Beyond Fundamentalism


Dr Robert Tilley explains why fundamentalism and a literalist approach to the Bible are in fact modern phenomena, and how the Church has historically interpreted Scripture through layers of meaning.


Reading the Sacred Text is a continuation of Dr Robert Tilley’s popular The Bible is Catholic lecture series.


It’s not uncommon for those who think themselves so very clever to say that Fundamentalists want to take us back to the medieval age. Fundamentalism, they say, is of the dark ages and was put to flight by the rise of enlightened Modernity, but like Godzilla aggrieved at Tokyo it has returned in force to wreak vengeance. So goes the script, one that we have all heard in some form or other a million or so times before.

It’s also not uncommon for people who think themselves to be so very clever to show themselves to be fools. Uneducated fools who confuse the clichés they have picked up from the popular media with real historical knowledge. Having imbibed the history of the world according to Hollywood they then proceed to pronounce upon everything and anything. And it is a given of this history that anything prior to the beginning of the rise of Modernity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was full of witch-burning fundamentalists who thought the world was flat and so that they would not inadvertently wander off over the edge of the world, they spent their time at home counting how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

As scholars have become weary in saying, Fundamentalism is, in fact, a Modern phenomenon, one that in the West at least, begins in the 16th century, develops in the seventeenth under the influence of scientific rationalism, and comes into its own in the late nineteenth early twentieth century. The dates are significant for ‘Fundamentalism’ arises and develops within currents associated with Protestantism. It is a slow development but the seed of it is there present in Luther and later Calvin. Indeed, it then informs the rise of more secular interpretation of the Bible.

Those who pride themselves on their modern enlightened liberalism like to think of Fundamentalists as akin to hillbillies, but they have been anything but; often they have been at the forefront of the use and development of communication technology from the printing press through to radio and television, to the use of contemporary social media including twitter. The reason for this is that a good deal of modern communication technology favours the kind of straightforward clarity that bullet points and tweets give. All meaning becomes reducible to a few characters and there is little patience for anything more subtle or sophisticated. As we will see, Fundamentalism is ideally suited to modern communication technology for it too wants meaning to be quickly if not immediately conveyed.

But what is Fundamentalism? It is not my purpose to rehearse the scholarly debates over what constitutes Fundamentalism proper, except to note that what is generally held to be a characteristic of it is an understanding of the Sacred Text in which there is really only one meaning to the text in question. And that this meaning is what is often referred to as being the ‘literal’ meaning. Fundamentalism levels the text such that there is really only one meaning and all other meanings are a result of sinful delusion and corruption.

Of course the Bible is not written in bullet point form or, as far as I know, God did not tweet the prophets – and this I think is one of the many proofs for the inspiration of Scripture. The Bible is full of poetry and prose and often employs a style that would have been confusing to the original audience – the Prophets being a case in point. Fundamentalism tries its best to correct God, for it does all in its power to iron out the problems in Scripture so that it can reduce the meaning of the Bible to the size of an easily digestible pamphlet.

The Bible is full of light and darkness, of sometimes clarity ringed about with mysterious obscurity, with contents that can be both full of hope and then, all of sudden, threatening terror. More importantly as we will see, there are levels of meaning, not just one meaning, which levels are in continuity one with one another, levels that often lead to a place of enigmatic ambiguity; a place that is attended by a silence that can profoundly unnerve us. As this series proceeds I hope to give a number of examples of this, but for the time being I want simply to establish the principle upon which we will proceed.

The difference between Modern rationalist and Fundamentalist reading on one side, and the pre-Modern, let us say Medieval, reading on the other, can be illustrated in this way: although a Modern rationalist biblical scholar will disagree with a Fundamentalist scholar concerning the meaning of a biblical passage they both share the same basic assumptions and method. They both understand each other even if they disagree with each other. But let’s say both of them read one of the Medieval Church commentators on the Bible, then our Modern rationalist and Fundamentalist might learn to agree with one another for both will feel that the Medieval commentator is if not insane then, at the least, has been seriously misled by the traditions of the Church.

You see, what they will find in the Medieval commentator is perhaps some sensible insights into the literal meaning of the biblical text being discussed, but very quickly that commentator moves on to interpret the Bible in a manner that is not acceptable to either our Modern rationalist or Fundamentalist. The medieval commentator holds that there are multiple meanings to a biblical text and that these are all hierarchically graded such that all manner of mystical meanings are found in the text. For the rationalist and Fundamentalist this will not do, there is only one real meaning, the literal, and this meaning is able to be reduced to simple propositional clarity – the bullet point. Those higher meanings, those mystical meanings are simply the projections of the kinds of nonsense that the priests taught. We, however, are Modern and that means we know there is only one meaning proper, the literal meaning, and that this is able to be reduced to the measure of a tweet.

The term ‘reduced’ is important here for though Modernity takes many forms the logic that tends to inform these different forms is one of a secularising levelling. Modernity prides itself on the idea of equality, which is a good thing, but it translates this into levelling out, especially in matters religious, hence like Fundamentalism it dislikes the idea of hierarchical authority in matters religious. It dislikes the idea of grades, and that includes the idea of grades of sacred meaning in the Bible. Hence, in Modernity not only are the Scriptures levelled out so too the cosmos, the meaning of everything is flattened out and because of this everything becomes manipulable. We can see this in Fundamentalism which especially in Christianity is marked by a suspicion of things mystical.

Think of it this way, there is one thing that both the Reformation and later secular rationalism set themselves to oppose: the Catholic Church and with it the notion of priests and religious hierarchy. We might say that informing Modernity is a logic that is both levelling and reductive, one that not only disenchants the cosmos, making of it mere stuff, but that strips the sense of sacredness from the Bible itself, making of it just another book to be subjected to a non-transcendent secular way of study.

Of course, the Church’s view has been rather different, not only are there hierarchical grades in the Church, but also to the Scriptures, and to the cosmos itself. Indeed, hierarchical grading is, we might argue, absolutely necessary to sacredness, remove the grades and what you get is level plain of flat sameness.
Now, there is one term that serves to sum up the pre-Modern, yes Medieval view of Scripture, and this is the term the Quadriga.

The idea informing the Quadriga is that the Scriptures are composed of four levels of meaning: the literal or historical; the tropological or moral; the anagogical or eschatological; and the allegorical or spiritual. In actual fact, the number of levels could differ from commentator to commentator for some held that there were only two or three levels, others that there were seven, others nine or even eleven, and there were other variations as well. The sense is the same in all these schemes hence the term ‘Quadriga’ serves as a shorthand for the phenomenon of hierarchically ordered grades of meaning to Scripture.

What the Quadriga testifies to is that the Scriptures are constituted in hierarchically graded way such that they mirror the structure of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was of course the holy place for Israelites and like all temples it was structured in such a way that a priest by journeying in, ascending as it were up the grades, would, if he was the High Priest, finally enter into the uppermost grade, the Holy of Holies, and there enter into the presence of the Glory of God.

Just as the grades in the Temple are in continuity one with the other, after all a priest could only get to the Holy of Holies by first of all entering in through the entrance door, so are the grades of meaning in Scripture, we enter in through the literal meaning. Now, it bears repeating that the higher (or deeper) grades do not contradict the literal meaning, rather is the literal meaning elevated, lifted up, expanded out. As one reads deeper still the literal meaning is transformed, is perfected, and it is so by reason that one draws closer and closer to the presence of the Glory of God. The words begin to crack open, the meaning begins to unfurl, there is a growth just as a seed grows in good soil, and just as the seed can give rise to an abundant harvest, so too does the seed that is the word of God give rise to an abundant harvest of meaning.

Here we ought also to note that the Medieval commentators not only held that the Church and the Scriptures were hierarchically graded, but so too all creation, that is the cosmos, and, in fact, so too the reader of the Scriptures and creation, which is to say ourselves. That is, we, ourselves, are likewise graded, from the literal which is to say the biological, through the soul or psychological, to the spiritual. Thus, for the medieval commentator there was a very real correspondence between the text of Scripture, the text of creation, and the reader of both, namely us. After all, we are that part of the universe that can read itself! Among other things this meant that when all was in accord then there would be an abundant fruitfulness of meaning.

We will explore this more in subsequent episodes, but we need to keep the theme of the Quadriga in mind, to remember that the Scriptures are to be read by reference to hierarchically graded meanings and that they are to be read as if we were replicating the journey of the High Priest through the Temple in Jerusalem in order to ascend to the vision of God.

But it would not do to end here. In the Bible the vision of God is always tied to the presence of God. Where God is revealed there is he present, and God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ, especially him crucified. The Cross is the key to Scripture and that especially so by reason that it is by the Cross that we can ascend up through the grades of Scripture and enter into the presence of the Glory of God.

The goal of our reading is to enter deeper and deeper into the presence of God in Christ and we do so by not only entering into his presence but by truly and really participating in this presence; by truly and really eating of the word of God to which the words of God that are Scripture point. That is, by truly and really eating of the body and blood of our Lord we truly and really become one with the meaning proper of the Scriptures. The Eucharist is the meaning proper of the Bible for it provides the substance proper of the Bible.
And as the Church is the body of Christ, a point St Paul makes a number of times, then it is only in the Church that the full meaning of Scripture can be found. It is in the Church that the integrity of the hierarchical grades of meaning are preserved. It is the Church that defies both the rationalist and the fundamentalist levelling of the Scriptures. It is the Church that is the good soil in which the word of God bursts forth in an explosion of meaning.

Whatever else you might think of all of this, you might think it Medieval nonsense, romantic folly, priestly delusion, or even unenlightened idiocy, but there’s one thing I think you would have to agree that it is not: it is not Fundamentalism.

About Author

Dr Robert Tilley is a lecturer in biblical studies and ancient languages at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and in Christian literature at the Aquinas Academy.

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