“Meditation and Modern Biblical Studies”

By Martin Thornton (1978)

If there is a single exhortation to the faithful laity, common to all denominations through the Christian world, it is that they must read the Bible. What precisely does this mean? For parallel with the exhortation is the hard fact of biblical criticism, growing more and more complex, more esoteric, and throwing up the unending debate within its own ethos. If the simple (by which I mean one of integrated common sense rather than moronic) layman is to heed the exhortation then how, why and when is he to respond? Assuming that the modern layman is an intelligent and faithful, if untheologically trained, disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, then he is bound to ask questions: Why read the Bible? How read the Bible? What is the proper approach? The day-to-day pastoral situation comes up with four possible answers, none of which is very satisfactory.

First, is the position of extreme fundamentalism, which solves the problem with a curt dismissal of all the biblical scholars. The Bible is the directly inspired Word of God, every syllable of it in any translation; so if you want to know about God read the Bible. This view still has its adherents but it raises some extremely awkward questions.

Secondly, there is a subtler, more sophisticated fundamentalism in which the scholar himself is apt to become entangled so soon as he leaves the lecture room for the pulpit. He will apply his technical knowledge to preaching, yet the idea will persist that there is something mildly magical about just reading the Bible. Read the Bible daily for ten years and something quasi-mystical will happen to you. This is the view of the devout Victorian servant-girl; it is also the view of the Russian poustinik: “So into the poustinia the poustiniks brought one book only—the Bible. They read it on their knees, impervious or even perhaps uninterested in any purely academic question. To them the Bible was the incarnation of the Word and they felt a lifetime wasn’t enough in which to read it. Every time they opened it they believed with a tremendously deep faith that they were face to face with the Word.”[1] This centuries old tradition, constantly repeated in other traditions as well, places the modern biblical scholar in a dilemma: on the one hand it looks absurdly obscurantist, on the other hand it would take a very brave man to deny the tradition all validity.

The problem is repeated in the liturgy, in which Bible lections have their central place. Here they may be expounded in sermons, but not necessarily and not always; certainly not in the daily office. Yet here the lectio divina is assumed to have some mystical value in its own right, irrespective of what the scholars may say about it. The confusion is exemplified when the scholars themselves slip into devotional idiom: scripture “nourishes the soul” when it is “inwardly digested: as the Collect quaintly puts it. The analogical implication is that one does not have to analyse food or work out its nutritional components; just eating it is sufficient. But it is disconcerting to the simple (in the sense just defined) when doubts are cast upon the text itself: this passage has been mutilated by translation and Mark 16. 9-20 should not be there at all. What we thought was holy food turns into a mushroom: it tastes all right but at best it contains little nourishment and at worst is probably poisonous.

The third answer is that Bible reading should always been undertaken in the light of a simple commentary, like those admirable notes issued by the Bible Reading Fellowship and other organizations. This sounds a sensible compromise, and such studies, properly used, can be an important aid to meditation. But there are two snags: it is all too easy to fall between two stools and remain content with Bible-study—elementary scholarship—which, whatever its other values, is not prayer. And there are two more stools to fall between: to the properly simple it is still too difficult, and to the intellectually gifted it is frustratingly rudimentary. In both cases, to adapt the old tag, a little learning is more confusing than none at all: we are back in the poustinia.

The fourth answer is something of a synthesis of the other three, acknowledging the dichotomy inherent in them all: read and meditate on the Bible, in whatever version appeals, and let the critics get on with their professional games in private. It could be suggested that if the Bible is in any sense inspired it assumes a providential leading of those responsible for the formation of the canon. But if this is true of the second century need it be untrue of the seventeenth; is there no providential inspiration behind the Authorized Version, for all translations are products of the living Church? The trouble with this is that we now have to take note of the nineteenth century as well, apart from which the divorce between doctrine and devotion has always proved disastrous.

If none of these answers is satisfactory, is there a fifth which might be more satisfactory? The rest of this slight essay is an attempt to point some little way towards one. And the key is some examination of the relationship, if there is one, between theology—whether biblical or any other sort—and Christian living. I have wrestled with the problem elsewhere [2] and my tentative conclusions relevant to the present ask are: first, that there is such a relation, even between the most rarefied academic thesis and the village congregation. But, secondly, the one impinges upon the other by a sophisticated, even mysterious, chain of reaction; in the work just mentioned I suggest at least a five link chain, and even that is simplistic. What must be avoided is the naïve notion of direct, one step application: if Christ died on the cross you must love your neighbour, is a pastoral non sequitur; although there is a relation between the premise and the conclusion, it is not as simple as that. If you meditate on the Ascension with the help of Dr Bultmann your prayer will be fruitful; without such guidance you will go wrong: in both cases, perhaps, in both cases, not necessarily. And here space forces me into further over simplification, prayer is the essential catalyst between theology and living without which both become sterile.

The immediate question which now faces us is, not what is the Bible for, but what is biblical criticism for? Barth, Brunner and Bultmann would say that its end product is preaching, which is not so far from my chain link reaction theory, because preaching is pastoral mediation between scholarship and prayer of the faithful: encounter with the living Word. Biblical criticism is no direct help to meditation, neither is it a direct help to making the Scriptures more pastorally intelligible; it is meant to create, recreate, revise and enlighten theology. Theology in turn guides meditation, which moves beyond the intellectual towards religion; the living relationship with God. You cannot think yourself into good health; it will not automatically arise out of the scientific study of medicine, dietetics and hygiene. although its maintenance is dependent on these sciences.

It is excitingly curious that Barth, who is more readily associated with Protestant preaching than with Catholic mystical devotion, has a good deal in common with the latter: “Within the Bible there is a strange new world, the world of God. There are no transitions, intermixings or intermediate stages. There is only crisis, finality, new insight.”[3] The Bible repays serious study—or there would be no Romans—but its fundamental purpose is to be listened to: it must go beyond the intellectual.

This is the secret of the Russian Poustinik, or at least the contemporary kind. He enters the Poustinia with the Bible alone, not because he despises biblical scholarship but because he goes to the Bible armed with theology, which scholarship helps to create. And he goes hand in hand with a spiritual guide to interpret, and he goes hand in hand with the sacramental fellowship of the Universal Church. So what is biblical criticism for? To create theology to guide meditation, perhaps through a spiritual guide who is a biblical scholar. In other words scholarship helps meditation at first or second remove, but not usually directly. So to think is to get bogged down in sterile intellectualism: prayer is dependent upon, it is guided by, theology, but it has to move beyond it.

There are exceptions, as there are with dogmatics: faith in a theistic God does have some immediate effect on one’s life. So, although the serious Christian can meditate on the gospels without overdue anxiety about the synoptic problem or the authorship of the Fourth Gospel, some theories and researches have a more immediate impact. When Jeremias, for example, suggests that the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel is not so much Greek metaphysic but Hebrew poetry [4], a new vista for meditation immediately opens up.

(May I suggest here that one of the most valuable pieces of scholarship today would be in a commentary which classified the results of recent research in terms of immediate, first, second and third stage applicability to ordinary Christian devotion? As an ascetical, rather than a biblical student, I do not care very much who wrote the Fourth Gospel, but I am seriously concerned as to whether the Transfiguration narrative is a misplaced post-resurrection story.)

I have made the suggestion, which some will consider astonishing, that, by however circuitous route, professional theology has its influence on ordinary Christian living. But way of parallel I have suggested that most modern Western people are existentialists, in so far as, confronted with the question “What is something?”, they will answer in terms of its experience and use rather than of its substance and construction. The writings of Heidegger impinge on the outlook of many who have never heard of him. Conversely, Sartre and Tennessee Williams articulate strands of contemporary outlook without having created it, yet the impact of their plays rebound and influence. Similarly, biblical scholars do not invent biblical criticism; the job is thrust upon them by circumstances. Rather than being a group of ogres, disturbing the simple faith of ordinary people, the best of them are supplying a pastoral need in response to a situation that was there already. Ordinary people had their doubts about the biblical miracles long before the birth of Bultmann.

The fundamental source of confusion is the idea that, while biblical studies roar ahead with ever increasing complexity and acceleration, prayer which includes meditation on the Scriptures, remains stationary. But if prayer is the living articulation of religious faith, its existential expression if you like, then ascetical theology which guides it, ought logically to proceed fast than anything. And I rather think it does. If we now take a glimpse at the development of one or two aspects of biblical criticism, together with the relevant aspects of the development of ascetical theology, then I think we might find some hope of a creative marriage rather than the seeds of inevitable battle.

When we think of meditation on the Scriptures, we inevitably begin with the fifth—”three-point”—method of Saint Ignatius Loyola, just as when we think of Christology we are led back to Chalcedon; not because these formulae are right, satisfactory, sacrosanct or fundamental, but because they are the natural starting points for progressive thought. Loyola’s method depends upon a presumed direct access, through the Scriptures, to the historical Jesus, and it was significantly followed in sixteenth-century Spain by a succession of devotional—and fictitious—”Lives” of Christ, by such influential Jesuits as Louis of Grenada, Luis of La Palma, and Nicholas Avancini. When the English Tractarians returned to Loyola in the nineteenth century, a parallel movement occurred; Dean Farrar being the most notable, or notorious, exemplar. The same kind of parallelism between popular devotion and biblical studies could be traceable to fourteenth-century England (Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, following Wyclif’s translation) and even back to Saint Bernard and the earliest Cistercians. It would seem curious that there was no connexion at all between these scholarly-pastoral movements.

More significant is that a pastoral-ascetical reaction against Loyola almost exactly coincided with the reaction against liberal-protestantism and the end of the quest for the historical Jesus. The ordinary Christian was seeing something fishy, inept and unsatisfactory about the Loyolan method at precisely the same time that Schweitzer was agreeing with this judgment on quite different grounds. Rather than a bombshell to shatter the devout, the Schweitzer school confirmed the devout that their hunches were right.

Two further factors characterize contemporary prayer, and I still mean ordinary devotion of ordinary people. The first is a reaction against discursive intellectualism; Loyola’s “resolution”—now I know what this biblical story “means.” The second reaction is against the sort of prayer suggested by the idea of encounter. Modern prayer is moving away from discursive analysis towards synthetic insight; in other words from meditation to contemplation. From this viewpoint the very complexity of biblical criticism could be an advantage to the devout rather than the reverse, because in simple contemplative prayer the end-product is more like poetic insight than logical understanding. Shelley tells us that there is something fascinating about a skylark, but he also points to something beyond that matter of fact statement. Is this analogous to the way the Bible impinges upon contemporary people in meditation-contemplation? Poetry must contain an intellectual element, or it is nonsense, but it must go beyond it, or it is prose. The intellectual element in the Bible is important, for here is the source of that refined theology which creates the spectacles through which it can be properly contemplated.

Ignatian type meditation depends upon a simple historical Jesus, “unencumbered by theological interpretation” and so on, who is not there; he has to be invented by the authors of the “Lives” of Jesus or by even more imaginative depictions in popular Christian art. But the theological overtones of the evangelists, growing out of the interpreted experience of the Early Church, is a vital and constructive factor in the contemplation of the Scriptures.

Is this what Professor Hanson is getting at when he writes: “We have come a long way from the traditional description of the Bible as inerrant, as, in the Reformation phrase, “the lively oracles of God,” from the attitude which put the Bible on a pedestal and found in it all wisdom and infallible guidance. Instead we have found it a book teeming with contradictions, but also teeming with life.” [5] Shelley tells us nothing about the historical—zoological—skylark; he assumed its existence and goes beyond it: a little like Bultmann? The skylark is a blithe-spirit kerygma, but it is also a skylark.

Prayer is the living out of a given relation with God in Christ. If this relationship is understood as encounter—there is Jesus and here am I—then the historical figure of the resurrected Christ, not only his recorded words but his physical appearance, is very important indeed. But contemporary prayer is more often interpreted, not as personal encounter but rather as baptismal incorporation. Our relation with the living Lord is seen not so much as subject-object colloquy but as a sharing of a common humanity; again not as discursive meditation but as contemplative experience. Might not Professor Hanson’s teeming life of the Bible be precisely this: life in Christ articulated through the living Word rather than precise definitions and commandments arising out of the text?

If the theological assumptions of the biblical writers, based on contemporary circumstances and embedded in the oral tradition, are now seen as important and helpful rather than extraneous nuisances, then our meditative approach to the Bible through a later, developed and refined theology, is not an error but a necessity. If biblical criticism can further refine and interpret that theology then it is helping, not hindering our biblical devotion; but at one stage removed.

In conclusion I cannot avoid the challenge set before me, and so try to summarize some fifth method of reading the Bible—or meditating on the Scriptures—a little more satisfactory than the other four with which I began. Tentatively, and for further consideration, I would offer the following, straightforward pastoral principles.

  1. Bible reading, meditation, can only be attempted from within the fellowship of the living Church, which includes its theological tradition, its liturgical worship and its pastoral guidance.
  2. Thus, all prayer begins with Baptismal incorporation into the Sacred Humanity of the Risen and Glorified Lord. The Bible can feed, inspire, and articulate this experience: look for its life rather than its message.
  3. Do no try to construct intellectual theories, or Ignatian “resolutions,” or strict moral rules: leave all that to the biblical scholars. Rather allow the heart and mind of Christ to seep into the shared life within the Sacred Humanity: penetrate its mystery.
  4. Nevertheless, go to the Bible armed with the theological essentials, as guidelines. Prayer for the guidance of the Spirit is a good start, but so, I suggest, is a prayerful recitation of the Quicunque Vult. But such theological basis need not be one’s own learning, it can be sought in personal guidance from within the fellowship of the Church.
  5. Accept the challenge and adventure of the Bible’s subtlety, difficulty and mystery. Do not try to make it prove anything, rather let it inspire, poetically and contemplatively. In other words, see the essential connection between scholarship and prayer, but do not confuse the two.

For all his seemingly peasant-like naïvety, the Russian Orthodox Poustinik had it pretty well right all along.

[1] Poustinia, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Collins [1977], 42.
[2] The Function of Theology, Hodder & Stoughton [1968].
[3] The Word of God and the Word of Man, 33, 91.
[4] The Central Message of the New Testament, S.C.M. Press [1965], 71-6.
[5] R. P. C. Hanson, The Pelican Guide to Modern Theology, 20.

Transcribed by Father Dallman from the original publication and reprinted with permission: Thornton, Martin. (1978). Spirituality in the Modern World : II. Meditation and Modern Biblical Studies. The Expository Times, 89, 164-167.