Thursday, July 21, 2011

St. Lawrence of Brindisi and the Golden Age of Catholic biblical scholarship: He knew the whole Bible by heart, in its original languages

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!
The Scholastics
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
However, these men are not merely linguists, but great theologians as well. With ease they cite countless interpretations offered by Church Fathers of both East and West. They are more than familiar with the scholastics and, especially, with St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure. The biblical texts often provide occasion to discuss certain errors of the protestant interpreters and to explain and develop the solid Catholic doctrine.
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!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for citing Fr. Haydock. His commmentary in the Duay Rhiems has been a tremendous help to me. It is the only Bible I use.

The whole Bible by heart and in the original languages!!! I guess he had an IQ of about 10,000. Or maybe he was privately inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Linus from Kansas

Christopher Hagen said...

Loome Theological Booksellers does have both St. Lawrence's and Lapide's works available in Latin.

st bosco said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Father Ryan Erlenbush said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chatto said...

Father, thanks for this post - I always struggle with the senses of Scripture. I hae a couple of questions:

You said that Hugh of St. Cher published "the first substantial Biblical Concordance – collecting all the verses of Scripture in which each word is used." I don't get what you mean here - what do you mean by "in which each word is used"?

Of the Scholastics, you highlight that they emphasised Scripture as the basis of theology in their arguments. Was this their approach in settling disputes, or the starting point for developing theology? Bl. Newman shows in Development of Christian Doctrine that it was always Sacred Tradition which the Church used to settle disputes, since anyone can interpret Scripture in their own way.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

A Bible Concordance is an alphabetical index of words used in the Holy Bible, showing contextual occurrences of each word throughout the Bible.
This is what I meant. Hugh of St. Cher (aka Hugo de S. Caro) is credited as the first to put such a work together.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Regarding the Scholastic emphasis on Scripture ... I think that the Scholastics are probably far more invested in Scripture than the theologians of any other period.

St. Thomas, for example, allows the authority of the Church Fathers to provide only probably conclusions; whereas the Scriptures alone lead to certain and sure conclusions. Magistierial pronouncements of Popes and Councils are still further down on the list of sources...

The Scriptures were both the starting point of the scholastic theology and also the principal source for settling disputes.
Certainly, the Scriptures are open to many many interpretations ... hence any particular verse of the Bible would have to be interpreted first and foremost by the Bible as a whole, then by the authority of the Fathers, then of the Popes and Councils.

Later theologians (reacting to the excesses of protestantism) are generally less optimistic about such a strong emphasis on the Bible ...

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of whe the claim came from that Catholics in the early 20th century were told not to read the Bible. Was it a Church document, a bishop's statement, seminary training, pastoral practice, or something else. I have heard this claim often, and I've been wondering about the history of it.


Anonymous said...

We should all keep in mind how much the human mind has changed since 100 years ago. Because of the culture to do something like memorize even one of the books of the Bible seems impossible, but that's just because out brains have been programmed to be extremely flexible and have the ability to multi-task and switch from one thing to another quickly (this is due to the advent of the computer, cell phones, etc.). 100 years ago the human brain was programmed to do almost the exact opposite (focus on one thing for a long time). That said memorizing the entire Bible in its original languages is still an incredible feat.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@DDV, no, certainly there was NEVER a statement from the Church discouraging Catholics from reading the Bible, ever.
However, in the earlier centuries, because of the many many heretical translations out there, the Church did restrict the use of translations.

This "restriction" of the Bible is largely part of the myth.

JBrotherton said...

How can you imply that the author's intention is unimportant in determining the literal sense when Ratzinger defends the diachronic approach albeit moderately and the PBC documents (one of the two Magisterial) exhort its usage as necessary to arrive at the fullness of the literal meaning of the text?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I never said that the author's intention is not related to the literal sense ... since the primary author of Scripture is God, it should be obvious to anyone that his intention is very important!
[however, I suspect that, when you say "author's intention" you refer (as do most modernists) to the HUMAN author's intention]

The definition I have given is from the CCC ... you can complain to Bl John Paul II.

Regarding the PBC docs, which are NOT magisterial in nature, you are quite correct that the PBC emphasizes the importance of discovering the intention of the human author ... I agree, it is good and important to find what we can.
However, the PBC cites St. Thomas Aquinas as its principal authority in emphasizing the importance of the literal sense ... and St. Thomas is quite clear: The literal sense goes beyond the intention of the human authors (since the primary author is God himself).

If you are interested in a serious discussion, take a look at my earlier article on the literal sense:

Also, on Pope Benedict's presentation of the Literal Sense in the Magisterial Document, Verbum Domini:

The way I explained the literal sense is the way it has been understood for 1800 years, most notably by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...


Anonymous said...

from Bill Foley
An interesting fact about St. Lawrence of Brindisi.

Saint Lawrence of Brindisi versus the Moslems.
It was on the occasion of the foundation of the convent of Prague (1601) that St. Lorenzo was named chaplain of the Imperial army, then about to march against the Turks. The victory of Lepanto (1571) had only temporarily checked the Moslem invasion, and several battles were still necessary to secure the final triumph of the Christian armies. Mohammed III had, since his accession (1595), conquered a large part of Hungary. The emperor, determined to prevent a further advance, sent Lorenzo of Brindisi as deputy to the German princes to obtain their cooperation. They responded to his appeal, and moreover the Duke of Mercœur, Governor of Brittany, joined the imperial army, of which he received the effective command. The attack on Albe-Royal (now Stulweissenburg) was then contemplated. To pit 18,000 men against 80,000 Turks was a daring undertaking and the generals, hesitating to attempt it, appealed to Lorenzo for advice. Holding himself responsible for victory, he communicated to the entire army in a glowing speech the ardor and confidence with which he was himself animated. As his feebleness prevented him from marching, he mounted on horseback and, crucifix in hand, took the lead of the army, which he drew irresistibly after him. Three other Capuchins were also in the ranks of the army. Although the most exposed to danger, Lorenzo was not wounded, which was universally regarded as due to a miraculous protection. The city was finally taken, and the Turks lost 30,000 men. As however they still exceeded in numbers the Christian army, they formed their lines anew, and a few days later another battle was fought. It always the chaplain who was at the head of the army. "Forward!" he cried, showing them the crucifix, "Victory is ours." The Turks were again defeated, and the honour of this double victory was attributed by the general and the entire army to Lorenzo.

JBrotherton said...

CCC 104 says: "The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis..."

You say: "that meaning which is conveyed by the words of Scripture themselves (whether this meaning was known to the human author is unimportant)."

Those two statements are not the same. You should know better than to appeal to a passing fragmentary description in a book the Church wrote to summarize the basics of the faith for common folk, using it to "define" a term in a quasi-scholarly context.

More importantly, your qualification clearly indicates a bias against the necessity for determining the author's intention in order to reach the full meaning of the text, which is where the diachronic method comes into use.

The PBC document "Historicity of the Gospels" is Magisterial because at the time of its publication the PBC was part of the CDF. The second document, "Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," was not strictly Magisterial because it was published after the separation, but it was approved and received by a public speech in which Pope John Paul the Great issued a speech summarizing much of its content. But of course you can dismiss that and all the writings of Pope Benedict as private theological opinion. If you let the document speak for itself, Verbum Domini echoes many of the same conclusions as these documents, which its sounds like you may deem modernist. I think we should not be afraid to combine old and new, like Sts.Jerome and Thomas, for example, and accept the fact that "Tradition" is not to be identified with its early written monuments but recognized as an organic reality still developing, as seen in the dogmas of Vatican I, Popes Pius IX, XI, and the teachings of Vatican II.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

By dismissing the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which is an exercise of the ordinary magisterium) you have proven your worth and the value of your comments.

Verbum Domini defines Literal Sense in just the way the CCC does ... no reference to the intention of the human author.

Certainly, anything intended by the human author is part of the literal sense ... however, even many things which are not intended by the human author are also part of the literal sense.
Hence, as per the PBC "Int. of the Bible in the Church", we see that the words of Caiaphas "better for one man do die..." have two meanings according to the literal sense: one which Caiahphas intended and of which he was aware, another of which he was unaware but was intended by the Holy Spirit who spoke through him as High Priest -- and the PBC uses this as an example of how there can occasionally be multiple literal senses in one verse (one known to the human author and another unknown to him).

Let's be honest, you came into this discussion guns blazing ... which is why you are now dismissing both the CCC and Verbum Domini ... take a deep breath ...

In any case, I am very much in favor of discovering the intention of the human author ... it was something which was very important to the Divisio Textus of the Scholastic period ...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I checked the "Historicity of the Gospels" from the PBC ... I found nothing in there about defining the literal sense according to the intention of the human author ...

Please provide the appropriate citation.
Or, have you made up a reference which does not exist?

[n.b. the words "literal sense" or "intention of the (human) author" are not even used in the document]

Now I am well aware that the document speaks of the modern methods of exegesis ... but my point is to say that the literal sense has never been defined by the Church (in her magisterial teaching) as what the human author intended ...

JBrotherton said...

I apologize if my initial question came off as an attack. I actually enjoyed your article very much, and I have to say I appreciate the work of Garrigou-Lagrange a great deal as well.

I was not dismissing the CCC. Of course I accept it as authoritative doctrine. I merely said it is not a scholarly document, and it does not claim to be such.

I did not by any means exclude the possibility of other meanings being included in the literal sense, which may or may not have been intended by the human author of the text. I merely stated that the intention of the human author is not unimportant, contrary to what you say in your definition of the literal sense.

If you refer to my original question, I do not exactly contend that these Magisterial documents explicitly formulate a definition of the literal sense in which it is stated that the author's intention must form a part. But I have been referring to the Magisterium's exhortation of the diachronic method as important for determining the literal sense, which necessarily involves determining the author's intent.

But if you want a clear statement from the highest of Magisterial sources, "Verbum Domini" (n.34) quotes "Dei Verbum" n.12, stating the following: "Seeing that, in sacred Scripture, God speaks through human beings in human fashion, it follows that the interpreters of sacred Scripture, if they are to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words."
This quotation in "Verbum Domini" occurs shortly after Pope Benedict quotes an address in which Bl.Pope John Paul II refers to a false split between the human and the divine in Scripture and here parallels scientific research with the literal sense (cf. n.33). And later in n.37 Pope Benedict states: "It is necessary, however, to remember that in patristic and medieval times every form of exegesis, including the literal form, was carried out on the basis of faith, without there necessarily being any distinction between the literal sense and the spiritual sense." Although he interprets this reality in a positive manner, as he is here addressing the need for a hermeneutic of faith as a unifying force for exegesis, the lack of a clear distinction in exegesis between literal and spiritual here mentioned stands in tension with the gist of your article.

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