Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Benedict on Wednesday

For the next few weeks, I will be choosing selections from Pope Benedict's monumental paper Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today which he delivered on the 27th of January 1988, at Saint Peter's Church, in New York, NY.

"In Wladimir Solowjew's History of the Antichrist, the eschatological enemy of the Redeemer recommended himself to believers, among other things, by the fact that he had earned his doctorate in theology at Tübingen and had written an exegetical work which was recognized as pioneering in the field. The Antichrist, a famous exegete! With this paradox Solowjew sought to shed light on the ambivalence inherent in biblical exegetical methodology for almost a hundred years now. To speak of the crisis of the historical-critical method today is practically a truism. This, despite the fact that it had gotten off to so optimistic a start.

Within that newfound freedom of thought into which the Enlightenment had launched headlong, dogma or church doctrine appeared as one of the real impediments to a correct understanding of the Bible itself. But freed from this impertinent presupposition, and equipped with a methodology which promised strict objectivity, it seemed that we were finally going to be able to hear again the clear and unmistakable voice of the original message of Jesus. Indeed, what had been long forgotten was to be brought into the open once more: the polyphony of history could be heard again, rising from behind the monotone of traditional interpretations. As the human element in sacred history became more and more visible, the hand of God, too, seemed larger and closer.

Gradually, however, the picture became more and more confused. The various theories increased and multiplied and separated one from the other and became a veritable fence which blocked access to the Bible for all the uninitiated. Those who were initiated were no longer reading the Bible anyway, but were dissecting it into the various parts from which it had to have been composed. The methodology itself seems to require such a radical approach: it cannot stand still when it "scents" the operation of man in sacred history. It must try to remove all the irrational residue and clarify everything. Faith itself is not a component of this method. Nor is God a factor to be dealt with in historical events. But since God and divine action permeate the entire biblical account of history, one is obliged to begin with a complicated anatomy of the scriptural word. On one hand there is the attempt to unravel the various threads (of the narrative) so that in the end one holds in one's hands what is the "really historical," which means the purely human element in events. On the other hand, one has to try to show how it happened that the idea of God became interwoven through it all. And so it is that another "real" history is to be fashioned in place of the one given. Underneath the existing sources — that is to say, the biblical books themselves — we are supposed to find more original sources, which in turn become the criteria for interpretation. No one should really be surprised that this procedure leads to the sprouting of ever more numerous hypotheses until finally they turn into a jungle of contradictions. In the end, one no longer learns what the text says, but what it should have said, and by which component parts this can be traced back through the text."


Javier said...


I'm afraid you've just touched the third rail.
(But someone had to do it).


Timothy said...

Excellent! :)

Javier said...


this is what Pope Benedict said on the same subject in his book "Jesus of Nazareth, from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration", pages 35-36, Doubleday, first US edition:
"The common practice today is to measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in history -that everything to do with God is to be relegated to the domain of subjectivity. And so the Bible no longer speaks of God, the living God; no, now we alone speak and decide what God can do and what we will and should do. And the Antichrist, with an air of scholarly excellence, tells us that any exegesis that reads the Bible from the perspective of faith in the living God, in order to listen to what God has to say, is fundamentalism; he wants to convince us that only his kind of exegesis, the supposedly purely scientific kind, in which God says nothing and has nothing to say, is able to keep abreast to the times."
No wonder "the world" hated the guy so much.

Javier said...

The silence is deafening. (I mean, one would have expected at least one of the readers to defend the other view, which is the standard view in academia, and in the notes and introductions of almost all catholic bibles).

Anonymous said...

Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The historical-critical methodology is a valuable tool but not a means to an end. In the forward, of the referenced book page xv Pope Benedict says "The first point is that the historical-critical method-specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith---is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work." Note: Catholic theologians have only been allowed to use the method since Divino Afflante Spritu (1943)

Theophrastus said...

I don't want to comment on the substance of these remarks (I have nothing to add to the remarks that appeared at the time of the speech itself -- see for example the collection of responses that Cardinal Ratzinger published as Schriftauslegung im Widerstreit for a summary of contemporary response.)

I just want to mention that this Erasmus lecture was given at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York. (There is also a Roman Catholic St. Peter's in New York, and some may be confused by the reference.) Formally, it was given at the Lutheran Center for Religion and Society in New York as Erasmus lecture sponsored by First Things and kicked off a workshop (and the papers from that workshop are collected in the above-cited publication.)

This helps explain the focus on Luther that Cardinal Ratzinger has later in his lecture.