Foreign and domestic conflicts over faith and morals tear the modern world apart, as jihadists rage globally and Western sexualized secularists subvert God-given natural law, making rational interpretation of Holy Scripture never more relevant. . Particularly timely then is Catholic theology professor James L. Papandrea’s new Sophia Institute press book, Reading the Scriptures Like the Early Church: Seven Insights from the Church Fathers to Help You Understand the Bible.
As Papandrea discussed with this author on a recent Conservative Casual Friday podcast, Papandrea begins his penetrating analysis of the Bible with one key insight: “The Scriptures, like Jesus Christ himself, are both divine and human.” The “Church Fathers understood the Scriptures to be both inspired by the one perfect and omniscient God and also written by fallible humans with limited understanding,” he writes. “The divine Author speaks through the pen of the human author.”
This orthodox view rejects the “extreme… of divine dictation,” Papandrea observes. Hereby, “God has seized the consciousness of the human author and created a text to which the human author contributed nothing from his own perspective, personality, or experience.” This interplay between a perfect God and fallible men is a much more modest and credible claim than the Islamic doctrine that the Qur’an is the unchanging and coeternal word of God, simply proclaimed by Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
However, “what is written in the Bible cannot deceive or deceive us. In fact, most of the Church Fathers would say that everything is there for a reason,” adds Papandrea. “The Scriptures are inerrant, but the Church Fathers would not have agreed that they are what fundamentalists and some evangelicals call inerrant”, he concludes. This implies “historically, and even scientifically, accurate in the literal sense of the words”, a doctrine that has strange results when applied to the Qur’an by Muslims.
Papandrea illustrates his points by referencing common controversies over the cosmological origins narrative in the opening chapter of Genesis. The “fundamentalist divine dictation” approach begins with the assumption that the word day must mean an actual, historical, twenty-four-hour day. But the Fathers of the Church never thought like that, ”he warns. “In other words, the Church Fathers understood that the text could be divinely inspired without being a science lesson,” contrary to a “perceived antagonism between Christian faith and science.” The “purpose of the text was not really to describe how God created everything, let alone how long it took, but simply that God created everything,” Papandrea explains.
Similarly, the “Church Fathers knew that often numbers in Scripture are not to be understood as numerically precise,” Papandrea writes. “Numbers in scripture often have symbolic meaning that could be only indirectly related to their numerical value,” she specifies. “In fact, there are times when the numerical values of numbers in Scripture just don’t add up.”
Papandrea also offers compelling reasons for the variations in the Gospel accounts of Jesus that have often puzzled readers. For example, the “Church Fathers recognized that Jesus would have said the same or similar things on multiple occasions, and would have done the same kinds of things many times,” Papandrea writes. Consequently, “what may appear to be contradictions in the accounts of a single event are probably in reality the evangelists’ accounts of separate events.”
Jesus’ own words are not always literal. As Papandrea notes, “Jesus told people that if their hands cause them to sin, they should cut them off, or if their eyes cause them to sin, they should gouge them out (Matt. 5:27–30; 18:8–9). ; Mark 9:43–48).” However, this was simply “hyperbole” or “exaggeration intended to make a point”, contrary to literal readings of numerous violent verses in the Qur’an.
Differentiation and nuance are key to Papandrea in interpreting the Bible. After all, “no one reads the Bible literally or non-literally. Even self-described fundamentalists who say they read the Bible literally don’t read every passage,” he observes. Otherwise, these Protestants would have to accept that John 6 describes the actual presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist.
Behind Papandrea’s critique of common understandings of Biblical literalism are the Bible’s varied linguistic languages, as opposed to the Qur’an, in which Arabic is somehow the only authentic language for God’s final revelation. The “Church Fathers believed that the infallibility of the text was in the sense, not in the exact verbiage,” something that “becomes obvious when we remember that the Scriptures were not written in English,” he notes. For example, the “words of Jesus and the apostles were probably translated twice into English: first from Aramaic into Greek, then from Greek into English.”
“Most of the time, we are reading Scripture translated into our most comfortable language,” Papandrea writes, but much can be lost in translation into black-and-white pages of text. As he points out,
It helps to know that, for example, Hebrew poetry is about repetitions and parallelisms with synonyms, so there is no point in looking for different meanings for two words that are meant to reiterate the same thing. On the other hand, sometimes the same word can mean two different things in two different passages.
Such concerns underlie Papandrea’s suspicions about various English Bible translations, such as the New International Version (NIV). “While we hold to the belief that the words of Scripture are inerrant and will not mislead anyone, unfortunately not all translations of Scripture can always be trusted,” he writes. Substance over style remains his motto, however, as he recalls the example of Saint Augustine (354-430), who initially “had rejected the Faith of his mother (Saint Monica) because he thought the Latin in his Bible did not he was eloquent enough. .” Such criticism of the style of the scriptures is inconceivable under Islamic doctrine, which holds that the Qur’an is a miracle of Arabic linguistic majesty.
As Pope Benedict XVI analyzed in his September 12, 2006 speech in Regensburg, with its controversial references to Islam, the essential interrelationship between reason and right revelation shapes Papandrea’s biblical perspective. This faith-based rationale also has important moral implications for different traditional interpretations of the Bible and the Qur’an, as will be discussed in the final article in this series.