This Lent I'm reading (courtesy of a kind gift of two readers of my blogs) St Gregory the Great's commentary on the book of Job, and the introduction, by the always interesting Mark DelCogliano, provides some very nice comments on St Gregory's approach to reading Scripture.
As they are available online by way of a taster for the book, I thought I'd share a couple of extracts with you, as they are well worth considering.
On St Gregory's exegetical method he comments:
In the dedicatory letter to Leander, Gregory reports that the brothers with whom he was living in Constantinople have asked him to give an exposition of the book of Job. They requested that he do three things: (1) reveal the mysteries of its great riches, (2) explain the literal narrative through allegorical interpretations aimed at providing moral reflections, and (3) support his interpretations with proof texts (which should themselves also be explained if they were difficult to understand)...
Gregory does what they requested, but in his own more systematic way. In the same dedicatory letter he explains his approach to interpreting Job. Each passage of Scripture, he says, has a threefold sense: the historical or literal (the meaning of which will be discussed below), the “typical” (more or less what Christians believe or need to believe), and the moral (what Christians need to do). Gregory considered the latter two to be the “hidden” senses of Scripture: they are not clear from the literal or historical sense and can be uncovered or revealed only by allegorical interpretations. In practice these two senses are sometimes hard to distinguish, blending into each other, because for Gregory Christian belief is inseparable from practice. Gregory takes the threefold sense of Scripture as the basis of his exegetical method and, at least initially, as the organizing principle for each book of his commentary....On elephants and lambs
He was convinced that Scripture contained different levels of meaning, so that everyone who read it, regardless of training, intelligence, spiritual insight, or lack thereof, could benefit from it: Just as the Word of God puts to the test those who are learned in his mysteries, so also it often refreshes the simple with clear teaching. It is publicly proclaimed, and it nourishes children; its private suppers hold the minds of the wise in admiration.
Perhaps I might say it is like a river both shallow and deep, in which a lamb walks and an elephant swims. Gregory was clearly an elephant. He knew that plumbing the depths of Scripture and searching into its mysteries required exegetical effort.
Scripture’s obscure passages would only nourish if their meaning could be wrestled from them. Thus he also conceptualized scriptural exegesis as a kind of digestion. He writes in the first book of the Moralia:
For Sacred Scripture is sometimes food and sometimes drink for us. It is food in its obscure passages, for it is broken in exposition, as it were, chewed, and swallowed. It is drink, however, in its easier passages, for it is assimilated just as it is found. . . . It belongs to few people to know the hidden and powerful things, whereas the many understand plain history. Lambs are more plentiful than elephants. Yet the elephant does not swim in the depths of Sacred Scripture merely for his own enjoyment: those possessing the wisdom and requisite skill to penetrate the deep mysteries of Scripture have a responsibility to communicate their insights to the simple lambs. Elephants enable lambs to be nourished by the obscure passages of Scripture; lambs should be given access to all the Scriptures, not simply the plain passages.