THE ROMAN THEOLOGICAL FORUM
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LESSON 1: THE NEO-PATRISTIC APPROACH TO SACRED SCRIPTURE
by John F. McCarthy
l. Why promote the neo-Patristic approach?
Meditation upon things said in Sacred Scripture is important for every Christian. The Fathers of the Church have laid out a basic Christian approach to the study and meditation of the inspired word. This approach of the Fathers was followed by all Catholic exegetes, especially as regards the literal sense, but in recent centuries with lessening emphasis upon the spiritual senses except for certain texts relating to the dogmas of the Church. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century some Catholic exegetes (interpreters) began to follow what is now known as the historical-critical approach, developed by rationalist and liberal Protestant exegetes, and this new approach has now with some exceptions virtually supplanted the Patristic approach among Catholic biblical scholars. But many problems and logical contradictions have arisen from the results of historical-critical interpretation, even when used by Catholic exegetes. The neo-Patristic approach aims to address and solve these problems and contradictions and to reinstate the Patristic approach by the use of an updated framework based upon the largely implicit framework of the Fathers of the Church in the hope of enabling insights old and new and of making it easier to pray the Scriptures.
2. Sources for studying the neo-Patristic approach.
So far only a few scholars have taken up the neo-Patristic approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. On 6 June 1998 I presented, at a convocation of the Roman Theological Forum in Rome, a general exposition in an address entitled "Neo-Patristic Exegesis: Its Approach and Method." This address has been reprinted in Living Tradition, nos. 75 and 76, and it should soon be available on audio-cassette from Keep the Faith, Inc. In this address I quote from an article of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in which he calls for a new approach to supplant the historical-critical approach now in vogue. I responded to this appeal of Cardinal Ratzinger with an article entitled "Neo-Patristic Exegesis to the Rescue" (Living Tradition, no. 41 - May 1992). The Patristic approach is recommended, if not mandated, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 115-119). These paragraphs should be reread and discussed. They illustrate the need and the urgency of developing the neo-Patristic approach.
3. The neo-Patristic method.
The neo-Patristic method uses the framework of the four senses of Sacred Scripture, as developed initially by St. Augustine of Hippo and others and more fully by St. Thomas Aquinas, especially in his Summa Theologiae (part I, question 1, article 10) See Thomas Kuffel, "St. Thomas' Method of Biblical Exegesis," in Living Tradition, no. 38 (November 1991). The four senses involved are the literal sense, the allegorical sense, the tropological, or moral, sense, and the anagogical, or eschatological, sense (also known as the final sense). These four senses will be examined in the course of this study program. The neo-Patristic method, just as the Patristic method, always begins with the literal sense of a passage, which sense is basic to the three spiritual senses and can be understood to a degree without them, but, from a neo-Patristic viewpoint, it cannot be fully understood except in contrast with one or more of the spiritual senses which may be written with the same words into the same passage.
4. The value of this study.
Remarks detrimental to the historical truth and sometimes even to the spiritual truth of the Scriptures, attributed rightly or wrongly to the results of historical-critical research, are now being heard within Catholic circles. It is important to be able to respond to such remarks, and the neo-Patristic method seeks to provide such responses in keeping with the Catholic exegetical tradition. In addition, the neo-Patristic method aims to locate the literal sense of passages of Sacred Scripture in a mental framework which invites the reader to look for deeper spiritual meanings, such as those presented by the Fathers of the Church. While not all readers may feel called to acquire a technical use of the neo-Patristic method, they should all desire to acquire at least a general idea of the method, so that they can recognize the context of challenges to their faith and be supportive of the work that neo-Patristic exegetes are doing to develop a more acceptable approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture than that which is most common today.
In the following lessons, aspects of the neo-Patristic method as a whole will be examined, and examples will be given of Scriptural interpretation in the framework of the four senses. Each of the four senses will be examined in detail, so as to clarify what each sense is and how each sense appears in the inspired text, beginning with the literal sense. There will be examples of how these four senses appear in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, of how the framework of the four senses was elaborated in the Middle Ages, especially by St. Thomas Aquinas, and of how this framework has been further elaborated and clarified in more recent times. Questions of historical truth and of historical method present themselves as soon as the study of the literal sense is taken up. The neo-Patristic approach accepts the importance of historical criticism in its original sense of historical method, but the neo-Patristic method of interpretation of the literal sense is contrasted with that particular school of thought which has come to be known as the "historical-critical method." While the founding postulates of the historical-critical method tend to contradict the fundamental tenets of Catholic belief, Catholic historical-critics as Catholics characteristically accept the teaching of the Catholic Church. Therefore, disagreements between neo-Patristic interpretations and interpretations by Catholics using the historical-critical method will be examined only on the level of exegetical method without questioning the good faith of the Catholic writers. A principal aim of these lessons is to offer to the reader occasions of spiritual insight into the teaching of Sacred Scripture as well as of greater historical understanding of how the theology, liturgical practice, and moral discipline of the Church have developed over the centuries from a solidly based understanding of what has been set down in the inspired word of the Bible.
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