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  • Dei Verbum and the Twentieth-Century Drama of Scripture's Literal Sense
  • Mark Reasoner

The received narrative for Catholic Scripture exegesis since Pope Leo XIII has focused on the permission and encouragement directed toward Catholic exegetes to use modern methods of Scripture study. The narrative begins with the 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus, in which Leo XIII called for Catholic exegetes to learn the languages in which Scripture was originally written and apply scientific methods of biblical studies to the text of Scripture in order to identify the modernists' errors and show the truth of Scripture. The suspense in this narrative's plot first comes with Pope Pius X, whose 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis is viewed as an attempt to halt or dampen the Catholic use of modern methods of Scripture study because of his suspicions about those methods. Fifty years after Providentissimus Deus and thirty-six years after Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pope Piux XII issued his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, which renewed the Church's call for Scripture scholars to use scientific methods for their exegesis.

In the decades that have followed, the Church's exegetes have tested and functionally appropriated modern, scientific methods, such as the historical-critical method, form criticism, redaction criticism, source criticism, and feminist criticism when studying Scripture and passed on the fruits of their studies to the Church. While there has been a renewal of patristic studies in some quarters and a growing respect for patristic readings of Scripture, the dominant threads in this narrative remain the use, perceived benefits, and ongoing negotiation necessary to bring modern, scientific methods to the Church's [End Page 219] engagement with her Scriptures.1 This narrative is one that can still be told, since it is a useful description of the surface phenomena in Catholic scholars' exegesis of Scripture in the twentieth century. But this narrative is not connected—in neither its beginning nor its ending—to any longer or broader narrative of Scripture exegesis.

In this article, I ask fellow students of Scripture and the history of its exegesis to consider an alternative narrative, a narrative that traces developments in the last 120 years of Catholic Scripture study in light of the ongoing narrative regarding the literal sense in the Christian interpretation of Scripture. This longer narrative begins at least with Origen's reflections on the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture.2 A segment of the broader narrative that will serve as a useful comparison, for our purposes, is the renewed emphasis on the literal sense that arose with Andrew of St. Victor (ca. 1110–1175), who was influenced by Jewish interpretation to follow the literal sense, an interpretive disposition continued by Nicholas of Lyra (1270–1349).3

Nicholas of Lyra's preoccupation with the literal sense of Scripture is well known. Its influence on Scripture reading in the West is caricatured in the following couplet: "Si Lyra non lyrasset, Lutherus non saltasset" ("If Lyra had not played the lyre, Luther would not have danced"). The point of this couplet is that the distinctive reading of Scripture promulgated by Luther, which eschewed the figurative exegesis open to multiple senses of Scripture found in the Church fathers, would not have gained a critical mass of exegetes in the sixteenth and following centuries if it had not been for the popularity of Lyra's Postillae. Beryl Smalley's rejection of this couplet seems based on emphases on the literal sense that antedated Nicholas, not on the connection between exegetes' emphasis on the literal sense and Luther's eventual quest for a singular sense of Scripture.4 And [End Page 220] to support Smalley's hesitation with the couplet, Franciscan focus on the literal sense in the thirteenth century, based on the works of the Hebraist scholar Robert Grosseteste and Franciscans Adam Marsh, William de la Mare, Roger Bacon, and Gerard de Huy, can be well documented.5 So I must admit that more people than Nicholas of Lyra caused the groundswell of medieval interest in the literal sense.

One also needs to be aware that Nicholas of Lyra's literal sense is not always what we might expect the literal sense to be. For example, in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2470-5861
Print ISSN
1542-7315
Pages
pp. 219-254
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-06
Open Access
No
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