Let us devote today’s post to our final installment on Biblical exegesis.
From the perspective of the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum, Cano’s and Bellarmine’s problem is clear. Their theology of inspiration (what does it mean that Holy Scripture is the word of God), which we briefly mentioned on Friday, is lacking. They reduce the role of “prophets and apostles” (to use Bellarmine’s expression) to that of mere scribes. Theology of the early modern epoch was so focused on God that it overlooked man. (We tend to the opposite ply today.) Scripture, as Vatican II sees it, is just as human and divine as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the Son of Man, is both human and divine. Consequently, the text of Scripture was written by inspired men, but the inspiration was not some kind of “automatic writing”.
In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (Dei Verbum, 11)
It is Scripture as a whole which is canonical and inspired, and that includes all of the available texts, with all their variants, scribe’s error, etc. It is up to the Church (the faithful, the experts, and the Magisterium) to read it. Considering that the Church is animated by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the holy writers, the image is perfectly consistent. The Church is herself the Mystical Body of Christ, who is the Incarnate Word (John 1), and Scripture is the word of God. As a result, Scripture and its interpretation is a part of a hermeneutic of life, of the action of the Spirit within the Church, of the continuing process of incarnation: the New Creation.
Let us try not to project our own attitudes on the protagonists of our drama. After all, they lived four centuries ago. Cano’s and Bellarmine’s desire for clarity bears one strong resemblance, I suspect, with the attitude of today’s engineers and scientists. As Guy Consolmagno points out, these “techies” have little time for metaphor and exegesis. They want to know the rules of the game, and they want them in simple and unambiguous terms. They ask, “What must I do to have eternal life?” (Lk 10:25) in the most literal and down-to-earth sense. Recall the exuberance of the Elizabethan era (this is exactly the period!). Try to yourself in the shoes of people who have found an entire “new world” of possibilities. Imagine that somebody discovers a way how to travel 20 light years in 5 months. How dizzy would you be with the whole new universe of opportunities? Nothing would seem too difficult. No problem would be too complex, no challenge too daunting. There would be no need for nuance and subtlety. Just do it!
I suspect that Cano and Bellarmine reflected some of their era’s spirit when they desired clear-cut reading of Scripture. In fact, they would have expected God to make sure that Scripture could be read with no recourse to metaphor. As we have said before, throughout the history of the Church, the norm was to interpret Scripture using a very sophisticated art focused on intertextual references. Luther did not like it, and Cano and Bellarmine also found it unappealing and unconvincing. I believe it was an effect of the early modern esprit which was suffusing the air of the time.
In this respect Cano and Bellarmine were just as go-getting as Luther and Calvin. It was just that they drew different practical conclusions. They all believed (more than the mainstream average over the centuries) that grasping the sense of Scripture was fairly straightforward. They all believed that everybody should read the Bible. They all believed that the literal sense was valid most of the time, and that the text itself made it clear where the literal sense is a mere figure of speech. The difference was that Luther and Calvin Bible frowned upon the medieval and popish insistence that only trained and approved professionals interpret the Bible, while Cano and Bellarmine worried how dangerous Bible was in the hands of uncouth and unlicensed rogues.
In the second half of the coming week, we shall return to our ruminations observing the 400th anniversary of the decree of the Congregation of the Index against Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus.