Beyond Historical Criticism Pope Benedict XVI and the Reform of Biblical Exegesis

Marcus Holden FAITH Magazine January-February 2009

Fr Holden, assistant priest in St Augustine's, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and co-author of the popular Evangelium catechetical resource brings out the traditional context in which Pope Benedict is trying to place modern scriptural exegesis, and the great enrichening for all this could involve.

The Historical-Critical method of biblical exegesis has dominated scripture study for more than a hundred years. Despite the uneasiness of many theologians, and especially the faithful, about the way this method has been conducted, few have dared to challenge its presuppositions, implications and exclusivity. One figure who has consistently called for a re-evaluation, purification and augmentation of the prevalent method of biblical exegesis is Joseph Ratzinger. Now as Pope Benedict XVI his contribution in this crucial area of theology will be all the more influential.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger calls us to move beyond mere historical-criticism to a more profoundly theological reading of Scripture.[1] He acknowledges that a truly historical approach is necessary, but while it only deals with the isolated past as past it "does not exhaust the interpretive task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God".[2] In expressing this point Ratzinger subtly shifts the debate away from an assessment of what the historical-critical method has achieved or not to a new openness for something which goes much further than historical-criticism itself.
Critical historical exegesis during the past hundred years has undoubtedly aided unprecedented advancements in our biblical knowledge: in the better understanding of literary genres, source history and textual composition; in etymology and archaeology; in the penetration of ancient languages and cultural settings. Nevertheless, at no other time has there been such a crisis in relating our faith to the findings of modern research. This problem is felt most acutely in relation to the person of Jesus Christ himself. Many scholars have separated the 'Jesus of history' from the 'Christ of faith' and in doing so have severed theology and doctrine from reason and reality. The potential fall-out from this trend is worrying: "Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is indanger of clutching at thin air".[3]
Against the background of scepticism it is not surprising that the perennial Christian method of discovering theological truth and spiritual meaning in the Scriptures was virtually eclipsed in the second half of the 20th century. Ratzinger comments that the great synthesis found in the traditional Christian interpretation, "would become problematic when historical consciousness developed rules of interpretation that made Patristic exegesis appear non-historical and so objectively indefensible".[4]
Reflecting upon this peculiar impasse, Joseph Ratzinger has noted that the crisis in biblical understanding feeds off and fuels a broader predicament in theological hermeneutics. Almost twenty years ago Joseph Ratzinger observed:
Modern exegesis, as we have seen, completely relegated God to the incomprehensible, the otherworldly, and the inexpressible in order to be able to treat the biblical text itself as an entirely worldly reality according to natural-scientific methods.[5]
The secularisation of exegesis stems from a more general anti-supernatural rationalism that has been present and growing since the "Enlightenment". If one denies the reality of God and his active guidance of creation, then it follows that one will deny the concept of an inspired Scripture that gives us objective divine revelation and the key to understanding history. A theological and supernatural view of exegesis is then automatically dismissed, thought unworthy of serious scholarship, or easily reduced to a footnote in the history of ideas.
The issue at stake, which Ratzinger has picked up on, is not one of defending or attacking biblical historicity but rather a more fundamental one. What the rationalist, with his particular philosophy, could not accept was the claim inherent in traditional Christian exegesis that there is a privileged knowledge about the meaning of history that comes from the transcendent God himself. The properly theological and revelatory sense of Scripture, which was always an essential part of traditional exegesis, could never be considered as "religion within the confines of pure reason" and was therefore unacceptable.
When historical criticism, whose "specific object is the human word as human",[6] is used by a rationalist scholar as the exclusive approach to Scripture, then faith is necessarily banished out of exegesis. Furthermore, when dogmatic belief in a unified corpus of Scripture is excluded any connection between the Old and New Testaments is rendered utterly tenuous. As Ratzinger has noted:
The triumph of historical-critical exegesis seemed to sound the death knell for the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament initiated by the New Testament itself. It is not a question here of historical details, as we have seen, it is the very foundations of Christianity that are being questioned.[7]
Even the greatest aids in discovering the surface meaning of an isolated text of Scripture are of little use if the meaning and implications of that literal passage can be neither contextualised within the whole biblical corpus nor allowed to be mined for revealed theological truth. Historical-criticism always deals with Scripture as a series of fragmented works from different periods and by definition remains at the basic level of human hypothesis. If this becomes the exclusive endeavour of the biblical scholar then theology has been excluded categorically and has been replaced by an essentially secular philosophy and world view.

The Ratzinger Solution

Joseph Ratzinger has indicated two clear ways by which we can help foster a solution to the exegetical crisis.

1. Refocusing Through Faith and Reason
The first is to purify the historical-critical method itself. The purification of the historical-critical method can take place by off-loading the philosophical baggage that has weighed it down in suspicion of faith. There is no reason why we cannot conduct perfectly rigorous and impartial historical research on the history of ancient peoples and texts while believing at the same time in God, providence and divine inspiration. In Jesus of Nazareth, Ratzinger cuts through so much of the paper thin scepticism of the critics both with cogent arguments and above all with that devastatingly simple alternative open to every enquirer, "I trust the gospels".[8] By this masterful stroke the philosophically loaded hermeneutic of suspicion isreplaced by a hermeneutic of faith.
Joseph Ratzinger has often called theologians and exegetes to be wary of implicit philosophical presuppositions that carry an innate bias against faith and the supernatural dimension of revelation. He has stated very clearly that, "at its core, the debate about modern exegesis is not a dispute among historians: it is rather a philosophical debate".[9] In practice he calls us to reverse the hermeneutic of suspicion from Holy Scripture back upon the exegetes themselves. In his work Behold the Pierced One he states the thesis:
"The historical-critical method and other modern scientific methods are important for an understanding of Holy Scripture and Tradition. Their value, however, depends on the hermeneutical (philosophical) context in which they are applied."
Reservations regarding minimalist pre-suppositions need not be seen as an attack on the historical-critical method itself. What is being called for here is that the critics practice a little more self-criticism and self-limitation with a greater hermeneutical honesty and philosophical awareness.[10]
A purified historical critical method can, according to Ratzinger, be open to and work with a truly theological understanding of Scripture. This openness is akin to the receptivity of reason before faith. From the merely human standpoint, "the individual writings (Schrifte) of the Bible point somehow to the living process that shapes the one Scripture (Schrift)".u ;.[11]We begin to see, even without theological faith, the marvellous inter-connectedness of these documents and the events described therein.[12] When faith begins to see that inter-connectedness as coming from Christ and as supernaturally founded then we enter into the realm of theology proper. "But this act offaith is based upon reason -historical reason - and so makes it possible to see the internal unity of Scripture".[13]
Throughout the work, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict gives us a practical exegetical example of a purified historical approach to Scripture. He reads the sacred text with faith and reverence, with a motive of seeking the true "face of Christ",
in the context of the Church's divinely guaranteed doctrine, while at the same time employing to the full modern historical tools for understanding the original context, languages and construction of the biblical text. Just as the scribe of the Kingdom, as put before us by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Ratzinger brings out of his treasures, "things both new and old" (Mt 13:52). In a recent audience Pope Benedict said:
"We must never forget that the Word of God transcends time. Human opinions come and go. What is very modern today will be very antiquated tomorrow. On the other hand, the Word of God is the Word of eternal life, it bears within it eternity and is valid for ever. By carrying the Word of God within us, we therefore carry within us eternity, eternal life".[14]

2. A Return to the Spiritual Sense of Scripture
Against a background of new theological openness Joseph Ratzinger offers a second way towards solving our exegetical crisis, namely, to revive a truly theological exegesis as exhibited by the Fathers of the Church. In his important preface to the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1993 document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, he praises "new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture".[15] One need only survey his many theological writings to see just how steeped he is in Patristic theology. He himself has described very explicitly his love of the Fathers of the Church and the theological influence they have had upon him. For a renewal of exegesis hespeaks of the need "to introduce into the discussion the great proposals of patristic and medieval thought".[16] In his work Jesus of Nazareth and in his unprecedented audience addresses on the Fathers of the Church he has been putting this ideal into practice.
Almost all the Fathers of the Church, to a greater or lesser extent, employed in their writings a particular method of scriptural exegesis which they believed to have been established by the Lord Jesus himself and passed down through the Apostles.[17] This method uncovers a "mystical meaning" of the Scriptures founded on God's perfect plan for the history and salvation of the world. This "mystical meaning" came to be called the spiritual sense of Scripture. It was practiced in homilies, commentaries, theological tomes and in the teaching of catechumens. This exegetical method was bequeathed to later centuries as the common inheritance of East and West and was at the heart of theology throughout the medieval period.
The spiritual sense pertains to the Christological significance of the persons, objects, events, images and symbols referred to by the human authors of the bible. These significations are not extrinsically or retrospectively applied but rather God himself has established them in his far reaching providence. Words signify things, but when God inspires, the things signified by the words, also signify other important eternal and invisible things. St. Thomas Aquinas writes, "In the other sciences handed down by men, in which only words can be employed to signify, the words alone signify. But it is peculiar to Scripture that words and the very things signified by them signify something".[18] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, whichwas compiled under Ratzinger's supervision, states, "Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture, but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs".[19] This depth of meaning manifests the uniqueness of the Bible, no other book could have this kind of second order signification.
During a general audience in April 2007, Pope Benedict, when speaking of the theological contribution of the third century writer Origen, once again emphasised that while the literal sense is indispensable it opens itself to something more. He wrote:
"The purification of the historical-critical method can take place by off-loading its philosophical baggage."
"But this sense transcends us, moving us towards God in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, shows us how to live. Mention of it is found, for example, in the ninth Homily on Numbers, where Origen likens Scripture to [fresh] walnuts: "The doctrine of the Law and the Prophets at the school of Christ is like this", the homilist says; "the letter is bitter, like the [green-covered] skin; secondly, you will come to the shell, which is the moral doctrine; thirdly, you will discover the meaning of the mysteries, with which the souls of the saints are nourished in the present life and the future" (Horn. Num. 9, 7)".[20]
In inspiring the letter of Scripture, God was also revealing in types and figures the full meaning of history and salvation in Jesus Christ. The signifying things that God has chosen are attuned to reinforce truths and refute falsehoods.[21] Furthermore, they are objects for contemplation by which God elucidates the many facets of the mysteries of faith. The significations of the spiritual sense regard matters pertaining to revealed faith, morality and glorification (and therefore fall into three distinct categories: allegory; tropology; anagogy).[22]
When the literal sense is put alongside the three spiritual senses we speak of the Quadriga. Perhaps the best-known summary of this comes from Augustine of Denmark as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny".[23] A good and classic example of the different senses relating to the scriptural reference "Jerusalem" in Psalm 137 is taken from St. John Cassian:
These four previously mentioned figures coalesce, if we desire, in one subject, so that the one and the same Jerusalem can be taken in four senses: historically as the city of the Jews; allegorically as the Church of Christ; anagogically as the heavenly city of God, which is the mother of us all; tropologically, as the soul of man, which is frequently subject to praise or blame from the Lord under this title.[24]
God himself, the Lord of history, can alone guarantee this unique form of signification. Through his special providence and inspiration God ensures that the two great Testaments have a particular relationship to Christ's coming and saving action. In fact, God has ensured that the Scriptures are radically focused as one on Christ. In Jesus of Nazareth we read that "all the currents of Scripture come together in him, that he is the focal point in terms of which the overall coherence of Scripture comes to light - everything is waiting for him, everything is moving towards him".[25] If these foundational principles are rejected a priori, as has happened in post-Enlightenment exegesis, then clearly the spiritual understandingremains closed.
Discovery of the spiritual sense of Scripture is theological exegesis par excellence. It opens up to us vast tomes of neglected Patristic and Medieval writings and gives a new appreciation of why we posses such a lavish gift as an inspired Scripture. The method comes from the New Testament itself and is not an invention of later theology. Ratzinger writes, "The Fathers of the Church created nothing new when they gave a Christological interpretation to the Old Testament; they only systematised what they themselves had already discovered in the New Testament".[26] While the New Testament itself, particularly through St. Paul, gave the formal unity and common foundation of the spiritual sense, it is to the great elaborators andpractitioners of the method to which a biblical theologian must turn for more specific guidance. Origen, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Bede, amongst many others, must therefore play the primary roles in any investigation but always viewed within the context of the entire Catholic theological Tradition.[27] This return to the sources is an integral part of Joseph Ratzinger's vision of a wide-ranging hermeneutic of continuity.

If Pope Benedict XVI is right then the way forward for modern exegesis is in upholding history and authentic historical investigation while at the same time perceiving the theological import of that same history revealed through the providence of God. In other words, Catholic exegetes and theologians need to pursue both the precise literal sense of Scripture as well as the three spiritual senses. The Holy Father made this point very explicitly in his discourse to the Swiss Bishops in 2006:
"I would very much like to see theologians learn to interpret and love Scripture as the Council desired, in accordance with Dei Verbum: may they experience the inner unity of Scripture - something that today is helped by 'canonical exegesis' (still to be found, of course, in its timid first stages) - and then make a spiritual interpretation of it that is not externally edifying but rather an inner immersion into the presence of the Word. It seems to me a very important task to do something in this regard, to contribute to providing an introduction to living Scripture as an up-to-date Word of God, beside, with and in historical-critical exegesis".[28]
At the recent XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome the themes of good exegetical practice so close to the Holy Father's heart were enunciated. In the preface to the preparatory document Instrumentum Laboris we hear an explicit call for a "dual, complementary approach to the Word of God"[29] which includes both critical engagement with the text and a truly Christological exegesis. The task for the biblical theologian therefore is to move "from the letter to the spirit and from the words to the Word of God".
It appears that the hard work and profound insights of the theologian Joseph Ratzinger are becoming, through the providence of God, the platform for the reform and renewal
of the Church's whole theological mission beyond the era of hermeneutical scepticism.[30]
"The reflection process was guided by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, the Universal Pastor of the Church, who has often made reference to the topic of the synod in his discourses. In doing so, he, together with others, has voiced his desire that by rediscovering the Word of God, which is always timely and never out-of-date, the Church might rejuvenate herself and experience a new springtime. She will then be able to undertake with renewed vigour her mission of evangelisation and human promotion in today's world, which thirsts for God and his words of faith, hope and charity".[31]

[1]'Ratzinger,J Jesus of Nazareth, xxiii, 'I have merely tried to go beyond purely historical-critical exegesis so as to apply new methodological insights that allow us to offer a properly theological interpretation of the Bible'. Doubleday 2007.
[2]Ratzinger, \ Jesus of Nazareth, xvi. Doubleday 2007.
[3]Ratzinger, \ Jesus of Nazareth, xii. Doubleday 2007.
[4]Ratzinger, Car. J. Ratzinger, Card. J. Preface of 2002 Pontifical Biblical Commission Document The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, Libreria Editrice
[5]Ratzinger, J. On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today, in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratyinger Conference on the Bible and the Church, ed. Neuhaus, R,J. Eerdmans 1989. pi 7. He calls the historical method to a humble self-limitation, by which it can mark out its own proper space.
[6]Ratzinger, \ Jesus of Nazareth, xvii, Doubleday 2007.
[7]Ratzinger, J. Preface of 2002 Pontifical Biblical Commission Document The Jewish People and their Saired Scriptures in the Christian Bible, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, p9-10.
[8]Ratzinger, \ Jesus of Nazareth, xxi, Doubleday 2007.
[9]Ratzinger, J. On the Question of the Foundations and approaches of Exegesis Today, in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Rat^tnger Conference on the Bible and the Church, ed. Neuhaus, R,J. Eerdmans 1989. pi 6.
[10]Cardinal Henri de Lubac a great colleague and ally of Joseph Ratzinger in the turbulent period after the Second Vatican Council, made a very similar comment about modern biblical critics: "they are primarily specialists, and their function has become very necessary and very important during the last few centuries. They must realise (and this realisation is something they have occasionally lacked) that their very specialisation imposes limitations on them; that their 'science' thus cannot be the whole of scriptural science; but they are not required, in their role as scientific exegetes, to give us the whole of scriptural science; and they should not even aspire to do so" (Scripture in the Tradition, Herder & Herder, ed 2000(French edition 1967), p58 footnote 9).
[11]Ratzinger, \ Jesus of Nazareth, xviii, Doubleday 2007.
[12]Ratzinger sees that 'Canonical exegesis', developed amongst other by the protestant scholar Brevard Childs, which reads 'the individual texts of the Bible in the context of the whole' (Jesus of Nazareth xix) as a step towards a truly theological approach.
[13]Ratzinger, J.Jesus of Nazareth, xix, Doubleday 2007.
[14]Pope Benedict XVI, Papal Audience on St Jerome, 7th November 2007.
[15]Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Illb, 2.
[16]-Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratyjnger Conference on the Bible and the Church, ed. Neuhaus, R,J. Eerdmans 1989,1-23.
[17]According to Origen, the fact that the spiritual meaning of Scripture goes beyond the obvious (literal) meaning is a unanimous part of the Apostolic Rule of faith, de PrincipUs, I, 8. And St Augsutine says, "This form of understanding that comes to us from the Apostles", City of God, XV, c. 2 (commenting on Gal 4:24).
[18]St Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Galatians, lecture 7. From the Summa Theologjae we read "The author of Sacred Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify his meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things in themselves" 1,1,10. He also writes in the same place, quoting from St. Gregory the Great, that Sacred Scripture "by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.
[19]Catechismof the Catholic Church 111.
[20]Pope Benedict XVI, Papal Audience on Origen, 25th April 2007.
[21]As John Henry Newman famously wrote: "It may be almost laid down as an historical fact that the mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together" John Henry Newman, A.n Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, ch 7, section 4, no5).
[22]The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a magisterial endorsement for this call: 'According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church" (par. 115). The Catechism also states that it is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules (par.119).
[23] Catechism of the Catholic Church 118.
[24]St. John Cassian, Spiritual Conferences, 14, VIII.
[25]Ratzinger,}. Jesus of Nazareth, p246, Doubleday 2007.
[26]Joseph Ratzinger in his preface to the 2002 Pontifical Biblical Commission Document The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.
[27]St Thomas as the common doctor of the whole Church is implied here. The importance of Thomas' clear and careful balance of the literal and the spiritual senses is as important as ever given the two dangerous tendencies that dominate the field, namely faithless criticism and spiritual fancy. His great achievement, contrary to the tendencies of his time, in marrying knowledge through faith with knowledge gained by reason, is mirrored in his understanding of Scripture's letter and spirit. His balance on this matter of an integral exegesis is so important while we are faced with both a rationalism and a post-modern spiritualism which both denude the true meaning of Scripture.
[28]Benedict XVI, Discourse to the Bishops of Switzerland (7 November 2006), in L'Osservatore Romano: Weekly Edition in English, 22 November 2006, pp. 5,10.
[29]Instrumentum Laboris, Preface, XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 2008.
[30]Instrumentum Laboris, Preface, XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 2008.
[31]Instrumentum Laboris, Preface, XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 2008.

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