Friday, June 8, 2012

St Thomas on the Bible

St Thomas on the Bible

This way of posting thoughts through my phone is actually pretty nifty. I can do it from anywhere. The keyboard is actually a decent enough size that it isn't tedious to type this up. Faster than writing at least.

So I was recently reminded of my interest in Thomistic Biblical theology. That is, learning how to read the bible from st Thomas. Something of this idea came to me while reading Servais Pinckaers who saw the need to integrate the parts of theology so that they do become separated and isolated from their context. He seemed to think that st Thomas saw this as well, which is why he placed the section on "moral theology" right in the middle of the Summa, wedged between the consideration of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the two great mysteries of the faith.

So a Thomistic biblical theology would consist primarily in learning how to read the bible well, as st Thomas and the wisest church fathers read it. This doesn't mean merely taking their interpretations and making them popular, but rather learning from them a method or spirit of biblical interpretation. St Augustine's work on Christian doctrine is one that falls in this school. I remember being a bit disappointed that in his rules of interpretation he didn't say things like "this animal always signifies this" and so on. Rather he gave the most general principles along with some examples. The most important principles being love and faith. An interpretation must not be contrary to the teaching of the faith for it would be false, and little good comes from falsehood. Not only must it be true and consonant but it must something which builds up the faithful in charity, encouraging them to a greater love of God and neighbor, for such is the whole law.

So st Thomas gives more examples of authentic interpretation, both literal and spiritual, and leads one to those fathers who have contemplated the spiritual meaning of the inspired scriptures. Two places in particular come to mind: the commentaries on St. Paul and the section in the summa on the Old Law. These are brilliant. The Pauline commentaries are of especial interest because he takes a seemingly haphazard collection of letters with various bits of advice and shows that some rationale can be seen behind all of it, ordering it all around the mystery of grace in the Mystical Body which is the central theme in the writings of st Paul. Thus it disposes the believer to discern order in scripture.

The questions on the Old law are brilliant because he is able give a literal and a spiritual meaning for nearly all contained in the Pentateuch, which is no mean feat. Now it by no means exhaustive and some of the interpretations seem may seem like a stretch, but this does not keep it from being one of the most fruitful interpretations on that part of scripture, even if only for bringing together the commentators who came before him. Not only does be find reasons for all that is said, but some of it is able to be situated within a human philosophy of ethics, namely when he talks about the moral precepts and how these are identical with natural law. In defending this claim, he justifies the study of moral philosophy for a Christian.

Those are only two examples, but there are probably other places in st Thomas where he shows skill as an exegete. The study of st Thomas doesn't end with him, but gives one the proper starting place for learning from the fathers or even from those doctors after st Thomas (Cornelius a Lapide comes to mind, also st John of the Cross).

Then one must ultimately return to the scriptures themselves and even further to one's own experience of God. Since the truth of scripture is held by faith, one must have a living faith in order to derive any great benefit from its study.

So that brings me back to my desire to study more thoroughly and eventually even teach st Thomas' mode of exegesis to others. A more perfect understanding of scripture will be necessary for the continued evangelization of the world.

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