Biblical Catholicism: Reading the Bible with Catholic Eyes

ICONS,_Sinai,_Christ_Pantocrator,_6th_centuryOne of my literature professors when I was an undergrad once dramatically suggested that the lyrics of the Rolling Stones should inform how we read Chaucer. Even in my post-modernist, granola, college artiste haze, I found that suggestion to be bizarre. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales seven centuries ago. The Rolling Stones are old, but they aren’t that old. Why would we need to turn to something so recent to fully grasp something so old?

Rationalism and the Birth of the Boring Bible

The Word of God does not change from era to era, but we do, and as we do, the way we read that same Word changes with us. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura was one of the hallmarks of the continental Reformation, but the split between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the question of Scripture was not merely about the relationship between Scripture and other sources of divine authority. It was largely a matter of determining how Scripture is to be read. Scholasticism had a major impact on the medieval Church and the reading of Scripture by both Protestants and Catholics was affected by it. Scripture was read scientifically in the sixteenth century, broken into its constituent parts and used to deduce things. On the Roman Catholic side, this included a great deal of philosophy. Scripture was a tool with which to validate and expand upon the deductive reasoning of Plato and Aristotle. The reformers rejected the philosophical mode in favor of what they called the perspicacity of Scripture, its inherent clarity and understandability. If we read the Bible without making exterior demands on it, it will reveal to us the will of God in the plainest possible fashion. Despite their differences, both of these methods of reading Scripture flow from the same set of underlying assumptions. Both approaches are built on a foundation of rationalism. In the use of either of these models, we read Scripture largely to solve problems of logic. Scripture is an explanatory tool. It is a device by which we can ascertain the plan of God for the world in a way that makes sense to us.

The Seeds of Something More

Early Anglicans followed much of the same path in terms of the rationalistic approach to Scripture. It was inevitable that they would. They swam in the same cultural waters which governed the era. Nevertheless, inherent in the Anglican synthesis are the seeds of a different kind of reading. While quotes from the Fathers of the early Church made for great fodder between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the European continent, there was a special reverence held for the Fathers in the Church of England. Cranmer, Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes, Beveridge–all of them describe the Fathers as the interpreters sin qua non. These same Anglican reformers and divines advanced arguments for the clarity of Scripture and for its special place of authority above all else, but the caveat that we read Scripture in light of the tradition of the Church was never far behind. The preservation of liturgy and the episcopate are signs of how this approach to reading the Scriptures affected the life of the Anglican Church. The Fathers were viewed as unimpeachable because of their closeness in proximity to both the time and culture of the apostles. And yet, the deductive rationalism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was still liberally applied by early Anglican thinkers. Early Anglicans quoted the Fathers, out of order and often out of context, to support arguments that the Fathers themselves would not have been able to understand, let alone offer an opinion upon. This is not because early Anglicans did not understand the Fathers but because they rarely approached the Fathers on their own terms. Anglicanism offered a promise of great patristic revival, but for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, that revival was difficult to make a reality.

Enter the early Anglo-Catholics. The pioneers of the Oxford Movement and their immediate successors were desperate to find a vision of Christian discipleship that was older and more authentic than what they found in the cowed and deflated nineteenth century Church of England. They were voracious readers of the seventeenth century Anglican divines and champions of early Anglican theology, particularly the works of Richard Hooker which had languished in popularity over time. John Keble’s editing of Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity remains a standard version of the text today. The early Anglo-Catholics yearned to understand the place of the Church of England within the larger context of the history of the Church as a whole. Reading Hooker and the later divines led them back to the early Church Fathers. First generation Anglo-Catholics imbibed from their early Anglican heroes the desire to affirm a special place for the Fathers. But unlike their heroes, the early Anglo-Catholics managed to capture far more of the idiom and approach to reading Scripture that is found in the writing of the early Church. For Anglo-Catholics, the reading of Scripture was for mystical as well as practical purposes. Scripture was not simply a tool for solving problems. Scripture was a way of entering a great tradition of knowing and being known by God.

Reclaiming a Conciliar Anglicanism (See what I did there?)

ou_chch_17_largeIn his Eirenicon, Edward Bouverie Pusey attempted to ground the reading of Scripture in the authority of the Church as expressed in the continuity of the great Councils. He did so not by evading Anglican sources but by defending them:

The statement in the Articles, “The Church hath authority in controversies of faith,” in itself implies a Divine authority; for none but a Divine authority can have any power to decide in matters of faith. It also implies a necessary preservation of the Church, as a whole, from error (according to our Lord’s true promise, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against her,” “Lo, I am with you alway, until to the end of the world”), because it would be sinful to say that the Church has authority to declare what is untrue… The Church of England would not have said, that certain things are “not to be required of any man that they should be believed,” unless it held that other things, which are read in Holy Scripture, and which may be proved thereby, may be so required. So that the Article which sets forth the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, agrees with that which declares, that “the Church hath authority in matters of faith.” It implies the authority of the Church, while it lays down certain limits to it. Nor is this limitation other than what the old Catholic fathers, to whom in the homilies she so often appeals, have from the first so often and emphatically said. There was no contrast between Tradition and Holy Scripture. “We willingly acknowledge,” says Bp. Usher too, “that the word of God, which by some of the Apostles was set down in writing, was both by themselves and others of their fellow- labourers delivered by word of mouth; and that the Church in succeeding ages was bound, not only to preserve those Sacred Writings committed to her trust, but also to deliver unto her children viva voce the form of wholesome words contained therein…”

Pusey goes on to quote from Bishop Hall and other seventeenth century sources, underscoring that what he is doing is merely receiving the wisdom of the Anglican tradition on these matters, not inventing something new to Anglican practice. Throughout his work, Pusey always invokes the continuous voice of the Church in laying out Scriptural arguments. His lengthy book on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is essentially nothing but this, a prolonged set of patristic quotations based on the Scriptural evidence that show the Church’s continuous and unbroken proclamation that Our Lord’s Body and Blood are truly given and received in the Sacrament of the Altar. Continuity, in fact, is a value unto itself for Pusey. “The Fathers of the later General Councils began their office by expressing their assent to the earlier,” he says, “and [they] considered their own work as only expanding what was contained in the earlier, with a view to meet the new heresy which had emerged. So neither is it any undue limitation of the authority of the Church to lay down another limit, that the Church may not require ‘as necessary to salvation’ what is not read in Holy Scripture, or may be proved by it…’”

Measured Mysticism vs. Modern Mush

The purpose of this continuity, though, is not merely to build up a case for why one Scripturally based argument is more valid than another, but to provide a way for the reading of Scripture to become a shared experience of God within the life of the Church. In Tract 89, Keble argues for the recovery of the mystical reading of Scripture found in the Fathers. What Keble calls mysticism is nothing less and nothing more than the shared experience of God’s presence that comes through the receiving of the Word which prompted many of the Fathers to find allegorical and typological meanings in the Scripture. For Keble, the deposit of faith is not just a set of facts but a way of identifying and knowing God’s voice. Reading the Scriptures with the Fathers unites us with their experience of God, which in turn unites us with the experience of the apostles. The Scriptures, much like the Sacraments, give us the reality of God every bit as much as they tell us information about that reality.

This approach to Scripture stands in eloquent contrast with the hermeneutics of our own time which assert a theory of progressive revelation. The assumption in much of the western Church today is that we cannot rely on biblical texts to give us the Word of God. Rather, we have to rely on our own subjective experiences to show us what is and is not useful in the Bible. As with modern atheism, the hermeneutical approach of progressive revelation begins with deep skepticism about the reliability of the text of Scripture. Progressive revelationists and atheists alike proceed from that place of skepticism to attempt to systematically dismantle the credibility of large swaths of Scripture. We don’t need to read 1 Timothy, for example, because Paul almost certainly didn’t write it anyway. For the atheist, this sort of deconstruction is merely a prelude to the dismissal of all religion as superstition. But for the pastor or the academic who remains in the Church and maintains at least some form of theism, the next step is to assert that the real purpose of the Scriptures is not to objectively reveal God’s Word to us, but rather to give us a way of articulating our own experience. The Bible becomes a resource book of poetic inspiration in which God is hiding behind all the uncomfortable bits, just waiting to pop out and affirm whatever our evolving experience of him has shown to be true. And since that experience of God is progressing over time, so that we are far more enlightened about God’s will and purposes today than we were a generation ago, the need for any sort of continuity in biblical interpretation evaporates. Much like reading Chaucer through the lens of the Rolling Stones, we are free to reinterpret Scripture through the lens of our own cultural context, interests, and flights of fancy.

The Catholic approach to reading Scripture works in the exact opposite way. It avoids both the error of assuming that our experience of God does not matter and the error of utilizing our experience to wipe away Scripture’s objectivity. Instead, the Catholic approach uses the objective truth of Scripture to connect our experience of God with that of the Church throughout time. It interprets our experiences through the Scripture, rather than interpreting the Scripture through our experiences. As Keble reminds us, the Fathers were only able to engage in mystical reading because their chief rule of interpretation was “to reserve in every mystical comment the foundation of historical and literal truth.” This is the thread that Pusey traces when he talks about continuity with the Fathers and the Councils. The Anglican principle for the interpretation of Scripture is not that we fossilize our reading in our romantic notions of some by-gone era, but that we receive the continuous stream of the Church’s teaching from the time of the Fathers forward, allowing the rule of faith to open up for us the great riches that Scripture has to offer. As we change, from era to era, the consistent witness of the Church anchors us in our reading of Scripture, so that even when we come to God’s Word with new questions and new experiences, we find that in the Bible God has provided us with everything we need to know the heart and mind of Christ. The reading of Scripture with Catholic eyes sets us free from the tyranny of our individual whims and draws us into a far deeper, sacramental experience of God’s Word.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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5 Responses to Biblical Catholicism: Reading the Bible with Catholic Eyes

  1. CarterS says:

    Hello Fr. Jonathan,

    Are there any books that you would recommend to help someone start reading Scripture this way?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      It’s hard to think of a single volume, but there are several books out there that pair readings from the Fathers with the daily lectionary. I think that’s good, as well as doing some general reading in the Fathers. But by and large, the way that this sort of reading filters down to most people is going to be through the liturgy itself. The Fathers wrote enough volumes to fill libraries, which is more than most of us will ever read, and of course there’s been a lot of good theological writing in the Church that has come since. Rather than trying to kill yourself reading everything, I recommend getting steeped in what the tradition has given to us as tools. Know the creeds. Pray the offices. Be faithful in worship. These things start to mold us over time. Take that sensibility with you when you read the Scriptures. Read them in the context of Morning and Evening Prayer. Of course, if you’re looking for how to address a specific topic in Scripture, there are books and articles that can help you to know how the Church has taught historically on that topic. But by and large, what most of us need is to be formed. The more formed we can be, the better off we are.

  2. Joshua says:

    Former Lutheran Jaroslav Pelican said that the way Lutherans understand scripture interpreting scripture bears large resonance to the Tradition of the fathers. To me this seems more likely then interpreting the scriptures through the lens of the Fathers. Not because the Fathers were not great teachers and theologians as many of them certainly were. However, they also disagreed at times and some of them even became heretics Tertullian, Arius, etc. I also believe that reading scripture through the Lens of the Fathers (when in consensus) usually always produces a correct understanding. This is where I get confused in trying to understand it all. It seems to my uneducated self that interpreting scripture though and lens of scripture or through the lens of the Fathers usually ends up at the same conclusion. I see large resonance between classical Anglicanism and confessional Lutheranism. I have read your blogs on Lutheranism and think you make some good points for being Anglican. I also believe you are a credit to the Episcopal Church maintaining a Classical Anglican position in a largely non-classical body. I read a number of classical Anglican blogs and it seems the way that you understand what the scriptures teach to be very near to the way I have always understood them as a Confessional Lutheran. So it seems to me that the biggest difference between us is in the office of the ministry as Lutherans do not believe it necessary to have episcopal Orders (although some of us have them) and Anglicans allow a slightly broader understanding as they are not confessional. I am not sure that Anglicanism’s non-confessional positions contradict or are opposed to Lutheranism’s confessional positions. I am also believe that episcopal orders are the best way to run a Church (although I do not think it absolutely necessary or that it undermines the sacraments). My biggest quibble with Anglicanism are those who are Calvinist and teach double predestination, limited atonement, and the sacraments are merely symbols. And those Anglo-Roman Catholics who teach that being good at least partially makes us right before a Holy God or at least keeps us right as though good works were a means of grace. Am I wrong on this? Forgive my rant.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Interpreting Scripture through the lens of Scripture is all well and good up to a point, but it doesn’t always get us all the way there. Someone still has to decide how the pieces of Scripture work together. Do we interpret Paul through the lens of the Gospels, for instance, or the Gospels through the lens of Paul? At some point, the Church still ends up needing to have a role. Otherwise, we find ourselves stringing together bits of Scripture that may have nothing to do with one another just so that we can prove a point.

  3. Robbie says:

    Wonderful post, Father Jonathan. Thanks so much for this.

    When approaching the Scripture with Catholic eyes or reading with the Fathers, Bishop Kallistos Ware rightly reminds us that the task is more than to simply read back into the Fathers’ world (what did they say?), but to move _forward with_ their spirit (what would they say today?). Of course, ends up opening up how we respond to the complex issues of our day: human sexuality, women bishops, the Church’s responses to economic injustice (a biggie for the Fathers – one of the very few things they were consistent on), and so on.

    Cheers,

    Robb

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