July 21st, Feast of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Doctor of the Church
In the 1800’s, led primarily by protestant theologians, the science of biblical theology first began. This science – which is completely different from the “proof-texting” of the Medieval scholastics and from the allegorizing of the early Fathers – approached the Bible in a whole new way: Emphasizing especially the importance of the original languages and also giving greater prominence to the human authors of the biblical books. For the first time, the Bible was understood in the historical context in which it was originally written.
Now, as with any completely new and original science, it is to be expected that biblical scholarship would struggle for a few years – jumping from one theory to another – but, soon enough, a real “golden age” dawned in the 1900’s. Unfortunately, because of the fears of the Church authorities, Catholic scholars were forbidden from practicing this new science – after all, Catholics were only allowed to read the Bible in Latin (and lay Catholics were discouraged from reading it at all). However, all this changed in 1943 when Pope Pius XII issued the Encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu. And so, the Golden Age of Catholic biblical scholarship had begun.
So goes the common myth. The truth could hardly be more different from this fable. It is the above yarn which (in this little article) we hope to begin to untangle.
Though I focused on Catholic biblical scholarship (and, especially, the beginnings of scholastic biblical scholarship) during my time of seminary studies, I by no means intend here to enter into the extremely interesting nuances and details of the historical development of various schools and approaches to the Bible within the Catholic Church. Rather, I hope to give a few general remarks about the various periods in Church history, and to support these generalizations with only a couple of simple examples from each age.
My goal in offering this little article is simply to give the reader at least some perspective on the development of Catholic biblical scholarship. Those about whom I write are, as it were, my “dear friends” to whom I constantly return to find encouragement and guidance.
Some Basics about vocabulary
The “literal sense” – that meaning which is conveyed by the words of Scripture themselves (whether this meaning was known to the human author is unimportant); this sense includes metaphors.
The “spiritual senses” – that meaning which is conveyed not by the words themselves, but rather by the things which the words signify: e.g. “Isaac” the name signifies the beloved son of Abraham (literal sense); but the person Isaac signifies Christ Jesus (spiritual sense).
“Allegory” or “typolopgy” – the spiritual sense by which a person or thing is a sign or type of another person or thing yet to come.
“Tropology” or “moral sense” – the spiritual sense by which a thing or event is understood as a lesson for how we are to live.
The “anagogical sense” – the spiritual sense by which a thing or event is a sign for the end of the world and the final judgment.
The Church Fathers
The patristic period was most certainly characterized by a great zeal for what we know call the “spiritual” sense (or senses) of Scripture. Especially in the reading of the Old Testament, the Fathers of both East and West loved to see allegories for Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Church. Moreover, there was a great moralizing tendency among some Fathers (especially, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Great) who continually interpreted the text according to the tropological sense – i.e. applying a passage to the daily life of his flock (an example of this would be concluding that Job’s seven sons are a sign of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, his three daughters being the theological virtues, and the four corners of their home being the four cardinal virtues).
Still, we would be quite foolish to think that the Fathers of the Church only interpreted Scripture according to allegory and the other spiritual senses. Rather, there was a great movement toward the literal sense of the text: Whether we consider the manner in which the Fathers attempted to reconcile certain chronological difficulties when harmonizing the Gospel accounts or their love for discussing the geography of ancient Israel, all of this falls under the literal sense.
At this time in history, biblical study is not a fully developed and systematic science – most of the great commentaries, for example, are collections of homilies rather than school-room studies.
Let’s look at a couple of authors:
Origen: The great Father of Catholic biblical scholarship. Certainly, there were Catholic biblical scholars before Origen (e.g. St. Clement of Rome), but he was recognized by all subsequent scholars as their Father and Master. Origen emphasized the spiritual senses, but was also very skilled in ancient languages and studied the Bible both in Greek and in Hebrew – he began the science that would develop (in the Middle Ages) into “textual criticism”.
|St. Jerome, the greatest biblical scholar|
St. Jerome: The great disciple of Origen (through reading his works, since the two obviously never met). Jerome is certainly the most skilled linguist of the Latin Fathers and, in composing his Vulgate edition of the Bible, made a decisive move for the Hebrew original over the Greek translation of the LXX (a move which upset many, including St. Augustine). Though Jerome started his career as primarily focusing on the spiritual sense, he became much more interested in the literal sense as his theology developed.
St. Augustine: Like Jerome, Augustine began with an emphasis on the spiritual senses, but turned to focus on the literal sense by the end of his life – this is especially evident in his “Literal Commentary on Genesis”. Augustine’s masterpiece (and the greatest theological work of the patristic period) is his commentary on the Gospel of John, which is a collection of homilies in which he discusses each verse of the Gospel at length.
The pre-Scholastic period (or, the Monastic period)
In this time, there was a great effort on the part of the monks to collect the writings of the Fathers and to put them together with the biblical texts themselves. Thus began the great glossae in which a given passage of Scripture would be presented together with the words of any number of Church Fathers who commented on the particular text.
Though the commentary was mostly just the re-presentation of the Fathers, it is good to note that it was in this period that the practice of separating out various periscopes began to be common practice. Rather than simply commenting verse-by-verse, the monks studied the text in the most obvious units – hence, an entire parable would be commented on all at once as a unified whole and not merely line-by-line. Certainly, this had already been done by the Fathers, but there was a greater emphasis on the practice during this period.
|Glossa Ordinaria: The biblical text in the center, surrounded by Patristic commentary|
Walafrid Strabo: Credited with beginning the Glossa Ordinaria, a work which collected many of the sayings of the Fathers and placed them together with the text of the Bible. The Glossa looked something like what the modern “Navarre Bible” is today – only, the Glossa didn’t just put the commentary at the bottom of the page, but placed the Bible text in the center and copied the sayings of the Fathers all around the edges!
Quite possibly the greatest period of development in Catholic biblical scholarship – after, of course, Christ’s own act of explaining the words of Moses and the Prophets on the way to Emmaus – came during the Scholastic period. During this time, the scholars made a decisive move for the literal sense of Scripture. St. Thomas Aquinas represents this option when he claims that only the literal sense may be used in theological argumentation.
Additionally, the scholastics emphasized that nothing can serve as the foundation of theology other than the Bible. Even the Fathers of the Church are subject to the Scriptures, although they can help us to come to a deeper understanding of the revealed texts. It is worth noting that the scholastics almost never base theological argumentation on the magisterial pronouncement of Popes and Councils, but only invoke these sources after having discussed the relevant biblical passages.
While this period did witness the decisive choice in favor of the literal sense over the spiritual senses, the scholastics did not hesitate to offer the spiritual interpretation of the text after expounding upon the literal. Indeed, they insist that the spiritual (or mystical) sense of Scripture is extremely helpful for the devotion of the people and growth in holiness.
The greatest development of this period was the divisio textus, by which a given book of Scripture would be divided into its various parts – Not unlike the modern practice of speaking, for example, of the “book of signs” (John 1-12) and the “book of glory” (John 13-21). These divisions were based principally upon the logic of the theological arguments of each book.
|Hugh of St. Cher, op|
Hugh of St. Cher: A scholar well studied in ancient languages (which, sadly was not common among most medieval masters) who often was consulted by St. Thomas Aquinas. Hugh can be credited with having begun the first substantial Biblical Concordance – collecting all the verses of Scripture in which each word is used.
St. Thomas Aquinas: The great master of medieval biblical exegesis, whose commentaries on the Letters of St. Paul and on John tower above the rest. His commentary on Job was the first successful commentary on that book according to the literal sense. While Thomas is most well known for his systematic theology (as in the Summa Theologica) his official title was “Master of Sacred Scripture”.
St. Bonaventure: His commentary on the Gospel of John is likewise a theological masterpiece. Together with this, Bonaventure offered a book of answers to difficulties in John (and many, many other works besides).
The Golden Age of Catholic biblical scholarship
And, finally, we come to the true Golden Age of Catholic biblical scholarship which began in the post-Reformation period and came into full force in the early 1600’s under the influence of such great scholars as St. Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1616) and Cornelius a’ Lapide (1567-1637). It was in this age that the Catholic world of biblical scholarship was able to unite the scholastic theological genius with a profound knowledge of ancient languages (as well as the greater accessibility of ancient manuscripts).
The scholars of this period are exceptionally skilled not only in the languages present in the Bible, but also in the other ancient languages. They regularly compare the most popular Hebrew and Greek manuscripts with the (often older) Syriac manuscripts. With incredible facility, these scholars speak of the various nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages; and offer various possible translations.
|Cornelius a' Lapide, sj|
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide: As any regular reader of New Theological Movement will know, we constantly turn to this great Jesuit priest of Rome for guidance. Cornelius a’ Lapide is certainly a sure guide for any Catholic. He commented on the whole of Scripture and his commentaries on most of the books of the New Testament are available (abridged) online – here.
[sadly, the works of St. Lawrence of Brindisi are not easily available in any language or in any form (either online or in print)]
Lessens for our times
As theologians, philosophers, linguists, and pastors, the biblical scholars of the Golden Age – especially, St. Lawrence of Brindisi and Cornelius a’ Lapide – are shining lights for our modern time as well. We most certainly should adopt a spirit of humility when we speak of these greats: St. Lawrence of Brindisi knew the whole Bible by heart in the original languages, something which no modern scholar can claim!
Moreover, we should avoid the tendency (of some Catholics of the more conservative bent) to advocate a rejection of all non-Patristic modes of exegesis. There are some Catholics who speak and write as though the best of Catholic exegesis has always been spiritual interpretation and allegory. However, this is quite plainly not the case – even from the Patristic period there began a movement toward favoring the literal sense of Scripture!
Finally, if we should come upon a work of Catholic biblical scholarship, we may make a significant judgment of its value by first looking to the footnotes and endnotes (as well as the bibliography). If the scholar does not cite – and we should hope with some regularity – the medieval biblical exegetes (e.g. St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure) and, especially, the Catholic scholars of the Golden Age (e.g. St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Cornelius a’ Lapide, or at least George Leo Haydock who is already after the Golden Age), then we can safely say that the modern book is not worth our time or effort. Far too often, modern (even conservative) Catholic exegetes pass off their works as “scholarship” when they have completely ignored the one-thousand year period from 800 to 1800!
Let’s stop the myth! Spread the word about Catholic biblical scholarship. Recall that the greatest biblical scholars have been recognized as Doctors of the Church – St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Lawrence of Brindisi. Don’t let the modern(ist) scholars pull the wool over your eyes – Catholics theologians have been scholars of the Bible from the beginning, and have continued as the greatest scholars of every age!