Reading the ‘Letter’ and the ‘Spirit’ of Holy Scripture

The following quote comes from Patristic’s theologian, Lewis Ayres’ thoughtful pen. This is his opening to an essay he has written entitled “THERE’S FIRE IN THAT RAIN”: ON READING THE LETTER AND READING ALLEGORICALLY for Modern Theology 28:4 Octorber 2012 ISSN 0266-7177 (Print) ISSN 1468-0025 (Online). I haven’t yet finished his essay, but I have finished Matthew Levering’s book (recently) Participatory Biblical Exegesis, and the sentiment announced in this opening salvo of Ayres’, sounds very reminiscent of what I read in Levering; and this shouldn’t be that surprising since they are both Roman Catholic scholars/theologians.  Here is what Ayres has written about reading Scripture, both in the ‘letter’ and in the ‘spirit’, in a Christ retained reality.

songofsongs

 “Scripture [is] the medium in which the mind of the Church has energized and developed.” Blessed John Henry Newman

 I offer this article as a complement to Brian Daley’s “‘In Many and Various Ways’: Towards a Theology of Theological Exegesis.” I do this in part simply because I agree with his main thrust: a Catholic vision of scripture and its interpretation can always fruitfully return to its sources in the early Christian period. The patristic vision of how God, through the Word, uses scripture to draw us into the divine life should form the skeleton that gives shape to all the flesh of subsequent reflection on scripture. But I also want to offer this article as a complement, because I think there are a couple of further points that can and should be made.

 At the heart of Brian’s argument is an elegant reassertion of the Patristic insistence that Christians read scripture as a unified story, and in the light of the gospel as it is known in the life of the Church. In the course of expounding this theme Brian also speaks powerfully of the relationship between reading the text literally and reading the text spiritually. Scripture is a unity, and a unity in the specific sense that it tells a consistent story of God’s action in history. Scripture tells a story in which God works in and through the events of history and the choices of human beings, in and through a world intended to signify its creator. Because scripture tells this story, and because it points always forward to include us within that story, it seems to follow naturally that Christians should read scripture as both a trustworthy account of God’s dealings with the cosmos, and as a world of signs. Thus Christians legitimately find signs in the Old that point toward Christ, and signs in the New that speak of our situation now. To attend to both literal and spiritual senses is to attend to what scripture’s divine author intends, and thus to do so is not simply still a possibility for modern Christians, but a necessity.

There is obviously a certain theory of history and creation funding Ayres’ and Daley’s accounting, one that sounds close to Calvin’s view of creation as the ‘theater of God’s glory’ wherein he reveals himself in his good creation as God the Creator, only realized through the instantiation of this God as Redeemer, in Christ.

I thought I would just share this quote from Ayres, for food for thought.

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4 comments

  1. “Brian also speaks powerfully of the relationship between reading the text literally and reading the text spiritually”.
    I tried to be a good student and just listen without throwing out objection pre-maturely. I guess that will come with maturity. After you mentioned that they are both Catholic, I could not get the words out of my head:
    This IS my Body given for you. do this for the remembrance of me. This cup is the new testament in my blood which is shed for you.
    You see, what is obvious for us American Evangelical types who would rather take a story at face value, thought often not literally, this offering of flesh and blood is not to be taken literally, but symbolically. Meanwhile, folks who would take many a story as pure allegory, or even as proto-Israel myth, will take the “This Is my body; This Is my blood” literally. And I can’t help but wonder who has the scales tipped out of balance?

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