instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Accommodating the Word

There's a good discussion in the comments on the post below regarding the proper use of "Biblical accommodation," which the old Catholic Encyclopedia defines as "the adaptation of words or sentences from Sacred Scripture to signify ideas different from those expressed by the sacred author."

Quoting myself:
The Church Fathers were very fond of suggesting symbolisms and spiritual meanings of passages. For example, Jesus' explanation of the parable of the sower in Mark 4 includes mention of "the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit thirty and sixty and a hundredfold." The Catena Aurea lists several interpretations, including Bede's "he bears thirty-fold, who instills into the minds of the elect faith in the Holy Trinity; sixty-fold, who teaches the perfection of good works; a hundred-fold, who shews the rewards of the heavenly kingdom."

Nowadays, Scripture scholars frown on such accommodations, and prefer to argue that none of the miracle stories are authentic, since miracles are impossible.

Personally, I like accommodations, as long as it's clear that they are accommodations, and not proposed as necessarily the meaning God intended the passage to bear.
The Catholic Encyclopedia article proposes three rules for appropriate accommodation:
  • Accommodated texts should never be used as arguments drawn from revelation; for the words are not employed in the sense, either literal or typical, intended by the Holy Ghost. Violations of this rule are not rare, either in sermons or in pious literature.
  • Accommodation should not be farfetched. Allusive accommodations in many cases are mere distortions of the sacred text.
  • Accommodations should be reverent. Holy words should be employed for purposes of edification, not to excite laughter, much less to cloak errors.
The article also refers to the decree of the Council of Trent against "the wresting of Scripture to profane uses":
...wishing to repress that temerity, by which the words and sentences of sacred Scripture are turned and twisted to all sorts of profane uses, to wit, to things scurrilous, fabulous, vain, to flatteries, detractions, superstitions, impious and diabolical incantations, sorceries, and defamatory libels; (the Synod) commands and enjoins, for the doing away with this kind of irreverence and contempt, and that no one may hence forth dare in any way to apply the words of sacred Scripture to these and such like purposes; that all men of this description, profaners and violators of the word of God, be by the bishops restrained by the penalties of law, and others of their own appointment.
I think we can see the difference between the Venerable Bede's interpretation of Mark 4:20 and diabolical incantations, sorceries, and defamatory libels.