Harmony with reason is an important element of Catholic Scripture study. St. Bonaventure taught that God has given us two “books”: the book of Scripture and the book of creation. He is the primary author of both. If we follow the Church’s guidance in interpreting Scripture, we should be on track to achieve this needed harmony with reason.
“Reason” refers to our natural intellectual faculties, as distinguished from faith, which is God’s gift enabling us to respond to what he has revealed in Scripture and Tradition. The faithful Catholic understanding of reason is a balanced approach.
On one hand, there is the danger of wrongly emphasizing “reason” so much that we deny anything that reason cannot understand on its own. For example, we may try to explain away all miracles recorded in Scripture. We might also say that Scripture is simply a collection of human writings that are not inspired by God, because “reason” finds difficulties with divine inspiration.
On the other hand, there is the danger of wrongly placing so much emphasis on faith and so little on reason that we explain away authentic findings of science as tricks of the devil and insist on pure reliance on faith.
The Proper Balance
The Catholic understanding humbly accepts that our reason is good and useful but also fallen and in need of God’s light and healing. God gave us our reason, but reason was never intended to be enough to bring us to salvation; God’s added gift of faith is needed for that.
Some people wrongly think that reason and the Bible are opposed to one another. But Scripture has its own philosophical worldview discernible by reason and corresponding with reality. Today’s musicians and cinematographers may not consider themselves philosophers, but their music and movies carry philosophical worldviews with them. Often, what is portrayed is a worldview in which meaning comes from “self-creation” which is achieved by throwing off all external “constraints.” The Bible’s philosophical worldview, on the other hand, is one of an ordered world created by a good eternal God who has a plan for all creation and places moral demands on rational creatures for their own good. In this worldview, all meaning is ultimately derived from God, who is Reason itself.
Matthew Levering, in Scripture and Metaphysics, argues that Scripture is in fact metaphysical—it takes a stand on the philosophy of being which reason can discern as true, corresponding to the reality of the world. Levering connects the philosophical truths underlying Scripture to philosophical thought found in the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, who fleshed them out. As St. John Paul II points out in Fides et Ratio, Christian philosophers such as St. Thomas took the philosophical truths found in Scripture and sought ways to reach them by human reason apart from Scripture. St. Thomas typically connected even his most philosophical articles to Scripture in an argument from authority (the Sed Contra) prior to developing his own longer logical argument, often apart from Scripture. (I followed this method in my recent book on faith and reason for those who work with young people, entitled Who Created God? A Teacher’s Guidebook for Answering Children’s Tough Questions about God.)
Natural Law: Perceivable by All
In the Catholics worldview, we claim the moral law is laid down by God in human reason and not derived from Scripture or Tradition, but from a secularist perspective this claim appeals to faith. Secularism, for the most part, rejects the Natural Law and discounts the claim that the Natural Law is binding on all.
The Gentile world in St. Paul’s day accepted and incorporated many things contrary to the Natural Law—namely idolatry, sexual immorality, and their own version of the culture of death. But still, he said with reference to them:
Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:20-22).
It is much the same today. Natural Law corresponds to basic common sense, but the Western World—for a number of centuries—has been progressively rebelling against the ideas of the past, and especially Christianity. The West has gradually infused its own philosophies into every aspect of society and people’s way of thinking. This is why the Natural Law seems foreign to many of our non-Christian contemporaries while it is clear to many Catholics.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that while everyone has the ability to perceive the basic command to do good and avoid evil and its immediate implications, the more remote points of the Natural Law are only discernible, apart from faith, to the few wise and only with difficulty and mixed with error. For example, Aristotle and Plato, who were probably unfamiliar with any of the Scriptures, came to a remarkable understanding of the virtues, though still not perfect from the Christian point of view. The reason secularism identifies Natural Law theory so closely with Christianity is partly because faith sheds light on the Natural Law and makes it accessible to the many without error.
The Need for Reason and Natural Law
Catholics sometimes seem to think that the purpose of the Natural Law is simply so we can dialogue with non-believers; and it is indeed useful for this even among those who reject it, because traces of it are found everywhere. But even if everyone in the world lived fully in the gift of faith, reason and the Natural Law would still be very important. Reason is from God and it is meant to guide our lives and communities as well as to serve as a foundation on which faith can build. In order to have faith, we must freely and reasonably accept it with the intellectual faculties that God has given us.
So when we interpret a passage from Scripture, we are not asked to step out in a faith that is completely blind, but one that is measured with God’s gift of reason. The guidelines provided by the Church help us with this. They tell us to pay special attention to the literary forms used by the inspired human authors, understanding that the writers used various ways of speaking which were particular to their culture. For example, writers speak differently in poems than they do in histories or in epistles. If we correctly get beneath the human way of speaking in Scripture, then we have arrived at the “literal sense”—the basic and direct truth of the passage intended both by the Holy Spirit and the human sacred writer. These passages may have further spiritual meanings which point to Christ, give us moral instruction, or hint of heaven; but these spiritual senses are always grounded in that first literal sense—the direct truth— and are never disconnected from it (see CCC no. 109-119).
Reason is from God and it is meant to . . . serve as a foundation on which faith can build.
The Church gives us three criteria for Scripture interpretation, which in addition to keeping us thinking with the Church, ensure a disciplined and balanced faith-and-reason interpretation:
- Read the text with a view to the content and unity of all of Scripture. Since the Holy Spirit is the primary author of all Scripture, we should view Scripture as a united whole, and not merely a collection of purely human writings.
- Read Scripture within the living Tradition of the Church, which helps to ensure its correct meaning as lived out through the ages by the Church under the Holy Spirit’s influence. Considering the wisdom of holy interpreters of the past also helps preserve a right continuity of understanding, and balances our tendency to superimpose our own meanings onto the sacred text.
- Read the text with a view to the “analogy of faith”—namely to understand its message in light of the doctrines of the Church. When we do this, puzzle pieces begin to fall into place. Along with submission to the Church’s Magisterial teaching office, these criteria seem to have the added function of keeping our fallen reason, which strays easily, on a straight course. They also build on our reason in openness to faith, which guides it further and illuminates it.
In his Regensburg Address, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the Gospel of John begins by introducing Jesus as Logos, the Word or Reason of God, and that faith for the Catholic must be according to reason. Thus, as we see, faith and reason both come from God and are both necessary for a healthy balance in Scripture study. What is primarily required in order to achieve this balance of faith and reason is to follow the traditional methods of Catholic Scripture interpretation that have been offered by Mother Church all along.
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