Going Deeper Into the Old Testament: An Interview with Aidan Nichols, O.P., author of Lovely Like Jerusalem | Carl E. Olson
Father Aidan Nichols, O.P., a Dominican priest, is currently the John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer, University of Oxford; has served as the Robert Randall Distinguished Professor in Christian Culture, Providence College; and is a Fellow of Greyfriars, Oxford. He has also served as the Prior of the Dominicans at St. Michael's Priory, Cambridge. Father Nichols is the author of numerous books including Looking at the Liturgy, Holy Eucharist, Hopkins: Theologian's Poet, and The Thought of Benedict XVI.
His study of the Old Testament, Lovely Like Jerusalem: The Fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ and the Church, was recently published by Ignatius Press (read an excerpt). Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, interviewed Father Nichols this week about the book, its themes, and related topics.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You've published some thirty books, but if I'm not mistaken, this is your first work of biblical theology. What inspired you to write Lovely Like Jerusalem?
Nichols: I used to love the world of the Old Testament when I was a student for the priesthood, and suddenly realised I had moved almost completely out of it, except insofar as it appeared in the Liturgy, and even then I didn't make much use of it in homilies. I thought it was time to go back and go deeper.
IgnatiusInsight.com: The book draws deeply upon the work of several non-Catholic theologians. Did you intend it to be an ecumenical work of sorts? Who are some of the non-Catholic biblical scholars you think Catholics should be more aware of?
Nichols: It was an unintended consequence of Pius XII's opening out of biblical studies to contemporary historical-critical scholarship that by the end of the twentieth century Catholic exegesis became indistinguishable from Protestant. Until this situation has changed (and in the United States Timothy Luke Johnson has argued strongly for it to do so) the best course of action is to select biblical commentators of whatever denomination whose work seems to accord best with the Catholic understanding of Scripture as found in Tradition.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Many Christians, it seems safe to say, have a poor or even non-existent understanding of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. How important is it--not just intellectually, but in every way--that Christians better understand and appreciate the Old Testament?
Nichols: A grasp of the great lines of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is vital to a Christian culture for the many, a well-stocked Christian mind for the individual person. Catechetics, drawing on the Liturgy and art as well as the Bible itself, should aim to provide this.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You write, in the chapter on the Torah, that the "historical minimalism in fashion today in many departments of Old Testament studies is not an adequate basis on which to read Genesis as Scripture..." In what way is Genesis (and other books of the Old Testament) "history" in the modern sense of the term, and in what ways is it history in a different--ancient and Semitic--manner?
Nichols: Of course no book of Scripture is history in the sense of a Ph. D. thesis on an historical subject in a modern University. That does not mean it cannot give a reliable account of past events, especially when those events were religiously crucial to the minds of the people whose lives they affected. Even in our own society, which through the ready availability of print is far more dependent on literacy, people can still recount family or neighbourhood histories that are taken seriously by 'oral historians'. Naturally, the opening chapters of Genesis, which deal with meta-history, and set the conditions for all future history, are in a different mode again.
IgnatiusInsight.com: A strong theme throughout is that of covenant. How does the reality of covenant shape the Pentateuch and inform the whole of the Old Testament?
Nichols: I think 'covenant' is indeed an absolutely central category for the Old Testament when the latter is taken as a whole. It expresses the reciprocity of God and (especially) Israelite humanity, with a continuous accent on the divine initiative in establishing this reciprocity, but a question mark over the manner in which the variety of covenant initiatives will come to fulfilment. Only the New Testament answers the latter question.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You make very pointed criticisms of what you term "neo-Marcionism," and locate its presence in the very influential skeptical approaches that came about in the 1700s and 1800s. What is neo-Marcionism and how has it affected the perspectives of both scholars and ordinary Christians over the past century or so?
Nichols: Neo-Marcionism is bypassing, relegating or even rubbishing the Old Testament on the ground of the novelty of the New Testament revelation. Unfortunately, it denatures the original Gospel of Jesus Christ which like its bearer and most important content (Christ) is the same yesterday, today and for ever. The bewildering confusion of Jesus-images in modern literature derive from this basic refusal to see Jesus Christ in the Church as the total fulfilment of the hopes of Israel or what I call the messianic hope broadly conceived, and in that way the key to all divine initiative in human history.
IgnatiusInsight.com: A tension is outlined throughout much of the book, between the knowledge and insight granted Israel "into the truth of God" and Israel's inability to "hold onto it". What is the significance of that fact? And how does it relate to a Catholic understanding of divine pedagogy?
Nichols: The ambivalence of Israel's response to the truth of God shows the need for a divine Word that is fully incarnate in man: namely, for Christ as the Conciliar Christology of the ecumenical Councils shows him to be: two natures in one person, i.e. divine intiative and human response fully integrated for ever.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Typology has often been either ignored or scoffed at by many in the academic world in recent decades, yet a typological reading of Scripture is, as you point out, an essential part of the Catholic tradition. Do you sense a growing re-appreciation of typology? What role did the Ressourcement theologians, such as Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac, have in re-appropriating typology?
Nichols: The ressourcement theologians remain vitally necessary for their recovery of typology which alone enables a unitary reading of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, and a reading, moreover, which chimes with that found in the Church's liturgical feasts and texts. It need not exclude concern with the exact investigation of particular historical contexts, as Danielou in particular shows. But when we have the detail we still need to stand back and take in the whole picture.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You've written many articles and books--such as Looking at the Liturgy. A Critical View of its Contemporary Form--on the liturgy and the Mass. What is your reaction to the motu proprio document, Summorum Pontificum? How do you think it might affect the lives of ordinary Catholics in the West?
Nichols: To my mind the liturgical importance of Summorum Pontificum is that it is a crucial first step towards a true reform of the Western Liturgy which will be, on my gazing into the crystal ball, an enhanced integration of the virtues of both forms of the Roman Mass. More widely, it is a striking and much-needed statement of the fact that after 1965 we do not have a 'new' Church.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Have you read Benedict XVI's book, Jesus of Nazareth? If so, what was your impression of it?
Nichols: I have read it, and I give my first reaction to it in a postword to the second edition of The Thought of Benedict XVI which was published earlier this month [by Continuum].
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
The Pattern of Revelation: A Contentious Issue | From Lovely Like Jerusalem | Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft
Introduction to The Meaning of Tradition | Yves Congar, O.P.
The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion" | James Hitchcock
Enter Modernism | Philip Trower
Singing the Song of Songs | Blaise Armnijon, S.J.
Exploring the Catholic Faith! | An Interview with Diane Eriksen
What in Fact Is Theology? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
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