Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reading Scripture in the Catholic Tradition

We Catholics are not Protestants. We look rather askance when we hear that vast numbers of American Protestants have a highly literalistic approach to some stories in the Bible, for example the first chapters of Genesis, the Creation. Most of us are simply perplexed when scientific theories are opposed by those quoting scriptural texts. The truth of the matter is that we do not take scripture alone as being the source of Revelation, it must be understood in the "light of tradition", Scripture and Tradition hand in hand for us form God's Revelation.
It is not that we take scripture lightly, on the contrary we understand scripture on a much deeper level than simple literal fundamentalism, I found this article on what the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as the "four senses" of scripture.
They are:

  1. Literal
  2. anagogical
  3. allegorical
  4. tropological
8. An example of the four senses: the treasure hidden in a field. In Matt 13:44 we read: "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, a man having found which, he hid it and, for joy thereof, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." The literal sense is contained in the bare meaning of the words. It is clear what a kingdom is and what a treasure is. One can think of gold or silver buried in an open field. But there are two ways literally to read this simile, or comparison. One way is "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field ...." The other way is "The kingdom of heaven is like this. There is a treasure hidden in a field ...." The second way is probably more accurate, for reasons that will be given. The spiritual sense of this simile is taken up in the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church. The search for the spiritual meaning begins when we ask ourselves what the "treasure" stands for in the comparison. As compiled by Thomas Aquinas in his Catena aurea and in his own Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew at Matt 13:44, we find as follows. According to St. Gregory the Great, the treasure is "heavenly desire" (Isa 33:6), hidden in the field of "the discipline of zeal for Heaven" (Prov 24:27); according to St. John Chrysostom, the treasure is the teaching of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:7), hidden from the eyes of the unclean people of this world (Matt 11:15); according to St. Jerome, the treasure is the divine Word of God (Col 2:3), hidden in the field of his Body (Col 2:9), or Sacred Scripture, hidden in the field of the Church (Wisd 7:14); according to St. Augustine the treasure is the two Testaments. We should note that St. Thomas Aquinas, when he brings out a spiritual meaning of a word or passage in Sacred Scripture, also when he is quoting from the Fathers of the Church, as he has done here, usually associates it with a literal expression of the same word elsewhere in the Scriptures. Such cross references are very useful, but they require a vast knowledge of the Scriptures in order to be found consistently. The use of a concordance can be very helpful in this regard.
9. The anagogical sense of Matt 13:44. The neo-Patristic approach tries to make explicit the framework of the four senses which is usually only implicit in the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church. The anagogical sense regards the higher allegory of the Most Blessed Trinity and the "four last things," namely, death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Where Gregory the Great sees the treasure hidden in a field as representing "heavenly desire" in general, the neo-Patristic exegete will locate this insight objectively as the anagogy of Heaven itself, the place where God in Three Persons dwells and where the blessed abide. Subjectively, on the anagogical level, the treasure may be seen as eternal happiness in Heaven. A person finds this treasure now through the supernatural virtue of faith, he rejoices through supernatural hope, and he goes and buys that field through the exercise of the supernatural virtue of charity. 10. The allegorical sense of Matt 13:44. An allegory is "a sustained metaphor." Allegory is also "a technique of creating or interpreting works of literature, art, and music so that they will convey more than one level of meaning simultaneously" (Encyclopedia Americana, "Allegory"). We speak of the allegorical sense of the Scriptures inasmuch as objects of faith are presented by the metaphorical use of words that literally represent natural things, and this usage is repeated over and over again in a recognizable pattern. Allegory in the miraculous text of the Bible does not mean fancy or unreal depiction, except where it deliberately uses a genre of fiction. The literal sense of the Bible carries a higher level of meaning centered around the allegory of Christ and his Church. Thus, following St. Jerome, we may be able to see that the treasure in Matt 13:44 is the divine Word of God, present hypostatically in the human nature of Christ and hidden within the "field" of his Body and Soul. To come to know who Jesus really is means to discover the He is God, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, made man for our salvation. Secondly, we learn who Jesus is through hearing the Gospel as it is preached or through reading the Gospels as they have been written down. We learn who Jesus really is by listening to his words and by reviewing his deeds, recounted in the "field" of the Gospels. Thirdly, the treasure is the Person of Jesus, hidden prophetically in the figurative expressions of the Old Testament. Fourthly, the treasure is Jesus, hidden within the Church, which is his Mystical Body. People come to Jesus through the Church. And so we have the allegory of the Divine Word, the allegory of the written word, the allegory of the two Testaments, and the allegory of the Church.
11. The tropological sense of Matt 13:44. The tropological sense is the objective pattern which represents the impact of the objective truth upon the believing subject, and it is structured chiefly in terms of the virtues of the soul of the believer. We have seen above, in relation to the anagogical sense, that the three theological virtues are the "field" in which the desire for heaven lies. To "sell all that one has" in order to buy that field means to repent of one's sins, to submit our minds to the truth of the Gospel, to focus our minds and our hearts upon supernatural realities, to give up all of our attachments to the world, the flesh, and the Devil, to be wholly converted to love for God and for our neighbor, and other things of this kind. Tropologically, the kingdom of Heaven is the reign of God's grace in the heart of the believer. Cornelius a Lapide, whose commentaries provide abundant help for neo-Patristic research, sees here as tropological Gregory the Great's teaching that the treasure in point is the desire of Heaven, which the finder must hide from the praise of men. "In this present life we are on a road by which we are proceeding to our homeland, but evil spirits are like robbers besetting our path. Whoever, therefore, openly carries his treasure on the way is asking to be robbed" (Gregory, Homily 11 on the Gospels).
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