Spinoza on “the interpretation of Scripture”

Spinoza applied the scientific method (which was developed in order to conquer nature) to the reading of Scripture, and this became what is now known as the “historical-critical method.” His view was that religious conflict in Europe was a result of differing interpretation on key biblical passages. He developed this method of reading Scripture in order to bring about universal agreement on its meaning. The method is exceedingly powerful (like the scientific method) and it was for a long time, and mostly still is, the only method of Bible study taught in seminaries and colleges. It is often taught and used without any reference to its philosophical roots. Like the scientific method applied to nature, it does not allow for a spiritual or supernatural component in reading the Bible (or any other book). Being merely natural, a devotional aspect has to be attached to it, rather artificially and as an afterthought. So, like the relation of modern science to nature, there is the conflict in Biblical circles about the difference between “conquering” scripture and “understanding” scripture. Modern biblical scholarship is reluctant to throw out the method because of fears regarding “free for all” interpretation of scripture, but some quarters have also acknowledged the inherent danger of this disecting and critiquing method upon any devotional relationship to it. Various alternative methods have been developed (ie, “historical-narrative” method and neo-patristic reading) in order to try and keep the desired scholarly objectivity while allowing room for devotion.

“If we would separate ourselves from the crowd and escape from theological prejudices, instead of rashly accepting human commentaries for Divine documents, we must consider the true method of interpreting Scripture and dwell upon it at some length: for if we remain in ignorance of this we cannot know, certainly, what the Bible and the Holy Spirit wish to teach.

I may sum up the matter by saying that the method of interpreting Scripture does not widely differ from the method of interpreting nature — in fact, it is almost the same. For as the interpretation of nature consists in the examination of the history of nature, and therefrom deducing definitions of natural phenomena on certain fixed axioms, so Scriptural interpretation proceeds by the examination of Scripture, and inferring the intention of its authors as a legitimate conclusion from its fundamental principles. By working in this manner everyone will always advance without danger of error — that is, if they admit no principles for interpreting Scripture, and discussing its contents save such as they find in Scripture itself — and will be able with equal security to discuss what surpasses our understanding, and what is known by the natural light of reason.

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Leisure, culture and philosophy

“Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship.

The word “cult” in English is used exclusively, or almost exclusively in a derivative sense. But here it is used, along with worship, in its primary sense. It means something else than, and something more than, religion. It really means fulfilling the ritual of public sacrifice. That is a notion which contemporary “modern” man associates almost exclusively and unconsciously with uncivilized, primitive peoples and with classical antiquity. For that very reason it is of the first important to see that the cultus, now as in the distant past, is the primary source of man’s freedom, independence and immunity within society. Suppress that last sphere of freedom, and freedom itself, and all our liberties, will in the end vanish into thin air.

Culture, in the sense in which it is used above, is the quintessence of all the natural good of the world and of those gifts and qualities which, while belonging to man, lie beyond the immediate sphere of his needs and wants. All that is good in this sense, all man’s gifts and faculties are not necessarily useful in a practical way; though there is no denying that they belong to a truly human life, not strictly speaking necessary, even though he could not do without them. Continue reading

St. Chrysostom — why church attendance — why church buildings?

“This too might with reason be said to us: “Behold ye despisers.” For the Church indeed is in very evil case, although ye think her affairs to be in peace. For the mischief of it is, that while we labor under so many evils, we do not even know that we have any. “What sayest thou? We are in possession of our Churches, our Church property, and all the rest, the services are held, the congregation comes to Church every day.” True, but one is not to judge of the state of a Church from these things. From what then? Whether there be piety, whether we return home with profit each day, whether reaping some fruit, be it much or little, whether we do it not merely of routine and for the formal acquittance of a duty. Who has become a better man by attending (daily) service for a whole month? That is the point: otherwise the very thing which seems to bespeak a flourishing condition (of the Church,) does in fact bespeak an ill condition, when all this is done, and nothing comes of it. Would to God (that were all,) that nothing comes of it: but indeed, as things are, it turns out even for the worse. What fruit do ye get from your services? Surely if you were getting any profit by them, ye ought to have been long leading the life of true wisdom, with so many Prophets twice in every week discoursing to you, so many Apostles, and Evangelists, all setting forth the doctrines of salvation, and placing before you with much exactness that which can form the character aright. The soldier by going to his drill, becomes more perfect in his tactics: the wrestler by frequenting the gymnastic ground comes more skillful in wrestling: the physician by attending on his teacher becomes more accurate, and knows more, and learns more: and thou–what hast thou gained? I speak not to those who have been members of the Church only a year, but to those who from their earliest age have been attending the services. Think you that to be religious is to be constant in Church-going? This is nothing, unless we reap some fruit for ourselves: if (from gathering together in Church) we do not gather something for ourselves, it were better to remain at home. For our fore-fathers built the Churches for us, not just to bring us together from our private houses and show us one to another: since this could have been done also in a market place, and in baths, and in a public procession:–but to bring together learners and teachers, and make the one better by means of the other. With us it has all become mere customary routine, and formal discharge of a duty: a thing we are used to: that is all. Easter comes, and then great the stir, great the hubbub, and crowding of–I had rather not call them human beings, for their behaviour is not commonly human. Easter goes, the tumult abates, but then the quiet which succeeds is again fruitless of good. “Vigils, and holy hymn-singing.”–And what is got by these? Nay, it is all the worse. Many do so merely out of vanity” (The Acts of the Apostles, Homily XXIX).