09 June, 2009

Understanding Scriptures?

The hermeneutic principal I see used by non Catholics time and time again is the proof text method. In almost all cases that is a methodology that results in eisegesis and not exegesis.

The proof text model employed in interpretation ignores context and results in simply an anthology of verses that support unorthodox doctrines like soul sleep and to a lesser extent Sola Scriptura. Ignored is the fact that without their context they have no meaning. In other words, one takes a theme to support and search for verses with certain key words that epigrammatically coincide with the doctrine and not for their contextual contribution to understanding. Consequently, as we see in this use of Scriptures, there is an allegorization as an adjustment to the plain meaning within context creating a usage of the text foreign to its intended meaning. This almost always results in eisegesis.

Systematic theology deals with the teaching of the Bible as a whole body of work instead of individual books or individual verses. This is why one should consider not just those verses which support one’s views but how one deals with those that are contradictory to one’s teaching or understanding. Can the doctrine one believes pass the test or scrutiny of a systematic study of the doctrine?

There seems to be an evolution of Catholic hermeneutics. It started with the Alexandrian school and is apparent in the writings of St. Titus Flavius Clement. He believed that the Scriptures hid the sense, and that the holy mysteries and prophesies were hidden in parables. Origen was a disciple of St. Clement and coined the threefold sense of Scripture: corporeal, psychical and the spiritual in his work “On First Principles”. This was the first written work on hermeneutics.

Around the end of the third century there was the Antiochian school founded by Lucian of Samosata or Diodorus. It produced two of the greatest theologians of the Church, Theodore of Mopsuestia and John Chrysostom. This school expands the teaching of the Alexandrian school to include “theoria” which comes from a Greek word meaning “to see”. This method of interpretation contended that the spiritual sense is inseparable from the literal sense. There was a concern in this school of being overly literalistic or going too far in allegory as to lose the plain meaning of the Scripture. To the Antiochians Scripture had only one meaning which possessed the attributes of literal, spiritual, historical and typological. They believed that the aim of exegesis involved spiritual as well as doctrinal enlightenment in conjunction with historical and philological facts.

The third school in the patristic period was the Western School which had elements of the two previous schools. This school included St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose and St. Hilary. Most of what we know of this school is contained in St. Augustine’s work”De Doctrina Christiana”. St. Augustine introduced the idea of “regula fidei” or the rule of faith which are the collection of doctrines of the Church. The proper use of the regula fidei presupposes that the meaning of Scripture has already been decided sufficiently in order to recognize that the passage does belong to the doctrine being used as a “rule of faith’ to measure it. Otherwise St. Augustine said that there was an enormous chance of eisegesis. Eventually in the Western school there were four terms that won out in their hermeneutical approach which were: literal, allegorical, tropological, and analogical. This was illustrated in John Cassian’s “Conferences:

Jerusalem literally means city of the Jews, allegorically Jerusalem means Church, tropologically Jerusalem is the soul, and anagogically Jerusalem is our heavenly home. He emphasized that the literal sense is always the precedent in interpretation.

Personally, I do not have a problem with the grammatico-historical method of exegesis but I use what is called the Syntactical-Theological method by Walter Kaiser, Jr., which combines systematic theology with biblical exegesis. When Walter Kaiser coined the name of this methodology he said, “ Because the Bible purports to be the Word from God the task of locating meaning is not finished until one apprehends the purpose, scope, or reason (indeed, the theology) for which the text was written.”

In Christ
Fr. Joseph

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