Monday, April 16, 2012

My graduate "Survey of the NT" class at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity has been reading Peter Williamson's Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture as one of our textbooks. Class assignments for today include a chapter on the literal sense (chapter 12) and a chapter on the spiritual sense and typology (chapter 13).  The chapter on the spiritual sense(s) of Scripture is interesting (not that the literal sense is uninteresting; see these posts here and here), but also difficult to get a handle on. This is not Williamson's fault, but rather due to the partial nature, to my mind, of what the Pontifical Biblical Commission had to say about the spiritual sense.

The relationship between Antioch (literal sense) and Alexandria (allegorical, spiritual sense) is a longstanding one in the history of the Christian Church, but it has also been a sometimes confused relationship. The reality of the spiritual sense of Scripture is acknowledged in the PBC text and so, too, is its dependence upon the literal sense of Scripture (191-95). Given that the spiritual sense is present in Jesus' own interpretation of Scripture in the NT (eg., John 3; Mark 12; Luke 24), it would be wise to acknowledge its presence! The PBC also warns, though, against "extremes" of allegorical interpretation (198-99), but yet encourages interpreters to pay attention to the spiritual sense and for modern scholarship not to ignore this sense (199-202).

But what are modern interpreters being asked to do? If we are being asked to pay attention to the Spiritual sense of Scripture especially as interpreted by Jesus in the NT, that is one thing, and important to do, but if we are being asked to engage in our own task of discovering "new" Spiritual senses of biblical passages, that is another, and fraught with the same kinds of dangers as the Church fathers fell prey to, especially highly subjective and mystical readings which were not grounded in the literal text or readings which were impossible to verify. Are interpreters today supposed to be finding new spiritual readings of the text or simply acknowledging the reality of  past spiritual readings? If the former, are the NT texts open to new spiritual readings or just the OT? How are we to monitor highly subjective spiritual readings of texts, even if based on the literal sense, if they do not have a precursor in the long history of Christian tradition?

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


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