What Makes Theology ‘Biblical’?

What is it that makes theology ‘biblical’? Is a chain of quotations from the Bible a more biblical theology than one that paraphrases the biblical text, or submits its concepts to scrutiny by the biblical text even though it makes use of other language? This conclusion of Wilhelmus G.B.M. Valkenberg on the “biblical theology” of Thomas Aquinas is quite a challenge to what is often said about his work:

The characteristic of ‘biblical theology’ is but loosely connected with the presence of many explicit quotations from Scripture; it is mainly based on the theologically primary function of Scripture as source and framework of theology. As the tests thus far have shown, Scripture has such a function everywhere in Aquinas’ theology; it is more or less clearly expressed in relation to subject-matter and literary genre, but it can be discovered anywhere in a theological reading of Aquinas’ theological texts. In this respect, the Scriptural character of his theology is expressed more clearly in the Summa, but it is present in his earlier works as well. The Summa theologiae may be described as a concentration on the heart of the matter in Aquinas’ theology, not only because it is a work for beginners in theology, who should know the basic auctoritates, but also because Aquinas lectured on Scripture and used Scripture progressively as normative source and framework in his theology. (Words of the Living God: Place and Function of Holy Scripture in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 189)

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Aquinas on Theologians and the Spirit

In one of his relatively late Quodlibetal Questions, from Advent 1270,1 Thomas Aquinas addresses the question whether all that holy teachers have said has been spoken by the Holy Spirit (XII, q. 17). This is a tremendously important question, since it bears on the authority of theologians and the work of the Spirit in the divine economy. If theologians also speak by the Holy Spirit, how are their words to be distinguished from Scripture? or prophecy?

Questions are then asked regarding four offices: first, the office of expositors of Holy Scripture [q. 17]; second, the office of preachers [q. 18]; third, the office of confessors [q. 19]; fourth, the office of vicars [q. 20].

[a. 1] To the first, it is asked whether everything the holy teachers have said, has been from the Holy Spirit.

It seems the answer is no.

This is because in their statements there are certain false things, for they sometimes disagree in their expositions. Now it is not possible for dissimilar or dissonant things to be true, since both sides of a contradiction cannot be true.

Against this, it pertains to one and the same thing to do something toward an end and to lead to that end. Now the end of Scripture, which is from the Holy Spirit, is human learning. But this human learning cannot come from the Scriptures except through the expositions of the saints. Therefore, the expositions of the saints are from the Holy Spirit.

I respond, it is to be said that the Scriptures are both declared and expounded from the Holy Spirit. This is why 1 Cor 2:14 says, “The natural person does not perceive the things that are of God, but the spiritual person judges all things,” especially those that relate to faith, since faith is a gift of God; and, therefore, the interpretation of words is listed among the other gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:10).

To the first [objection] is it to be said that charisms (gratiae gratis datae) are not habits (habitus), but are particular movements from the Holy Spirit–otherwise, if they were habits, the prophet would have revelation through the gift of prophecy whenever he wished, which is not the case. And so, in regard to the revealing of hidden matters, the mind is sometimes touched by the Holy Spirit and sometimes not, but certain things are hidden from it. This is why Elisha says, “the Lord has hidden it from me” (2 Kgs 4:27). They also sometimes say certain things from themselves; this is clear with Nathan, who counseled David to build the temple, but was later caught and, as it were, led back by God to prohibit David from doing this very thing on the part of God. But this, however, is to be maintained: that whatever is contained in Scripture is true; whoever thinks in opposition to this is a heretic. But expositors, in other matters that do not regard faith, have said many things from their own understanding, and so they could have erred in these matters. Nevertheless, the necessity of the statements of expositors does not imply that it is necessary to believe in them, but only in the canonical Scripture, which is in the Old and New Testament.

Aquinas’ response (which begins with “I respond. . .,” everything before that being arguments pro and con), emphasizes the unity of Scripture and the work of theologians, here characterized as the exposition of Scripture, in the activity of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is “declared” by the Holy Spirit; it is also “expounded” by the Holy Spirit in the work of theologians.

It is the “spiritual” person of 1 Cor 2:14, that is, the person with the Spirit, who is able to correctly understand the Spirit-given Scriptures. Interpreting these Scriptures is also a gift of the Spirit, as Aquinas reads 1 Cor 12:10. Again, Scripture and theology are tied together in the divine economy as objects of the Spirit’s work.

What is the difference then? In his response to the one objection, regarding contradictions in the writings of theologians, Aquinas argues that the ability to interpret Scripture is not a habitus, something we come to possess, but an interruptive gift, a charism, which the Spirit only sometimes allows us to exercise. The comparison with prophecy is suggestive: a prophet like Elisha cannot always see hidden matters, but only when the Spirit of God gives them this ability. This only happens “sometimes” (aliquando), not always. It also happens “sometimes” (aliquando) that instead of relying on the Spirit, prophets speak their own mind, such as in Nathan’s case before David.

This uncertainty in regard to the source of a theologian’s statements–themselves or the Spirit–requires discernment on the part of the student. But Aquinas circles back to the sure source: it is to be held that all that Scripture contains is true; to believe otherwise is heresy. Those who expound Scripture, insofar as what they say relates to faith, speak from the Holy Spirit as part of the Spirit’s twofold work of “declaring” and “expounding” Scripture in the divine economy, to the end of human learning for salvation.

Thus, the work of theologians is “necessary” in the economy, contributing to the end of educating human beings for their salvation, just as Scripture was given to this end. But this necessity does not imply that their words must be believed; faith is to be placed in canonical Scripture alone, contained in the Old and New Testaments.

1 Sandra Edwards, “Introduction,” in St Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2, trans. Sandra Edwards (Toronto: PIMS, 1983), 6, citing Mandonnet, van Steenberghen and Weisheipl.

Form and Content in History of Exegesis Scholarship

[M]odern scholars have a tendency to concentrate on form and method to the exclusion of content. (John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity [Cambridge, 1996], p.22)

Hardly was there a truer sentence written. Sawyer laments that when scholars come to quotes from Isaiah in the New Testament, they usually list the quotations, note the introductory formulae, ask which original language version they correspond to, and how the quotation is treated, etc. I have found very much the same in studying the history of exegesis. Everyone is concerned with what sources commentators used; whether we can pinpoint an edition of the work cited; the chain of transmission; what languages the commentator knew; whether to characterize the interpretation as literal or allegorical or typological or figurative, and so on. For so long, very few were at work on the actual theology so richly present in the history of exegesis: what were these commentators actually saying? This is changing, thankfully. There are theologically-attuned history of exegesis works, such as G. Sujin Pak’s excellent The Judaizing Calvin (Oxford, 2009), and now many essays take this methodology. My own work on premodern commentary in 1 Corinthians 1-4 is strongly focused on the theology developed in those works which, after all, is what the commentators were principally concerned with.

Good Theology

“On the glorious splendour of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (Psalm 145:5 ESV). This is what good theology is: a meditation on God in himself (“the glorious splendour of your majesty”) and on all God’s acts (“your wondrous works”).

(This is, by the way, not substantially altered by the variant reading present in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Septuagint and Syriac, followed by the NIV: “They speak of the glorious splendour of your majesty—and I will meditate on your wonderful works.” One can take it of the theological, or more broadly, ecclesial, community.)

Theology: The Ways In and the Ways Along

Theology is a journey, in a number of senses. First, it takes time to speak of God. As we go on speaking of God through our lives, we learn how to do it better, more faithfully–in the best instances, being taught by God how best to speak of him. (This is unlike God’s own knowledge of himself, in which he knows himself and all things instantaneously–or to use the technical term, ‘non-discursively.’)

Second, theology treats a number of different realities. Most basically, these are (i) God and (ii) all things in relation to God; but more expansively, these include God’s attributes (power, wisdom, love), God’s activities (existing, creating, redeeming), and God’s creatures (the universe, humanity, time). As one moves from speaking of God in himself to God’s activities and creatures, one journeys across a whole expanse of topics: God’s life in three persons; the creation of a reality other than God; the relation of the human creature to his Creator; the downfall and restoration of these human creatures; and so on. Where does one begin this journey? To speak simply, for Aquinas, we begin with whether there is a knowledge of God to speak of in the first place, a theology separate from human knowledges; for Calvin, we begin with the paradox that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves is intertwined: it is not entirely clear which gives rise to the other.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the other hand, gives the remarkable suggestion that we ought to begin with beauty, and goes on to structure the first part of his theology around the glory of God. And yet, he writes, “God’s truth is, indeed, great enough to allow an infinity of approaches and entryways” (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, Seeing the Form, p.17). Where one begins is not as important, he would argue, as how one proceeds along the journey.

And this brings me to my third sense of theological journeying, the one I now consider the most important. It is the journey of the theologian him- or herself–taking “theologian” here in its broad, patristic and monastic sense as the one who knows God personally,  as in Evagrius of Pontus’ famous statement that the theologian is the one who truly prays, and the one who truly prays is a theologian. We journey as we come to know God more deeply; in this process, we begin in our child-like steps by seeing things from our perspective, focusing on what most directly pertains to us; as we progress, however, we begin to see things from the other side, from God’s perspective and his reality. We might begin to know God from learning how to pray, from a proof for his existence, or hearing of his deliverance of Israel through the exodus. As we mature, we begin to see God and all things in the broader, truer perspective: prayer is part of the whole life of the person saved by Christ; God’s existence is but one of his many entrancing perfections; Israel’s exodus has meaning in relation to all of God’s other activities, looking both backward and forward.

In both his Summa theologiae and his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Aquinas compares the theologian to the architect. The architect sees the art of building from its highest cause, as it envisions the completion of a building. As someone who sees the big picture, the whole purpose, he directs the workers to this end. The theologian is someone who sees not just the art of building, but all things from their highest cause, which is God. All creatures have their end and their purpose in God, and the theologian is the one who sees all things in this light. But of course, we do not usually have this perspective, for any number of reasons; it is a perspective that must be attained through paying attention well, consciously and intentionally and in that pattern of paying attention well that is called the Church.

And so finally, the kind of journeying that makes a theologian is a spiritual journeying. It is a journey of overcoming our natural understanding of God and arriving at a proper, spiritual understanding (1 Cor. 2:12-16). This demands not only the cognitive efforts ingredient to other disciplines as well–though it does require these; theology demands a spiritual effort, or better, a spiritual grace. We must be given to understand God as he is, as Spirit, and this grace works an inversion of our usual way of understanding reality. Augustine’s De trinitate is, among other things, just such a spiritual journey. Augustine is leading his reader away from understanding God the Trinity as a material, creaturely reality, to understanding God as he is, as Spirit. This journey begins in the images of the Trinity in Scripture, and, while not leaving these biblical pictures behind, progresses to increasingly spiritual (i.e., immaterial) images of God in himself, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God as he truly is. The person who is spiritually immature stumbles at this point; he or she, in Augustine’s words, “can only think of masses and spaces, little or great, with images of bodies flitting around in his mind like ghosts” (De trin. 7.11).

The journey that is theology, though it begins in many places, proceeds toward the same end: God himself. Coming to know God as God truly is is the most beautiful, the most arduous, the most rewarding adventure to be undertaken by us human creatures of this loving God. Its difficulties arise from many facts: our own entanglement in the realities we are studying; the limitation of our knowing by sin and by our creatureliness before the Uncreated; the infinity of God himself, and so the endlessness of our knowledge of him. But its reward is to gain nothing less than God himself, nothing less than what and who we are made for.

On Experience

It depends how you define it, but “experience” probably needs to play more of a role in theology than it does. How can it not? Taken at its broadest, “experience” simply means everything that happens, all that occurs, as it enters the field of human awareness. Thus, revelation itself is one particular form of experience–the experience of God showing himself; the reading of Scripture is an experience; praying, being baptized, and thinking about the Trinity are all experiences in this sense.

Typically, experience gets slagged, I think, because of two fears. They are two narrowings of the notion of experience. The first is the fear that granting “experience” a role means granting that an individual’s experiences shape their theology. But of course the individual–along with their experiences–shapes their theology: the real question is whether they are going to shape it apart from Scripture (and the Church and its tradition). So bad theology takes the form: “God for me is more like…” Good theology proceeds in the light of revelation, in the form given to it by particular individuals.

The second fear, closely related to the first, is that “experience” will form some kind of second (or third or fourth) source after and potentially against Scripture. It can. But it doesn’t have to. Certain forms of feminism want to leverage women’s experience against parts of Scripture. But if reading Scripture is itself an experience, then their relationship is a bit more complex. Experience is properly the all-encompassing web–from the human side, for experience too is a creature–within which the reading of Scripture is an event, a particular experience. And further, we should not assume we know what we are experiencing. Only after the resurrection, and then sometimes only gradually, did the apostles discover what they had experienced (John 2:22). Note the past tense. Put starkly, the unbeliever thinks they are experiencing life, but the Christian understands it is really death they know (1 Tim 5:6).

All this is to say: spiritual theology is important. And how did we get here? Well, any spiritual writer worth their salt–Augustine, Merton, those collected in the Philokalia–knows that we are often willing to deceive ourselves about what we experience. We only know in part the realities of which the Bible speaks (1 Cor 13:12). As Merton puts it, “Yet we act as if we understood sin and as if we were really aware of the love of God when we have never deeply experienced the meaning of either one” (A Search for Solitude, 23). And sometimes we know them plain wrongly: in 1966, Merton had an affair with a nurse. At the time he talked of the “mysterious, transcendent presence of her essential self,” but later he was able to see it as “incredible stupidity” (The Intimate Merton, 297, 336). The deception is not always so severe, and sometimes, when we are given the grace, we are able to see with gratitude-inducing clarity the traces of God’s work in our lives.

“Experience,” then, is not something that has to be excluded from theology; rather, it has only to be named. And it can be named as limited, healthy, destructive–more theologically, as “sin” or as “grace,” as “death” or as “life.” Indeed, so objective a thinker as Aquinas can say, that “anyone may know,” at least “conjecturally,” that “he has grace, when he is conscious of delighting in God, and of despising worldly things” (ST I-II Q112 A5). A theologian who does not experience the realities of which he speaks, who is not “delighting in God,” will write a theology that at best sounds oddly hollow, and at worst is false and destructive of faith.

But we must trust that Paul’s prayer is for us as well: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph 1:17-19a).