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Joseph Fitzmyer on St. Paul..

August 2, 2012

‘Another remarkable feature of Fitzmyer’s presentation is the way he portrays Paul as a theological dramatist. Fitzmyer interprets Romans 7 as a play with four actors who are in mortal combat on the stage of history. The Soul, Self, Ego, at other times represented by Adam, is presented with three actors who struggle to seduce and master you, Sin, Death, and the Law. Paul presents these  actors as having been on stage throughout the ups and downs of biblical  narrative plying their deceits in a life and death struggle for the human spirit.

Fitzmyer frequently refers to Paul’s ideas and his way of thinking. One of those ways is “protological thinking” which contrasts with eschatological thinking. Fitzmyer says protological thinking is an Old Testament inheritance.  It “(…denotes a logical explanation of something given in a primitive form of  thinking.) In the Old Testament God is often considered responsible for all that happens to his people or his creation, whether good or evil.” Fitzmyer cites examples from Is. 45:7 and Amos 3:6 and adds, “The theological distinction between God’s absolute will and his permissive will had not yet entered the  history of ideas; it would have to wait until the time of Augustine”(33-4).

One meditates on Pagans, Gentiles, and Jews called by God, through Christ,  with Paul’s special focus on the eight gifts given to Israel in Romans 9-11. On Romans 13:1-7 which begins, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God…”. Fitzmyer comments  that this “is a strange instruction” regarding proper respect to civil  governments, “more like a philosophical paragraph than anything specifically  Christian; it makes no mention of Christ Jesus or of the God of Israel, and  derives all its motivation from ‘God’ alone. In no other of his letters does Paul treat this topic…. The supposition in vv. 1-7 is that civil authorities  are good and promoting the common good of society; Paul does not envisage the possibility of a totalitarian or tyrannical government or one that fails to cope with the just rights of individual citizens or minority groups.” And so the exercitant is led to pray with, behind, ahead, over, under and into the mysteries of inspired texts.

Spirituality is a popular topic in religious literature, but there is something startling about Fitzmyer composing Spiritual Exercises out of  Paul’s letter to the Romans. Behind these Exercisesis an entire history of the interpretation of the Bible. In his commentary on the text of the  Biblical Commission’s Document, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”  1995, Joseph Fitzmyer made some observations regarding spiritual reading of the Bible. For many centuries Catholics held a “spiritual” explanation of the Bible separated from historical-critical knowledge of the texts, due, in the 20th  century, to the cloud of suspicion called “Modernism.” Belief in a spiritual sense of the inspired scriptures goes back to the patristic and medieval distinction between the literal and spiritual meaning of texts. The spiritual  sense included the other figurative “senses of scripture”, namely the  allegorical, moral, and eschatological or future sense. Subjective spiritual readings and personal inspirations replaced the Bible which speaks the Word of  God using human languages. Scholars began gradually to penetrate the human and  divine character of biblical texts to provide a spiritual understanding of the variety of human expressions that were written to nourish the people of God.

Modern literary and historical exegesis tries to understand what has been expressed and was intended by the author because that is what is inspired and  carries the charism of inspiration. The literal sense is not literalist; it may  include metaphors, figurative, symbolic, fictive, and other “imaginative modes  of expression common to all human language.” The literal sense of a text may  have a dynamic aspect that allows it to be read in view of new contexts and  future directions. The “spiritual sense” of the Bible, sometimes called an “accommodated sense” of scripture, can be an “alien meaning imposed on a biblical text” (125). With Origen a traditional spiritual sense denoted “the meaning given to an Old Testament text by the paschal mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus,” and by the light of the Holy Spirit. The “great Tradition” of patristic exegesis using Rabbinic midrashic methods and Hellenistic allegorical insights drew “from the totality of Scripture the basic orientations which shaped the doctrinal tradition of the Church, and provided a rich theological teaching for the instruction and spiritual sustenance of the faithful”(147). The literal sense “can also be its ‘spiritual’ sense because the  literal sense is the meaning intended by God and the inspired human author to feed the religious lives of God’s people” (127). “Does not the literal sense of  the Old Testament apart from its relation to the paschal mystery or any anticipating relationship, bear a spiritual meaning in itself? For the literal sense of the Old Testament was also ‘intended and ordained by God’…The literal sense of all Scripture, is, indeed, a genuine spiritual sense”(128). For a Christian, a spiritual interpretation of scripture holds together three  dimensions of truth: the biblical text as divinely inspired, the paschal  mystery, and the present circumstances of life in the Spirit. Joseph Fitzmyer’s Spiritual Exercisesintends the reader to get in touch with the mind and spirit of the inspired writer, Paul of Tarsus, whose image of God is revealed through his letter to the Romans.’
Here of course, in a general way, Fitzmyer uses the Ignation Spiritual Exercises for his spiritual backdrop. However, there is much to agree from the Reformed and Reformational position also!
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3 Comments
  1. I like this in general by Fitzmyer, but I also stand closer to Augustine and too Luther & Calvin. The man (Paul) in Romans 7 is always a Divided Self under Law & Gospel!

    *Btw, this is a further note, but reading Fitzmeyer is not always easy, for he brings so much history and theology, of course mostly Catholic! But again, he is worth the read usually.

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