The presupposition that lies behind all this – a presupposition either defended (more or less desperately) or finally relinquished – is the principle of sola scriptura, understood as meaning that Scripture is a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God’s revelation: that allied to the more recent notion that the tool to use in extracting meaning from literary texts is the method of historical criticism. We have an alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment: not something that inspires confidence. But as will be clear from our considerations so far, both the principle and the method are questionable.
The principle of sola scriptura actually leads one away from the traditional devotion to Scripture as the Word of God which we find par excellence in the Fathers. Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not as a treasury (to use the contrast drawn by Paul Claudel in his Du sens figure de l’Écriture). And such an understanding leads to a false and misleading notion of the nature of Christianity as a biblical religion. If the bible is seen as a quarry from which truth is to be extracted, then the truth thus extracted – the truth of Christianity – is naturally seen as ‘biblical’. … But as Henri de Lubac protests in his Exégèse Médiévale:
Christianity is not, properly speaking, a ‘religion of the Book’: it is a religion of the word (Parole) – but not uniquely nor principally of the word in written form. It is a religion of the Word (Verbe) – ‘not of a word, written and mute, but of a Word living and incarnate’ (to quote St. Bernard). The Word of God is here and now, amongst us, ‘which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled’: the Word ‘living and active’, unique and personal, uniting and crystallizing all the words which bear it witness. Christianity is not ‘the biblical religion’: it is the religion of Jesus Christ. [Exégèse Médiévale, II/1 (Paris, 1961), pp. 196-9.]
And in those words de Lubac echoes the cry of St. Ignatius of Antioch: ‘For me the archives are Jesus Christ, and the inviolable archives his cross and death and his resurrection and faith in Him.’ [Ep. Philad. VIII. 2.] The heart of Christianity is the mystery of Christ, and the Scriptures are important as they unfold to us that mystery, and not in and for themselves.
Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). 101-102.
Father Louth begins this chapter, “Return to Allegory,” by noting the central importance of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture for the Fathers of the Church, whatever variations we find among them. However, he also notes that such use of allegory “sticks in the gullet of modern theology” evoking a general distaste if not revulsion. Louth suggests that this is because allegory is seen to involve something fundamentally dishonest; it is seen as a means whereby a text is made to say something that it clearly does not say. Behind this objection seems to be the assumption that Scripture has a clear-cut meaning which is roughly identified with what the author of a passage intended it to mean. This meaning may be difficult to ascertain, “but the idea that the text means what the author meant it to mean – the idea, almost, that the meaning of a text is a past historical event – gives us a sense that the meaning of a text is something objective, something unproblematic.” (97-98) Within a theological context, moreover, this resistance to allegory is reinforced by the Protestant principle of sola scriptura in which Scripture is seen as the objective truth of God’s revelation and allegory “seems to be a of evading the address of God to man in the Scriptures, a way of adulterating the purity of divine revelation with human opinions and conjecture.” (98)
However, this principle of sola scriptura is “both scuppered and reinforced by the growth of the method of historical criticism.” (99) It is reinforced because historical criticism does seem to offer a method for arriving at the objective meaning of the text; it is scuppered because what this method delivers is less than exciting and necessitates various manoeuvres which in one way or another end up actually widening the gap between Scripture and theology.
Thus we find the “alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment,” both of which are hostile to allegory. However, this hostility is founded on “the sense of the unproblematic nature of the meaning of a literary passage,” and in the location of meaning in authorial intentions. This is something which “the ideas of Gadamer already expounded show … is full of unexamined idealization.” (98)