Page 6, 29th August 1997

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Page 6, 29th August 1997 — Grappling with scripture

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Grappling with scripture

Fr JEREMY CORLEY on recent books about the Bible

Catena Aurea: St Thomas Aquinas' Commentary on the Four Gospels, edited by Aidan Nichols OP, Saint Austin Press, 4 volumes, £85.

Hosea: International Critical Commentary, by A. A. Macintosh,T & T Clark, £39.95.

Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology, by Francis Watson, T & T Clark, £24.95.

HOW ARE We to interpret the Bible? This question receives various responses in books recently published on scripture.

The spiritual understanding of the Bible is important in the work of early Christian writers such as Origen and Cyprian, Jerome and Ambrose and Augustine. A millennium after Origen's death, St Thomas Aquinas collected together the comments of the church fathers on the four gospels. The resulting Latin-work became known as the Catena Aurea or Golden Chain. Using such a text, the reader can turn to any gospel passage and immediately find the comments of the early Church fathers.

In 1841 an English translation appeared, edited by John Henry Newman with help from his Oxford friends. This is now republished in a four-volume set available from the Saint Austin Press (PO Box 610, Southampton). Although inevitably rather dated in its English style, it contains jewels of spiritual insight. There is surely value in an anthology of scripture comments by early saints, collected by a medieval saint and translated under the editorship of an uncanonised saint of the last century.

The Dominican scholar Aidan Nichols has furnished a short introduction to the first volume. In his concluding note, he quotes the words of an Oriental bishop at Vatican II: "The final task of Christian exegesis is the spiritual understanding of Holy Scripture in the light of the risen Christ".

In the 20th century, however, the Church has generally moved away from the spiritual understanding of scripture, as practised in the Middle Ages. When the early volumes of the International Critical Commentary were published at the start of the century, Catholics were taught to beware of its critical presuppositions. But since Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Catholics have accepted the need for a crit-ibal study-of the text and historical background of the biblical writings. Hence a modern critical commentary such as Professor Macintosh's work on Hosea deserves a warm welcome from Catholics.

"Man of God speaks frankly of his wife's infidelity"this sounds more like a tabloid headline than the outline of a biblical book. Yet Hosea's unhappy marriage is the topic of the opening chapters of his prophecy. According to Macintosh, Hosea's thinking was greatly influenced by the events of his personal life. His love is regarded as a "reflection of Yahweh's love for Israel", and a strong parallel is drawn between Hosea's wife's behaviour and Israel's infidelity towards God.

Interpreting the Bible involves more than just historical study. Perhaps the most necessary theological task is to convey what the biblical revelation means to the people of today. What does it mean, for instance, when the Genesis states that human beings are made "in the image and likeness of God"?

In Text and Truth, Dr Francis Watson offers a carefully thought-out answer that takes stock of the biblical message as a whole. He rejects the Greek idea that the "image of God" lies in the capacity to reason. Equally he views the Genesis idea of human dominion over the created order as a inadequate explanation. For Watson, the best answer appears in St Paul's description of Christ as the "image of God". His view is that "we learn from Jesus what it is to be human". (Pope John Paul has often said the same thing.)

Moreover, Watson claims that "we learn from Jesus that to be human precedes and transcends differences of ethnic origin and gender". With such statements, Watson expresses his radically conservative view of Christian theology, in which faith plays a fundamental part.

None of the three works reviewed is easy reading. This is sad, because of today's great need to convey the truths of scripture in ordinary language. But perhaps this situation is inevitable. After all, wisdom cannot be acquired easily or cheaply.

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