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Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Silence propagates itself, and the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find anything to say." - Samuel Johnson


On Biblical Literalism:

"Ask an Evangelical whether or not he believes there are flames in hell, and after a thirty-minute philosophical recitation on the theological implications of eternal retribution in light of the implicit goodness of God, you will still not know what he really believes. Ask a Fundamentalist whether he believes there are really flames in hell and he will simply say, "Yes, and hot ones too!" This is why left-wing Evangelicalism has failed to make any substantial use of the media. It cannot express its theology in the concrete terminology of television English."

--- The Fundamentalist Phenomenon / Jerry Falwell

"The notion of the Bible as carrier of multiple senses is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Medieval Christianity sanctioned plural readings, not, of course, in the sense of uncontrolled randomness, but instead tamed by deep reflection on the manifold potentials inherent in sacred scripture...

There was, at the very least, the literal sense and the spiritual or allegorical sense, and the two stood in a hierarchical, although not necessarily oppositional, relationship. For the most part, the literal sense had no raison d’être on its own terms; ideally it served as a bridge toward the real goal of Bible reading: the spiritual sense, or the vision of God.

A dominant practice of medieval Bible reading was governed by the theory of the fourfold sense. Magnificently reconstructed by Henri de Lubac, the theory suggested that every biblical text was amenable to four different readings: the literal sense; the allegorical sense, which gestured toward deeper meanings beyond and above the literal sense; the moral, ethical sense; and the spiritual sense, which pointed toward heavenly realities. Whether one acknowledged this fourfold sense, or merely practiced the twofold sense, or a threefold one, the spiritual sense was in all instances accorded the position of primacy.

Medieval hermeneutics was dazzling in its ability to accommodate diverse and heterogeneous biblical readings within a model of unity... What gave unity to diversity was the premise of the Bible as the Word of God. It meant, among other things, that the Bible was perceived to be a single communication, undergirded by a unifying intentionality...

As one moves into the high and late medieval theology one observes a tendency in some quarters to devote a greater part of biblical exegesis to the exploration of the literal sense. In the twelfth century Hugh and Andrew at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, for example, made the study of the literal, authorially intended sense the principal subject of their scriptural scholarship. Hugh poked fun at those who hurried over the literal sense in their eagerness to reach the mystery... Significantly, neither Hugh nor Andrew challenged the primacy of the spiritual sense. They justified their devotion to the literal sense as an effort to strengthen the foundation of the spiritual sense.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the philosophical school of nominalism rethought matters of mind and language in ways that served as harbinger of a new day... nominalism subtly but discernibly enhanced the prestige of the literal sense.

When in the sixteenth century Luther elevated the literal sense of the Bible, he was still moving in the tradition of the Victorines arid Ockham’s nominalism. But when he proceeded to denounce the fourfold sense in favor soley of the literal sense, and to condemn allegorical interpretation with particular vehemence, he was turning against a millennium and a half of Christian reading of the Bible. Scripture. he daimed, was self-explanatory. The Bible spoke for itself or, as he would phrase it, it was its own interpreter. The sensus literalis spoke clearly and unambiguously. Comprehensible in its plain sense and unimpeded by all other senses, the Bible was, therefore, accessible to everyone. No longer an impenetrable mystery safeguarded by and for theological experts, it was now held to be an open text intelligible for all who could hear and read.

In operational practice, however, scripture was anything but a self-regulating body, and Luther did his best to promote his preferred readings by means of his own translations, interlinear and marginal glosses, scholia (brief or longer essays), introductions, illustrations, and theologically motivated arrangements of the printed text. For Protestants, the Lutheran innovations marked the end of medieval mystification and signaled a welcome democratization of Bible reading. To Catholics, however, the novel approach to biblical hermeneutics appeared in a different light. Steeped in the tradition of medieval exegesis, they saw in the triumph of the via moderna a rational degradation of the mysterious quality of the Bible and a rise of the tyranny of the single sense. Whereas “at the beginning [of the Middle Ages] texts were seen as a boundless resource from which one could take an inexhaustible supply of meanings; at the end of the period, the meaning of the text is austerely anchored in the textual evidence.” And it was this austere single-mindedness of textual meaning that became a model for the modern, historical reading of the Bible.

In the scientific, artistic, and humanistic culture of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries the single sense came increasingly to be read in a factual representational manner... Historians of the stature of Jules Michelet, Leopold von Ranke, Theodor Mommsen, Alexis de Tocqueville, Jakob Burckhardt, and others developed precise methods of research that taught us how to collect, categorize, and evaluate primary sources. Governed by the conviction that it was both possible and desirable to know the past as it actually happened, they produced works on aspects of European and North American history which rank among the classics of Western historiography. In these and other developments of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century scientific, artistic, humanistic culture, the single sense and its representative content were enforced with unprecedented resolve...

This modern seriousness that wanted to know what really happened engendered “a revolution in the morality of knowledge” that has traumatized Christian relations with the Bible ever since. Once Holy Scripture was, methodically and without reserve, subjected to fact-finding, literal scrutiny, its desacralization as Word of God was an inescapable consequence."

--- The Jesus controversy: perspectives in conflict / John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, Werner H. Kelber
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