R. R. Reno, in his essay "The Return of the Fathers" (First Things, November 2006), writes with greater eloquence than I'll ever muster about the importance of grounding one's study of theology in an ascetic engagement with Scripture:
Seeing the truth and cleaving to it is not just a matter of having and following the right theories. Puzzling out the mosaic of Scripture is not simply a mental exercise. The patristic enterprise and the Christian culture it created shaped entire lives and not just minds. The rule of faith disciplines the whole person.Read the entire essay here.
In modest ways, our present academic culture acknowledges the role of personal discipline broadly understood. Sloppy thinking stems from laziness, boredom, and the attractions of easy, convenient, and conventional conclusions. Thus, objectivity is a virtue we must learn through a discipline that is as much moral as intellectual. But the role of character in normal academic study pales in comparison to the patristic approach. The sacred texts of the Bible do not just provide data to be treated objectively. Fragrant with the aroma of the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, they must be engaged by minds prepared by prayer, fasting, and self-control.
In his account of biblical interpretation, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine gives an especially clear account of the need for spiritual purification. He likens us to lost travelers, “miserable in our wanderings and desiring to end it and return to our native country.” But we cannot make progress, because we take delight in specific aspects of the finite world and become “entangled in a perverse sweetness.” Our desire to return to God shifts and turns back upon itself as we devote ourselves to finite things for their own sakes. In this way, Augustine continues, “men are driven back to their country by evil habits as by contrary breezes.” Elsewhere, he shifts the image from sea to land. “We are on a road,” he writes, “which is not a road from place to place but a road of affections, which [is] blocked, as if by a thorny hedge, by the past malice of our sins.”
According to Augustine, the problem is not that we have bodies and live in a finite world. Sin is not ontological, as if being a finite, embodied creature were the root of our problem. Instead, the problem rests in our will and personality. We can either love and enjoy finite reality, taking it to be the sum total of what makes life worth living, or we can use that reality in such a way that we make spiritual progress toward the infinite and eternal truth that is the Holy Trinity. The latter is the way of sanctification, for it requires us to discipline our finite loves so that they might serve rather than impede a crowning love of God. “The mind should be cleansed,” as Augustine writes, so that we can see the divine light. This cleansing is not speculative or abstract. It involves the specific moral and spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.
As historical critics like to tell us over and over again, the Bible is an embodied, historical text, conditioned by the finite realities of cultural context and shaped by real human authors, editors, and audiences. For this reason, the need for spiritual discipline is pressing. Only as we allow ourselves to be subjected to the discipline of apostolic prayer and practice can we imagine ourselves capable of handling the finite, human reality of the biblical text properly. A worldly, vain, grasping, and venal person cannot be trusted to interpret scientific data accurately, as the recent and undoubtedly continuing scandals in the money-soaked and fame-intoxicated world of bioengineering illustrate. One need be no prude to insist that a functional scientific culture requires moral standards. How much more should we prize spiritual discipline in our biblical interpreters?
Thus, in the first of his famous Theological Orations, when Gregory of Nazianzus meditates on the nature of theology, he gives priority to spiritual formation over the intellectual. Theology “is not for all men, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sure footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at least are undergoing, purification of body and soul.”