Senses of Scripture
I began the new semester of my “Exploring Catholicism” course using a new edition of the Bible: The Saint Mary’s Press, College Study Bible. One of the features that motivated my choosing it was its excellent “Glossary” of terms.
Among the twenty terms I asked the students to familiarize themselves with (a “baby step” towards overcoming theological and biblical illiteracy) were “hermeneutics,” “typology,” and “senses of scripture.” This last gave the traditional division into “literal,” “allegorical,” “anagogical” etc.
I also introduced them to Karl Barth’s well-known dictum that the preacher should speak with the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other (okay: he said the Zurich Free Press — same difference).
Little did I realize that The Times would obligingly cooperate by printing Peter Steinfels’ column on “Differences in Biblical Approaches” (though finding it on-line takes a bit of ingenuity).
Steinfels reviews a new book by the noted scholar James Kugel: How to Read the Bible. The book treats the clash of modern and ancient approaches to understanding the Bible; and, though Kugel shows sympathy to both, he concludes that they are ultimately irreconcilable.
Peter, who is a paradigm of a “both/and” person, gently demurs. He wonders:
How to Read the Bible runs through the entire Hebrew Scriptures,
matching modern scholarship and ancient interpretation. The journey is
fascinating enough to render frustrating the author’s conclusion.
Although he admired both approaches, Professor Kugel writes, they are
Is this conclusion as unavoidable as he
makes it sound? Modern minds still seek deeper meanings and still want
relevant instructions for living. As for the ancient worry about
seamlessness, modern minds, sensitized to multiple perspectives, often
find more coherence in contrasting accounts than perfectly harmonized
The ancient interpreters’ boldness in rewriting was
motivated and justified, Professor Kugel writes, by a fresh
apprehension of God and the corresponding need to flesh out the
command, found in the Book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere, “to serve the
Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.” Is it so
impossible that modern scholarship, too, could be put to that service?
Understandably unmentioned in the column is Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth. But, of course, the Pope’s intent was precisely to unite the seemingly “irreconcilable” approaches.
Whether or not Benedict fully succeeded is a matter of legitimate debate. But clearly Steinfels’ generous reading of the book in his Commonweal article, “The Face of God,” shows his appreciation for what the Pope attempted … and accomplished.