Reno on Recovering the Bible

Recovering the Bible

The Bible contains a verse that scholars like to quote. It is from the book of Ecclesiastes: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is weariness of the flesh” (12:12). In context it serves as a warning against the vain illusion that we can study our way to the Kingdom of God. The spiritual life is not a Kaplan course, nor is it like getting tenure after piling up a good record of scholarly publication.

Of late, I’ve come to see this verse as a wry moment when the Bible makes a prophecy about itself, foreseeing the vast number of commentaries on the sacred pages of scripture. Over the last few years I have been wearying myself as the general editor of an impossibly ambitious project, the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Working with authors on the first dozen or so commentaries, and also toiling on my own effort to write about Genesis, the thought has come to me many times: “Of the making of commentaries on the Bible there is no end, and to be honest, Lord, I’m getting pretty weary.”

Wearying, yes, but often profoundly rewarding, and certainly necessary. From the very outset, faith in Jesus took the form of scriptural commentary. The gospels are punctuated with the refrain: “that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” The Sermon on the Mount is a commentary on the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. St. Stephen’s speech in the Acts of the Apostles provides a summary interpretation of the Old Testament as a whole. St. Paul’s letters are chock full of biblical citations, allusions, and expositions.

Not surprisingly, biblical commentary played a central role in the life of the Church. The Fathers wrote commentaries, far more in fact than treatises on doctrinal topics. The great medieval theologians wrote commentaries. Martin Luther and John Calvin wrote commentaries, as did Cajetan and Robert Bellarmine. For more than a thousand years it was simply assumed than an exegete and a theologian were pretty much synonyms. After all, you need to know what the Bible says in order to develop an accurate account of God and salvation—and you need to study classical doctrine in order to give a clear and cogent account of what the scripture says.

These days this unity can no long be presumed. Over the last two hundred years, the work of biblical interpretation has rotated away from the churchly business of teaching doctrine. Bible scholars have built their own independent intellectual project, one that excludes Church doctrine from the process of interpretation as a matter of principle. The job of the modern historical exegete is to scientifically determine what a particular portion of the Bible meant when it was composed, not how it should be read by the Church today.

We can point to many remarkable intellectual achievements in modern biblical scholarship, some of service to the Church. But on the whole the results have been disastrous. The “meaning in the original context” approach has made the Old Testament into the Hebrew Bible. To read forward to fulfillment in Christ is the unforgivable sin of modern biblical scholarship. The New Testament is rich with the vocabulary of Christian piety. St. Paul’s letters are themselves already theological. But even in New Testament scholarship, the requirement of original context invariably drives a wedge between Scripture and the great Trinitarian and Christological doctrines of the early Church. Ask a biblical scholar, “Does the New Testament teach the doctrine of the Trinity?” Odds are overwhelming that the answer will be “no.”

As a theology professor, it is easy for me to point out the specks in the eyes of the biblical scholars. (The “low Christology” and “high Christology” taxonomy is a particularly amusing and pointless exercise.) But there are plenty of beams in the eyes of theologians.

A popular nineteenth-century Catholic theological textbook for seminarians illustrates. Doctrine is described as “materially complete,” “formally perfect,” and capable of universal application. In contrast, the historical nature of the biblical material means that its truths are “expressed in the metaphorical language of the East.” This makes Scripture “unfit for the general use of people.” Better, then, to base theology on succinct and authoritative Church doctrine.

There is nothing uniquely Catholic about the theological shift from exegesis to doctrinal analysis. In his influential systematic theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher sets aside the Old Testament. It’s spiritual character, he argues, is essentially Jewish rather than Christian. It is, shall we say, the Hebrew Bible, not the Christian one. But even the New Testament itself does not provide a firm basis, and therefore he lays down a basic principle: “The confessional documents of the evangelical church, collectively, are, as it were, given prior place to the New Testament Scriptures themselves.”

We should not be terribly surprised by the tendency to push Scripture into the background. Theologians are in the business of making arguments, and the rough and ready variety of Scripture can seem unpleasantly unstable. We want sharply drawn truth-claims to feed into our syllogisms. We find conceptual clarity in doctrine, and the upshot is a temptation to neglect Scripture. Furthermore, in the abstract realm of concepts we can formulate pallid, pseudo-orthodox notions such as “Incarnational worldview,” or “sacramental imagination,” or “Trinitarian ethos,” and thus convince ourselves that our capitulations to the latest intellectual fashions are really grand theological achievements.

Bible without theology, and theology without Bible: It’s understandable, perhaps, but untenable, and over the long term disastrous.

The Church can only claim to be the Church if it teaches what the Bible proclaims. This is not a uniquely Protestant principle. Vatican I affirms: “The meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which the Holy Mother Church held and holds.” In other words, just like Protestantism, Catholicism is founded on the belief that the content of the Bible and the teachings of the Church are fundamentally in accord.

It is a simple fact that the current academic configuration of biblical study and theological education rarely encourages us to coordinate exegesis with doctrine. To my mind, we have reached a crisis with respect to the Old Testament. To appeal to St. Paul for guidance while writing a commentary on Genesis is taboo among biblical scholars.

When I hatched the plan for the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, I decided to recruit theology professors, not biblical scholars as writers. My idea was simple. Those of us trained to analyze and defend Church doctrine will get many things wrong, but at least we will do what was once the norm: bring the theological traditions of the Church to bear on the biblical text.

Obviously, this requires us to assume that Church dogma clarifies rather than obscures the true meaning of Scripture. As I wrote in the general preface for the series, “the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture.”

Angus Paddison wryly noted in a review of one of the early volumes that a presumption in favor of the exegetical value of dogma “is unlikely to generate universal sympathy amongst biblical scholars.” I would have said “very unlikely.” In fact, I said as much to many friends over the last few years. The biblical guild, I predicted, would hate the idea of unauthorized individuals presuming upon their turf.

I was largely right. Eight volumes have appeared, and in the main biblical scholars have shown themselves opposed to—and often angry about—the series. In a review, Pauline Viviano denounced the “spurious typologies” in Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, ending with the stern admonition that “commentaries on the Bible should be left to biblical scholars.” No trespassing!

Philip Cary’s commentary on Jonah apparently disturbed another biblical scholar, Barbara Green. “The book,” she wrote, “features Jesus on virtually every page.” Shocking, simply shocking. This clearly needs to be brought to the attention of the proper authorities.

Luke Timothy Johnson took Stanley Hauerwas to task for making the Gospel of Matthew sound like Hauerwas. Funny, I’ve found the Martin Luther’s commentaries to sound a lot like Luther. But that was before we had the advantage of modern biblical scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson. He can give us scientific interpretations and help us see that the Church’s teaching on, say, sexual morality, is unscriptural. No Luke Timothy Johnson speaking there. “Just the text, M’am, nothin’ but the text.”

I would have been surprised if the biblical scholars were not antagonistic. After all, the Brazos Commentary on the Bible, as well as other efforts such as the Two Horizons series and the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, emerged because of a widespread sense that modern historical–critical study of the Bible has run its course. As an academic project it has a modest future in department of ancient Near Eastern history or ancient Mediterranean studies. It is a plain fact, however, that today the Church does not need to know more (or want to know more) about ancient Israelite religion or the Q hypothesis. We need (and want) to know how Leviticus and Proverbs and Job and the Gospel of John and Letter to the Hebrews can shape our Christian faith.

So I continue to toil and weary myself in the making of more books about the Good Book. The academic Berlin Wall between the study of the Bible and doctrines of the Church must be breached. And who knows, maybe Christ will be on nearly every page. I hope so.

R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University and features editor at First Things.