ORGAN OF THE ROMAN THEOLOGICAL FORUM
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Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA
|No. 52||Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program||May 1994|
by Brian W. Harrison
I - The Trap of Self-Contradiction
II - The Trap of Contradicting Literary Science
a. The Creation narratives: an "invisible" literary genre?
b. Unsuccessful attempts at discovering an inerrant non-historical genre
III - A Way Forward: Neo-Patristic Exegesis
|In compartment 1 belong completely supernatural revealed truths, which no human science could ever discover (for instance, "There are three Persons in one God," "Grace is necessary for salvation," "Purgatory exists"). At the opposite side of the diagram, in compartment 3, we have all the myriad non-revealed propositions, both true and false, of the human sciences (e.g., "Water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen;" "There are six planets in our solar system;" "Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941"). And in the middle (Compartment 2) we have those truths with "dual citizenship," as it were, belonging both to the set of revealed propositions and to the set of historical/physical propositions (for example, "Jesus was virginally conceived," "Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt," "The emptiness of Jesus' tomb was due to a miracle involving His corpse").|
(I call this a "conservative" Catholic position, because more liberal Catholics would not even accept the major premise, even though it has been asserted perennially, emphatically and unwaveringly by the Magisterium up to and including Vatican Council II, in Dei Verbum, §11. They are quite happy to say openly that biblical assertions can be outright errors - a position which the Church could never of course adopt without destroying her rational credibility for the reason explained in section I above. Some of these liberals would argue that, according to Vatican II, only those biblical assertions which are "for the sake of our salvation" are guaranteed to be error-free - and that there are other (non-salvific) biblical assertions which enjoy no such guarantee. This interpretation - which even has to suppose bad Latin on the part of the Council Fathers! - is ruled out by the official relatio given to the Fathers in explanation of the text. What DV §11 means is that all biblical assertions are there "for the sake of our salvation" - some of them, of course, related to it much more remotely than others, and thus requiring less precision or exactitude in order to count as error-free, i.e., true, in the context of literature which does not aim to teach science or history for their own sakes.) 19
- Major - All Scripture (including Genesis 1-3) is inspired by God, and is therefore without error in all that the writers intended to assert.
- Minor - Science has demonstrated that Genesis 1-3, understood as a factual, historical account of how the world and man began, would be in error.
- Concl. - Therefore the author(s) of Genesis 1-3 did not intend to assert in these chapters a factual, historical account of how the world and man began. 18
This eminently reasonable solution comes to be accepted by the bulk of the faithful, because after all, it is logical (the conclusion follows ineluctably from the premises); it is orthodox (the traditional dogma is faithfully preserved); and by accepting the minor premise, this revised faith is perfectly in line with the latest developments in science. Armed (and comforted) by this modern development in doctrine, the guardians of the new orthodoxy can afford to shake their heads condescendingly at the tiny minority of fundamentalists, who, in their naive literalism, regard the new theology as nonsense and continue to insist on the hypothesis of hoax and fraud in all the photographs and testimonies regarding the craters. These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible. The only perplexing thing for the more enlightened believers is that the great bulk of their contemporaries seem to agree with the fundamentalists on this last point. The new theology, designed especially to make faith more credible for modern scientific man, seems to hold little attraction for him. The churches keep on emptying, as a greater consensus grows outside the Church that there is, quite simply, no water of any sort on the dark side of the moon.
- Major - It is revealed truth that there are salt-water craters on the dark side of the moon.
- Minor - Science has demonstrated that no water of any sort is observed in the craters on the dark side of the moon.
- Concl. - Therefore there is invisible salt-water in the craters on the dark side of the moon.
to convey the notion of all, the author of Genesis 1 relied on a by then hallowed biblical device. It is the device of stating the whole in terms of its constituent parts. Herein lies the key to the literary genre of Genesis 1. (It is also a universally used device as witnessed, for instance, by the effectiveness of conveying the entire fishing gear by listing only its main parts, "hook, line, and sinker.") Thus in Psalm 113 the total deadness of idols is conveyed by listing, one after another, the insensitivity of the sensory organs. In Psalm 49 the breaking of all commandments is stated by listing the breaking of the principal commandments. One could quote many other scriptural examples which are, however, still to be taken up in a systematic study by biblical scholars, especially the ones barking up sundry wrong trees in their avid pursuit of the literary genre of Genesis 1. 31Fr. Jaki is far from hesitant about his own solution of this problem. He, after at least two and a half millennia of Genesis studies, has at last found the right tree up which to bark, even though all the `greats,“ both ancient (Basil, Augustine, Aquinas 32 ) and modern (Hummelauer, Père Lagrange, H. Gunkel 33 ) have been searching among fruitless branches and barren foliage for that Holy Grail which seems to have been so elusive -"the key to the literary genre of Genesis 1." However, this very elusiveness (elusive, that is, according to Jaki's own account) does not augur well for the validity of his proposed solution. As we have already remarked, what his theory needs in order to absolve the Genesis author from the charge of dishonesty towards his original readers is a clear and unambiguous "key" which enabled them to "cotton on" to his non-factual, non-historical, non-scientific genre and intentions as soon as they read what he wrote. But if this key was so clear and unambiguous, how could it have been lost from sight so quickly - and so permanently! - by its professional custodians, the scribes and doctors of Israel? After all, these learned men showed themselves quite capable of guarding the key to the literary genre of Job, a book which at a very superficial reading might seem to be straightforward history. Because of the clearly poetic language and dramatic style of the dialogues forming the bulk of this work, the Jews never maintained that these were a faithful reproduction of conversations which actually took place outside Job's tent, and for that reason classified the book as a whole as part of the Wisdom literature rather than with the historical books.
Here let us concentrate on Psalm 148. It deals with the praise which all creatures owe to God. In fact the entire Psalm is structured so clearly on that device of stating the whole in terms of the parts that its thirty or so lines are a mere amplification of the seven parts of the following short phrase: In the heavens / everybody / everything // on the earth / everything / everybody / praise the Lord. 34But here we must make the same criticism as before. Very possibly the literary device and structure used by the Psalmist are correctly described here by Fr. Jaki. But this literary form in no way implies that the Psalmist intended any of his "component" affirmations to be less literally true than the "short phrase" which sums up their total message. On the contrary, the component parts of "everybody," for instance, are listed by the Psalmist as "all kings on earth and nations, princes, all rulers in the world, young men and girls, old people and children too" (Psalm 148:11-12). True and real human beings, all of them, who truly and really owe praise to God! And the same is true for the other subdivisions of the Psalm. This is why, as we have said, the literary evidence adduced by Fr. Jaki actually reinforces the classical interpretation of Genesis 1: that the author intended to be taken literally in all that he said about the six days of creation, and was understood in that sense by his original audience. After all, if all the parallel examples of this particular literary device display "parts" which are obviously meant to be taken just as literally as the "wholes" which they constitute, then we must presume that the same is true when that device is used in Genesis 1. In short, far from coming up with the kind of literary convention which is so badly needed by those who wish to sustain the Conclusion of our syllogism -a convention, that is, by which the Genesis author would have clearly signalled to his readers not to take him literally and historically - Fr. Jaki has come up with a convention which suggests the exact opposite. He has thereby rendered more dubious than ever that very conclusion which he set out to defend.
This didactic purpose could powerfully be achieved by portraying God as one who himself rested on the seventh day. This in turn necessitated the presentation of God as one who had done a six-day work. With that picture of God who worked for six days and rested on the seventh the Jews were given a pattern to follow ... 38But surely this "purpose could be powerfully achieved" only to the extent that the Jewish laity for whom the message was destined actually believed that God really had given them this "pattern to follow"! Why should they feel "powerfully" motivated to follow a "pattern" which they knew God had never given them at any time? Why should they feel restrained from "careening and carousing" on weekends because of a recently-invented story whose avowed authors - the priests - made no pretence whatever that it was historically true? The genre which Fr. Jaki suggests for Genesis 1 is that of a "didactic treatise;" 39 but it could have the "didactic" effect which he postulates only if the original readership believed that the seven days of creation were historical as well as symbolic. But since Fr. Jaki emphatically denies that any history of the earth ("cosmogenesis") was intended by the author in this chapter, the real implication here is that of clerical fraud! We are back to "strict mental reservation:" the priests make up a story which they know is of a "non-historical genre;" but this little secret is not to be divulged to the unsuspecting laity. On the contrary, the story has been composed to deceive them into thinking that they have, truly and historically, been "given a pattern" of work and rest by God Himself at the beginning of time.
III. A Way Forward: Neo-Patristic ExegesisIf, as we have argued, the Conclusion in our original syllogism (i.e., the idea that the Genesis author had no intention of narrating how the world and man really began) is groundless and unscientific when judged by the appropriate canons of literary science, then one or both of the premises which logically entailed it must also be groundless and unscientific. That is, either there are no sufficient grounds for holding that all biblical assertions are free from error (the Major premise), or else there are no sufficient grounds for holding that science has demonstrated factual, historical errors in the assertions, literally understood, of Genesis 1-3 (the Minor premise).