Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Literal Sense of Scripture

I recently submitted a paper on the development of the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy in the Catholic Church, and I have a chance to read up a lot on various views on hermeneutics. One of the most interesting aspects I found during my research was this concept of the "literal sense" of scripture. I've had a few debates in the past concerning just how the Church interprets certain passages and the constraints it puts on Catholic exegetes in terms of interpretation. Oddly, I most commonly encounter two extreme views that both begin with the same conclusion: "the Church says the scripture has to be interpreted this way, so this view must be accepted if you are faithful;" or "the Church says the scripture has to be interpreted this way, and that can't be right, so it must be discarded."

Both are looking at the same scripture and reading it from what they believe is the "literal sense." What they're actually doing is reading the word literally without considering the sense intended by the author or the sense with which the text was taken in its own time. They understand the words "literal sense" to mean "verbatim, what the individual words literally mean."

This isn't what the Church teaches about the literal sense at all, and this isn't what the fathers and doctors of the Church meant by the literal sense. Pope Benedict XV wrote about St. Jerome in Spiritus Paraclitus and the latter's appreciation for the literal sense, while noting that history is often "presented in metaphorical dress and described figuratively." Justin Martyr also makes note of the need to be acquainted with and to "rise above" figurative modes of expression. St. Augustine clearly saw the "literal sense" to be something quite different than literal verbatim understanding of the text, as he demonstrated in his multiple works on Genesis, where certainly treats the figurative modes of speech as matters or literal sense, and where his explanation of Genesis very rarely attempts to adhere to a letter-by-letter literalism.

What's often missing from overly literalistic views is that the Church has left considerable latitude for interpretation. Typically, the Church interprets scripture in negative ways: for example, you cannot say x is true about such-and-such passage. Marcellino D'Ambrosio points out that only seven texts have been interpreted positively by the Church, and all of those relate to the sacraments. All other definitions are done in the negative.

A good example are the findings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in relation to the authorship of the Pentateuch, the historical character of various books. While the commission affirms the essential historicity of the Genesis accounts of the creation, it does not indicate how the words must be understood but how exegetes may understand them. I wrote a little more about the concept of limited inerrancy here.

In any case, all of this study into the meaning of the phrase "literal sense" reminded me of a project I did for a linguistics class either in my senior year or in my first year of graduate school. I had been reading some of J. Paul Grice's work on the Cooperative Principle. This is essentially a convention by which people assume that someone speaking to them intends to make sense and that, when faced with literally nonsensical utterances, they will find some way to make sense of the utterance. Essentially, people are meaning-making machines, and we will find ways to make a sentence mean something.

I went around and collected samples from public places. (One of the fun things about studying how people use language is that you get to listen in on conversations and call it research.) Anyway, I say around in public places and listened to how people spoke to each other. Then I'd write down certain interchanges that were sufficient on their own to constititute a complete interchange without giving any indication of the actual context. What I had were what seemed to be complete nonsequiturs, where one person said something, and the person to whom they spoke said something completely unrelated. However, the exchanges were only unrelated if you read them verbatim. Each one could be interpreted within a context with no problem

I asked several people from different age and social groups the list of these phrases and asked them to provide a context for each exchange. Without fail, the respondees were able to provide contexts in which even the most nonsensical utterances were understandable. Here are a few examples:

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Q. Do you like Japanese?

A. Yeah, but I don't raw.
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Q. It's time to go.

A. I have to kiss the kitties.
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Q. Can I have a drink please? (No question intonation added)

A. It's regular. (Intoned as a warning.)
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Where Grice's work comes into play is that people operate under the assumption that a response to a question will make sense because people in a conversation are in a state of cooperation (the Cooperative Principle). When people deviate from the apparent cooperation, there were "conversational implicatures" that would essential "license" the deviation and make them acceptable or sensible.

The point is that we operate under the principle that verbal exchanges will make sense. Although written and oral discourse are different, they share (to a degree) this sense of cooperation. There are cases when people intentionally break the rules, but these cases are typically done for artistic effect rather than through a desire to deceive. So we have to assume that the sacred writers likewise wrote with the intent to inform, not to deceive, even when we don't fully understand the meaning. The problem occurs when we attempt to impose a context or understanding that didn't exist for the audience of the time. You can see examples of this in Marxist and feminist critiques that impose a cultural or class-based perspective on the times that simply did not exist. Or in the revisionist feminist histories that posit an idyllic pre-Christian paganism for which no one can provide any documentation.

The example I keep coming back to is Wisdom 7: 1-2.

I also am mortal, like all men, a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh, within the period of ten months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage.


A literalistic interpretation would suggest this passage means that the process of conception involves compacting the seed of man with the blood of the mother in the womb for (or within) 10 months. Now, Protestants get a pass on this one because it's not part of their scriptures. They might even use the scientific imprecision as a reason to dispute the legitimacy of this book. (To which I say, go read St, Justin Martyr's "Dialog with Trypho the Jew" if you still believe we added books to the canon in the 16th century.) However, Catholics don't get off so easily. We have to respond to what's present.

A scriptural fundamentalist would say, "Well, that's what it says, and that's what it means, so what science claims must be false."

A skeptic would say, "Well, that's what it says, and that's what it means. That's scientifically incorrect, so scripture must be in error."

And both of them would completely miss the point of the passage. In this case, the intent of the author is indicated in the opening clause: "I also am mortal." The author is asserting that he is mortal, just like the audience to whom he writes. His description of conception is how the people of his time understood conception, but he relates it, not as a claim of the actual process of conception but as an indicator of his own mortality. The claim is not a scientific assertion but an existential one. If the sacred writer had described the process of conception as we now know it to occur, his audience would undoubtedly thought he was out of his mind, or perhaps they would've seen it as proof that he was not merely mortal.

It seems like a pretty straight-forward idea. The Bible isn't making scientific assertions. Don't expect it to read like a science text. I think Pope Leo XIII said pretty much the same thing in Providentissimus Deus.
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