on biblical scholarship today that its methods are widely assumed to be normative for all interpretation of the Bible. Biblical exegesis is conceived of as a historical and scholarly enterprise carried on by specialists in ancient languages and literature and, more recently, by scholars of social and cultural history.
Yet, argues the Commission, the seeming hegemony of historical criticism is deceptive. "At the very time when the most prevalent scientific method-the ‘historical-critical method’-is freely practiced in exegesis, including Catholic exegesis, it is itself brought into question." Even within scholarly circles one can detect mounting criticism of the present direction of biblical studies. But this report is not directed at debates within the guild; it has in mind a deeper and more troubling problem: "Many of the faithful judge the method deficient from the point of view of faith." For some, the Commission asserts, biblical criticism has made the Bible a "closed book," to which the words of the gospel seem applicable: "You have taken away the key of knowledge; you have not entered in yourselves and you have hindered those who sought to enter." (Luke 11:52)
Strong words these, and they do not come from fundamentalists. These are the judgments of biblical scholars as well as bishops. What is more, the authors of this document are ardent defenders of the legitimacy and necessity of biblical criticism: "The historical-critical method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts." Without the use of historical criticism, argues the Commission, there can be no serious study of the Bible. Its methods have "made it possible to understand far more accurately the intention of the authors and editors of the Bible as well as the message which they addressed to their first readers. The achievement of these results has lent the historical-critical method an importance of the highest order."
Fully one-third of the report is devoted to a sympathetic (though not uncritical) presentation of the most widespread "methods" now in use in the scholarly community: historical criticism; literary analysis (including rhetorical, narrative, semiotic analysis); tradition history; use of human sciences (sociology, anthropology); contextual approaches (lib erationist, feminist), et al. The report can and should be read, as Cardinal Ratzinger suggests in his preface, as a confirmation of the "largely positive" evaluation of historical-critical scholarship found in earlier ecclesiastical documents, e.g., Divino Afflante Spiritu of Pius XII (1943), Sancta Mater Ecclesia of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1964), and the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council (1965).
But the significance of this report is not that it defends the legitimacy of historical criticism. Its timeliness is that it reflects a thoughtful turning away from the easy acceptance of the methods of biblical criticism and offers an argument on behalf of a more theological, spiritual, Christological interpretation of the Bible. The report does not claim that historical criticism is illegitimate. It recognizes that the Bible is a book of the past and that it is a fit subject of historical inquiry. What the Commission claims is that a solely historical approach to the Bible has limited usefulness for the Church. The Bible speaks not only about the past but also about the present and the future. The question "What does the text mean for us?" can never be peripheral to the work of biblical interpretation.
Biblical scholarship, however, has largely become a world to itself, divorced from the church’s theological and spiritual traditions. For most of the Church’s history, theology and scriptural interpretation were one. Theology was called sacra pagina , and the task of interpreting the Bible was a theological enterprise. The Church’s faith and life was seen as continuous with the Bible. Even the Reformation appeal to "sola scriptura" assumed that the Bible was the book of the Church and its interpretation was to be shaped by the creeds and councils, the liturgy, the theological tradition. For the reformers the Christological interpretation of the prophets was the literal meaning of the text. In short, the Bible was read within the framework of the Church’s teaching and practice.
With the emergence of new historical disciplines in the eighteenth century and the application of these disciplines to the Scriptures, scholars began, unwittingly at first, to construct a new context to take the place of the Church. The aim was to break free of the patterns that had shaped Christian interpretation for centuries. The Bible came to be seen more and more as a book of the ancient world; hence its interpretation was primarily a historical enterprise.
The more the Bible was studied historically and philologically, the more it came to appear foreign to Christian faith and life. It was taken as axiomatic that the scholarly study of the Bible had to exclude references to Christian teaching. The notion that the Nicene Creed might play a role in understanding the biblical conception of God appeared ludicrous. As a consequence biblical scholarship acquired a life of its own as a historical enterprise independent of the Church (and of the Synagogue). Today its home is the university.
The other Bible, the Bible of the Church, however, lives, and, one might add, people live (and die) by it. Scholars will continue to write books about the original setting of Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53, but the Christian interpretation of these texts is fixed in the minds of the faithful and it is not going to go away. The Church’s interpretation is embedded in the liturgy, in hymns, in the catechetical tradition, and-let us not forget-in the Bible itself. The Christian interpretation of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 begins in the New Testament. If one has a quarrel with the Church’s interpretation of the Bible the debate is not with Origen or St. Augustine or St. Bernard, it is with St. Paul and St. Matthew.
It is one thing, however, to recount the limitations of biblical scholarship, quite another to propose a way beyond the present difficulties. The value of the report of the Commission is that it offers a constructive response, one that is firmly rooted in the classical exegetical tradition of the Church, yet at the same time attentive to the intellectual developments of the last two centuries. What the Commission offers is a defense of the "spiritual interpretation" of the Bible. Its arguments are informed, nuanced, and sophisticated, but the very use of the term "spiritual" will provoke controversy. "Spiritual interpretation" seems to suggest that the way forward is to go backward, to abandon the accomplishments of the last two hundred years and to return to a precritical reading of the Bible. From "spiritual interpretation," some will say, it is only a tiny step to medieval allegory and all its evil works.
The Commission is aware of the risks in reintroducing the term "spiritual." For this reason it addresses the most obvious criticism of the "spiritual" sense, namely, that it ignores the historical meaning. Its argument is elegantly simple: spiritual exegesis means interpreting the Bible in light of history, the history of God’s revelation in Christ. That is, "spiritual" means "historical," reading the Scriptures through the prism of Christ’s death and Resurrection: "The spiritual sense," the Commission writes, "results from setting the text in relation to real facts which are not foreign to it; the paschal event [the death and Resurrection of Christ], in all its inexhaustible richness, which constitutes the summit of the divine intervention in the history of Israel, to the benefit of all mankind."
In its zeal to understand the Bible historically, biblical scholarship has ignored the history that is at the center of the Christian Bible, the Incarnation of the divine Logos, the passion and death of Christ, the sending of the Holy Spirit to create the Church. Within Christian tradition, historical means Christological and ecclesiological. If the Bible is interpreted in this way, it must be read as a book that speaks not only of the past but of life in Christ within the Church. The Christian exegetical tradition assumes that what happened historically finds its fulfillment in the present. The writer to Hebrews takes the word "today" in Psalm 95, " Today if you do not harden your hearts," to refer to the present, when " we become partners of Christ." (Hebrews 3:7-14) In his great work on the Christian exegetical tradition, Exegese Medievale , Henri DeLubac, the French Jesuit, entitled one chapter Quotidie, "today." According to the spiritual interpretation, that which happened once in the past is made present "today" in the Church’s sacramental life and in the lives of the faithful.
At the beginning of his "literal" commentary on Genesis, St. Augustine wrote: "No Christian will dare say that the [biblical] narrative must not be taken in a spiritual sense." In support of this he cites the familiar words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, "Now all these things that happened to them were symbolic." But then he gives an example of how St. Paul actually interpreted the Bible. In Ephesians 5, for example, Paul quotes the words from Genesis 2: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." Paul, observes Augustine, gives the text a "spiritual meaning" by referring it to the Church. "This is a great mystery," he writes, "and I am applying it to Christ and the Church."
For Augustine the spiritual interpretation is built on the historical meaning. In the case of 1 Corinthians, Paul was referring to actual events that had taken place in the desert during the Exodus from Egypt. The "symbolic" meaning does not displace the reality of the events of which they are a symbol. Likewise, Paul assumes that Genesis 2 is speaking about the physical coming together of a man and a woman in marriage. "One flesh" refers to a carnal action. Yet St. Paul says that this coming together also has a spiritual meaning referring to the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.
Following Paul and Augustine, indeed the Church’s unanimous tradition, the Commission insists that the spiritual meaning depends on the historical or literal meaning: "While there is a distinction between the two senses, the spiritual sense can never be stripped of its connection with the literal sense." Without the prior literal sense the spiritual meaning-or, as some prefer, the mystical meaning-is evanescent. Spiritual interpretation, then, does not mean the imposition of esoteric meanings on the text, but the discernment of the sense that is unveiled by the Incarnation of the divine Word and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Three things, according to the Commission, converge in a spiritual interpretation of the Bible: the biblical text, the paschal mystery, and the present circumstances of life in the Spirit.
The medieval church expressed its understanding of the spiritual sense in the following distich: Littera gesta docet; quod credas allegoria; quid agas moralia; quo tendas anagogia. "The letter teaches us what happened; what you are to believe is called allegory; what you are to do is called the moral sense; the anagogical sense has to do with the final end of your life." By dismissing the spiritual sense as a pious fantasy, modern critics have missed the profundity of this verse, and hence of the tradition of spiritual exegesis. For this ancient distich expresses what the Church has always believed about the Bible. The Bible records God’s action in history (the letter), and it is the task of the interpreter to discern the relation between what is written there and what has come about (and will come about) because of what happened. The three latter senses show how this is best done, by relating the text to what we believe (allegory), to how we are to live (the moral sense), and to what we hope for (the anagogical sense). The God who was is also the God who is and is to come.
The spiritual understanding of the Bible is not a relic from the middle ages, a precritical expedient to make do until the advent of historical science. It is the distinctively Christian way of interpreting the Bible. John Henry Newman wrote: "In all ages of the Church, her teachers have shown a disinclination to confine themselves to the mere literal interpretation of Scripture . . . . It may almost be laid down as an historical fact that the mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together."
Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia and author of The Land Called Holy.