On Re-Opening the Bible
Stratford Caldecott


We are living at a very interesting time for biblical studies. Catholic biblical scholars have long since assimilated the historical-critical method. The Jerome Bible Commentary and its successor reflect that achievement. But as Cardinal Ratzinger long since suggested in his famous 1988 Erasmus Lecture in New York, they have now entered a ‘post-critical’ phase, marked by the rediscovery of certain traditions of interpretation (notably spiritual exegesis) that had been obscured by all the excitement over historical-critical method. Among other things, the Cardinal drew attention to the need to become aware of the philosophical presuppositions that lie behind some uses of this method. Many of the assumptions of Bultmann in particular are simply not compatible with Catholicism.

We know more than we did about the formation of the canon of Scripture and about its historical context. That knowledge will remain with us, and will continue to illuminate the work of exegesis. But the limitation of methods which treat Scripture merely as a set of literary texts to be analysed like any other historical document, and which consequently expend all their energy on source criticism, is that the Bible tends to disappear behind a screen of expertise. For how can we tell, without the help of an expert, whether such and such a statement belongs among the most authentic texts, or that the meaning we read into it was intended by its original author? The danger here is of a new kind of Gnosticism that pulls the body of Scripture apart and reserves the art of interpretation to a small circle of initiates (the "Jesus Seminar" approach).

The popular revival of the monastic practice of meditative reading (lectio divina) since the Second Vatican Council, together with the development of new schools of interpretation (most of them sympathetically described in the 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church), has helped many in the scholarly community to realize that in the case of Scripture historical conclusions must always be integrated with, or even subordinated to, a method which respects the Word of God as something alive, organic and personal – in fact as sharing with the Church in the nature of a sacrament. The more we outgrow the assumptions of positivism, the more certain aspects of the patristic method of interpretation - sensitive to typology, correspondence and analogy - begins to seem attractive.

We are told by the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum to read Holy Scripture ‘in the spirit in which it was written’. Thanks to that Spirit, its meaning is not limited to the meaning intended by its various human authors in their own time and place. Spoken by the Church, the words of Scripture become the Word of God. Before this Word we need to attain a state of contemplative openness and attention analogous to that of the Blessed Virgin Mary before the Annunciation.

The control over what meanings may legitimately be found within Scripture is properly not the verdict of an expert as to the original intention of the human author, but rather belongs to the Church and her tradition. This gives us a ‘working hypothesis’ for Catholic (and Orthodox) exegesis. No meaning that conflicts with an established principle of the Church’s teaching can be authentic. But nor can any meaning which conflicts with a certainly established fact of history or natural science. Between these limits, a surprisingly wide area is open for creative and at the same time prayerful exegesis. Some of that exegesis will be merely speculative or experimental. It will be tested and perhaps discarded over time, when it fails the test of coherence or fruitfulness, or when new historical data come to light. Some exegesis will prove to have been inspired, and will gradually be assimilated into tradition. In the application of Scripture to everyday life, and in the interplay of one part of God’s Word with another, the positive content that may be brought out into the light by an interaction with the text in prayer is literally inexhaustible, as the saints and doctors of the Church have demonstrated.

Further reading. If you want to see this for yourself, take a look at the great four-volume work by Henri de Lubac entitled Medieval Exegesis, which is slowly appearing in English from T&T Clark and Eerdmans. (An introduction by Susan Wood called Spiritual Exegesis is already available from the same publishers.) See also Balthasar’s anthology Origen: Spirit and Fire (recently reprinted in paperback by CUA Press and T&T Clark), advertised elsewhere in this issue. It is also worth looking out for an important regular section in the American journal Communio called "Spirit and History" (for example, an article by Denis Farkasvalvy in the Fall 1998 issue, entitled "A Heritage in Search of Heirs"). More than a decade earlier, the Winter 1986 issue was devoted to "The Reading of Scripture". A commentary by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, called Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word (Ignatius Press), is a remarkable exercise in the spiritual exegesis of the first part of Matthew’s Gospel. .Wherever He Goes by Marie-Dominique Philippe (T&T Clark) opens up the Gospel of John to the most profound meditation, as does Adrienne von Speyr’s four-volume series John from Ignatius Press, and - in yet another way - James Mensch’s The Beginning of the Gospel According to Saint John: Philosophical Reflections (Peter Lang, 1992). Also highly recommended is anything you can find by by Ignace de la Potterie, especially Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant (Alba House, 1992).


Adrienne von Speyr on the Trinity

As an example of spiritual exegesis, here are a few brief extracts from the first volume of von Speyr’s John - in fact from her commentary on verse 1.2. Adrienne von Speyr, who died in 1967, was a Swiss medical doctor, a Protestant, who was converted in 1940 by the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who then became her spiritual director. She almost instantly became a remarkable mystic and visionary, and the two of them worked together for the rest of her life. Her particular "mission" in the Church seems to have been primarily theological, and Balthasar’s own writings are so closely intertwined with hers as to be at times indistinguishable. Together they founded a religious community, the Community of St John (different from the community of the same name founded by Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe). This necessitated his obtaining permission to leave the Society of Jesus, at great cost to his own standing in the Church, although Pope John Paul II several times sought to make him a Cardinal.

Balthasar describes Adrienne’s extraordinary life in First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr (Ignatius Press, 1981), and he created a publishing company partly to make her own writings available alongside his own. He, of course, being the trained male theologian, tends to get the most attention. Von Speyr, and her influence on him, remains a controversial topic. In future issues we will explore aspects of this controversy, but for now what interests us is the fact that most of what Adrienne wrote took the form of commentaries on Holy Scripture. These commentaries, though lucid and - I believe - largely inspired, were not cast in the mode of conventional scholarship. They demonstrate that, even today, after so many millions of words of commentary have been written, it is still possible to draw now insights and wisdom out of the familiar texts, reading them as if for the first time, as living water springing up in the heart of the Church.

I have chosen this particular passage because it goes right to the heart of the Trinitarian vision that von Speyr shared with Balthasar and which has helped to inspire much of the best theological work in the Church during the last few decades. It has also helped to inspire the work of the Centre for Faith & Culture, and the magazine you hold in your hands. The fuller implications of this vision - for culture, for society, for marriage, for politics, for liturgy, and for Christian spirituality (and therfore for inter-faith dialogue) will begin to become apparent over the next few issues.

"The same was in the beginning with God.... For the love between Father and Son is not a closed circle; on the contrary, it is the source of a new beginning. This new beginning is the third in God, the Holy Spirit.... The Holy Spirit is the eternal unity of those who meet eternally in love. Because the Son is eternally face to face with the Father, the word is with God, but since he is eternally in the Father, the word itself is God. Because they are one, and the Spirit is their unity, their single love shines eternally....

"God in his essence is Trinity. It is impossible that he should be only Father and Son. To be two means, in the long run, death. One and one, face to face forever, leads ultimately to the exhaustion of love.... That is why everything living is three, participates in the three, and must be taken up and plunged into the trinitarian life if it is to live.

"God in his essence is Trinity. It is not true to say that the Father comes first, that the Son then comes into being and that finally the Spirit proceeds from the relation between them; and consequently that God’s love is merely the result of the relation between Persons, that the essence of God comes before the Persons, and the Persons before their love. The essence of God, rather, is trinitarian and consists essentially in love. For love is the essence that the Persons have in common. They do not possess love; they are love; they are bathed in a single, common love, a love that is common to them as is the unity of the Divine Being.... God is love, and this love has a threefold form.

"God in his essence is Trinity. He cannot, therefore, reveal himself otherwise than as trinitarian. Revelation itself is always something living, something personal, and must in consequence be trinitarian.... From one end of the Gospel to the other, the sole context of the word of God is the Trinity, whisch is also the sole content of the creation....

"The human spirit, too, taken in itself, is threefold: it can hear God’s word and his questions, can receive and understand them, and finally can answer them. But since the individual who thus hears, understands and answers is already open toward the outside, the trinitarian image is repeated more impressively in the relation between man and woman.... For it is the child who enables the love between man and woman to become eternal movement, transforms the seemingly complete into a true beginning and bursts open the circle that threatened to close - and it is also the child who reveals the supernatural character of love as grace by pointing to its divine origin (for the child is a gift of God). And contrariwise, the Holy Spirit flows out from God upon the world at the moment when the distance separating Father and Son has been widened to embrace the whole world...."