When Does The Person Begin?

Home Page Articles Links Contact Us

Making Sense of Scripture


This section falls into two parts: the first part attempts a working definition of the task of the exegete; and the second part acknowledges that if the Holy Spirit is the author of sacred Scripture, then there is a place for the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture.

IV. i. A working definition of Exegesis

In a restricted sense the fundamental task of exegesis seems to be that of establishing the first and as it were foundational sense of Scripture.  This is traditionally known as the 'literal sense' and '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"'48.  But it should also be added that the spiritual sense is no less a task for the exegete: 'One must be able to show that it is a sense "willed by God himself," a spiritual meaning "given by God" to the inspired text (EB, nn. 552-553).  Determining the spiritual sense then, belongs to the realm of exegetical science'49.  Thus one can conclude that determining the spiritual sense of Scripture must pass by way of determining the literal sense of Scripture; and secondly that the task of the exegete is to demonstrate the unity in diversity of the different senses of Scripture.

Although the aforementioned definition of the literal sense does not directly refer to the sacred author's intention, this would seem to be a useful thing to include in such a definition provided that it does not possess a presupposition50 which would oppose the literal sense the human author intended to that of the intention of the Holy Spirit.  For it is precisely the sense that the human author actually accomplishes51, which is the sense that the Holy Spirit actually accomplishes and which is, therefore, intrinsically ordered to the Scripture as a whole52.  Thus the following definition of the literal sense is useful precisely because it directs us to consider the things which humanly contributed to the formation of the written work, while at the same time the written work is not reducible to them; the literal sense is, then, 'The sense which the human author directly intended and which the written words conveyed'53.  And it would seem to follow from this that if one can rightly understand the written text, then one is literally reading the realization of what the Holy Spirit and the human author54 intended.

IV. ii. 'Scripture interprets Scripture'55

In complementary contrast to 'diachronic' exegesis, which takes account of the historical process through which a text comes to exist and is transmitted, is that of 'synchronic' exegesis which takes account of all that is characteristically literary in the word of God: 'one which has to do with their language, composition, narrative structure and capacity for persuasion'56.

These two methods are themselves taken up into what is not really a third method so much as an activity of searching the Scriptures in such a way as to read, and re-read57 one word of God in the light of another58.  Thus the preliminary work of ascertaining a particular author's intention is at the same time complimented by the dialogue between authors: 'the aim of which is to go beyond the historical conditioning so as to determine the essential points of the message'59.  This process is called 'actualization' and seeks to know the significance of these Scriptures 'for men and women of today'60.  However, actualization involves what is clearly of use to the exegete, namely 'the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture'61.  For if as St. Thomas Aquinas says: 'nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense'62, and if as Pope John Paul II says 'Determining the spiritual sense then, belongs to the realm of exegetical science'63, and if as Cardinal Ratzinger says 'Scripture ultimately is the work of a single Author who appears under both a human and a divine aspect'64, then it follows that the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture is of necessity essential to both the task of the exegete and the theologian.

In his introduction to Pope John Paul II Encyclical, Mary: God's Yes to Man, Cardinal J. Ratzinger says of this methodology: 'Theological interpretation of Scripture, then, means this: not only to listen to the historical authors and their concurrent or conflicting messages, but also to search for the one voice in the totality of the texts, to search for the inner identity that sustains and unites this totality.  A merely historical methodology, as it were, tries to single out specific facts neatly at the historical moment of their origins, thus isolating such a moment from all the rest and fixating it in its time.  Theological interpretation, in contrast, while not disregarding this endeavour, goes further: the historical moment does not exist in isolation; indeed, it is part of a whole; it can be understood correctly only against the background and in the context of the whole.  So, the methodology here is really very simple: Scripture interprets Scripture*.  Scripture interprets itself.  Listening to Scripture's own interpretation through Scripture itself is a characteristic property of this encyclical.  There is no attempt to explain the biblical texts in their individual moments through outside sources that may add much historical flavor, but no deeper understanding.  Rather, the encyclical tries to let the biblical texts speak entirely on their own, in their multi-voiced diversity, and so it searches for an understanding from their inherent relationships'65.

48 CCC, art 116, page 33, and the quotation is from St. Thomas: STh, I, 1, 10, ad 1.    Back
49 PBC, A, art 5, page 11.    Back
50 Cf. PBC, A, art 4, page 10 and art 13, page 18; PBC, Introd, A, page 31; PBC, Pt I, A, 1, pages 35-36; PBC, Pt I, A, 4, page 40; PBC, Pt I, D, 3, page 62; PBC, Pt I, E, 1, page 66; and PBC, Pt II, A, 2, pages 76-77; and also PBC, Pt IV, A, 3, page 116 etc.    Back
51 Cf. PBC, Pt II, B, 1, page 78.    Back
52 It is beyond the subject of this essay to discuss the possibility of errors of fact (cf. TR Bk 1, pages 84-90); but suffice it to say that facts are mediated by the natural subjectivity of the person who is using them and this could be a reason for 'apparent' divergences in extramental fact (cf. TR. Bk 1, page 90); also PBC, A, art 6, page 12: (EB, n. 559).  Nor is it possible to go into the Aristotelian-Aquinas doctrine of 'Substantial Change' (cf. A. Robinson, Substantial Change, pages 771-772 of Vol XIII, NCE) which now informs my view of the 'one thing' that Scripture is.    Back
53 R. E. Brown, The Literal Sense Of Scripture, art 9, page 1148 of the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, R. E. Brown SS, et al, (London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1990). Abbrev. NJBC etc.    Back
54 Firstly, the Holy Spirit and a human author are together, authors of the text, albeit one would argue that just as the soul is not actually but logically prior in determining the unity of the person, so the Holy Spirit is both actually and logically prior in determining the sense of Scripture.  Secondly, there is a possibility that any particular piece of Scripture may in fact have more than one author (R. E. Brown, The Literal Sense Of Scripture, art 10, page 1148 of NJBC).    Back
55 Cardinal J. Ratzinger, Introduction to the Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, Mary: God's Yes to Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988). &nsbp;The first time I saw this phrase was when it was used by Cardinal J. Ratzinger to describe the methodology as it were used by Pope John Paul II in the writing of Redemptoris Mater; the Cardinal says on page 13.  Abbrev.  Introduction to RM, Ratzinger.    Back
56 PBC, page 31: Introduction, A.    Back
57 PBC, Pt III, A, 1-2, pages 86-90.    Back
58 PBC, Pt IV, A, 2, page 115.    Back
59 PBC, Pt IV, A, 1, page 114.    Back
60 Ibid.    Back
61 PBC, Pt IV, A, 2, page 115.    Back
62 SuTh, Pt I, Qu. 1, Art 10.    Back
63 PBC, A, art 5, page 11.    Back
64 Introduction to RM, Ratzinger, I, 1, pages 11-12.    Back
65 Introduction to RM, Ratzinger, I, 1, pages 12-13.    Back

Home Articles Top Previous Next

Copyright © 2010 - All articles written by Francis Etheredge
Copyright © 2010-2015 - Website designed, written and maintained by Grace Mason
All rights reserved