Note: Dr. Michael F. McLean, president of Thomas Aquinas College, delivered the following remarks at 2014 Summer Seminar Weekends, the theme of which was “Reading the Scriptures: The Wisdom of Genesis.” Participants in the seminars examined the opening chapters of Genesis, St. Augustine’s commentary on the Creation account in Genesis, and St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on the Fall.
We thank you for your attendance, for your preparation, and for your participation in our conversations.
To read and discuss a small portion of Sacred Scripture at this summer’s seminars is to closely follow the path of our students in their pursuit of a seriously Catholic liberal education. They devote the entirety of their freshman year of theology to a careful reading of almost every book of the Bible.
We do this, first, so that our students will become more familiar with the contents of Scripture and with the unity and coherence of the Old and New Testaments. We want them to see, too, the myriad ways in which what is contained in the Old Testament prefigures and is fulfilled by what is contained in the New.
Second, Scripture and the Church’s tradition are the sources of the principles of the study of theology, a study which occupies our students in the second, third, and fourth years of our program, where they study several of the principal Fathers of the Church and for two years the Church’s Universal Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.
Third, a close reading of Scripture brings them closer to Christ and helps them to piously question and examine the Biblical text in the way that St. Augustine and St. Thomas do. One cannot hope to pose the right questions without having first become well acquainted with the contents of revelation.
With thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas we are in the presence of men who are not only “well acquainted” with Scripture but are, in fact, masters of Scripture. As you can see from our readings this weekend, both are geniuses when it comes to finding just the right quotation to illustrate a difficulty or to solve a problem. And this without recourse to Google or Wikipedia.
In our reading for this weekend, St. Augustine is explicit about the need to read Scripture with the eyes of faith and the guidance of the Church. And so, at the beginning of his commentary, he sets out in so many words the creed of the Church, its Trinitarian theology, its Christology, and its theology of sin and redemption. He then proceeds to say that “we must now consider the things that can be asked and discussed in this book, in accordance with this faith.” His reliance on the teachings of the Church is a far cry from Sola Scriptura, although he and St. Thomas both take Scripture very seriously.
Cardinal Ratzinger noted in 1986 that this is a far cry, too, from “the new historical thinking [which] wanted to read every text in itself, in its bare literalness. Its interest lay only in the exact explanation of particulars, but meanwhile it forgot the Bible as a whole. In a word, it no longer read the texts forward but backward — that is, with a view not to Christ but to the probable origins of those texts” (p. 17). The unity of Scripture and the Church’s Christology must be the criteria of Scriptural interpretation.
I am struck, as well, by the fact that St. Augustine (and St. Thomas, too, although we did not read his text to this effect) is not shy about acknowledging that Scripture can be expounded in diverse ways. He mentions, you will recall, the way of history, the way of allegory, the way of analogy, and the way of aetiology or causality. St. Thomas, for his part, distinguishes the literal from the spiritual sense; the latter he divides into the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. The recognition that different texts of Scripture might have to be read in different ways is, I think, a far cry from fundamentalism, at least of a simplistic sort.
Finally, I think it is important to note how carefully, and with what great humility, St. Augustine and St. Thomas approach the text and how trusting they are that in the text itself they can find the makings of the answers to their many questions. An attitude of respect is evident in St. Augustine from the beginning: “the obscure mysteries of the natural order, which we perceive to have been made by God the almighty craftsman, should rather be discussed by asking questions than by making affirmations … because the rash assertion of one’s uncertain and dubious opinions in dealing with them can scarcely avoid the charge of sacrilege …”
This weekend’s readings are important not only for the light they shed on the proper method for reading Scripture but, of course, are important as well for their timeliness and content. Let me mention but a few examples. For a variety of philosophical, scientific, and cultural reasons, we live in a time where the idea of the dependence of nature on Another is considered outdated and passé. Nature is thought to be an eternal, self-sustaining system — its processes may have begun with a “big bang,” but any question about the origin and materials of the “big bang” itself are off the table since they are beyond the reach of modern science.
Genesis steps in precisely where science leaves off and provides an account of the ultimate origin and fundamental order of the natural world. It is an account, however, which in its own way greatly respects the presence and integrity of natural processes themselves — e.g. “let the waters bring forth,” “let the earth bring forth,” “God formed man of dust from thes ground”—leaving room for science to provide details about those processes; perhaps divinely guided evolution, perhaps something else.
Of particular relevance to the moral relativism of our time, Genesis reminds us as well of the existence of moral standards and principles. Certain things ought not be done because doing them is contrary to our well-being and to the common good — “you shall not eat of it lest you die.” Violations of these moral standards and principles occur — sin is real — and, although we might blame others — “she gave me fruit,” “the serpent beguiled me” — we bear responsibility: “I ate.” In Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, there is a “relational” character to human sin which Scripture makes evident — our actions affect others: “she gave some to her husband,” and as St. Thomas’ commentary on the Scriptural account of the fall reminds us, sin has its origin in the inward motions of the soul and one sin leads to another.
This is a cautionary tale, indeed, but one that reminds us in no uncertain terms about the human condition. Hope, thank goodness, is offered — “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” and knowing the arc of Scripture as we do, we know the tale is ordered to our redemption — “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam.” We must know we are sick before we can accept a cure.
Although our discussions, and my remarks, are only a beginning, we hope that focusing on Scripture this weekend has proven to be stimulating and rewarding for you. Obviously, much spiritual benefit can be gained from reflecting on Scripture, particularly with the help of the Fathers, Doctors, and magisterium of the Church. Moreover, our conversations this weekend can enrich the excellent practice of lectio divina, the contemplative, prayerful, and personal reading of even very short selections from Scripture.
I am sure all of us are grateful for these benefits, and we thank you again for helping to make this year’s Summer Seminars successful. We very much hope that you will join us again next year.
“In our classroom discussions, we are responsible for our own education. We have to get our hands dirty, to figure out the material, to let it become part of us and make us better people. That is real learning.”
– Isabella Hsu (’18)
Redondo Beach, California
“Thomas Aquinas College is a small college, but its reputation has spread far and wide. Because it lives off the masterpieces of thought and literature emanating from the Christian tradition of the Western world, it provides a first-rate education for a select body of talented undergraduates.”
– Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J (†)