Thinking Clearly, Choosing Wisely: Reading the Bible

Thinking Clearly, Choosing Wisely: Reading the Bible By  for Lew Rockwell

In two previous essays (here and here), I noted that I was inspired (in part) to analyze the topics discussed therein by a discussion with a friend and a fellow practicing Roman Catholic.  My friend had revealed to me that in her quest to further her knowledge of God, she has concluded (at least provisionally) that some of the most basic of Christian teachings are mistaken.

For instance, the Old Testament, she’s judged from her reading, is self-contradictory in many places.  And there are even parts of the New Testament, she added, that she feels certain are “not from God.”

Doubtless, there are many people, including many Christians, who think as my friend thinks. There are two things, however, that they must bear in mind.

First, just because there are passages that appear to them to be mutually contradictory does not make it so.  Apparent contradictions are not necessarily real contradictions.  Humility requires that they consider whether there are alternative explanations for the evident contradictions that they think they’ve discerned.

And considering that the Bible is the most famous and, at least historically speaking, most important book on Earth, it should come as no surprise that there exists countless numbers of commentaries on it (It’s been estimated that there are approximately over 100,000 books on Christ alone).  Many of these commentaries are authored by scholars who, having devoted their lives to the study of the Bible, have the authority, the expertise, to substantiate their insistence that these apparent contradictions that my friend and others purport to have discovered are just that, apparent.

Second, whether my friend thinks this, I can’t say, but many of our contemporaries who blast the Bible for its alleged contradictions presume that previous generations were somehow less “enlightened,” and, thus, more gullible, than the present one.

The truth of the matter is that from very early on in Christian history some of the brightest human beings who have ever lived recognized that the Bible lends itself to being read in multiple senses.

Clement of Alexandria, in the early third century, distinguished four senses in which Scripture can be interpreted: the literal sense and three “spiritual” senses.  In addition to the literal sense, the “meaning of the law,” Clement wrote, is known by its spiritual senses, “as displaying a sign, as establishing a command for right conduct, or as making known a prophecy.”

This four-fold interpretative schema, which informed the Catholic consciousness throughout the Patristic and Medieval eras, was known as the Quadriga. In other words, it became accepted that there are four senses of Scriptural interpretation: (1) the literal; (2) the allegorical; (3) the tropological, or the moral; and (4) the anagogical or spiritual.

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