To my knowledge, nothing noteworthy happened on Saturday February 27, 1616. Let us continue with our ruminations on Biblical exegesis.
History of exegesis is one of the most exciting and revealing probes into the history of thought and ideas. Which approach to interpreting authoritative texts dominates among scholars of a given period? Are there any significant alternative approaches? Is there a pattern which might explain why the “republic of letters” developed this or that particular set of attitudes?
Every generation may reach an unshakable belief that only its exegetic style is admissible. Kuhn calls these curious social mindsets, “paradigms”. Our time is not exempt from this particular type of blindness, although – living in a period of upheaval and transition – we are somewhat more likely than others to realize that we might be blind.
1616 happened to be very close to one of the pivotal moments in the history of thought in general and exegesis in particular when the modern paradigmatic type was forged. This was most unfortunate for both Galileo and Bellarmine. Historical myth perceives the former as the victim of the latter, and ipso facto it is the latter who has also become a victim — a victim of historical myth. I believe that they both were honest men with an authentic desire to serve God and the Church, and that they did the best they could in the circumstances.
In April 1546, seventy years before the events of 1616, the Council of Trent adopted a decree on the canon of Scripture. It was an excellent exercise in diplomacy if not a brilliant work of theology. Let us read it:
[…] Sacrosancta Synodus […] ad coercenda petulantia ingenia, decernit, ut nemo suae prudentiae innixus, in rebus fidei, & morum ad aedificationem doctrinae Christianae pertinentium, sacram scripturam ad suos sensus contorquens, contra eum sensum, quem tenuit, & tenet fancta Mater Ecclesia, cuius est iudicare de vero sensu, & interpretatione scripturarum sanctarum, aut etiam contra unanimem consensum Patrum, ipsam scripturam sacram interpretari audeat […] (Concilium Tridentinum, Sessio IV)
I quote the Latin because I honestly find the English translation more difficult to read. Try it for yourself:
In order to restrain petulant spirits, [the Holy Council] decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,–in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, –wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,–hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.
To put it bluntly, going to a bookstore and buying a copy of the Bible is not enough. You need to listen to how the Church has been reading it. This is perfectly logical, considering that even such crucial matters as which texts are a part of the Bible and which are not (the canon of Scripture) are decided by the Church, manifested as the practice of the faithful and the decisions of the pastors. In fact, just a few lines above, the Council actually does define the canon of Old Testament, explaining that the Gospel had been transmitted orally long before it was written down, and that it was not until the 4th century that the Church determined the canon of the New Testament.
When it comes to the history of exegesis, the Decree itself is perfectly neutral. It is not concerned with exegetic methods or paradigms. It is stating the simple rule that Scripture as the Word of God must be read in the Church. The Bible bought on Amazon.com by a Martian would be of little use. The Bible is a difficult read. To make sense of it you need to read it in and with the communion of the faithful across the centuries. The Decree does not go into any details. In particular, it says nothing on the Biblical passages where the literal meaning of the text is difficult to interpret.
The Council of Trent does have something to say about the history of exegesis. If you would look at the whole corps of texts produced by the Council, and examine the exegetic approaches present in them, you could conclude something of interest. Nonetheless, it was not intention of the Council to discuss exegesis as such.
One final detail is particularly noteworthy. The Decree limits itself to “matters of faith and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine”. We shall see that Bellarmine who, of all people, should have known better, stretched these limits.
In 1615, the Carmelite Father Paolo Antonio Foscarini (1580?-1616) wrote a small treatise “on the opinion of the Pythagoreans and of Copernicus concerning the mobility of the Earth and the stability of the Sun, and the new Pythagorean system of the world” which, according to Fantoli, was “concordist”, attempting to demonstrate that “the Bible agreed with the Copernican system” (Fantoli, p. 431). He did send a copy of his text to Bellarmine who answered:
My Very Reverend Father,
I have read with interest the letter in Italian and the essay in Latin which Your Paternity sent me; I thank you for the one and for the other and confess that they are full of intelligence and erudition. You ask for my opinion, and so I shall give it to you, but very briefly, since now you have little time for reading and I for writing.
First, I say that it seems to me that Your Paternity and Mr. Galileo are proceeding prudently by limiting yourselves to speaking suppositionally and not absolutely, as I have always believed that Copernicus spoke [likewise suppositionally]. […]
Second, I say that, as you know, the Council [of Trent] prohibits interpreting Scripture [he fails to add the qualification “in matters of faith and morals”] against the common consensus of the Holy Fathers; and if Your Paternity wants to read not only the Holy Fathers, but also the modern commentaries […], you will find all agreeing in the literal interpretation that the Sun is in heaven and turns around the Earth with great speed, and that the Earth is very far from heaven and sits motionless at the center of the world. […] Nor can one answer that this is not a matter of faith, since if it is not a matter of faith “as regards the topic”, it is a matter of faith “as regards the speaker” [… because it is] said by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of the prophets and the apostles.
Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the Sun is at the center of the world and the Earth in the third heaven, and that the Sun does not circle the Earth but the Earth circles the Sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. […]
With this I greet dearly Your Paternity, and pray to God to grant you all your wishes.
At home, 12 April 1615.
To Your Very Reverend Paternity
As a Brother,
(Favaro, XII, 171-172, tran. Finocchiaro, pp. 67-69)
In this regard, Bellarmine was close to the position of eminent Dominican theologian Melchior Cano who wrote in 1585, “not only the words but even every comma has been supplied by the Holy Spirit” (De Theologicis Locis, 2.17). Note that this approach expands the scope of the Tridentine Decree to the maximum possible extent, subsuming everything into the boundaries of “matters of faith and morals”.
To be continued.