The Sacramental Approach:My use of the "sacramental approach" to the Bible comes from a book titled The Revelatory Text, written by Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M. Schneiders complained that the historical critical method is insufficient for biblical interpretation because it can only deal with the text as an historical document. She argued that we have to make it applicable to our lives and times. Instead of seeing it as simply an historical document, she claimed that the New Testament can function as something like a sacrament, as the "locus and mediation of [a] revelatory encounter with God." She noted that Dei Verbum referred to the Bible in sacramental terms when it proclaimed that the Church has always venerated the Holy Scriptures as she has venerated the "Body of the Lord."
Schneiders noted that sacraments are "symbols that are peculiarly effective in mediating the divine-human encounter (i.e., in theological terms, grace)… they articulate the mystery with extraordinary clarity and power." She went on to explain this clarity and power results from material suitability (the Eucharist is like the bread of life because it is bread) and community recognition (the community imparts meaning onto the bread, so it is meaningful).
We can apply these principles to the Bible as well. Schneiders argued that as the Eucharist is the sacrament of the Body of Christ, so the Bible is the sacrament of the Word of God. The Bible is materially suitable because it comes to us in the normal form of human self-revelation, i.e. words. Also, the Bible is uniquely privileged in the Christian community, for many texts are inspirational, only the Bible is the rule (kanw,n) to judge other texts (the original meaning of the world canonical). As a result, Schneiders asserted, "To say that the biblical text (as read and understood) is the sacrament of the word of God is to say that this mystery here comes to articulation with a clarity and transparency that focuses our attention on the mystery of divine revelation." The Bible is both materially suitable and communally recognized as the sacrament of the Word of God and is a privileged place to encounter this revelation.
Yet, Schneiders' idea is not entirely new. Long before her St. Augustine read the Bible in sacramental terms. At this point it is necessary to define the term sacramentum. Augustine, when reading the Bible, relied upon Latin texts. In these translations of the original Greek, the word sacramentum was often used to translate the Greek mysterion (musth,rion). Sacramentum was not for Augustine simply reserved for the seven Sacraments of the Church. In fact, "In many of his works he uses the term… to identify manifestations of divine presence." Augustine thought of sacraments as sacred signs.
The literature on Augustine's theory of signs is extensive, and a full discussion of this theory is beyond our needs here. But, in order that we might understand a sacramental approach to the Bible, it will help to sketch Augustine's theory briefly. Augustine taught that a sign points beyond itself; in fact, there is a two part process: "first the sign itself, the signum, and that thing toward which the sign points, the res." A stop sign is a created sign, for instance, which is an object in its own right, even though it points beyond itself to the law that requires vehicles to come to a stop wherever that sign is placed. On its own, a red octagonal piece of metal with "STOP" written on it could not force a traveler to halt; but, when used as a sign to point to a further reality, it has its appropriate effect. In addition to objects, words are also conventional signs, that is, signs selected by human beings to point to specific realities beyond themselves. For example, the word ox is a sign for the real animal. Words are signs, for Augustine, which point beyond themselves. The Bible, itself a collection of words, is likewise a sign that points beyond itself.
For Augustine, "these sacred signs are revelatory and formative of the divine mystery." Emmanuel Cutrone summarizes Augustine's teaching on sacraments: "A sacrament… is a sacred sign whereby what is seen and experienced corresponds to a deeper spiritual reality which is made manifest by the very sign itself." If signs point beyond themselves to the thing they signify, and sacred signs reveal the divine mystery, then the Scriptures are a sacred sign, which point to the divine reality. In other words, the Bible functions as a revelatory mystery, a sacrament of divine revelation. Augustine thought of the Bible as a "sacrament of Christ." Reading the Bible was encountering the one to whom the sign pointed: Christ. It is interesting that this sign must be engaged in a unique way, for the Bible is a written phenomenon. The sign that is the Bible can only be engaged through reading the text (or hearing it proclaimed by another). The act of reading is, so to speak, a sacramental action and a reverential approach to the Bible. Brian Stock summarizes Augustine's thought on reading the Bible when he writes, "scripture offers the reader – either the private reader or the audience at a reading – a privileged medium, through which God's will, framed in narrative, can be internalized and directed outwards as ethically formed action." Augustine teaches, and Schneiders does also, that through the reading of the Bible, one comes into contact with God. Yet, that contact is always mediated through the humanly composed words of the Bible.
Since the Bible is a literary sign, it must be appropriated by means of reading and understanding the text. As Augustine taught, it is only through the reading, or hearing, of the text that one is able to engage the sign. Yet, this particular text presents us with many problems, as we have seen. The Bible is an ancient text and the presence it contains is conferred when the text is understood in its own language and context, which is why the human historical-critical and literary sciences prove necessary if we are to understand and appropriate it authentically, because these sciences relocate the ancient languages and contexts into our own language and context. The writers of IBC said that the historical critical method is necessary for this reason. I support this "sacramental approach" to the Bible because it furthers the harmony of its human composition and divine inspiration. Treating the Bible like a revelatory sign of Christ, given to us in ancient human words, requires a prayerful and faith-filled use of the historical critical method. Only when this method is combined with an approach open to the transcendent reality behind the scriptures is an exegete, in my view, able to use the historical critical method in a way that builds up the faith.
Part II:The Process of Exegesis
Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of a text to try to appreciate what the author actually intended to communicate with a view to actualizing the text as passed on in a faith community, in a present day situation.
It is good to think of the whole process as involving three things:
The Text Itself
The World behind the Text – the background and original circumstances in which it was written, and
The World in front of the Text – You as a Catholic Christian, the Church and the group of people you will address. This will thus take into account, the theology and spirituality of the Church, the tradition of interpretation, and the present situation.
These are the three basic areas involved, but the process itself involves five steps which are distributed into these three areas. These five steps give you an idea of what generally needs to be done in the process of exegesis. They do not need to be applied in precisely this order, nor should an exegetical essay necessarily be arranged according to them. They are simply the bases that you have to be sure you have covered.
The Text Itself
Text, Translation, and Key Terms
Text: Since there are literally thousands of biblical manuscripts and no two are exactly alike, you must establish the most accurate wording of the text you are considering. This is best done by examining a critical edition in the original language. But you can find significant variations in the original manuscripts by recourse to advanced commentaries or different editions of the Bible. You have to work these out. Most passages do not have major "text-critical problems," but all passages have been translated from the Greek or Hebrew.
Translation: Translation presents a problem. It is not a 100% precise science. Most Greek or Hebrew words do not have a single, English meaning. They have what you call a "range of meaning." The particular meaning has to be chosen from among the possible meanings by an intelligent translator or commentator. It is good to check a few different translations. We recommend John R. Kohlberger, The Comparative Catholic New Testament, New York: Oxford, 2005 – in which eight different translations are presented on two open pages).You may use your commentaries to help you make decisions about what is the best translation of a particular word or phrase. These are most helpful when they present the author's own translation.
Key Terms: When you are confident you have the right words, identify the most significant terms, and then try to find out what they mean here and elsewhere. How does the author use these terms? Does the author always mean the same thing when he uses them? You can find out quickly by using a
Concordance. By consulting a Theological Dictionary you can find out the range
of meaning and uses of particularly important words.
2) Literary Criticism
The following procedures must be done systematically.
a) Work out the context of the passage, that is, how it fits into the structure of the work in which it appears. What is the larger structural piece to which this passage contributes? That will help you a great deal in understanding what the author is trying to do in the passage.
b) Work out the grammar and syntax of the passage. Be sure you understand how the passage makes sense grammatically and logically. Sometimes an author implies something that you then have to add. Sometimes an author purposefully disrupts the sensible order the reader expects.
c) Work out the structure of the passage. This is most easily done by breaking the passage into sense lines: full clauses or long phrases. When you have laid out the passage in sense lines, look for parallelisms, contrasts, or chiasms. Does a particular term or phrase occur repeatedly? Does this serve to divide the passage into parts? You may wish to mark your text with connecting lines or brackets or you may label verses or phrases 1, 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, or whatever is appropriate in terms of how the passage is ordered. Try to discern why the author choose the order he did. Does it place the emphasis in a certain way?
You cannot be sure that there is not a structure unless you have actually looked for one. Ancient readers were far more attentive to structures than we are. We mark structures with numbers, letters, or bullets. The ancients did this more subtly by the way they used words in the text itself. Structures were used to disclose meaning.
d) Identify any parallels, quotations, or allusions to other texts (whether biblical or non-biblical) that help us understand the source or meaning of the author's ideas in your passage or put it into a context that lets us see how differently the author sees things than the author of the parallel text did. If your author seems to be calling upon particular passages or traditions, you must decide why he chose to use them. Has he done anything new with them? When working with the Gospels it is always important to do a Synoptic Analysis to get clues on the particular emphasis of the author of the passage you are examining.
e) Form Criticism: Identify any literary forms which are present in the passage and find out how that helps us understand the meaning of the passage. Is the passage a Parable, a Miracle, a Controversy Story, a fragment of a Hymn, or a Pronouncement Story? If so, how does that help you understand the meaning?
The World behind the Text
3) Historical Criticism
It is your job as interpreter to reconstruct, as accurately as possible, just
what was the actual life situation that provided the context for this passage:
at the time the things described in the passage were happening, and
at the time in which the passage was written.
This is especially important if people, places, and things referred to in the passage are not familiar to you. The principal behind this part of exegesis is the fact that people do not write, and events do not take place, in a vacuum, but in a particular context. You cannot fully understand a passage without understanding something about the events, issues, problems, and values that provide the context for what is described. It is equally important to understand the particular situation of the author, and, if possible, his community. For a Gospel passage, the history of Israel up to the time of Jesus is not, by itself, sufficient. It is sufficient for "Stage One" of the Gospel tradition. But you must also understand whatever we can know about the situation in which the Christian writer is writing this particular depiction of those events. That is part of understanding what is referred to as "Stage Three" of the Gospel tradition in Sancta Mater Ecclesia. Stage 1 is not exactly the same as Stage 3.
In this facet of exegesis, you do not go through certain steps as with literary criticism. But you do whatever is necessary to be sufficiently informed on the ancient situation prior to and at the time of the text. In your essay, you only mention the background facts as they are actually important for understanding the passage. Much of your best work in this area will not be written up in the exegetical essay. But if you have not done this right, that will be very clear from statements that you make that show you do not understand the original situation in its historical context.
The World in front of the Text
4) Taking into Account Theology, Canon, and Tradition
Determine the main theological issues in the passage according to your best understanding of Catholic theology. Often the great theological issues involved can be found in the key words you identified in step 1. The theological issues may come up in Bible Dictionaries, but the theology of the Bible Dictionary will generally be that of its authors.
Ask yourself: How does this passage fit into the full revelation of scripture and tradition? Is there a biblical figure in this passage that appears in another passage? If so, the use of that figure in the other passage may shed light on the fuller meaning of this passage in the context of the entire Bible. Also ask, are there other passages that express a very different view? If there are, those passages must be examined and the differences taken into account. This is in keeping with Thomas Aquinas' basic rule of never taking a single verse of scripture without also considering all the rest of scripture relevant to the issue. What Aquinas was suggesting is now called "Canonical Criticism." Canonical Criticism involves asking, "How does the rest of the canon and the canon-process itself, affect how I will apply or actualize the passage in keeping with the canon and the tradition of the Church?"
It is helpful to have insight into how earlier interpreters have viewed this passage. The best way to do this is to have a good knowledge of the major writings of the Fathers and what works might have addressed this passage. Patristic Commentaries, which are actually carefully chosen selections of what some of the Church Fathers said about the passages in a particular book of the Bible are helpful for this. The Church Fathers read passages with a view toward the content of the entire Bible and seeking to read everything in terms of the essence of Christian faith, which are skills for which many modern interpreters are not well equipped. But it is important to be aware that no ancient commentary frees you of the hard work of interpretation by the best current standards, and with a view to application to the present day Church. In Benedict XVI's words, "each age must in its own way newly seek to understand the sacred books." (Preface to 1993 PBC document: "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," end of first paragraph).
What is the text calling the Church or the reader to understand or to do now—in the 21st Century? Application cannot be arbitrary. It must be based on the systematic spadework of the other four parts of exegesis. But it also calls for an accurate awareness on your part about the present situation of the church in the world. Good application must involve an accurate understanding of the implications of what the text means for other things that are also true. Here is where philosophy comes in. Faulty philosophy will always contribute to faulty application.
Application involves hermeneutics. Fr. John Craghan (a Spiritual Director and biblical scholar) defines hermeneutics as "the science of determining how the thought or event in one cultural context may be understood in another and different cultural context." (Love and Thunder, [Collegeville: Liturgical, 1983] p. 4). Doing this well requires a broad ranging understanding of theology, history, and culture. Matters are not as simple as "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." Hermeneutics can seem complicated or down right threatening. On one hand, it can seem like an effort to conform scripture to what one already knows to be true from Church teaching one receives elsewhere. Or, it can seem like a way of ignoring biblical teachings that seem "out of fashion" with modern thinking. Both of these errors must be avoided. Hermeneutics must be done with integrity. It involves nothing less than an honest facing of the questions:
What is the same (about our times and the times of the text)? and
What is different (about our times and the times of the text)?
For instance, we cannot think about the nearness of the return of Jesus in exactly the same way as the first generation of Christians did. For us, nearly 2,000 years of history have passed, and this is something that the first readers did not have to take into account. This does not mean that we can ignore the importance of the return of Jesus, or the reality of its imminence. But we cannot do it in precisely the same way as the first generation of Christians did.
Putting It All Together
If you are writing an exegesis paper or presenting a homily, you then have to put all of this together in a way that is clear and energizing to your readers or hearers, but faithful to the direction of the text itself. It is good to grab your audience's attention, but not if you suggest that the text says things that are not true to the text and the faith of the Church. Do not write or say everything that you have learned, but present the really important points in a form that is clear, accurate, and memorable.