Conservative & progressive Biblical interpretation in 16th century Spain

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s The Ascent to Truth while on retreat here at Richmond Hill. It’s an attempt to explain Christian mysticism largely looking at the writings of St. John of the Cross. I just started reading a chapter about the university environment in Salamanca, Spain in the 1560’s when St. John attended school there. Merton describes a battle over scripture in Catholicism resulting from the Reformation crisis between the conservative “scholastic” faction and the progressive “scriptural” faction.

About the scholastics, Merton writes:

They clung to the well-established method of procedure. They were suspicious of everything that savored of “criticism.” They did not like investigations of the original text, still less translations into the vulgar tongue. And for them the most important task of the exegete was to discover an allegorical or “spiritual” meaning of Scripture according to the tradition of the Fathers. 139

This is contrasted with the “scriptural” party, who believed:

The first duty of the exegete was to discover the literal meaning of the Scriptures, and this could not be done without a scientific study of ancient manuscripts in Greek and Hebrew leading to a reconstitution of the original text, which was to replace the Vulgate of St. Jerome. These “scriptural” exegetes were in favor of translations of Scripture into the vulgar tongue.

I’ve been very curious about the relationship between tradition and conservatism as I wrote about in a recent post. I think that what makes today’s American Protestant “conservatism” (in its crudest forms) so confused and barbaric is that it hates both tradition (which it pejoratively calls “religion” or “ritual”) and criticism (which it presumes to be “secular”). It wants to affirm both a King James-only text (which serves as our modern-day Vulgate that “feels” traditional), but at the same time, it wants to declare scripture to be entirely accessible and self-interpreting to any literate reader who opens to a random verse for his or her daily quiet time.

The paradox of a goal of “accuracy” in interpretation is that it will inevitably lead to a demotion of the authority of the text in question. If you try to discover the “literal meaning” of something through “scientific study,” then you’re going to try to understand as much as you can about its historical context and your “accurate” interpretation will ultimately become the authority rather than the text itself.

The only way that a grammatical-historical reading of the Bible can avoid becoming historical-critical is to decide in advance the limits on integrity that you need to set in pursuing an “accurate” reading. If you don’t want to have to admit that the story of the Canaanite conquest of Joshua was written after the Babylonian exile as a way of bolstering Israel’s self-image and fighting cultural assimilation, then don’t study the development of the Hebrew language too deeply; stick with the textus receptus.

In any case, whenever I read about different historical periods, I often mourn the ideological battlefield lines of the time we’re in. I would have loved to be a conservative in a time when rich, allegorical interpretations of the Bible were conservative or a progressive in a time when progressive meant a zeal for the truth. I realize there are a thousand realities I’m overlooking. I’m just so tired of this era that we’re in.


6 thoughts on “Conservative & progressive Biblical interpretation in 16th century Spain

  1. Great connections here and I totally feel you on being wary of the dialogue between conservatives and progressives.

    I’m encouraged to remember that this kind of tension has been around since Jesus–the religion he dialogued with had several factions (not just the Pharisees, but he talked to Samaritans, Sanhedrans, Romans; he praised the faith of those “outside the faith” at least as often as he did the “insiders.” Maybe it’s just worse now because we have blogs for semi-anonymous slander of people we disagree with, but contending with difference must have been on Jesus’ mind, since that’s what he mostly prayed for on his last night with his disciples. That said, I hate talking to people who I don’t agree with, but I’m trying to learn how.

  2. “I realize there are a thousand realities I’m overlooking. I’m just so tired of this era that we’re in.”

    Amen. Totally concur with you on this.

  3. Give my best to the crew at Richmond Hill…And thanks for this post. I too grow weary, but these are the times which we have made and which God has granted us.

    Blessings on your retreat!

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